10 Places in England to Explore World War Two's History

10 Places to Explore World War Two’s History in England

Amy Irvine

24 Jun 2021

World War Two was one of the defining moments in British History. Unlike many conflicts, the war directly impacted regular people – especially during the Battle of Britain and The Blitz – along with its effects on everyday life, including rationing and black-outs.

There are many locations where you can experience the sights of wartime England and explore the history of those who fought. Here’s our guide to just some of England’s significant World War Two locations, museums and monuments.

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1. The Cabinet War Rooms

Secreted beneath the streets of Westminster, the Cabinet War Rooms are part of the underground bunker complex now known as the Churchill War Rooms in London where Britain’s wartime government operated during World War Two.

Today, visitors can walk through the corridors from which Winston Churchill directed Britain and stop at the Churchill Museum. Open between 9.30am and 6pm, the museum tells a story through personal items and artefacts from Churchill’s childhood to his military and political career.

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2. Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park is an English country house and estate in Milton Keynes, 50 miles north of London. Originally the eccentric home of the Leon family, Bletchley Park then came into the possession of MI6, becoming in 1938 a vital British intelligence centre.

Over the course of the ensuing Second World War, a team of British codebreakers at Bletchley Park – then known by the codename Station X – managed to decipher the machinations of Enigma, the highly effective code encryption machine used by the Nazis. The British government were thus finally able to intercept German messages, and could begin to map their enemy’s military movements.

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3. White Cliffs of Dover

The famous White Cliffs of Dover stand guard at the Gateway to England. In some places over 300 feet high, the White Cliffs are a symbol of the United Kingdom and a reassuring sight to travellers. The cliffs also have a special place in our national history – used for defence in both World Wars, the Cliffs have been immortalised in song, in literature and in art.

During the Second World War, the White Cliffs of Dover were Britain’s frontline from 1941 and large gun batteries were constructed along the coast. On the cliffs close to South Foreland, important gun positions were built which would attack enemy forces across the Channel. Although quickly constructed and only fired sparingly, the guns were an important aspect of the defence of Britain.

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4. Southwick House

Southwick House is a Grade II listed 19th-century manor house, 5 miles north of Portsmouth, and is the site from which D-Day was launched.

The village of Southwick was later entirely taken over by Allied Command, and Southwick House itself was used as the advance command post (Sharpener Camp) for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). In 1944, in the months leading up to D-Day, the house became the headquarters of the main allied commanders, with General Eisenhower, Admiral Ramsay and General Montgomery all based here.

Eisenhower made his decision to delay D-Day by 24 hours (due to poor weather) in the library of Southwick House, and indeed the whole D-Day operation was organised from here.

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5. Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum is dedicated to exploring worldwide conflicts throughout history. The exhibitions in the London Imperial War Museum cover, amongst other things, different aspects of the First and Second World Wars including military history, the Holocaust, women’s roles in the conflicts, wartime artwork and the political issues of the time.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the museum’s remit was extended and a collecting programme began. Vulnerable collections were evacuated to stores outside London and the museum was closed to the public from September 1940 to November 1946. There were more than 40 incendiary hits on the building during the war, which caused varying amounts of damage.

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6. Western Approaches Museum

The Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool sits within a World War Two bunker complex which served as the combined services command centre during the Battle of the Atlantic – the Allied fight against the German U-boat offensive in the Atlantic ocean.

A bunker was built below Derby House, with extensive reinforced concrete protection given to the basement. It was bomb proof and gas proof, with a 7ft thick concrete roof and 3ft deep concrete walls, containing 100 rooms covering 55,000 square feet.

The museum allows you to step back in time and undertake a unique experience, where you don’t just see the history but can actually venture inside to experience it first-hand.

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7. Lepe Beach

The sand and shingle shore at Lepe and nearby Stone Point was used as a troop embarkation point for D-Day, for soldiers camped in ‘Marshalling Area B’.

Lepe and the surrounding area came under the control of the shore station HMS Mastodon, and many hundreds of troops with their equipment, vehicles and ammunition were hidden along the narrow roads and in numerous closed camps hidden in the wooded areas across the New Forest in the build-up to D-Day.

From 31 May 1944 onwards, soldiers made their way down to the coast to embark onto the ships and landing craft that would take them to Normandy – some on the Lepe shore, others at sites to the east or west, notably in Southampton. Vehicles were loaded earlier, but the soldiers themselves embarked only just before D-Day, followed by those who would be landing on subsequent days.

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8. The D-Day Story, Portsmouth

The D-Day Story is the only museum in the UK dedicated to the Allied Invasion in June 1944 – telling the unique personal stories behind this epic event.

Whilst the Normandy landings took place in France, the whole operation depended upon dozens of embarkation areas along the whole stretch of the south coast of England, where troops and supplies were held before loading onto the ships and landing craft.

The D-Day Story museum tells the story of this, as well as that of D-Day itself and the Battle of Normandy. It also covers the story of the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany occupation – through the personal possessions and words of the people who took part, as well as using imagery, audio-visual presentations, authentic vehicles and hands-on interactives help to bring the story to life.

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9. The Royal Air Force Museum London

The Royal Air Force Museum (RAF Museum) is located on the former Hendon Aerodrome in Colindale, North London. The museum includes five buildings and hangars which showcase a series of exhibitions dedicated to the history of aviation and which celebrate and commemorate the first 100 years of the RAF and its role today.

The museum site was one of the first civilian airfields, acquired by Claude Grahame-White in 1911. In 1914, the aerodrome was requisitioned for Home Defence during the First World War as part of the RAF Hendon Royal Naval Air Station, training new pilots in the flying schools on site.

Following the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, the site at Hendon became an operational RAF station again – home to No. 24 Transport and Communications Squadron. It also briefly served as a fighter station during the Battle of Britain.

The museum housed on the site today was officially opened on 15 November 1972 by the Queen. Housing a fantastic collection of over 100 aircraft, the RAF museum has an impressive selection of planes including some of the most famous ever to have graced the skies.

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10. Langstone Harbour and Hayling Island

Langstone Harbour and Hayling Island were used as sites for the construction of components of the ‘Mulberry Harbours’ – the artificial harbours created by the Allies to enable them to land their forces in Normandy on D-Day.

As part of the planning for Operation Overlord (codename for the Battle of Normandy) and due to the lack of big port facilities in Normandy, it was decided that artificial harbours were needed in order to quickly offload the heavy and bulky crucial cargo needed to support a successful invasion.

These artificial harbours, codenamed Mulberry, were built in Britain before being towed across the Channel with the Allied invasion force on D-Day, and then assembled by the army once in the waters surrounding France.

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