War, what is it good for? Discover the reality of warfare at the Imperial War Museum

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Imperial War Museum

Drawing together a staggering, vast collection of military arms, hardware and specific artefacts, the Imperial War Museum (or ‘IWM’ for short) can be found just a few minutes’ walk south of the South Bank in the centre of town. Frankly, for anyone interested in or curious about modern warfare – especially if they’re based on a visit to the capital relatively central (at, say, one of the London hotels near Chelsea) – it’s an essential venue to pay a call. Prepare to be captivated and moved…

Naval guns

A dramatic, arguably stunning, frankly rather imposing welcoming to the museum are the two huge barrels of the naval guns that stands in the gardens as you approach the venue’s entrance. They were manufactured for two separate naval ships that contributed to the British war effort in the giant conflict of 1914-18 – the first global war the world’s known and, so far, the most devastating. When in service, each boasted a range of 15 miles; a thought-provoking fact, to say the least.

The First World War Gallery

An utterly cataclysmic struggle that changed the world forever, the four-year ‘total war’ that opened the 20th Century is catalogued in extraordinary breadth and detail in this magnum opus of the museum. It offers the personal stories of soldiers, civilians and families as well as a quite brilliantly realised recreation of a Western Front trench, where the dangers and despair of trench warfare are laid bare.

Tanks

Chart the radically fast evolution of the incredible war machine that’s the tank via the IWM’s collection. First introduced to the theatre of war in the year 1915, during the First World War, you can check out for yourself everything from the lumbering British beasts of that conflict to their WWII equivalents in the shape of the US Sherman and the Russian T34 tank.

Aircraft

The wondrous creations that were the Second World War’s fighter aircraft – especially the utterly iconic Spitfire, of course – still captivate old and young alike. Indeed, among all the aircraft on show (many suspended from the entrance hall’s ceiling as if in flight), the IWM’s Spitfire flew more than 50 sorties and was piloted by 13 different men during the legendary ‘Battle of Britain’.

Holocaust Exhibition

By turns bewildering, by others repellent, this permanent exhibit’s bluntly potent and sobering examination of perhaps the worst atrocity associated with war (certainly 20th Century war) features first-hand testimonies of the Nazi-enacted ‘Holocaust’ of Europe’s Jewish population and, like it or not, is frankly unmissable. Be warned, though, it is arguably disturbing, so not recommended for those under the age of 14.

The Secret War

Something of a hidden even undercover (geddit?) addition to the in-your-face tactile artefacts strewn throughout this wondrously informative and thought-provoking attraction (so easy to reach from the likes of the San Domenico House hotel), ‘The Secret War’ section is dedicated to detailing the often extraordinary world of spycraft (or ‘tradecraft’, as those in the ‘business’ tend to refer to it). It might sound like something out of the fiction of James Bond, but it truly offers visitors the chance to (ahem) espy exploding briefcases, hidden cameras and listening devices concealed in the likes of smoking pipes. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

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