Lest we forget: London’s wartime role

Back to article list

Words by Harriet Cooper

Each November, on Remembrance Sunday, we fall silent to pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. As the national capital, London played an integral role in both the First and Second World Wars and was central to the British war effort.

Here are 10 places where you can gen up on the city’s military history, as well as learn more about the world wars and conflicts before and since…

Imperial War Museum London

Leading off Imperial War Museum London’s enormous four-level atrium, complete with a Harrier jet, Spitfire and a V-1 rocket suspended from the ceiling, a series of galleries takes the visitor on a poignant journey through war. As well as fascinating temporary exhibitions, permanent displays include a Holocaust exhibition and Extraordinary Heroes, the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses.

Don’t miss… The First World War Galleries are of particular note, with more than 1,300 objects depicting the conflict through the eyes of the British people and the Empire.

Imperial War Museum

Churchill War Rooms

Beneath the streets of Westminster lies an underground bunker from where Winston Churchill and his inner circle directed the Second World War. As you explore the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, unchanged since the lights were switched off in 1945, discover how Britain’s war leaders plotted the route to victory.

Don’t miss… Learn about Churchill’s life and legacy in the adjoining Churchill Museum, where personal artefacts chart his extraordinary 90 years, from childhood to prime minister and beyond.

Churchill War Rooms

National Army Museum

The five dynamic galleries at the National Army Museum tell a huge range of stories about the army’s history, from the Soldier gallery – which explores what it’s like to serve as a soldier as a new recruit through to coming home – to the Society gallery, which examines the army’s impact on our customs, technologies, values and choices, from the music we create to the way we vote.

Don’t miss… The Battle Gallery highlights the British experience of warfare and how tactics and technology have changed, from the 17th century to the present day.

HMS Belfast

You can duck through hatches, climb ladders and explore all nine decks of HMS Belfast, the most significant surviving Second World War Royal Navy warship, which is moored just by London Bridge. You’ll see the guns that fired some of the first shots on D-Day and the engine rooms 15ft below sea level, as well as hearing the stories of those who worked on board.

Don’t miss… Serving the Seas is an interactive exhibition detailing HMS Belfast’s 80-year history, including its worldwide adventures, from the Arctic Circle to east Asia.

HMS Belfast

Museum of London Docklands

On 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe launched a huge daylight raid on London and the docks were the first target. Visit the Docklands at War gallery, one of the permanent displays in this excellent museum, to learn all about how the port survived the invasion, as well as aided the war effort from Dunkirk to D-Day.

Don’t miss… Across town, you can hear Londoners’ war stories thanks to the Museum of London’s ongoing oral history collection, which records the real life stories of everyday people.

Museum of London Docklands

RAF Museum London

Spread across six giant hangars, this museum looks at the Royal Air Force from the earliest days of flight through two World Wars to its role in the future. To celebrate its centenary in 2018, the museum opened three new innovative galleries, which explore the first 100 years of the RAF and imagine its future contribution and technology.

Don’t miss… Ever dreamed of being a pilot? The museum boasts two simulators in which you can control take-off, flight and landing, and even participate in an air show.

National Maritime Museum

This museum charts epic seafaring endeavour and exploits, not to mention a few battles along the way. Four new galleries are packed with displays depicting adventure and piracy, Arctic and Antarctic exploration and more. You can even see the actual uniform that Admiral Nelson was wearing when he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Don’t miss… The Jutland 1916 gallery – focusing on the largest sea battle of the First World War – presents the compelling story of the ships, strategy and impact on the men and their families.

The Cenotaph

The Cenotaph is a war memorial in Whitehall, designed by Edward Lutyens in 1919 to symbolise the unprecedented losses of the First World War. Originally a temporary structure of wood and plaster, it resonated so strongly that it was replaced in 1920 by a permanent monument made of stone with an inscription that simply reads “The Glorious Dead”.

Don’t miss… The Cenotaph now memorialises all those who have given their lives in all conflicts since 1914 and is central for national commemoration, notably at the National Service of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday.

The Cenotaph

Household Cavalry Museum

This museum at Horse Guards (the official entrance to the royal residences) celebrates the history of the Household Cavalry, which has protected successive sovereigns and royal palaces since its origins in 1661. Explore the unique collection of treasures, from ceremonial uniforms and royal standards to musical instruments and silverware by Fabergé.

Don’t miss… For unique British pageantry, time your visit right and you’ll be able to see the colourful sentry changes on the hour, plus The Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11am (10am Sundays) and The Garrison Inspection at 4pm.

The Guards Museum

This military museum is jam-packed with information and artefacts relating to the five regiments of Foot Guards – namely Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards. The displays of uniforms, weapons, and memorabilia trace over 360 years of military history, as well as depicting all the battles the Guards have been involved in.

Don’t miss… The museum is on Birdcage Walk, opposite The Guards Chapel and just 500 metres from Buckingham Palace, so you can watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony afterwards.