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Home Front

Aldwych, London, 30 June 1944. © IWM, HU 129151.

Much has been published about the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ in London, and how the official representation of how Londoners ‘carried on’ was often at odds with the truth of nightly looting from bombed houses, crimes committed during the blackout, homelessness and the mass burials of bomb victims. Yet myths are still prevalent in the images which are routinely circulated: the dome of St Paul’s rising intact from the smoke from the burning City, the staged photograph of city gents selecting books in the ruined Holland House Library, the milkman continuing with his delivery round across the rubble after a night of heavy bombing. Images once made familiar will tend to be chosen again and again – picture researchers, publishers, museum curators – all have played a role in the perpetuating of certain stock images.

Holland House Library, London, 22 October 1940, © IWM, HU 131632.

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War generates unique and unexpected experiences in civilians’ ordinary lives. But war can also exist as a surprisingly uneventful setting for everyday working lives. At the European Social Sciences and History Conference three talks encouraged me to consider ways in which war work impacted civilians’ ordinary lives through memories that reclaim, forget and negotiate popular experiences of the Second World War.

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 Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.

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C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’, tempera on panel, © IWM, Art.IWM ART LD 5311.

June is the month when rosebay willow herb comes into flower, growing from derelict buildings, on wasteland and railway embankments across the UK. During the Second World War and in the following years, its spires of magenta flowers were common to see amidst the ruins and cleared bomb sites, hence the name it was given at the time – fireweed.

Yet to flower in this painting of May 1945, the fireweed is depicted at the very forefront of the remains of Haberdashers’ Hall, Staining Lane, which was destroyed during one of the worst night raids of the Blitz on the 28/29 December 1940.

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American airmen with British civilians after VE Day

US official photograph showing American airmen having a drink with Brits outside the Waggon and Horses pub in Great Yeldham, near their base at Ridgewell, Essex, on 17 May 1945. They are gathered around a now defunct local pastime: ‘Bet! V.E. before July’ (FRE 13699)

The American airmen did not simply pack up their bags and board troop ships as the final notes of the VE Day big band faded away. Instead, the Roger Freeman Collection of photographs shows how they spent the time between the end of war and their return home, up in the air and on the ground.

One of the quirks of researching the impact of American airmen on Britain during the Second World War is that very often airfields across East Anglia remained in American hands until the winter of 1945. By November of that year, the bright days of May had faded somewhat and although the August news relieved airmen of possible duty in the Pacific it must have been a homesick bunch of GIs that kicked about East Anglia, as the trees lost their leaves, waiting for orders to go home.

The Roger Freeman Collection gives a good picture of life at war but I’ve taken the chance of the approaching VE Day Anniversary Air Show coming up at IWM Duxford to find out what it reveals about what life was like for Americans in England after the Nazi surrender.

One of the stories told by Bomb Group veterans is that they used the days after VE Day to give lifts to ground crew, who had spent their days making the bombers airworthy and armed, to show them the effect of Allied bombing raids on Nazi industrial sites.

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One of IWM’s recently-acquired garments, displayed for the first time in Fashion on the Ration. This mustard wool Utility coat made by Alexon is an example of wartime design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. © IWM UNI 14387.

IWM London’s headline exhibition for the spring and summer, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores how the war impacted upon an intensely personal aspect of life on the home front during the Second World War.  What did people wear and how did this shape their sense of identity? How was fashion constrained by war? How did men, women and children cope with the demands and deprivations of shortages and austerity?

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