The Fiver: “Don’t Mention the War!” Five Great War Museums to Visit in Britain

The United Kingdom has one of the most illustrious military histories of any nation. From the Roman invasion to the Hundred Years’ War to World War II, it’s arguable that most wars studies over the last 1,000 years have had a British country fighting in it. Naturally, such a long history gives rise to many museum commemorating battles and the brave men and women who fought in them. What follows is a smattering of these museums that feature many points in British war history that are worth checking out.

1. Imperial War Museums of London

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IWM London is the biggest of the museums in the Imperial War Museum organization. Located on Lambeth Road, it has exhibitions that include the impact of war on landscapes and people as well as covert operations and a large collection of Victoria Crosses. Presently, however, the museum is undergoing some major renovations, so it may be worth checking out some of their other locations in London. Perhaps one of the most recognizable is a Thames landmark, the H.M.S. Belfast. Located on The Queen Walk along the river, the Belfast gives visitors a chance to experience life on a World War II light cruiser. Additionally, there is now a rooftop bar that provides a great view of the Tower Bridge and other city landmarks. And if you want to see more World War II pieces, the IWM also manages the Churchill War Rooms, the former Prime Minister’s bunker below the streets of London.

2. Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

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While the Royal Armouries also has museums at the Tower of London and Fort Nelson, its facility in Leeds contains the largest collection of armour, weaponry, and other military tools. The Leeds museum sports over 8,500 items in five galleries and includes jousting tournaments, stunt riding, and an exhibit on “The Swords of Middle Earth” for Tolkien fans. Visitors may also handle weapons during special handling sessions during the day or even fire a crossbow bolt at the museum’s range. Lastly, the museum contains a gallery dedicated to exquisite paintings of soldiers and historical figures in their armours. If you have the chance to check it out, you definitely should.

3. Dover Castle

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I know I’ve written about Dover Castle before, but instead of exploring the castle significance in film, this time we look at Dover Castle’s role as a military museum. The castle puts on several exhibits spotlighting Britain’s military history, such as an August Roman invasion, a tour of the Admiralty lookout to spot enemy ships, and a walk through the secret World War II tunnels in the cliffs. Members of English Heritage can also tour the castle’s defences. Similar to the Royal Armouries museum, Dover Castle puts on jousting tournaments for visitors. Those interested in the Napoleonic Wars can visit the castle’s medieval tunnels, which were expanded in 1794 to include secure barracks to house 2,000 soldiers in case of a French invasion. Dover Castle is open every day until November, when it is only open on Saturdays and Sundays until February.

4. Hack Green Secret Bunker

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Not so secret anymore, persons with an interest in Cold War history will certainly want to visit this relic of a bygone era. The bunker began operation in World War II, serving as one of the earliest radar stations. After the war, it was switched over to becoming a “Rotor” base, one that launched retaliation bombers in case of a nuclear strike by the USSR against the United Kingdom before it was closed in 1966. In the 1970s, the Home Office Emergency Planning Division purchased and repurposed Hack Green a nuclear bunker as a government protection seat. In addition to exhibits on the bunker’s history and Cold War artifacts, the bunker offers “The Mouse Trail” for intrepid young spies to hunt down Russian spy mice, for which children receive a Secret Agent Certificate.

5. IWM Duxford

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Another facility that makes up the Imperial War Museum, Duxford in Cambridgeshire is a testament to British aerial power and the bravery of Royal Air Force pilots. This location served as an airfield for both world wars and was maintained as an air base until 1961. An original 1917 Belfast hangar houses an exhibition on the Battle of Britain, while visitors can also find plenty of bombers and Supermarine Spitfires as iconic to British air power as the P-51 Mustang is to America. The museum allows visitors to view the restoration process for these classic planes and puts on some spectacular air shows on a regular basis. Duxford also offers an “Americans in Britain” tour, highlighting the contributions of American pilots who joined the RAF prior to the United States’ entering the war and American planes that flew from British bases. IWM Duxford is open daily starting at 10:00 AM with shorter hours from late October to mid-March.

What’s your favorite military museum in Britain? Let us know in the comments!


Comments

  1. avatarBecki Franklin says

    I can’t decide which is my favorite The Imperial War Museum in London or Dover Castle…. They both provide something unique and magical but on completely different levels – wish I had known about the others when I was living in London . As a sad reflection on what America considers important in education, I learned more in a British museum about America’s part in WWII than I ever learned in school in the states.

  2. avatardeborah cunningham says

    Curious…why the “Don’t mention the war!” in the title?
    Great site.
    Is everyone having a great time with Last Tango in Halifax and Foyle’s War 7?

    • avatar says

      It’s a classic line from Fawlty Towers from its funniest episode where a group of Germans come to the hotel and the one rule is “Don’t mention the war”, which of course they break repeatedly to hilarious affect.

  3. avatarXymers says

    Love the IWM North because it is smaller, more intimate, than the London location. About six years ago when we visited they had a heartwarming exhibit about animals serving in WWII.
    Great choice for a title to this piece!

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