London PassFree guidebook and 10% off in the shop Entry to the Imperial War Museum is already free, but London Pass holders can claim a free guidebook and get 10% off anything they buy in the gift shop
Craig recommends… Here’s my latest Imperial War Museum review. If you’re interested in the Second World War then don’t forget Winston Churchill’s underground bunker. The RAF Museum has some more Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster bomber. HMS Belfast is worth exploring as well. Or how about seeing where they cracked the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park? Check out our calendar of military events in London.
The Imperial War Museum is No.8 in our list of London’s best museums.
The big naval guns outside the Imperial War Museum are just a taster for what’s on display inside: every kind of military might that you can imagine: guns, tanks, rockets, bombs, bi-planes, boats and submarines from 1914 onwards.
The exhibition covers both of the World Wars, the Suez crisis, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars, plus the biggest battles involving the Commonwealth powers from Korea to Vietnam.
The World War I exhibition explains the political tensions that existed in pre-war Europe, and how the balance of power was quickly shifting as the empires waxed and waned, leading to new treaties and agreements that finally pitched the world into war.
There are plenty of original military vehicles on display in the World War II gallery, everything from tanks and jeeps to boats and planes, many of which have stories attached like the tiny dinghy Tamzine: the smallest surviving boat at Dunkirk. There are even a few German machines like a captured Enigma code machine and full-size V2 rocket.
This review originally appeared in his blog
I quite like the Second World War. I probably watch too many old war movies, but my visit to the Imperial War Museum today just made me like it even more. I think if I had a time machine then I’d hop aboard and travel back to 1925. That seems like the perfect year to be born.
When you step inside the main hall the first thing you see is a load of old planes swooping down from the ceiling: everything from a Harrier JumpJet to the legendary Spitfire Mark 1A.
They’ve got some battle tanks as well but you can’t go inside them unfortunately, or even look inside them, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s still nice to get up close and imagine all the soldiers sitting on the tank tracks. In every war movie ever made there’ll be a scene of them be sitting up there smoking a fag whilst they trundled through the towns.
You can also see a couple of one-man Japanese submarines which are unbelievebly small. Imagine the Japanese lying down on his stomach to drive those things, in a space not much bigger than my shoe, slicing through the pitch black and choppy freezing sea for five hundred miles. He must have been nuts!
The rockets and bombs are very impressive. The Nazi V2 rocket looks big enough to land a man on the moon, let alone London. Then you move onto the guns and grenades, medals and memoribilia.
My favourite part of the World War I gallery was the Trench Experience, which is like a long, dark trench in the middle of the night. As you walk through it you can hear the bombs whistling overhead and soldiers peering over the edge of the trench. You can ever look into the little rooms and see the people on the blower talking to their sergeant behind the lines.
Eventually the bombs drop and the mechanics shake the seat you’re sitting in (that’s when the two women screamed), and you get up and head out into the street. The next section is done up to look like a bombed-out street with debris strewn across the road. Search lights and smoke all add to the atmosphere.
The Second World War section contains all the normal kind of stuff that you’d expect to find: lots of uniforms, medals, guns, knives and military equipment. The stand-out pieces are a captured Enigma machine and the actual iron Eagle that stood upon the Reich Chancellery in Berlin – you can even see a few Russian bullet holes in it from the street fighting! One of the sections that I found the most interesting was just a room full of old newspapers and radio broadcasts.
The exhibits continue on through the 1950s with the Suez crisis, and all the way past the Falklands Conflict and the two Gulf wars.
After that it gets a bit downbeat and depressing because it’s the Holocaust Exhibition. There’s a large sign outside that warns you it’s not suitable for kids, but there are items inside that I wouldn’t even show to an adult.
They have photographs of the dead and dying, and people so starved that their bones are showing through their skin. The photo that I remember most was a big picture of a Russian so desperate to leave the camp that he’d jumped onto a barbed-wire electric fence. Another one showed a firing line, at the split-second before they pulled the trigger. One victim seemed to be begging and crying for his life, whilst another one just stood and smiled and begged them to get on with it.
I thought the most moving exhibit was a colossal model of Auschwitz, about fifty-feet long. They had every little detail done to perfection, from the steam trains driving in to the tiny little bits of razor on the barded-wire fence. You could see thousands of little model people disembarking off the train (literally thousands), and when you made it up to the end you could see the little building where they burnt the bodies. If it portrayed anywhere but Auschwitz you’d think it was the most incredible model railway you’d ever seen, but instead it’s the worst.
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If you enjoy this then try: Churchill War Rooms (walk it in 20 mins or catch a train from Lambeth North to Churchill War Rooms); HMS Belfast (walk it in 28 mins or catch a train from Lambeth North to HMS Belfast); National Army Museum (catch the tube from Lambeth North to National Army Museum) and National Maritime Museum (catch the tube from Lambeth North to National Maritime Museum).