Saturday, June 3, 2017

The World War II Tour: Part One, London

The Imperial War Museum, formerly Bethlem (mental) Hospital from which the word 'bedlam' sprung as a synonym for chaos
 If you had told me before this trip, me, a Princess Di fan from way back and general royal-watcher, that a museum with the word 'war' in its name would be the highlight of the London part of this trip, I would not have believed you. But, I had just read Donald L. Miller's fantastic book The Story of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and that war was so firmly planted in my head that I was having WWII dreams. This museum was a fantastic compliment to my recent study of the war and my almost-lifelong interest in the homefront of that time. First I was mesmerized by the music of Glenn Miller from watching The Glenn Miller Story on TV with my parents, and then I became interested in the clothing of that time, and then I wrote an A+ research paper in 12th grade entitled, "The Effect of World War II on American Styles." It wasn't until recently, in preparation for this trip, that I delved into the details of the war.

So the Imperial War Museum (IWM) was fantastic, and I limited myself to the WWII floor. That was roughly one-quarter of the museum. I took many photos, and I'll pick out the best for this blogpost. (If you come to my lecture at Bucks County Community College on November 9, 2017, you'll see these and many more!) Walk into this museum, and the first exhibit you encounter is the atrium collage of aircraft and vehicles from various wars. It's overwhelming, and difficult to pick out the WWII artifacts. Most importantly, among the planes suspended from the ceiling, there's a Spitfire. That is the model flown in the air battle with Germany over London in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The daring Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots shot down many German Messerschmidts.

That's the Spitfire in the middle with the circles on the side. This is the Atrium of the IWM.
The IWM also boasts a thrilling display of a Japanese Zero plane. It's a bit beat up and British bullets were found in it when it was being prepared for display. The Zero had been in multiple battles--parts of it were patched-up.
Beat-up Japanese Zero plane
I suppose I should explain how I found myself on this World War II tour...a colleague at the college brought it to my attention: "It's experiential learning. That's what you write about, right?" Indeed it is, and I signed up for the trip straight away, keeping my fingers crossed that enough people would sign up to make the trip go. The leader, Jerry, did a lot of work spreading the word to history classes and the college at large. One needn't be affiliated with the college in order to sign up. At last we ended up with a group of 14: four young ladies, three young men, a dad with two college-age girls, an older fellow from the community, Jerry and his wife, and me. Most had never met, but by the end of the tour the group had come to know one another pretty well. It was a good group. We were blessed.

Back in the IWM, I was pleased to see displays on the British homefront. Unlike the US homefront, the British homefront was also at times the frontline. Nevertheless, housewives were encouraged to "Make-do and Mend" and to serve potatoes instead of bread.

This was just the tip of the IWM iceberg, but we had to move on to our next stop, Churchill's War Rooms. Our tour director, Christoph from Paris, led us through the streets of London, onto a bus, off the bus, and between two large, official buildings to the entrance. Just as we were to go in, a bus full of Beefeater musicians pulled up and the guys walked past us. We never saw the performance, but when we came out of the War Rooms, they were loading up their bus again.

I wish I could have heard them perform!
I was especially looking forward to Churchill's War Rooms underneath that big official building. This is where Churchill and his cabinet and staff worked during the air raids on London. Even his wife Clementine had a room here.

The Cabinet Room, just as it was left in 1945. Except for the blotters: those were replaced every day just in case there were any incriminating impressions left from cabinet members writing notes.
Clementine Churchill's underground bedroom
We would see more of London by walking tour and bus tour. We were warned months before we left that we should expect six to ten miles of walking each day. Really? That seems like a lot. But we did walk that much except for one day which I'll tell you about next time. In London we walked around St. Paul's Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and many other photogenic spots. My favorite was St. Paul's Cathedral, not only because Princess Diana got married there and I woke up very early that day to watch it on TV in New Jersey, but because during the Battle of Britain in 1940 when so much of London was destroyed and damaged, the gorgeous dome rose above the smoke unaltered. There's a famous black and white photograph of this scene, but I'll close with my own shots here.

Three shots of St Paul's Cathedral
And yes, we did hear the famous bells of St. Paul's:

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