I have never blogged before so this should be interesting. Where do I begin? Well, I will put some perspective in to this before I start rambling about London. I have been waiting to go on this specific study abroad since the fall of 2013 when I first met with Professor Steigerwald. Back then, I was an enthusiastic first year student that wanted to learn and go abroad and I knew that I was interested in History and especially World War II. This program was a perfect fit, especially since I was not a History major at that point, and I could earn a minor through the program. To say that I have anticipated this trip would be an understatement. As we boarded the plan for London in the Toronto airport, I got slightly emotional. It finally hit me that I was embarking on a trip that I have been working towards for almost two years.

Here I am. London, England. I have already seen and learned about many historic sites, but I want to share with you a slice of World War II specific history. Today the entire group was able to go to the Churchill War Rooms and Museum, a fantastic place with an extraordinary artifacts, documents, and displays. It was humbling and aweing to be in the rooms in which Churchill and his War Cabinet made crucial decisions, planned and executed the D-Day invasion, and at times slept and ate through bombing raids. The maps used to chart the movements of Allied and Axis troops and convoys were riddled with pinholes where they had marked positions. I saw the machines used to decode German transmissions, a vital piece to victory for the Allies. The impact of every person and tool used in the war rooms was truly incredible, and as I read and learned about them all I only had a small glimpse into the enormity and import of this operation throughout World War II.

The Churchill Museum was just as wonderful as the War Rooms, and I learned so much about Churchill and England during and after the war. Winston Churchill is an interesting man who was and still is very controversial. His political views often clashed with his own party alignment, which even led to his change in allegiance. Churchill was also extremely adamant in opposing freedom for India, and he was incredibly anti-Communist. While he is often viewed as an astounding wartime leader, he lost his position as Prime Minister before World War II even ended. Many details like these are left out or passed over.

Many people affected World War II, from the commanding generals to the workers at the home front. Almost every person in the world either contributed to or was affected by the war, but from what I learned today I believe that Winston Churchill was the most influential person involved in World War II. While he did have an incredible supporting cast and immense resources to draw from, his ideas, strategies, and leadership were key to the success of the defense of Britain and the subsequent success of the Allied forces in defeating Hitler. While I have been taught about Churchill many times, this experience has truly shown the incredible passion, drive, and impact that Churchill had on the world.

An Eye on London

After several planes, busses, and trains, Iarrived in Dublin with Kelsey Mullen and Nick Gelder to do some preliminary sightseeing. We used our few days in Ireland to acclimate ourselves to Europe and ward off the ubiquitous jetlag. We visited the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery—obligatory stops, it seems, for all travelers in Dublin—and toasted a successful semester and the beginning of our trip. Afterjust a few short days in Ireland, we flew on towards London and rendezvoused with the rest of our group.

With the first evening free, I took the opportunity to explore the districts surrounding our hotel. During this initial wandering, I opened my mind to the city of London and its subtleties. Walking down a narrow, congested, and unmemorable street, I turned the corner and immediately found myself on Piccadilly Circus. Theatres and clubs, bright lights, and a bustling energy immediately overwhelmed me. The atmosphere immediately contrasted the previous street. I was in sensory overload.

For me, this exemplifies the nature of London. Simply turning down a new street leads you into yet another new adventure. The juxtaposition of gritty city life and beautiful parks, monuments, and historical sites astonishes me. One minute, I am walking down the side of the River Thames on a windy and rainy day, typical offices and apartments lining the street. The next, I am crossing a bridge looking up in awe at the parliament buildings and Big Ben, with Westminster Abbey just across the street.

I think that’s what really attracts me to this city. The infinite number of treasures tucked between office buildings and shopping strips brings a unique charm to the city. I am not from a big city and have limited experience travelling in large metropolitan areas.  London maintains a certain aura.

It is this that captivates me: The modern city perfectly blends with historic areas.  Sitting on the Thames in the heart of London is the HMS Belfast, an iconic battleship that served in the Second World War. The Belfast, now a museum and naval memorial, sits on the river as if she’s always been there, as if the city were built around her. The ship stands out next to tourist riverboats and the new architectural designs lining the shore, but it’s not out of place. In a way, so much of London has arisen around the historic areas, blending the old and new together in a unique way. The rich history and tradition of England is perfectly placed within the city just waiting to be discovered amidst the throngs of people and distractions of city life. All you have to do is open your eyes and look.

After several days exploring the obvious attractions as well as thehidden gems of London, I still feel as if there is so much more to discover. So many more museums left to learn from. So many more roads, parks, and city squares left to travel through. And so much more culture to immerse myself in. I leave London having thrown myself headfirst into Europe, and I experienced as much as I could in the short time here. I know that London will call my name at some point in the future, beckoning with its balance of history and modernity. I shall be all too happy to answer and return to a city that has so much to offer.

But now, I must cross the Channel and prepare for Normandy. Cheers, London. I will see you again.

London Eye O-H-I-O

Buckingham Palace

Mind the Gap

    It goes without question that America’s entry into and contribution to World War II led to the Allied victory.  However, IMG_3944I’ve come to see that victory in an entirely different light from London, England.


Arriving in London five days ago, Hannah Parks and I walked the streets of Westminster as we waited for our colleagues to
arrive. As we looked around, we quickly came to find that the remembrance of the men and women who waged WWII surrounds the urban hustle and bustle of the city. Juxtaposed to clothing stores, food markets, and pubs are statues, museums, and memorials of the collective effort to defeat the Führer. As we walked from Charring Cross to Westminster Abbey, we saw statues to Bernard Montgomery and William Slim and a memorial to French women in the Resistance. Without question, London is a monumental city.


IMG_4013Our group convened Thursday morning and started our educational journey at the Churchill War Rooms. I found this interesting because my knowledge of WWII to this point has been mostly focused on FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower as leaders and heroes. Yet, being able to see where Churchill and his staff essentially lived during the Blitz and up until 1945 really was eye opening.  From the concrete slabs to the sirens, it was evident that the pressing threat of invasion dictated the structure, organization, and flow of everyday life in the war rooms. Additionally, we saw the childhood of Churchill and his life leading up to his involvement in the Allied war effort. The details of his life and the details of the war laid the foundation of the museum. Yet what I found to be the most stimulating was that the rooms were shut down and sealed in 1945 after the war. As the war ended, Churchill and his cabinet shut off the lights and left the building to go home, without looking back. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they were reopened and explored.


We were able to make a trip out to Bletchley Park, an old mansion that housed British intelligence and is the location of the cracking of the German ENIGMA codes. Understanding the history and strategic location of this once old farm (which is halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, yet easily accessible from London), on top of seeing actual ENGIMA machines and the Bombe, was “brilliant,” as the British would say. We were able to see how Alan Turing and the rest of the code crackers utilized mathematics and machinery to intercept messages and acquire intelligence on German movements. It was fascinating to find out that the 8,000 employees at Bletchley in 1945 never leaked the information they were developing.


Besides the tour of the HMS Belfast, the group spent the rest of the free time exploring as much of the city as we could. IMG_4119Getting the see Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley, and the Belfast coupled with Big Ben, Camden Market, and Shakespeare’s Globe made for a well-rounded, non-stop exploration of London.


We now prepare to depart from London to storm the beaches of Normandy.





Becoming Grounded In History

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

There’s so much I want to say about this trip, so much I want to tell everyone about. I want to talk about the weather, or my impressions of the city, or what I love and hate about our hotel, or about visiting so many cultural sites. Basically, I want to convey everything I’ve seen and experienced since I arrived at Heathrow this Wednesday.

I guess I can sum up everything with a quote from a quote from Sweeney Todd: “There’s no place like London.” Up until even this past semester, reading about London, even knowing that I’d be visiting it soon, was like reading about a fairy-tale kingdom. It was so distant, it didn’t seem real. But being here, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the city have brought home the history and the reality of where I am. I’ve visited the Churchill Museum, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Bletchley Park, the Shakespeare Globe, and so many more. Finally, London feels real to me. I’m actually here.

And not only has London become more real to me, but so has the war I’ve been studying for nearly my whole college career. Yes, it has always seemed real to me. There’s too much information and too many testimonials from veterans and survivors for me to have felt the war to have been anything but a reality. But when I stepped into the Churchill Museum and began exploring where Churchill helped to plan the war and where soldiers slept, ate and worked round the clock to keep Britain from being invaded, I felt myself become part of the war; I could see my place in history and how it related to me.

And then in Bletchley Park, I had another one of those moments when I saw the war through a whole new light. Standing there among the huts and the mansion where the British Army, Navy, and Civil Intelligence Services broke the Enigma codes, which helped to end the war a few years earlier, I realized I was standing in history, where important events took place and without which I might not be around to write about this study abroad trip. As I went through the museum at Bletchley and saw a full-length Nazi flag displayed near the code-breaking exhibit, I thought to myself: “If it weren’t for the people who were part of the Bletchley Intelligence Project, I couldn’t be sure where I’d be now. I might not even exist.”  Standing there in that museum, I put my hand on the swastika and sent it a mental message, as if to address Adolf Hitler’s ghost: “All that you and your followers stood for, the people here helped defeat. And I live to remember it.”

With the statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

So what can I tell you about my study abroad trip so far? Only that it has been edifying beyond belief, and made the Second World War more relevant to me than ever before. As the days go by, and as we travel between locations, to different museums and battle sites and historic places of note, I’m sure that awareness will only grow deeper. And at the end, I will be able to look back and know that this trip has greatly influenced not only broadened my knowledge of WWII, but also made me appreciative of all the sacrifices that were made so that someday I could come here and write about it.

I will write again from Normandy. Look forward to more musings and photos and discussions of the places I’ve been. Good night everybody.

On London Museums

Our students are discovering that London is, if nothing else, a city of museums. They have almost as many museums here as Starbucks or Pret A Mangers. In fact, I walked up Museum Street this afternoon. It was one of the few streets that didn’t seem to have a museum on it.

They are also discovering that not all museums are equal. Take the Clink Prison Museum at London Bridge, the city’s “oldest jailhouse.” Its brochure promises “Real History,” but the guy who handed it to me was dressed up as a pirate, so that raised suspicions on that score. It does have a “mystery coffin,” however. And for the kids, they promise rodent hunts. So there’s that.

At least one of the genuinely bona fide sites steeped in the city’s history has been a real disappointment. Since just our last visit, St. Paul’s Cathedral no longer accepts the London Pass, which otherwise is accepted virtually everywhere worthwhile. One always suspects money, or lack thereof, is behind the switch. The Cathedral now charges nearly $30 for a visit. This puts St. Paul’s in the same category, I’m obliged to point out, as the Clink Prison. Actually, the Clink only charges about $12. And they do rodent hunts.

Those students interested in how museums function have gotten a case lesson in the varied consequences of funding through visits to WWII sites. Our schedule began at the Churchill War Museum, then took us Bletchley Park, and then to the HMS Belfast. The Imperial War Museums administers both the Churchill and the Belfast; Bletchley is under the control of an independent trust.

And the difference shows.

With origins in the Great War era and the official imprimatur of a Parliamentary decree, the Imperial War Museums presently is a consortium of five sites under a single administrative umbrella. It administers the Churchill, the Belfast, sites in Manchester and Cambridgeshire, and its jewel, the world-class Imperial War Museum. Though the IWM courts private support, it is publicly-supported, and a position on the Board of Trustees comes through an appointment by the Prime Minister. It bears much the same relationship to the British state as the Smithsonian does to the American government.

With their more or less public status assured, the museums of the IWM are state-of-the-art. The Churchill War Rooms contain, among many other things, the most amazing interactive time-line I’ve seen anywhere. When the students asked me how long they should expect to spend touring the Belfast, I said: “Well it’s just a ship, but once you get inside, it’ll take about at least two hours to see most of it.” They were inside a full two hours, because the entire ship—a WWII cruiser-class—is a floating museum informative in a hundred ways.

Bletchley Park, by comparison, is the responsibility of the Bletchley Trust, which was organized only in 1992 and is entirely dependent on private support. Perhaps its very nature put it at a disadvantage. For those who don’t watch The Women of Bletchley on WOSU, Bletchley Park is where British intelligence established the vital Ultra cryptography effort that successfully broke both the Enigma and Lorenz Codes that the Nazis used for naval and strategic communications. What happened there was the greatest intelligence feat of WWII. And yet the site’s secret purpose and the rather informal way the property had been arranged for wartime use probably left it languishing for almost thirty years, when, finally, a group of interested people rescued it from developers.

I first visited Bletchley a few years ago on a scouting trip to see if it would be worth putting on the students’ schedule. I was dubious, frankly. The museum was displaying some of the important artefacts associated with Ultra: a German Enigma machine (which looks like a typewriter tricked out with extra keys and dials); one of the “Bombes” (the huge proto-computers that did the calculations necessary to deciphering the daily German codes); and a few other items. The second floor of the museum looked like someone’s attic. Period ephemera was scattered about, presumably intended to demonstrate how wartime civilians lived. An elderly fellow, aptly representative of British quirkiness, had taken over a large hall adjacent to the main building and filled it with a lifetime’s collection of everything Churchill—Churchill cigars; Churchill shot glasses; Churchill plates; Churchill magazine covers; Churchill derbies. The effect was to give the place the feel of a flea market. Misgivings aside, we put it on the schedule because of its intrinsic importance and because the train ride into the Midlands gives students a bit more of England.

I’m happy to report that the Bletchley people have done remarkable work in just a few years to turn the site into a teaching museum befitting its historical value. They have made the most of the representative machines and give demonstrations of how the Bombe worked. They now have the world’s largest collection of German Enigma machines. They’ve arranged a tribute to Alan Turing, the mathematical genius behind the proto-computers, who died—probably by suicide—after being prosecuted for homosexuality in the early 1950s. They also have an interesting exhibit on the Ultra spies, a small group of shady characters who served as double agents and who filtered back to the Germans misinformation concocted on the knowledge gained through the cypher program. And they’ve cleaned out the attic, including the world’s largest collection of Churchill junk.

All in all, the improvements made at Bletchley Park have been impressive, particularly considering that they must still be struggling to raise funds. Wise leadership, professional vision, and a committed group of volunteers—human capital, in each case—are making do. Now it’s a must-see, rather than an add-on to our student tour. ______________________________________________________________________________

One of the students, Courtney Gehres, visiting London for the first time, made the shrewd observation that here the very old and the very new seem to jostle for the same space.

Here is a good example of what she meant:

On the left is Southwark Cathedral, which is over 1000 years old.  Towering over now is The Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper, which opened officially only this year.

London, Old and New

London: Heart of Empire and Victorious City in WWII

Wether I walk in Trafalgar Square, The British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, Tower of London or the various memorials to men and women alike which have become immortal in British History such as the Duke of Wellington. I can’t help but see the reminders of the British Empire. The city of London for over 250 years was the capital of an empire that owned 1\3 of the world’s landmass. This empire was characterized best by the quote of “The Sun never sets on the British Empire”. Before WWII, The British Empire was at it’s largest extent due to acquiring German Colonies after ‘The Great War’. However this was to prove a hollow victory and despite territorial acquisitions, the end of WWI revealed a vulnerable empire. Despite defeating Germany in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 as chancellor of Germany made another conflict inevitable.
Queen Victoria-Queen of England and Empress of IndiaKing George V-Royal Fusiliers Uniform
We learned in the Churchill War Rooms that in order to save Britain, Churchill had to accept the lend lease act even though this plunged Britain massively into debt and so this made Britain unable to retain the empire. I find Churchill is seen as a contrasting figure because while being a son of the empire, he realized that in order for Britain to ultimately triumph in WWII it would need the US and the Soviet Union to fight as allies against Nazi Germany. Especially during ‘The Blitz’ in which the city was devastated by German Bombers of the Luftwaffe. However Churchill and the British people endured and came out the other side of those dark times. I saw a photo at the War Rooms of Saint Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by burning buildings however the church was completely untouched, for the photographer this must’ve been a vision sent strait from hell but god in the end is ultimately triumphant.
Churchill-First Sea Lord
We will soon cross the channel which separates England from the continent and so I can’t help but think what the men of HMS Belfast looked out on the channel during D-Day. I have learned through my time on HMS Belfast how instrumental this heavy cruiser was in aiding Britain and the Soviet Union during WWII. This ship was responsible for running dangerous arctic convoys to Murmansk,Russia in temperatures reaching below -30, destroying Scharnhorst which was a german battle ship in the battle of north cape in 1943 and finally culminating during June 6, 1944 when Operation Overlord commenced to liberate France and the rest of Western Europe from Nazi Germany. This heavy cruiser and it’s crew should’ve had a movie done about it’s many accomplishments but like many untold heroes of WWII, this one must be seen to truly get a glimpse of what the British navy went through to guard Britain and defeat the German Navy.
Part 1 of HMS Belfastimage
Despite the loss of the British Empire after WWII. I see reminders not just in it’s monuments but in the people of London. This is truly a cosmopolitan city brought about due to the empire. I have seen Arabs from Iraq and Jordan, Africans from Sudan down to South Africa, Hindus and Sikhs from India, Chinese from Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. London while evoking an imperial past can still be seen through modern eyes as a great city which story is still being written. While it’s hard today to understand what the British went through in those dark days when they stood alone against the might of Hitler’s Germany, I am proud to know that our nation came to aid Britain in WWII and liberated the continent from tyranny and oppression.
Me and Emily on River Thames

London’s Rememberance

IMG_0383 IMG_0493 IMG_0393As soon as I got off the London Underground Tube at Charing Cross I was immediately struck by London’s remembrance of World War II. In the middle of the street stood a Women of World War II memorial, which contained uniforms for different services. Further down stood the statues of Field Marshal Montgomery and Field Marshal Slim. The plaque below their statues contained a short description of their big accomplishments. In front of Westminster Abby stood a statue of Winston Churchill. It seemed like every way I looked I was surrounded by Britain’s great military and political leaders.

The memorials that line the streets are accompanied by museums to remember World War II. The first one that we attended was the Churchill War Rooms. This museum contains the Churchill museum and interactive elements. Visitors of the museum travel at their own pace with the help of an individual recording of a guided tour. In the Churchill museum, some of Churchill’s classic outfits were a part of the display, which included the Bowker hat, overcoat, and siren suit. There was also a model of Churchill and his wife’s, Clementine, house, which visitors can virtually tour.  In the center of the room was an interactive board, which provided information on important dates in Churchill’s life and major world events. The rooms included in the Churchill War Rooms were the officers’ rooms, Churchill’s room, dinning room, and the map room.

The next day we arrived in Bletchley Part, where we learned about Allied intelligence during the war. We learned about the contributions made by the Polish scientists in solving the Enigma code, and we saw the memorial dedicated to their work. The museum housed several Enigma machines that belonged to the German Navy and Army, and the Spanish Army, which was given them during the Spanish Civil War. In the museum also was the rebuilt Turning Bombe. It was interesting to see the simplicity of the Enigma machine next to the complexity of the Turning Bombe.

The last World War II site we visited was the HMS Belfast. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be able to board a ship that was involved in the Normandy invasion and played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic. There were two shell rooms, each one under a 6” turret, which gives visitors a surreal feeling, because they cannot see outside, and it is easy to visualize being caught in a battle at sea. It was interesting to visit the sick bay of the ship, and the display showed an operation that lacked sterilized conditions. This exemplified the idea that can be seen at many of the exhibits of World War II, everything may not have been done perfectly, but it was the best that could be done at the time.