The Imperial War Museum organisation is a fantastic one, as evident in my earlier IWM Duxford post. Its London location is just as well-done; although less extensive in its collections of military equipment, IWM London has many interesting exhibitions and displays. My most recent visit there was in May 2011, and since the museum has recently been remodeled (it’s set to re-open on July 19), I would very much like to visit again soon.
The museum building was formerly home to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in the 1800s- perhaps better known as “Bedlam”. Today, this grand building’s distinctive domed atrium is the perfect site for a vast array of military vehicles and equipment.
Exterior view of the IWM London building on Lambeth Road. The enormous naval guns out front are a lovely touch!
An early-model Spitfire in the impressive multi-level atrium
The floor of the atrium holds a shop, cafe, and dozens of vehicles and artifacts. There is so much to see, yet I immediately gravitated towards the resident T-34. Its beautiful, creamy green outline grabbed my attention at once, and I must have spent twenty minutes and half of my camera’s battery life examining its every feature.
This T-34/85 is in remarkable condition
This T-34 is the later /85 variant- with an 85 mm gun instead of the 76 mm- and is from Czechoslovakia. I am obsessed with T-34s, and this visit to IWM London was the first time since developing this interest that I was able to see one.
Side view of the gorgeous T-34. T-34s were amazing tanks in WWII, yet they are surprisingly compact vehicles
Once my weary family dragged me away from the T-34, I took time to appreciate the rest of the atrium’s vehicles. Some are damaged, others are complete, and some have been partially dismantled to allow visitors a better look at their interiors.
Cockpit of an Avro Lancaster
Side view of a German Jagdpanther- note the damage to the armour
There’s also a fascinating collection of artillery, shells, and bombs in the atrium. Many of these things are well-known and often written about, but it’s quite an eye-opener to see them in person.
A corner of the atrium, full of artillery from many eras
One of the museum’s most grim artifacts; a model of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima
Two objects stood out to me- one was a 31-inch shell used in Nazi Germany’s Schwerer Gustav railgun. Schwerer Gustav was one of two massive railguns built by Germany during WWII, and today remains the largest-calibre weapon ever fired in combat.
Schwerer Gustav’s giant shell, almost 12 feet tall and weighing 15,700 lbs. The armour-piercing version could penetrate 23 feet of concrete
I was also fascinated by IWM London’s V-2 rocket. The sheer size of it was unexpected and completely staggering, and it was amazing to see the rocket’s intricate engine.
The fearsome V-2 rocket’s labyrinthine engine
The light-filled ceiling of the atrium is rife with aircraft, suspended as if in the midst of a dogfight. These planes are from both World Wars, and one can see their every angle from the atrium’s many floors.
This Sopwith Camel shot down a German Zeppelin during its WWI career
Once we left the atrium, we toured the museum’s numerous galleries both upstairs and in the basement; and saw everything from collections of Victoria Crosses to descriptions of civilian life during WWII. However, the most memorable part of this visit was the WWI Trench Experience. I have no pictures of it, but there are vivid pictures of it in my head. The Trench Experience was a recreation of the notorious hell-hole that was the WWI trench, and it was, in all honesty, quite horrible.
We walked through the trench, passing the gaunt and sober figures of WWI soldiers. Some were smoking or talking, but all were no doubt trying to forget the booming sounds of the artillery and the frightening flashes of light against the dark, smoky sky. It was hard to see anything, and the most overwhelming sensation was the terrible smell of waste and explosives that filled the trench. The experience was undeniably intense. I can’t see how it could compare to the real trenches of the Great War, but it encouraged me to imagine them, and that I will always remember.
IWM London is a wonderful museum, with informative, engaging, and thought-provoking exhibits. I’m so glad I’ve been able to visit it, and I can’t wait to see it in its new incarnation!