Britain has been embroiled in some of the most devastating conflicts in world history, from the American Revolutionary War to World War Two.
For those eager to uncover Britain’s military history, and to explore the stories and artefacts of global conflicts, London is the place to start. The city is home to many world-renowned institutions and centres of research, such as the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum.
Britain’s armed forces are divided into various branches, such as the Marine Corps and the Air Force, many of which have dedicated museums in London. London’s National Army Museum is the official heritage site of the British Army, for example, while Britain’s naval heritage falls under the remit of the National Maritime Museum.
Here are 7 of London’s most important military museums.
1. Royal Air Force Museum
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.
Visitors to the RAF Museum in London can explore a series of exhibitions dedicated to the history of the RAF and aviation in general. The site boasts objects and structures from throughout the history of aviation, such as two World War One hangars, a World War Two Battle of Britain exhibition and a comprehensive timeline of aviation history.
2. National Army Museum
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 British Civil Wars 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”.
3. Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is dedicated to exploring worldwide conflicts throughout history. It was founded on 5 March 1917 after Sir Alfred Mond MP proposed Britain create a national war museum to record events that were still unfolding during the Great War. Although the museum’s key focus has historically been on military action involving British or Commonwealth troops, largely during the 20th century, it also covers war in the wider sense.
The exhibitions in the London Imperial War Museum cover, amongst other things, World Wars One and Two, the Holocaust, women’s roles in 20th-century conflicts, wartime artworks and the significant military personnel throughout history. In addition to its role as a museum, the IWM is also a major national art gallery, a national archive of written and audiovisual recourse and a centre for research.
4. Household Cavalry Museum
Nestled near Whitehall’s Horse Guards Parade, the Household Cavalry Museum is dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of Britain’s Household Cavalry. Formed under Charles II in 1661, the Household Cavalry is now made up of 2 British Army regiments – the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals – who guard the Queen, participate in public ceremonies and serve in conflicts around the globe.
At the museum, visitors can explore the cavalry’s working 18th-century stables and embark on guided tours of the many historic artefacts on display. As a ‘living museum’, the Household Cavalry Museum offers several interactive exhibits: visitors can try on cavalrymen uniforms and participate in historical workshops.
5. Royal Museums Greenwich
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, manuscripts including official public records, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments and instruments for time-keeping and astronomy. The Museum also contains a renowned exhibition on Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
6. The Cabinet War Rooms
The Cabinet War Rooms are part of the underground bunker complex now known as the Churchill War Rooms in London. It was there, hidden beneath the streets of Westminster, that Britain’s wartime government operated during World War Two: Churchill, his cabinet and some 500 civil servants worked, and sometimes slept, in the War Rooms throughout the conflict.
Today, visitors can walk through the corridors from which Winston Churchill directed Britain and stop at the Churchill Museum. Open between 9.30 am and 6 pm, the museum tells a story through personal items and artefacts of Churchill’s life, from his childhood to his military and political careers.
7. HMS Belfast
HMS Belfast is a former Royal Navy light cruiser ship that is now open to the public in London under the remit of the Imperial War Museum. Before becoming a museum, the vessel played a role in World War Two, seeing action during the D-Day landings and the Battle of the North Cape. HMS Belfast also served during the Korean War before eventually being decommissioned.
Today, HMS Belfast is a museum dedicated to telling the ship’s fascinating history and the wider history of Britain’s 20th-century conflicts. Situated on the Thames, visitors can experience what it may have been like for soldiers aboard the HMS Belfast, climbing the very same ladders and hatches used throughout its long career.