By David M. Fortier
There are certain places that call out to be visited. As Disney World calls out to children so The Imperial War Museum beckons to military buffs. I think I was 7 years old when, staring at a black and white photograph of the Museum and the two giant 15” Naval guns mounted out front, that I vowed to one day visit it. Having done so I can heartily encourage any and all who are interested in military history, from the First World War to the present, to make the pilgrimage.
Consisting of four levels, the Museum subject is conflicts involving Great Britain or the Commonwealth since 1914. Its exhibits range from pistols to V-2 rockets, personal letters and ration books to tanks, submarines to aircraft. They also include films, sound recordings, and some of the centuries best known paintings. Immediately upon entering into the Imperial War Museum one has to simply stop and stare for a moment as the senses suffer from immediate military overload. This is quickly replaced by a feeling of confusion as you try to decide which exhibit to head for first. To your front famous artillery pieces from the First and Second World War face you, 13, 18, and 25 pounders, a French 75, and an enormous British 9.2” howitzer. To your left and right are armored vehicles, including a World War I British MK V heavy tank, American M4A4 Sherman, Churchill MKVIII and Matilda MKII Infantry tanks, a T 34/85, a German Jagdpanther, and even the M3A3 Grant used by General Montgomery. Looking up, World War I and II fighter planes loom into view suspended from the Museum’s ceiling. Even an enormous V-2 rocket is present, along with an earlier V-1.
Walking past a German Biber (Beaver) one man submarine and a 7.5cm L17/08 Mountain Gun I headed up from the ground level to the first floor. At the top of the steps is the fuselage from a Wellington bomber and a Japanese Zero and various anti-aircraft guns. The AA guns run the gamut from a British Maxim 1 pounder MK II on a Naval cone mount to an Argentinean 20 mm captured in 1982 in the Falklands by the Gurkha Rifles. Also included here is an example of the notoriously effective German 8.8 cm AA gun.
The second level houses the art galleries for the two World Wars. Also there are balconies allowing a birds eye view of the exhibits below and a close-up look at the suspended aircraft. Aircraft on display include a P-51D, Focke-Wulf FW-190, Submarine Spitfire MKIA, and a Sopwith Camel 2F1 that shot down the last Zeppelin of World War I before being ditched in the Sea.
The real fun though begins on the lower ground floor. Here the World War I, inter-war, World War II, and post-war exhibits are located. Uniforms and weapons of the different countries involved in the wars are displayed along with all their related fieldgear. Obscure weapons, gear, and related items that you only read about or see in books abound. Posters and videos bring things to life as you wander among the glass display cases and large scale dioramas. Belt fed machineguns, magazine rifles, sub-machineguns, early and late assault rifles abound. Sniper rifles include a World War I German Mauser Gewehr 98, a World War II Mosin-Nagant M91/30, a post-war Mosin based M54 Czech sniper rifle, a Soviet SVD Dragunov, and a Romanian FPK/PSL. Sub-machineguns included a Thompson M1928, M-3, MAS-38 and MAT-49, PPSh-41 and PPS-43, STEN MKII and MKV, a suppressed Sterling, MP-18 and MP-40 and many more. Of particular interest was a STEN gun made by the Danish resistance with an aluminum lower receiver.
The displays are a boon to both the collector and re-enactor as rare, obscure, and uncommon items abound. Far too many odds and ends to list. Of special interest is the Museum’s “Trench Experience”. Walking through a door one suddenly finds themself in a British trench during the First World War with everything re-created right down to the stench! You make your way from a dugout down a dimly lit trench past soldiers engaged in various tasks to some going ‘over the top’ on a trench raid. It is something you’ll want to go through a few times, believe me! Equally impressive is “the Blitz Experience”. This is a carefully researched reconstruction of an air-raid shelter and a bombed out street in 1940. It includes all the appropriate sights, sounds, and smells of being caught in the bombing of London during World War II.
Interest beginning in 1917 on collecting and displaying material related to the Great War (then still going on) led to The Imperial War Museum. It was formally founded in 1920 and moved to its present home in July 1936. The present building was formerly the central building of the Bethlem Royal Hospital. There are two separate branches of the Imperial War Museum. One is the H.M.S. Belfast, the last of the Royal Navy’s big gun warships. She is moored in the River Thames. The other is Duxford Airfield, located near Cambridge, which displays over 140 aircraft along with numerous other exhibits including armored fighting vehicles.
I heartily recommend a pilgrimage to the Imperial War Museum to any serious military weapons or history buffs. While some of the displays are not laid out as well as they could be, and the lighting and glass cases makes photography difficult, the experience is memorable. Expect to spend at least one full day taking everything in. Extensive reference and photograph archives are available to the public, but you need to give advance notice by telephone or letter to the Keeper of the Department in question. Traveling in London is simple, their sub-way (the tube) system is easy to learn (it’s all color coded), clean, and the people very friendly, a dramatic change from, say Boston. Take the sub-way to the Lambeth North station, the Museum is a short walk from there with plenty of signs. It’s open from 10 am-6 pm every day except Dec. 24-26. Admission is 5.20 pounds ($7 or $8).
For More Information
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
London SEI 6HZ
Telephone: 0171-416- 5000
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N6 (March 2000)|