Prior to arriving in London, I had never left the United States. My flight was smooth, though not terribly restful—as is to be expected. Upon arrival, I checked in with my roommate, Katie, and unpacked upstairs, finally able to lay down and stretch out. Once the group had all checked in, we took a crash course in navigating the city, landing in Westminster. My first stop was the Westminster Abbey to take in the architecture. Plaques to soldiers, writers, and artists covered the walls, with members of the royal family entombed on the premises. I will admit that the statuettes, dressed in their Victorian garb and praying with their blank expressions was unsettling. However, the ornate designs and memorials make the respect bestowed upon these individuals clear. It was interesting to listen to some members of the group piece together phrases, desperately trying to recall high school Latin. We then took some obligatory photos of Big Ben and by a red telephone booth before moving over Trafalgar Square. There, we explored the sites and found ourselves in a little pub for dinner. Throughout the night, it became clear that our group would consistently be the largest and loudest in any place we went or will go.
Churchill statue in Westminster
Our first full day in London was spent exploring the Churchill museum and war rooms, having brunch on the Thames, and listening to the story of a man who experienced the London Blitz firsthand. As we traveled through the narrow brick halls of the underground war rooms and meandered through the maze that was the Churchill exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice his influence in bringing the men, women, and children together in a time of desperation. Instead of turning inward and focusing on themselves and their own interests, the citizens maintained an incredibly high morale and took the Blitz with the “stiff upper lip” Londoners are known for. Civilians aided in sifting through the rubble of the city, making sacrifices through rationing, and spending nights in shelters. Britain would not surrender, it would have to be ripped from the hands of its people under their leader, Winston Churchill. The man understood his impact on his constituents, choosing to reside at 10 Downing Street until he was forced underground after his home and office was hit during an air raid. He was motivated by a need to demonstrate fearlessness to inspire the same among his population. Despite the often abrasive way about him, Churchill was respected and even admired by the people who worked with him. As noted in the museum exhibit, he was “easy to satisfy,” he expected the very best. He made difficult decisions in the interest of his staff, such as the choice not to inform them that their workplace was not entirely bomb-proof. It seems to me that today, Her Majesty has a similar effect on the people of England as Winston Churchill did throughout World War II. While the Queen’s power is not nearly as complete as Churchill’s, she is a figure behind which the people unite through a common identity. Much of today truly made the impact of the war personal. I find that especially to Americans, war is often something that occurs “over there.” Being surrounded by two oceans, an attack “at home” has not been taken out on the same scale as the impact of World War II across Europe and Asia. This trip has provided me a sense of what happened here, and I think this feeling of personal connection to the history will only continue to grow and develop as we move throughout the countries.
Lancaster from the RAF Museum
On our free day, Katie, Sarah, and I trekked out to the Royal Air Force museum. Having been to the Wright Patterson museum, I looked forward to exploring what Britain had to offer. The exhibits, despite some hangars being closed for construction, were phenomenal. Many of the planes were actual models that had flown during the war, with various flight statistics and mission catalogs listed below. Some were a bit worse for wear, such as the Halifax. While examining this wreckage, we were fortunate enough to meet a gentleman who had flown these planes during the war. Before we interrupted, he had been quarreling with his friends about what instruments were located where in the cockpit—I personally would take his side. Other planes were replicas or built from pieces collected from various planes and refurbished. Overall, it was absolutely worth taking the trip out. It also offered us a different view of London, certainly more suburban than what we had seen so far. It is important to recognize that during the Blitz, it was not just central London that was hit, it was these quiet neighborhoods as well. Bombs at this time were not terribly accurate, often landing a significant distance from the intended target. Thus, bombs dropped by aircraft and the V1 and V2 rockets devastated family homes in and around cities.
On Thursday, the group rose early to travel out to Bletchley Park, site of the major ULTRA Intelligence decrypting. The operation is on a sprawling estate and offers a first hand look at what the conditions were like for the men and women working here. It was not hard to imagine the conditions of the huts we were allowed to explore, filled with a flurry of activity and likely incredibly hot. Men and women pressed on dutifully, but one is left to ask how, after so many years, did no one know about this operation?
V1 and V2 Rocket
Friday was spent largely at the Imperial War Museum, which had been compared to the Smithsonian. I spent a total of five hours slowly making my way through only three of the exhibits: World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust. I found that these displays greatly expanded on the history I have spent the past semester learning about, as well as sparking a new interest in WWI. The stories of the artifacts found in the museum again made the efforts feel personal, attempting to convey the emotions felt by various individuals throughout the war. I’ve visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but this exhibit was unlike anything I’ve seen. There were real SA and SS uniforms, clothing worn by prisoners of the camps, and a partial model of the camp to demonstrate the experience of an individual being processed. Despite being only a section of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the model was massive in scale. By the end of my time here, I was both energized and emotionally drained. I followed this by discovering a small Italian place with Katie, Brandon, Beau, and John. Again, we managed to be your typical Americans despite trying our best to be polite. To cap off the night, I had signed up for a Jack the Ripper tour throughout the East End of London. While I expected it to be a typical and cheesy tourist trap, our guide was actually a devoted researcher named Lindsey who had spent much of her life reading books, conducting her own investigations, and actually working at a local museum. I was pleasantly surprised by how in depth the tour was, and was also excited by the exploration of an area I had not spent much time in. Having spent the last five or so days in London learning about another Allied experience of WWII, I look forward to seeing the different collective memory of Occupied France.