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A Visit to London’s Imperial War Museum

On July 13, 2016, I fulfilled a lifelong goal of visiting London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM). The trip was made all the more meaningful as my book, What the RAF Airman Took to War, was on sale in the IWM bookshop and I was able to spend some time signing copies. It is really something to see a project you have worked so hard on made available to historians and visitors at such a premier location. The IWM is one of the world’s great military museums and features five floor levels of many important and iconic artifacts in its collection. I spent nearly five hours in the museum and was able to see most of the major exhibits.

The entrance to the IWM is framed by two 15-inch naval guns. Both guns date from the Second World War and were fired in action. The gun on the left served on both the HMS Resolution and the HMS Roberts, while the gun on the right was once used on the HMS Ramillies.

In July 2014, the IWM unveiled a new First World War Gallery to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the conflict. The IWM has one of the largest collections of Great War memorabilia in the world and the exhibition features many of the IWM’s most prized items. The 1,300 artifacts tell a story about some aspect of the war. I was particularly moved by an exhibit featuring the leather glove of a British officer that was shrunken to miniature size because of exposure to poison gas on the battlefield. One wonders that if gas could do so much damage to a glove, what was its’ effects on the lungs of the young soldiers.

The new World War 1 Gallery, benefitting from a £40 million renovation, also features a recreation of a World War 1 trench – complete with a representation of the sounds and smells of battle.

The large entrance gallery of the IWM includes an impressive array of large scale military equipment, including a Supermarine Spitfire (R/6915) that was flown by 13 different RAF pilots of No. 601 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Only six of the thirteen survived the war. The aircraft participated in 57 missions during the Battle of Britain and pilots scored three aerial victories while flying the aircraft. One of the pilots was John Dundas, a RAF ace who was killed during the Battle after shooting down the German ace, Helmut Wick. Many years ago, I purchased a uniform grouping belonging to P/O Dundas from his brother, Hugh “Cocky” Dundas, who was also a pilot during the Battle of Britain. The uniform is one of my most treasured artifacts and it was amazing to see this Spitfire preserved at the IWM.

In this photo, the Spitfire can be seen, along with the wreckage of a civilian vehicle (bottom center) that was bombed in Baghdad, Iraq. On the extreme left, is a small boat that was used during the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in 1940 and a Harrier Jet.

The mangled car display is titled simply,“5 March 2007” and is an installation by the British artist, Jeremy Diller. The car was salvaged from the site of a suicide bombing that killed 38 people at the Al-Mutanabbi Book Market – the center of Baghdad’s cultural hub. No terrorist group ever claimed responsibility for the bombing. It stands as a memorial to the civilian toll of war on the people of the Middle East.

The IWM also has several German rocket bombs in its collection. Pictured here are two examples, a V-1 flying bomb (suspended) and a V-2 rocket. The rocket is similar to the type of explosive that detonated near the IWM during World War 2 and killed several civilians. These bombs rained indiscriminate terror on London during the war and it is testimony to the British population that they were able to persevere during the incessant air assaults. The IWM has an impressive home-front exhibit that focuses on the life of a British family in London during the Second World War.

Between September 7, 1940 and May 21, 1941 more than 100 tons of high explosives were dropped on sixteen British cities. London was attacked 71 times and bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London.

Birmingham, Liverpool and Plymouth were also hit eight times, Bristol six, Glasgow five, Southampton four, Portsmouth three, and there was also at least one large raid on another eight cities.

Despite the bombing of the capital, some landmarks remained intact - such as St Paul’s Cathedral, which was virtually unharmed, despite many buildings around it being reduced to rubble during the 57 nights of raid.

One of the most impressive IWM exhibits was this fuselage section from a four engine Avro Lancaster Bomber. The Lancaster was one of the RAF’s workhorse bomber aircraft. This brilliantly preserved example features great nose art with the aircraft’s nickname, “Old Fred.” The aircraft was assigned to the Royal Australian air Force and took part in 49 bombing missions over Europe. Between May and November 1943, the aircraft was based at Bottesford, Lincolnshire with No. 467 Squadron as PO-F. There are only 17 Lancasters remaining in the world and only two in flying condition.

The fuselage also has visible reminders of the aircraft’s combat history. Here is a close up of a shrapnel hole on the side of the aircraft.

I have always been intrigued by the role of war correspondents and it was interesting to see this armored vehicle that was used by a group of Reuters reporters in Gaza. The Land Rover took a rocket hit and was damaged but all of the truck’s passengers survived the attack. So many fine reporters and photographers have been killed covering the War on Terror; this truck serves as a fine tribute to all of those who have covered the world’s most recent conflicts.

Included in the IWM collection is a note scribbled by the artist Linda Kitson in her sketchbook. Kitson was a war artist during the Falklands invasion and wrote out a note preserved in the IWM collection that read: “If Anything should happen to me – the only important thing to save is the portfolio of drawings please.” The note specified that her sketches should be mailed to the Imperial War Museum in London. Kitson survived her combat experience but her note speaks to the dedication of those correspondents who cover the world’s conflicts.

Photograph of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)

One of the most iconic items in the IWM collection is the head rope worn by T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who was best known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence has been depicted in both book and film, but this artifact is a reminder that he was a real living person who left behind a legacy of service to his nation and to the people of the Middle East. So many of the world’s conflicts today, continue to be fueled by the cultural and religious issues raised by the World War 1 peace settlement. It is possible that had the diplomats of the day been more responsive to the issues identified and raised by Lawrence and others, there would have been a different and more lasting peace for the Middle East.

After Lawrence was killed in a fatal motorcycle accident near his home in Dorset, England in 1935, Winston Churchill eulogized, “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again.”

Included in the display is a section of railroad track from a section Lawrence destroyed during one of his guerilla raids to disrupt Turkish forces during the Great War.

The visit to the IWM would not be complete without a trip through the Holocaust exhibit. A museum that was once derided by critics as “a big boy’s bedroom,” filled with war memorabilia, now provides a moving chronicle of the Holocaust. The exhibit begins with a display of anti-Semitic propaganda and recalls the escalating story of Hitler’s rise and the development of the death camps. My college-age daughter was particularly struck by a scale model of a German concentration camp and remarked about the size of the killing factory only to realize that the model was only depicting one small section of the original camp. The exhibit also featured an original early war SS uniform (the first I had ever seen). The uniform was designed to give a superhuman presence to Hitler’s specially selected henchmen. It was disturbingly impressive in its tailoring and must have been intimidating to those who encountered an officer wearing this on the street. I wondered how many were once questioned in the uniform wearer’s shadow and how many were executed on orders issued by its owner. The uniform is a powerful, if mute witness, to a different kind of terror.

The exhibition ended with wartime film footage of German soldiers and civilians being forced to carry the concentration camp dead from their quarters to their final resting spot. There was no dignity in the burial. The film showed a grim-faced American soldier at work on a bulldozer simply plowing the dead into mass graves. Other footage depicted German civilians tossing emaciated bodies into heaps before burial. It was powerful imagery.

As I was leaving, I drew my daughter’s attention to a photograph taken shortly after the liberation of one of the death camps in 1945. It is a famous photo that shows the faces of Jewish prisoners peering out from their bunks at the photographer. They are just skin and bones and it is likely that many in the photo who were rescued did not long survive the effects of disease and starvation. One of the faces belonged to Elie Wiesel. I remarked that Wiesel, who had just passed a few weeks earlier, was someone I had written to on my daughter’s behalf shortly after she was born in 1994. I had asked that he write her a message for the future that might be opened someday after she had grown. Wiesel, the great writer, teacher and philosopher complied. He had written her a note that read simply, “With Hope.” Here at the IWM, was a connection between one whom had endured the horrors of the past, with another embarking on the promise of the future. My daughter graduated from the University of London the following day. Hopefully, she will carry with her the thought that we are all part of a continuum that stretches from the far reaches of the past into the present. There is faith and understanding and community in that. There is, in that moment in time, in the display cases of the IWM, connection and “hope.”

The IWM is a major museum that features free admission. There are special exhibits that do require an admission charge but that also help to demonstrate a relevance that extends beyond military history. A new temporary exhibition, "Reel to Reel: A Century of War Movies," focusing on film and war is currently running and looks at such Hollywood classics as Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Das Boot and Casablanca with a display of 200 pieces of screen used memorabilia from the films. This exhibition runs from July 1, 2016 through January 8, 2017.

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