Thursday, November 15, 2012

Imperial War Museum, London

V2 Rocket, IWM, London
Vergeltungswaffe - Retaliation Weapons

The American Conservative tour of London continues with an essential stop at the Imperial War Museum ( on Lambeth road in South London.

Leon Trotsky famously said, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you".  You may not be interested in visiting the Imperial War Museum (, but even if you are a pacifist who despises all forms of Imperialism and colonialism you can still learn much from this museum.

The Real Bridge on the River Kwai
The Imperial War Museum London now occupies a building that used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital -- an insane asylum.  The word "bedlam" derives from Bethlem Royal Hospital.  Londoners used to be able to pay a penny for the privilege of poking the inmates with a stick!  The conjunction of an insane asylum and a war museum always reminds me of the concluding lines of the film Bridge on the River Kwai where Major Clipton exclaims, "Madness, madness".

Outside of the museum you will be welcomed by a pair of huge 15 " naval guns from the HMS Ramilles and HMS Roberts.

15" Naval Guns at IWM, London

In the nearby garden you will find a memorial to the 26.6 million of Soviet soldiers and citizens that perished in World War II (see earlier post Moscow's 65th Anniversary May Day Parade).  Recall also that 4 out of 5 German soldiers killed during World War II died on the Eastern front.

"We Shall Remember Them"
The IWM London collections cover the full range of modern warfare that involved Britain and the Commonwealth countries.  The IWM makes a particular effort to record the toil and sacrifice of all those affected by war -- not merely the combatants.  In addition to the equipment of war, you will find films, uniforms, works of military art, diaries, recordings and much more.

Sherman Tank, IWM, London
You will find tanks from both World Wars, airplanes, artillery, and interactive displays.

The IWM London is, in fact, part of a family of 5 major UK military museums -- IWM London, IWM Churchill War Rooms (formerly Cabinet War Rooms), IWM Duxford, IWM HMS Belfast and IWM Manchester.  I have written earlier about the "Churchill War Rooms" (see earlier post, Churchill War Rooms, 2/12/12) and also Duxford (see earlier post, Duxford and...George Carlin, 4/30/12).  The HMS Belfast battlecruiser, moored in the Thames, was used to sink the Bismarck in 1941 and fired its big guns in support of the D-day landings on June 6, 1944.

"Their Finest hour" RAF Hurricane, IWM, London
The IWM celebrates an Empire that has faded from our world.  Today the UK still clings to Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and St. Helena (Napoleon's Guantanamo) and not much else beyond the British isles.  At one time, however, it could be accurately be said that "the sun never set on the British Empire."  Just prior to World War II, about one quarter of the earth's surface was part of the British Empire; it was the largest Empire in the history of the world.

British 8th Army, Armored Car, IWM London
The British exploited the resources of native people for their own economic gain, but they also ended barbaric practices such as Suttee (ritual murder by fire of widows) in India.  During the 19th century they fought war  in order to force the Chinese to buy and become addicted to opium, but they also built railroads throughout India and Pakistan.  The British Empire may have been founded by Elizabethan pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir William Raleigh and others and it may have been guilty of many a crime, but it ended in a blazing flash of glory when it stood alone in 1940 against Hitler.  This was indeed "their finest hour" as Winston Churchill proclaimed.  It is fashionable today to wring our hands over the sins of colonialism, but had it not been for the British Empire, today's world would be a much darker place than it is today.  For an outstanding appraisal of the British Empire I recommend Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power  ( see video below).

"Big Beautiful Doll", USAAF P-51 Mustang
(See earlier post, Tommy Hitchcock and the P-51, 6/27/12)

Does World War II seem a distant fading memory of questionable relevance to you?  Just this year (2012) an English homeowner in Surrey, who was cleaning out his chimney, found a secret message was attached to a dead pigeon's leg (!  The coded message, perhaps bound for Bletchley park, has yet to be decoded.  The past continues to reverberate and spill into the present.

Cecil Beaton's London Blitz Victim, 1940
Used in Life Magazine cover, IWM London
Admission to the IWM London is free of charge.  They always have an interesting selection of films and temporary exhibits. They currently have, for example, an exhibition of Cecil Beaton's wartime and fashion photography (see photo above).  Be sure to check their web site for details (  The IWM also boasts a wonderful gift shop for all with an interest in military history.

Commander Kelly says, "Go visit the Imperial War Museum in London!"

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.