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A taphophile in a war museum

Today I visited the London Imperial War Museum. I was last there at the age of 15 having just emigrated to the UK from Rhodesia. I recall the imposing battleship guns in front of the entrance (from HMS Resolution and Ramillies).

Whilst the front of the building in Lambeth looks the same and the guns are still there, everything else I see has changed.

It’s free to go in at the moment if I buy a six-pound booklet on the building’s content.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 272:

“Be like an ecstatic American in a gun or sweet shop”

There is just so much I want to see on these six floors of British and Commonwealth conflict history and more. A million items to look at, collected since 1917, videos, models and military equipment and the biggest selection of British commonwealth military medals.

The good or bad news is that there are about 250 French students traipsing through the exhibits. The bad news is they are loud and doing selfies everywhere, the good news is they will hopefully understand on the next floor up the Battle of Britain and how the Brits and Americans saved the day for Europe and how quickly mainland Europe fell including France. So I’ll return to the basement and WW1 when the “frogs” have gone up to the WW2 floor.

Having visited concentration camps in Europe I’m looking forward to the big exhibit on the holocaust pre-war, during and post. It turns out to be one of the best detailed events I’ve seen, especially the post-period exhibit with lots of information I’ve never seen before.

Lord Ashcrofts collection of Victoria crosses and those owned by others is on the top floor. I should have done this first. It’s a big room with 250 plus stories of bravery and sacrifice. There are many medals, in fact, the biggest collection of its type on display in the world. On each one there is the story as to why a Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour amongst UK and commonwealth forces, was awarded.

I search for those awarded in the Zulu wars and specifically the battle of Rorkes Drift in Jan 1879. I’ve been to this location in South Africa and as a boy loved the film “Zulu” based on the battle. 150 British and colonial troops were attacked by up to 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven VCs medals were awarded for action in this Zulu attack along with other medals. The most Victoria Crosses awarded in history in one military action. Over 400 Zulus were killed (800 could have been the final figure as many badly wounded were thrown in the grave pits.) Only 17 British and Commonwealth members died. It was in many ways one of the most amazing, well-disciplined and well-directed British military victories (other than the atrocities). The last Victoria Cross was awarded in 2015.

I have a fifteen-minute chat with the exhibit supervisor and we share stories. Then I ask her the time and she says it was 5 PM. I am meant to be meeting Jezzabel at 5 PM in Regent Street. A fast walk and a tube and I’m at the meeting point by 5.20 PM.

It’s been a great day and so amazing to go back after all these years.

There are other locations operated by the Imperial Museum, eg HMS Belfast on the Thames, and Duxford airport with a big aviation story to tell. This includes a Concorde and a collection of aircraft from all the decades after the First World War. The Churchill War Rooms are also worth visiting. I’ve done them all, but over many years.

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1 thought on “A taphophile in a war museum”

  1. Very interesting Paul.
    Are you enjoying the weather
    here in UK?
    We were in the area of Rorkes Drift when the legendary guide /
    historian David Rattery was murdered by a disgruntled ex employee. We heard about it at breakfast. One of the very few unhappy memories we have of our visits to that magnificent country.


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