Celebrating Britain’s Military History

Explosion, Museum of Naval Firepower exhibition at The Royal Naval Submarine Museum in Portsmouth.

Explosion, Museum of Naval Firepower exhibition at The Royal Naval Submarine Museum in Portsmouth.

Modern interactive exhibitions and hands-on activities help visitors of all ages learn about our country’s military history. Angela Youngman compiles a list of attractions that commemorate Britain’s wartime heritage

London is a key centre for military museums, reflecting both the ceremonial and the active military life.

The bright red jackets and tall bearskins of the Queen’s Guards on duty at Buckingham Palace are an irresistible draw for visitors. Visitors discover the origin of those bearskins at the Guards Museum (www.theguardsmuseum.com) and see how their role has changed over 300 years. Equally photogenic are the riders of the Household Cavalry, who take part in so many ceremonial functions. 

The Household Cavalry Museum at Horse Guards (www.householdcavalrymuseum.co.uk) offers an opportunity for visitors to see the horses, try on helmets and armour and find out about the other functions of the Horse Guards, for these are a fighting force active in many areas of warfare.

The Churchill War Rooms remain as they were at the end of the Second World War

The Churchill War Rooms remain as they were at the end of the Second World War

Not far away is a museum dealing with the strategy of the Second World War. Left just as they were at the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Churchill War Rooms (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms) are extremely atmospheric and at times claustrophobic.

Tour Churchill’s command post, see how the war was organised, then visit the adjacent Churchill Museum to find out more about the man who inspired people worldwide in the fight against Hitler.

War on the Home Front and the Holocaust are among the subjects covered at the Imperial War Museum London (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london). New this year are the First World War Galleries which share the story of the 1914-18 war through the experiences of those who fought on the front line and at home.

War In The Air

Other branches of the museum are situated at Duxford, Cambridgeshire (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford) and Manchester (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-north). Duxford concentrates on the war in the air and has numerous large hangars containing historic aircraft. March 2016 will see the reopening of IWM Duxford’s American Air Museum after five years of transformation and redevelopment. From Private to President, the American Air Museum will feature the personal stories of many people whose lives have been shaped by their experiences of conflict.

Sailors’ Stories

An unmissable military site on the Thames is HMS Belfast (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast). This ship saw service throughout World War Two and took part in the D-Day landings.

Strolling along the deck, exploring the bridge and going deep into the bowels of the ship to find the engine rooms and sailors’ mess, it is hard not to be impressed by stories of the sailors who lived – and died - on this vessel.

Inside the HMS Alliance in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport

Inside the HMS Alliance in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport

Portsmouth has been the centre of naval operations for centuries and not surprisingly, it is where all the main Royal Navy museums can be found.

HMS Warrior tells the story of Victorian sailors while the National Museum of the Royal Navy (www.nmrn-portsmouth.org.uk) takes visitors through three centuries of naval warfare.

Explore the story of Horatio Nelson and his ship HMS Victory, while HMS Hear My Story tells stories of ordinary men, women and ships. Discover what it’s like to command a 74-gun ship or a fly a Merlin helicopter using the museum’s simulators.

HMS Belfast is permanently moored on the River Thames and saw service in World War Two.

HMS Belfast is permanently moored on the River Thames and saw service in World War Two.

Other naval museums in this city include the Royal Naval Submarine Museum (www.submarine-museum.co.uk), where visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the only surviving World War Two ocean submarine and the spectacular Explosion, Museum of Naval Firepower exhibition.

Set on the edge of Portsmouth Harbour, it shows how firepower developed from gunpowder to Exocet missiles. There is even an atom bomb to greet visitors on arrival. Alongside the tales of destruction is the human cost, the story of the thousands of munitions workers and sailors who made and used these weapons.

One of the greatest joint naval and army battles was D-Day, so it is fitting that Portsmouth houses the D-Day Exhibition Centre (www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/d-day/visitor-information). This is the only museum in the UK dedicated to the events of D-Day - an unparalleled event in history.

Wartime artifacts make HMS Belfast an interesting ship to visit

Wartime artifacts make HMS Belfast an interesting ship to visit

The great Overlord Embroidery on display tells the story of those momentous events. Covering 83-metres, it is the world’s longest embroidery and is comparable in context to the Bayeaux Tapestry.

There are reconstructions of allied landings by sea and air and many rare vehicles can be seen. Visitors experience the sights and sounds of Britain at war including an air raid warden’s living room in the Blitz, troops preparing for D-Day while living in a forest camp and a Horsa glider that has successfully landed in Normandy. All aspects of the battle are covered including photographs of the rows of gravestones in the war cemeteries.

Tanks and Ground Warfare

Tanks played a decisive role in ending the concept of trench warfare in World War One and played equally important roles throughout World War Two. It is only when you get up close to these massive machines that you can really appreciate their impact.

The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset (www.tankmuseum.org), contains the world’s best collection of tanks accompanied by fascinating displays and special events, such as a Tank Fest and warfare through the ages. Hear the tales of those who fought in these massive vehicles from the trenches of France to the streets of Basra.

There are other smaller tank museums to be found elsewhere in the country such as the Norfolk Tank Museum at Long Stratton (www.norfolktankmuseum.co.uk). Visitors can climb into tanks, sit in the gun turrets and go for rides in armoured vehicles over a specially created course designed to show just what tanks and armoured vehicles can do. Many of the tanks here date from the Cold War and include examples from overseas.

Air Displays

War in the air became a reality in the 20th-century and the Royal Air Force Museums at Hendon and Cosford contain examples of many of the legendary aircraft including Spitfires and Hurricanes.

RAF Hendon in North London (www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london) has some dramatic displays relating to the Battle of Britain including a sound and light display, as well as many early aircraft from the first days of flight. A very different type of aircraft in the collection is the Sunderland Flying Boat.

Over 70 aircraft can be seen at RAF Cosford, Wolverhampton, (www.rafmuseum.org.uk/cosford) together with the award-winning National Cold War exhibition. Discover what it’s like to be a pilot in the fun ‘n’ flight interactive displays or soar above the clouds in a simulator ride.

For a sense of what life was like in the World War Two RAF, Lincolnshire has the answer. The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre (www.lincsaviation.co.uk) is housed on an original wartime airfield at Spilsby. This offers a unique opportunity to experience the vibrations, sounds and smells of a real Lancaster bomber as it taxis across a real Bomber Command airfield in front of an original control tower.

Close by is RAF Coningsby (www.raf.mod.uk/rafconingsby), which has a visitor centre focusing on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Other ex-RAF airfields throughout Lincolnshire are linked via the Aviation Heritage Trail (www.aviationlincs.com). These sites include the airfield linked with the famous Dambuster squadron.

On The Homefront

Many fought the Second World War in other ways and there are some fascinating museums which now tell those stories. For example, Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire was home to the Enigma codebreakers and still has many remnants of its history, including the original computers used to break the German codes (www.bletchleypark.org.uk).

Thetford has a Home Guard Museum (www.dadsarmythetford.org.uk) and Parham Airfield near Framlingham (www.parhamairfieldmuseum.co.uk) hosts a unique museum to the British Resistance Organisation – those specially trained members of the Home Guard who would have led resistance if Hitler’s army had invaded the UK. There is even a life-size example of the dug out that would have been home to a small patrol behind the lines.

Prisoners of War

Thousands of prisoners of war who had been captured in battle were housed in camps throughout the UK. Now only one example remains – Eden Camp near York (www.edencamp.co.uk).

This award-winning museum is set within the grounds of an original Prisoner of War camp housing German and Italian soldiers. In addition to telling the story of Prisoners of War, it also contains displays about British military history from 1914 onwards. An extremely atmospheric museum, it’s easy to feel you have travelled back in time, walking along the ramparts and in the prisoners’ former exercise yard.

Historical Weaponry

Over in Leeds is one of the most spectacular military museums – the Royal Armouries Leeds (www.royalarmouries.org/leeds). This is a national museum of arms and amour containing a stunning collection of weapons from 600BC to the present day. The displays reflect warfare worldwide with dedicated galleries dealing with topics such as oriental armour, hunting and self defence.

There’s much more than weapons on display here – jousts are frequently held in the Tiltyard, while at the Royal Armouries museum Fort Nelson, historic guns are regularly fired (www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson). There is a changing programme of special exhibitions and activities such as the Unseen Collection, which is a look inside armours and armour via X-ray photography.

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