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Military Museums of London

  • Submitted by: Alan L. Bailey
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

The exploding bombs sounded distant as George, an air raid warden by night and grocer by day, warned us the attack was one he never forgot. When the anti-aircraft guns fired the flak, someone said it was good to be giving them something back. As the blasts drew nearer, the crowd in the underground shelter began singing, "Roll out the barrel." The bombs' piercing whistles became louder.

Suddenly, a woman screamed, "Stop it," and an explosion rocked the shelter, shaking our bench, almost a direct hit. After the sirens, our warden opened the entrance as smoke drifted in, and with his flashlight, he motioned us out. We saw the flickering lights from the fires throughout London. In the distance stood the untouched dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. Through the rubble, the guide returned us to the basement of the Imperial War Museum.

My group of 20 visitors had just experienced the Blitz in a re-creation of the sights, sounds and smells of a packed underground shelter in London during the fierce German bombings of 1940-41. It's part of the theatrics that has made the Imperial War Museum and London's other national military museums a favorite stop during the 50-year anniversary celebrations of World War II that continue through 1995. In November of 1992, I was in London for eight days and visited several government museums.

perial War Museum

Revenge-class battleship guns with 15-inch bores and weighing 100 tons each guard the entrance to this former lunatic asylum, Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, now a museum of 20th-century wars in which more than 100 million people have died.

After a security search for real bombs, I entered the large exhibits gallery on the ground floor, a three-story central atrium. Vintage warplanes such as the P-51 Mustang, a Sopwith Camel and a Focke Wulf 190 are suspended from the white metal lattice and glass ceiling. The air power includes the infamous V-2 rocket and a Royal Navy Polaris missile, both resting in vertical firing position. The gallery is dominated by heavy artillery and tanks, the most famous being the M3 Grant command tank used by then Lt. Gen. B.L. Montgomery during the decisive 1942 battle of El Alamein.

The first and second floors are viewing balconies and art galleries, displaying some of the museum's 12,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures. On the balconies are peculiar relics, such as a charred rear fuselage and Daimler-Benz engine from the crashed Messerschmitt that had been flown by Rudolph Hess on his abortive peace mission in May 1941. Near by on a pedestal sat the bronze German eagle, complete with a bullet hole in its left wing, which was removed from Berlin's Reich Chancellery in 1945.

The lower ground floor contains displays of the world wars, including the London Blitz and front-line trench warfare experiences. The liberation of the Belsen concentration camp by British troops is depicted with a warning of the graphic nature of the photographs and films. Another gallery honors those awarded the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Also for $2 (1.25 pounds) visitors can take a five-minute ride in a flight simulator with the original footage of a Royal Air Force Mosquito fighter warplane in Operation Jericho, a 1944 air raid over France to free captive Resistance prisoners.

A repository of British papers and captured German material, the museum maintains more than 100,000 books, 25,000 pamphlets, 15,000 volumes of periodicals and 15,000 maps as well as 50,000 posters, 12,000 hours of sound recordings, 5 million prints and negatives, and British films plus American, Soviet and Nazi newsreels. All available to the public. An appointment is necessary, either by telephone or writing.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Telephone: 071-416 5000. Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $5.60 (3.50 pounds with 1 pound=$1.60). Admission is free after 4:30 p.m. Blitz Experience is free. Underground: Lambeth North or Elephant and Castle.

National Maritime Museum and Royal Naval College

Downstream from London on the River Thames in Greenwich, a complex of 18th-century Baroque buildings that were once royal palaces and hospitals now comprise the National Maritime Museum and Royal Naval College. Two of the museum's largest galleries are devoted to Britain's naval tradition in the 20th century and to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the country's most illustrious hero.

The 20th-century sea power exhibit chronicles the progression of sea strength to protect merchant sea lanes. "Sea power goes through a sequence from battleship to aircraft carrier to submarine, in a chronological sequence they replace one another in the Twentieth Century in importance," research curator Dr. Roger Morriss (Editors: Correct spelling) said as we walked by a wall with 27 video screens blasting clips of sea footage for an impressive visual impact.

The gallery is constructed around the gray metallic replica of the bow of a Tribal class destroyer that soars to the height of the cavernous hall and stretches for almost the room's length of 162 feet. Next to the audio-visual area is a modern "Ops Room" from a Type 22 frigate, allowing visitors to become the captain and defend the ship against an underwater threat or an air attack using sonar, radar and gunnery on computer terminals.

The gallery displays more than 100 oil and watercolor paintings, including the end of the Bismarck on May 27, 1941, and the tanker Ohio in the Malta convoy August 10-15, 1942 as part of Operation Pedestal.

The exhibit shows more than 40 models, including the H.M.S. Hermes, the last of the Royal Navy's traditional aircraft carriers and flagship of the battle group in the 1982 Falklands conflict, and the H.M.S. Vanguard, first of the Royal Navy's Trident II submarines launched March 6, 1992, on which Britain is making the centerpiece of its navy as it enters the 21st century.

The Nelson Gallery hails from the time Britain ruled the seas and has the world's largest collection of Nelson memorabilia and papers, including the cabin furniture from the H.M.S. Victory, his command ship, and the maiden figurehead from his funeral carriage.

As he was explaining Nelson's honored role in British history, Morriss paused at the display of uniforms. "And this," he said pointing to a dark navy blue coat, "was the uniform he was wearing when he died."

The uniform has a hole in the back left shoulder where a French sharpshooter's bullet entered. The breeches still show the brownish blood stains of blood from the October 21, 1805 Battle of Trafalgar where Nelson died while commanding the outnumbered English warships to victory against the French and Spanish naval forces off Spain's Trafalgar Cape in the Atlantic Ocean.

Personal mementos of Nelson and his lover, Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of a British diplomat, are exhibited, including Nelson's pigtail, snipped from his hair at death and later presented to Lady Hamilton.

Across Romney Road with its public entrance on King William Walk, the Royal Naval College permits the public access to only two areas, both of limited military interest, yet definitely worth visiting: the Painted Hall, the 400-seat dining room and site of Britain's formal state dinners, and the Chapel, considered one of England's best acoustic halls where many chamber music works are recorded.

The Baroque-styled Painted Hall was designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, and painted by James Thornhill, who completed his masterpiece in 1726 after 19 years of work. Wren's Chapel was destroyed by fire in 1776 and rebuilt in a Rococo style with a Benjamin West painting of a shipwrecked St. Paul on Malta dominating behind the altar.

The college's buildings can been viewed in the movie "Patriot Games." The attempted assassination scene in London was filmed on campus. While all museums require bag searches, expect increased security checks with requests for photo identification here because the college trains mid-career naval officers in the country's nuclear power program and because prominent guests appear at state dinners.

National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF. Telephone: 081-858 4422. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6.12 (3.95 pounds).

Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, London SE10 9NN. Telephone: 081-858 2154. Open 2:30-5 p.m. daily, except Thursday when it is closed for state dinners. Admission is free.

Getting to Greenwich: British Rail from Charing Cross to Maze Hill station; Docklands Light Railway to Island Gardens, then foot-tunnel under River Thames, or by river service from Westminster.