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Second World War

In a frame from the film THE TRUE GLORY, a British Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman and photographer, Sgt Mike Lewis, is caught on camera as he films the burial of the dead following the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. (c) IWM FLM 1232

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, staff at IWM engaged with popular forms of history in order to publicise its collections, exhibitions and research facilities. In particular, the use of film in understanding history was increasingly significant in attracting public audiences, and as a subject for debate in universities.

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‘It took an army to make this exhibition’, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told her audience and ‘having scholars in charge of each section had been the key to the Museum’s success’.  In May I attended a conference seven months after the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the conclusion of the eight- year project, those involved in the Museum’s creation were keen to open debate on what had worked well and what less so, and to identify the gaps in Polish Jewish history requiring further historical effort.  The core exhibition offered a starting point for that discussion.

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During the Second World War the German Army established a number of POW facilities in the artillery forts in the old Hanseatic city of Thorn (Toruń ) in northern Poland. The camp bore number Stammlager  (Stalag) XXA and held Allied prisoners of various nationalities.

Bridge linking courtyard and entrance gate to Fort XI of Stalag XXA. © IWM DC 552.

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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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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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This white poppy (or ‘peace poppy’) was issued pre-1939 by the Peace Pledge Union and belonged to Ms A E Wood who was a conscientious objector. Her Conscientious Objector’s tribunal statement and registration card are held in the Department of Documents.© IWM (EPH 2284)

Sabine Grimshaw, a Collaborative Doctoral Award Student at IWM and the University of Leeds, discusses her research into female war resisters during the First World War.

Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a conference organised for International Women’s Day at Liverpool Hope University on the topic, ‘Women in Peace and Conflict.’ Embracing the theme ‘Make it Happen’, the conference offered a fascinating insight into the myriad ways women have participated in warfare, peace activism, conflict resolution and post-war state building in twentieth century conflicts.

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Operation Chastise which destroyed the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe Dams was launched on the night of the 16th May 1943.

IWM FILM 2342. No. 617 Squadron practice dropping the bomb at Reculver bombing range, Kent. The bomb rises from the water after its first ‘bounce’.

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Avinoam Patt from the University of Hartford presenting his paper ‘ “Three lines in history”: writing about resistance in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.’

On the third and last day of the conference the themes ranged from visual testimonies, and repatriation and resettlement, to the legacy of the euthanasia programmes and medical experiments, and the uses of the International Tracing Service (ITS) digital collection.

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Hawker Hunters of No. 111 Squadron’s display team the Black Arrows. Photograph by Mike Chase MM FRPS, 1957. © IWM RAF-T 240.

For over forty years the Royal Air Force was in the frontline of Britain’s Cold War defences. Recording the first half of this dynamic period were a small number of specialist aviation photographers from the Air Ministry’s (later Ministry of Defence’s) Photographic Reproduction Branch (PRB) who produced a unique collection of 10,000 colour images. PRB’s chief photographer for much of this period was Mike Chase MM, one of the country’s most experienced aviation photographers.

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