Overlooked London: The HMS Belfast

The United Kingdom used to have the largest navy in the world and it still packs a major punch today. One ship from the glory days is the HMS Belfast, docked on London’s South Bank near London Bridge. This World War Two light cruiser also saw service in Korea and is now open to the public under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum, one of the best war museums anywhere.

Clambering up and down the nine decks and into turrets and engine rooms is lots of fun, and the video displays and signs tell you all about the history of the ship and life on board. One interactive display, the Gun Turret Experience, puts you in the middle of a WWII battle. In the Operations Room you can control an entire fleet at sea.

If you go in the winter, visit in the afternoon and catch the early sunset over the Thames, its bridges, and both its busy banks. Watching nightfall from the prow of this historic ship is a memorable experience.

The HMS Belfast is undergoing remodeling and will be even better when it reopens on May 18.

Check out more London attractions most tourists miss in our Overlooked London series!

Top photo, courtesy Steve Parker, shows the HMS Belfast as it appears today. The bottom photo, courtesy the Imperial War Museum, shows the ship bombarding the coast of Normandy in support of the D-Day invasion.

Celebrating the Battle of Britain

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, an epic struggle for the skies between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe.

The Imperial War Museum at Duxford is celebrating this key victory of World War Two with a host of activities. A photographic exhibition runs to the end of the year and shows what life was like at the RAF Duxford base. There’s a series of flight demonstrations and air shows this year as well. The first is a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight on May 15, followed the next day by the Spring Air Show. A large Battle of Britain Air Show will be held September 4th and 5th. September 11th sees a special activity day at the museum called Duxford, Spitfires and the Battle of Britain.

The Duxford branch of the Imperial War Museum has an immense collection of historic aircraft. Gadling blogger Kent Wien gives a very personal take on the exhibits, with lots of great photographs here.

Five great tank museums

OK, I’ll admit it, inside I’m still twelve years old. I love big lumbering metal monsters that crash through brick walls and blast away with cannons and machine guns. Tanks rock. So with no further justification, here are five of the best tank museums in the world.

The Tank Museum, Bovington, United Kingdom
The British invented the tank in an attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare during World War One, so it’s only appropriate that they boast the biggest tank museum in the world. Located in Dorset, this museum has the best collection of First World War tanks I’ve ever seen, including some one-of-a-kind models. The collections for other periods are excellent too, including the Interwar period, World War Two, and the Cold War. In all they have almost 300 armored vehicles from 26 countries.
Several of the tanks are in working order and there’s a track where they’re driven during the summer. This is the only place in the world where you can see the famous German Tiger I tank of WWII in full running order. There’s also an American M4 Sherman so you can see what the good guys were driving. Check the website for the next live demonstration.

The General George Patton Museum, Fort Knox, Kentucky, USA

A military genius, Patton realized that many old cavalry tactics could actually be used with modern armored vehicles. The results are history. This museum is dedicated to his memory and the development of the American tank. Not surprisingly, the WWII section is the best, but there are good collections for other periods as well. Some tanks have their sides cut away so you can see the cross-section and get an idea what it was like to be in one. There’s also an excellent exhibition on the man himself.


Deutsches Panzermuseum, Munster, Germany
I know someone is going to give me grief about this, but it’s undeniable that the Third Reich had one of the most advanced armies the world has ever seen, and the Panzers were its backbone. There are more than a hundred tanks and armored vehicles here, including some rare examples from World War One, the more familiar Panzers and Tigers of World War Two, and East German tanks dating to the Cold War. There’s also an exhibition exploring the career of the “Desert Fox”, General Erwin Rommel, and a massive collection of German firearms from both world wars.

Kubinka Tank Museum, Kubinka, Russian Federation

The Third Reich may have had a great military, but the Red Army crushed it, thanks in no small part to its huge number of mass-produced tanks. This museum in Kubinka, near Moscow, tells of their proud history. The main displays are of World War Two, including the famous T-34 that did so well against the Germans, and the tanks of the Soviet Union. Like the museum in Bovington, they claim to have the biggest collection in the world with more than 300 vehicles. I guess I’ll just have to go count them!

Le Musée des Blindés, Saumur, France

The French get a lot of unfair ribbing about their military. It’s often forgotten how well they fought in World War One and how they’re fighting the Taliban right now. An U.S. Army Ranger I met who served in Afghanistan says the French fight very well and we should appreciate what they’re doing. The history of French tanks is on display here in the historic town of Saumur, which also has a nice castle if you’re into more old-school militaria. More than 200 of their tanks and armored vehicles are in full operating condition and conduct an annual parade. Be sure to check out the curiosity room with its collection of experimental and unusual vehicles, like the Killer Vespa shown in the photo gallery.

Of course most national military museums have tank collections. The Imperial War Museum in London has some good ones, but it’s beaten by the excellent collection at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels.
Trivia question: How did tanks get their name? Tell us in the comments section. No prize, just bragging rights.

Museum Junkie: Manchester exhibit on life as a POW

A fascinating exhibit on life as a POW has opened at The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England.

The exhibition, called “Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War”, combines pictures, artifacts, and real-life anecdotes to give a glimpse into the experiences of prisoners of war from all armies during the Second World War (1939-45). It also features the only known film of German POWs in Britain.

While the exhibition focuses on the daily endurance test POWs had to live through, it also examines some of the famous escapes from notorious German prisons such as Colditz. This castle near Dresden housed Allied POWs who had tried to escape from other prisons. The Nazis considered it impossible to escape from. Several POWs saw it as a challenge and proved the Nazis wrong.

This museum junkie has been to many of The Imperial War Museum’s special exhibitions and has always been impressed. They’re always easy to follow and full of surprises and leave you knowing a lot more than when you arrived. At the permanent exhibition in the museum’s London branch, there’s a recording of an interview with a British soldier who survived a Japanese POW camp. He got terrible sores on his legs and didn’t have any medicine to treat them. Knowing that tea is a disinfectant, he pressed tea bags against the sores. This bit of trivia saved his legs and probably his life.

This latest exhibition is one of a series of events marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two. A list of upcoming events at the museum’s five branches is online here,

“Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War” runs until January 3rd, 2010.