It ended almost 65 years ago, but it’s hard to overstate the continuing impact World War II has had on London and Britain.
Unlike cities in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, London was on the front line of the war. Not only was it the nerve centre of the fight against the Nazis, large swathes of the capital were flattened by German bombs.
While the buildings are repaired and Germany and Britain on good terms, how the war affected the lives of Londoners – and the war’s legacy – make for interesting exploring.
The Blitz, an unrelenting wave of bombing by the German Luftwaffe (air force), lasted from September 7, 1940, to May 11, 1941, and was one of the grimmest events in London’s history.
The blitzkrieg (German for lightning war) caused about 20,000 deaths and destroyed or damaged a third of London’s homes. With its docks, factories and warehouses the East End was a particular target and suffered hugely, but St Paul’s Cathedral survived despite being struck by 28 bombs.
The Museum of London in Docklands is a must-see – it’s got fantastic displays on the Blitz and how it affected Londoners.
Other places to check out include:
■ For a re-creation of the sights and sounds of several tonnes of bombs dropping on your suburb visit the Britain at War Experience (britainatwar.co.uk) in London Bridge.
■ The London Fire Brigade Museum (london-fire.gov.uk) tells of the heroics of the mostly untrained men and women who put out the fires. Visits must be booked in advance.
■ London Walks (walks.com) runs several tours that explain the Blitz and World War II.
■ If you spot an out-of-place building among a row of terraces it’ll likely be the result of post-war rebuilding to replace a bombed-out home.
The nerve centre
The Cabinet War Rooms (cwr.iwm.org.uk) is an underground bunker in the heart of Whitehall that was the central shelter for government and military strategists.
It now offers an evocative insight into the place where Winston Churchill, the inspirational PM from 1940-45, masterminded British resistance and fightback.
The Cabinet War Rooms has a museum dedicated to Churchill, including exhibits on his personal life, successes and failures (many blame Churchill for the disastrous World War I campaign at Gallipoli).
If the Battle of Britain hadn’t failed to go Hitler’s way, you could be reading this in German.
By May 1940 the Nazis had conquered most of western Europe and had their sights set on Britain. Enter the pilots of the Royal Air Force. Outgunned and outnumbered, they held firm against the Luftwaffe from July to October 1940.
With Germany unable to wrest control of the skies the Nazis were forced to delay invasion, ultimately for good. The Battle of Britain is best experienced at the Royal Air Force Museum (rafmuseum.org.uk).
The imperial war museum
There are galleries on many aspects of World War II, including the lead-up to the war, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and how the conflict affected the average Brit.
And Outbreak 1939, a new exhibition opening on August 20, looks at the build-up to the war, the beginning of hostilities, and the early months of the conflict.
London’s war memorials
The Cenotaph, in the middle of Whitehall, is the focus of services on Remembrance Day (the closest Sunday to November 11) and other ceremonies, such as the anniversary of the D-Day landings by Allied troops in Normandy on June 6, 1944. It commemorates British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the World Wars.
The Australian War Memorial London is at Hyde Park Corner, on the traffic island around Wellington Arch. Etched in the wall are the 23,844 home towns of Australian servicemen and women who died in WWI and II, and the 47 locations of major battles in which Aussies fought.
A few metres away the New Zealand Memorial in London consists of 16 vertical ‘standards’, set in formation on a grassy slope. The standards are adorned with words and patterns evoking the Kiwi wartime experiences, and the bond between NZ and Britain.
There is a statue of Jan Smuts, the South African statesman and Prime Minister who had a leading role in British high command during both World Wars, in Parliament Square.