Please welcome my honorary guest blogger — my brother, Ryne! You may know him from my Sibling Shenanigans posts, where we’ve been lucky enough to travel together. Well, now he’s off exploring England on his own, and he has tons of great stories to share!
London is an amazing city, a crossroads of global cultures and truly one of the world’s most influential metropolises. Anything you could want you’ll find in London — hipster music, Victorian architecture, flashy modern buildings, and any type of food that you can dream up from around the world. Another thing it has in droves: history! You could fill pages with the history that London has to offer, but today I want to focus on one of my favorite topics — military history.
It would make sense with my military background that military history would be of particular interest to me. With two World Wars and countless other wars and conflicts, Europe is full of scars of history to keep any war enthusiast busy. I’m blessed with a rare opportunity to be stationed at a Royal Air Force base not far from London, so I decided to take advantage of it with a quick day trip to the capital city for my own personally-created “WWII Tour of London”.
My journey starts with a train ride into the city. London is just a quick 47 minute train from my home of Cambridge, and in no time my train is pulling into King’s Cross Station. Because there are so many WWII historical points to see, I’ve meticulously planned out my route in order to fit it into one day. My journey will take me from West to East across the city.
Bomber Command Memorial
The first stop is the Bomber Command Memorial near Hyde Park. After arriving at King’s Cross rail station, I descend into the London Underground (AKA the “Tube”) and take the Piccadilly line to Hyde Park Corner. The corner has a number of monuments related to various wars and military organizations, including the Royal Artillery Memorial and the Wellington Arch. I spend a few minutes perusing those before walking across the square to the Bomber Command Memorial (making sure to walk underneath the Wellington Arch on my way, because of course you have to).
The Bomber Command Memorial is dedicated to the airmen who manned and supported bomber missions during the war, and the 55,537 who lost their life doing so. While the fighter aircraft protected the homeland, the bomber crews ventured out over enemy territory to project the full power of the Royal Air Force (RAF). I spent a few moments pondering the incredible sacrifice that these airmen made and reflecting on the oath I’ve taken to do the same to protect my own country. As I walk back through the Arch toward the Tube station, I hope that a world war never forces me to make the same sacrifice, but that if it does, I’ll have the courage to do so with the honor that these airmen did.
Victoria and Albert Museum
My next stop is the Victoria and Albert Museum. You may wonder what an art museum has to do with WWII history. Well, it’s actually what’s outside the museum that counts. During a campaign known as the Blitz, the German Luftwaffe (air force) peppered the UK with over 30,000 tons of bombs, killing over 40,000 citizens. London took the brunt of the attack with over 70 individual raids on the city. The raid decimated the city and the country as a whole, but the British citizens carried on through it all with their characteristic toughness and steadfast demeanor.
Most of the damage has been repaired or torn down with time, but it just so happens that one bomb landed outside the Victoria and Albert Museum. Being dedicated to history, they decided to leave the damage as an exhibit.
The museum is a very reasonable 20 minute walk from Hyde Park Corner, but as today was a bitterly cold and windy day, I decided to part with the £2.20 for a short 2-stop Tube ride to South Kensington Station (local Londoners will scoff, but I was warm so I don’t care).
To find the bomb damage, walk down the left exterior side of the building. It’s hard to know what you’re looking for until you suddenly see chunks of stone missing from the side of the building and damage to the railing. As you walk further, the damage increases. Stand for a few moments and take an opportunity to ponder both the immense power of the bombs to cause damage to such a solid stone structure as well as the feeling of what it must have been like to live through such attacks night after night.
No. 8 Lord North Street Air Raid Shelter
My next stop is related to that feeling of living through the attacks. For the 8 months of bombing raids, the citizens of London dealt with the ever-present threat of attack. Any normal night could change in an instant when the air raid siren wailed. When that happened, citizens across the UK took whatever shelter they could — a crude bunker dug in the back garden, a basement, or even an internal closet (as little protection as that provided).
In London, community air raid shelters were set up across the city. The most famous were simply Tube stations that allowed hundreds of citizens to sleep on the platform after train services had ended for the night. Others were set up in private basements. There used to exist signs across the city guiding the way to the nearest station, but they are fast disappearing as they become painted over or destroyed.
Luckily, there are still a few left, and I had found a location for one online that I was determine to see in real life. So it was back on the Tube for a short 4-stop ride to Westminster station.
Exiting the station and walking down Abington Street past the Palace of Westminster that houses Parliament, I turned right on Great Peter Street, then left on Lord North Street. I found myself in a quiet neighborhood quite secluded from the hustle and bustle of tourists just a few streets over. There, just to the left of Number 8 Lord North Street, is a fairly well-preserved shelter sign pointing down to the basement. The private home is clearly no longer open to shelter-seeking strangers, but it’s incredible that they’ve kept the sign preserved. I stood a moment to again reflect on what it must have been like to live through the Blitz, but then the cold started getting to me so I turned back toward the Tube station.
Churchill War Rooms
Just one street past the Westminster Tube station is another incredible WWII site: the Churchill War Rooms. This is an immense museum dedicated to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his life, his time in office, and his command of the British war effort in WWII. Even more amazing, it’s located in the exact underground bunker used by his War Cabinet while planning the war. The underground labyrinth of rooms is amazing, even if it doesn’t appear strong enough to withstand a bomb hit (I question the term “bunker” for this particular location…but it’s still incredible to see first-hand where the decisions were made).
The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day (except holidays), and admission is a reasonable £18.50 if booking ahead. There is so much history here that you could easily spend hours (as my sister can attest to after my dad and I forced her to accompany us as we spent 2 hours picking through every morsel of history available). Having visited the War Rooms with my family on a previous trip to London, and feeling that I couldn’t much build on the 2 hours of knowledge we gained last time, I decided to skip it for this particular trip. But if this is your first time, know that no WWII Tour of London would be complete without at least a quick stop in the Churchill War Rooms.
Also in this area is a memorial to the RAF, located just north of Westminster Pier. I missed it on my tour, so I can’t say much about it, but it’s worth a look since it’s in the area.
St Clements Danes
Back on the Tube, my next stop is Temple station and St Clements Danes Church, dedicated as the “Royal Air Force Church”. Again, on a warm day, this would be better as a 23 minute walk than spending another £2.20 for a Tube ride, but when the temperature is in the low single digits Celsius, I prefer to travel underground.
The walking option, though, would provide a chance to see many more famous war-related and non-war related London sites. Take the path down Whitehall and pass: the Cenotaph (WWI memorial), Number 10 Downing Street (home of the Prime Minister), Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the beginnings of the Covent Garden theatre district, and countless other statues and memorials. You can also take the route along the river and enjoy the sights across the Thames.
St Clements Danes Church sits in a traffic island in the middle of the busy London street known as The Strand. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and originally built in 1682, St Clements Danes was all but destroyed in 1941 by bombs from the Blitz. In 1958, the restored church was re-consecrated as the official church of the Royal Air Force. It now serves as both an active church as well as a memorial to RAF airmen who have given their lives in service of their country.
St Paul’s Cathedral
The next 2 stops are right near each other. Just a 14 min walk from St Clements Danes is another famous church that was central during the Blitz bombings: St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral is so famous and such a powerful British symbol, that Winston Churchill ordered it protected at all costs in order to preserve the morale of the British people. Since Churchill’s orders were followed, the cathedral itself doesn’t really have any war scars.
On either side of the cathedral, though, there are gems to be found. On the southern side stands the Firefighters’ Memorial. A simple statue of men battling a blaze, the memorial serves to honor the firefighters who extinguished the flames caused by Blitz bombing and helped the city survive. In a beautiful bit of artistic vision, the men in the statue point their fire hose straight at St Paul’s, forever watching over the venerable landmark.
On the northern side of the church, just one block away sits a less fortunate place of worship. The 18th century Christchurch Greyfriars Church was completely gutted by bombing. The incomplete shell that remains surrounds a simple, yet beautiful, garden oasis in the busy city.
With the daylight hours waning, I had finally completed my long tour of WWII sites in London. There’s plenty more to see in this magnificent city, but that’ll have to wait for another day. I’m sure I’ll be back soon. For now, it was time to hop a quick train back to Cambridge to meet some friends and partake in my favorite British tradition — pub time! If you find yourself with a day to explore London, I highly recommend you take yourself off the beaten track and get to know some of the fascinating WWII history that London has to offer!
What WWII sites in London do you recommend? Comment below!