England is home to some of the most renowned military and war museums in the world, from the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to the Royal Air Force Museum in London.
These institutions are dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Britain’s armed forces, as well as the history of conflicts from around the globe.
Visitors to England’s military museums can discover artefacts and stories from several centuries of military history, from the origins of the modern British Army in 1707 to the submarine warfare of World War Two.
Here’s our selection of 10 important military museums to visit in England.
Duxford Imperial War Museum near Cambridge is dedicated to exploring Britain’s military history, with a particular focus on air and maritime warfare. Fittingly located at Duxford Airfield, one of the best-preserved World War One airfields in Britain, the Duxford Imperial War Museum was opened as a museum in 1976.
Most of the exhibits at the Duxford Imperial War Museum are contained in hangars, with each one exploring a different aspect of military history: Hangar 1 tells the story of British and Commonwealth aviation history, Hangar 2 is a “flying museum” where operating aircraft are held and maintained, Hangar 3 holds a maritime collection and Hangar 4 is dedicated to the Battle of Britain. There is also an American Air Museum at the site, exhibiting various battle aircraft from the US.
The National Maritime Museum is a maritime museum based in Greenwich, London. It forms part of ‘Royal Museums Greenwich’, a series of museums all situated within the vicinity of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. The National Maritime Museum itself was opened by King George VI in 1937, and it serves to recognise and exhibit Britain’s inextricable and historical connection with the sea.
Today, the National Maritime Museum’s collections comprise more than 2 million items, including maritime art (both British and 17th-century Dutch), cartography, ship models and plans and navigational instruments. Visitors can get up close to the actual uniform Admiral Nelson wore when he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, or witness the exact coconut cup that William Bligh ate his food ration from when cast adrift from HMS Bounty in 1789.
3. The Museum of Military Medicine, Hampshire
Based near Aldershot, Hampshire, the Museum of Military Medicine covers the long and bloody history of healthcare in conflict. It boasts some 60,000 artefacts within its collections, some of which date back to the English Civil War.
Visitors to the Museum of Military Medicine can expect to see old military uniforms, medical paraphernalia and an array of historic photographs on display. Modern military medicine is also covered by the museum, with exhibits exploring the current work of Britain’s Army Medical Services.
The Royal Air Force Museum (RAF Museum) is located on the former Hendon Aerodrome in Colindale, North London. The museum housed on the site today was officially opened on 15 November 1972 by Queen Elizabeth II. Initially, its hangars and buildings housed some 36 aircraft, but the collection has vastly increased since then, and aircraft not on display at Hendon are stored or displayed at various smaller RAF station museums around the UK.
Visitors to the RAF Museum in London can explore a series of exhibitions dedicated to the history of the RAF and aviation in general. Among its collections are the only complete Hawker Typhoon, a Gnat fast jet trainer of the Red Arrows, a full-scale mock-up of the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and a Westland Sea King helicopter once flown by Prince William.
Located in Hawkinge, England, the Kent Battle of Britain Museum is a space dedicated to aviation history and as the name suggests, the 1940 Battle of Britain. The museum itself started as a private collection of relics from the Battle of Britain belonging to Mike Llewellyn. As a child, Mike and his brother would play at Gravesend’s old airfield and would collect bits of old planes. Mike would later travel about Kent finding wreckages to include in the museum, which opened in 1982 at Hawkinge airfield.
Today, the Kent Battle of Britain Museum boasts the world’s largest Battle of Britain collection, including artefacts from over 700 crashed aircraft. Its largest building is the Stuart-Buttle Hangar, which contains full-sized replicas of Hurricane and Spitfire planes built for The Battle of Britain 1968 film, filmed at Hawkinge. Visitors can also see 15 Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engines, which were recovered from crash sites in Britain, as well as 11 other military vehicles such as a Ford ambulance and armoured cars.
6. National Army Museum, London
The National Army Museum in London is the British Army’s official museum. The institution covers Britain’s long military history, housing artefacts from the English Civil War (1642-1651) right up to modern conflicts such as the Iraq War (2003-2011) and the conflict in Afghanistan (2001-2021).
The museum possesses more than 1 million items, making it the biggest collection of British Army and British Crown Land Forces artefacts in the world. And despite covering the history of warfare and conflict, the site is very much a family-friendly affair. As the National Army Museum’s website reveals, the institution aims to “connect the British public with its army, regardless of age, gender, race and religion.”
The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth details the rich history of Britain’s Royal Navy. It brings history to life, showcasing stories and artefacts from the last 350 years and examining the common threads which link sailors from Britain’s nautical past with sailors from today.
Outside the museum is the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where visitors will find the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s favourite ship, which sank in battle in 1545 and was raised from the waters just outside the museum in 1982. The site is also home to Nelson’s legendary warship HMS Victory, as well as HMS Alliance.
The Tank Museum near Bovington, Dorset, is home to roughly 300 military machines, including the world’s oldest surviving combat tank. Its collections began to be formed after World War One, when British tanks were returned from France to Bovington Camp and set aside for military training purposes. In 1923, writer Rudyard Kipling visited Bovington and suggested its collection of damaged vehicles should be put on display for the public. Initially, a shed was constructed to house the tanks, which opened to visitors in 1947.
Today, Bovington’s Tank Museum traces the history of the tank from its inception right through to the 21st century, touching on World War One, World War Two and the Iraq War. Visitors to The Tank Museum can expect to see the world’s only working German Tiger I, as well as an American M60 and the world’s oldest surviving combat tank, known as Little Willie. On certain days, The Tank Museum will put on live displays of tanks and military machines in action.
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is located just a stone’s throw away from the busy Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. First established in 1963 with a small collection, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum really came into its own 15 years later, when it acquired the historic submarine HMS Alliance and installed it as its main attraction. Over the years, the museum’s collection grew and today houses various submarines and a large collection of submarine memorabilia.
Visitors to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum can walk in and around some of its historic submarines, experiencing for themselves what life on one of the vessels would have been like during their deployment. Among the vessels that make up the museum’s collection are: Holland I, the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1901; HMS X24, which saw service during World War Two; the German torpedo submarine Biber; and, of course, HMS Alliance, commissioned in 1947.
Featuring tanks, armoured vehicles and weaponry, the Muckleburgh Military Collection is one of the most comprehensive private collections of military artefacts in the UK. It began at a disused military base in Norfolk, England: when the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft training camp at Weybourne closed down, stockbroker Michael Savory set about converting the site into a museum. In 1988 the collection-turned-museum was opened to the public.
As well as armoured vehicles from the 20th century, the museum houses artillery, guns, missiles and ammunition. Moreover, the Muckleburgh Military Collection contains artefacts from the Suffolk and Norfolk Yeomanry, including military uniforms, weapons, documents and photos. Many of the Muckleburgh Military Collection’s artefacts are in working order. On occasion, vehicles from the collection are displayed live in action on the site.