Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Military Museums in England

Nick Drinkwater

Tom and anyone else going to England....

Depending on your schedule and location, if you are confined to London, then first and foremost I would recommend the Imperial War Museum which is on the south bank of the River Thames in central London. It is an outstanding collection with a ton of funky stuff, and best of all its free! Leave a day for this one - its big. Its exhibition on the Victoria Cross winners is very good.

Second on my list in London is the National Army Museum on the north side of the Thames in Chelsea. Smaller than the IWM, but very compact it deals solely with the British Army through the centuries - this is very cool and there are some cool exhibits on Waterloo, the British in SE Asia in WW2 etc. Definitely a long half-day here and a good bookshop too.

Another half-day trip (2-4 hours long) is the Cabinet War Rooms - excellent snapshot of Blitzed London with a new annex that deals solely with the life and times of Winston Churchill. I was there in the summer and I loved it - also got to meet Private Harry Cohen of the 4th Indian Division who survived Cassino...a very lucky chance encounter. This is actually a branch of the IWM.

If you are into aircraft, then the RAF museum in Hendon, North London is a must see. Outstanding collection of WW1, WW2 (lots including lots of captured German aircraft - Stuka, Me 109, Night-fighting Ju-88) plus post-war collection. One of the best there is a Halifax they pulled out of a Norwegian fjord...too damaged to restore, it is left in an 'as is' state - very poignant. Another good VC collection here. This is a 2/3rds day trip plus metro travel to get there but it is really cool. There is an annex to this in the English midlands at Cosford - not been to that yet.

The final London WW2 thing to see is HMS Belfast, another annex to the IWM - this is a floating heavy cruiser docked permanently on the Thames near Tower Bridge, access from the south bank. I've not been to this, but I've heard good things.

Outside of London, there are several excellent collections scattered across the country (Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset, National Army Air Corps Museum in Hampshire etc) and these are a bit more specialized - you can hunt them down online if you are in the area. However, three stand out in particular - the IWM has a newly opened branch in Manchester - not been there yet, but saw a documentary on it once on TV - looks way cool.

The IWM also has another branch, this time in Duxford which is ten miles south of Cambridge (about 50 miles by major highway north of London) - another brilliant museum, largely dedicated to flying. It has an excellent collection of working WW2 aircraft and has its own hall for the American Air Musuem. Has a working B25 in here, a Blackbird and a lot of really cool WW2 aircraft plus a Battle of Britain hall. In addition, they also have a Land Warfare Hall, probably second only to the Tank Museum. There is a strong collection of WW2 German and Russian tanks in here particularly and they have shows commonly for both the airdays and for running tanks. Really very, very cool and a very full day to see it all - also see the American Cemetery just west of Cambrige - approx 2000 (mainly) airmen are buried here: Cambridge is right in the heart of the old US bomber airfield area - a sobering but evocative way to finish the day

Finally, there is the Tank Museum which is about 80 miles SW of London - the best thing for treadheads in the country. You've seen lots of photos but that does not do it justice - outstanding museum. A bit of a pain to get to by public transport as its right in the heart of the army's training grounds, but simply awesome. Well worth the trip!

So there you have it, a week of interesting things for Americans to see that doesn't involve Bath, Oxford, Edinburgh or the Queen and 'those cute little dogs'.

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