Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog
Rod Suddaby

Rod Suddaby at a FEPOW round table meeting hosted by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on 15 February 2010 (detail from a photograph by Nick Parkes). Photograph by permission of Meg Parkes.

‘Never stray too far from your sources’.

This was the invaluable guidance of Rod Suddaby whom I had the privilege to have as my PhD co-supervisor for the last two years of his life – focusing on the stories of Far Eastern prisoners of war (POWs).

At first it was daunting to be Rod’s student. His knowledge was immense, and being an English graduate I had not studied history for at least a decade.  But Rod could not have been a more generous, patient, or thorough advisor, and my trepidation turned into delight. Rod put himself through the task of reading everything I churned out at least twice. First he did his ‘ring true’ test, to check whether what I had written was convincing historically. Only when he was sure of that did the pencil come out, and he would go through every sentence again, every footnote, and every reference with the utmost precision.

We would arrange to go to the museum café where an argument about him insisting on buying me a cake became customary, and as I nibbled my way through the cake he would make his way through each page – explaining his annotated comments, and the reasons for the suggestions he made. During a particularly tricky draft in which I tangled myself in theory, he cheerfully offered one concise comment: ‘I skipped all that’. Rod never strayed from his sources.

I laughed and learned a lesson he was keen that I understood – to keep my words grounded in the history of what POWs lived, to be sure of what we know by double checking everything against available records, and to let the stories of POWs speak for themselves.

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Margaret Thatcher visits the Cabinet War Rooms

The visit of Margaret Thatcher to the Cabinet War Rooms, 4 April 1984. IWM-1984-15-1.

With all the recent coverage of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the Radio Moscow material stored at Duxford to see how the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister was reported to British listeners by a Soviet media source. Expecting a diatribe against the ‘Iron Lady’ from a committed ideological opponent, I was surprised to find instead concentrated criticism of James Callaghan’s outgoing Labour government.

Initial analysis found only a passing reference to Thatcher. There was an official greeting offered by Soviet Statesman Aleksey Kosygin and an acknowledgement that the first woman Prime Minister had made history. Otherwise, Radio Moscow reserved its criticism for Callaghan, and his predecessor Harold Wilson, accusing them of losing the election and attacking them on terms that would later become familiar amongst opponents of Thatcher.

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Image of German Historical Museum

The German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Angelika Schoder.

Our guest blogger, Angelika Schoder, conducted her recent PhD research into the representation of National Socialist crimes at IWM London, and the German Historical Museum, Berlin. Here she outlines the findings of her thesis, which will be published in Germany in spring 2014.

It’s not easy to explain the meaning of the term “Erinnerungskultur” – the German “culture of remembrance”. The struggle to come to terms with the National Socialist past has been a pervasive issue in German society since the 1950s. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a “commemorative culture” of the National Socialist period and its victims has developed slowly since the early 1990s – and has only gained prominence in national consciousness in recent years. Yet today, in Great Britain as well as in Germany, the Holocaust takes a central position in the national commemorative cultures.

The history museums of both countries put great store by showing the historical background of the National Socialist era and its crimes. In my PhD, I compared the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and the German Historical Museum (GHM) in Berlin, with the goal of showing which museum-specific, pedagogical methods were used to accurately represent the National Socialist crimes in British and German exhibitions. My PhD analysed in detail the “Holocaust Exhibition” which opened in June 2000 at the IWM, and the exhibition “Holocaust. The National Socialist Genocide and the Motives of its Remembrance” (Holocaust. Der nationalsozialistische Völkermord und die Motive seiner Erinnerung), which was on display from January to April 2002 at the GHM.

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Image of a poster for the film Days of Glory (Indigenes)

Poster for Indigènes (dir Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) released in the UK as Days of Glory by Metrodome

The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 draws attention to the 1953 feature film Appointment in London, a story about Bomber Command starring Dirk Bogarde, and in particular to a scene showing Bogarde mixing with his peers: among the officers is one of Caribbean origin. There is no plot point hanging on this fact – it is simply a tacit recognition of the contribution made in the RAF, as in so many other ways, to the Allied effort in both world wars by people of the Empire.  What is sadly remarkable about it, however, is how rare it is to see black troops represented in this way.

One area that the Whose Remembrance? Project set out to explore was the extent to which the wartime role of the peoples of Britain’s colonies has been reflected  in the popular media. My contribution was to produce a database of relevant films, tv and radio.

A good start for my search was the Colonial Films Database the result of an earlier AHRC-funded project in which IWM was a partner.  As well as providing essays about contemporary films like With the Indian Troops at the Front (1916) and West Africa Was There (1945), this huge database also offers several dozen titles online. Trawls of various websites made it possible to add a number of retrospective documentaries, such as the 2009 Soldiers of Empire episode from Channel 4’s Not Forgotten Series, or Scottish Television’s 2004 programme Treefellers about  the work in Scotland during the Second World War of lumberjacks from British Honduras. Drama series which came immediately to mind included Granada’s 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ as The Jewel in the Crown, and BBC2’s 1992 Black Poppies.

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Image of Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916. IWM Q1201

Arthur Torrington is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Arthur’s research looked at the contribution of West Indian soldiers to the First World War which he writes about here.

Soon after war was declared, British military operations in Africa were  launched against Germany’s colonies of Cameroon and Togo.  Both the first and second battalions of the West India Regiments (WIR) participated in these attacks against German East Africa.  The WIRs  were highly commended for their service.  Formed in 1795, the West India Regiment  served the British Empire until 1927. The soldiers were mainly former African slaves.  

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) encouraged his countrymen to volunteer to fight in order to prove their loyalty to the King and to be treated as equals. While Lord Kitchener’s personal view was that black British soldiers should not be allowed to join the forces, King George V ‘s intervention made it possible.  Over 15,000 West Indians volunteered and were included in new units called ‘British West Indies Regiments’. The recruits’ initial journey to England was perilous and hundreds of soldiers suffered from severe frostbite when their troopships were diverted via Halifax in Canada. Very many had to return home no longer fit to serve as soldiers. When the others arrived in England, they found that the fighting was to be done by white soldiers, and that West Indians  were to be assigned the dirty and dangerous work of loading ammunition and digging trenches.  Most of them went to war without guns.

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Image of Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ.

India 1944: Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ. IWM IB 1558

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a member of the Swadhinata Trust, is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Ansar writes here about his research into the experiences of South Asian seamen in the two world wars.

For my study I chose to look at South Asian seamen of Bengali origin because it was a natural progression from my last project Bengalis in London’s East End.

We know that the Bengali seamen formed the first sizable South Asian community in Britain. They settled in London’s East End, close to the Docks, and were commonly referred to as ‘lascars’. The word was once used to describe any sailor from the Indian sub-continent or any other part of Asia, but came to refer to people from West Bengal and modern-day Bangladesh.

 South Asian seamen received less pay, less food and had smaller living quarters than white sailors, and their death rate was higher. Most worked in the engine room as ‘donkeywallahs’ (after the ‘donkey engines’) while those who oiled the machinery were known as ‘telwallahs’. Others worked supplying the furnace with coal and disposing of the ashes. You can imagine my delight at discovering an image of three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS Sutlej in 1944. The working conditions were harsh and hot, and many seamen died of heat stroke and exhaustion.  Lascars trapped in the engine rooms suffered a particularly high casualty rate.

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Together, this poster represents the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, West Africa, and India fighting together in the Second World War.IWM PST 15795

As Project Manager of the AHRC sponsored Whose remembrance? project, I was responsible for drawing up the programme for the two workshops we held in the summer of 2012 – to enable both historians and museum professionals who have been researching aspects of this history to share their work.

Searching for academics in this area was one of my first tasks. Our library has a good stock of published works, and projects undertaken by our education and exhibition staff also provided a number of useful contacts and our advisory group were able to recommend academics they had come across.  It was gratifying to find that most people working in this field – if approached – gladly gave up a day or even two – to come to IWM and share their work.

The first workshop was devoted to historians working in the field, Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch, a historian of modern African history at Oxford, Professor David Killingray, author of a major work on African troops in the Second World War, and Dr Santanu Das, an English literature academic who has used IWM’s collections extensively combined to provide a thought-provoking opening to the day. They made plain how relatively under-researched colonial service is and highlighted some of the emerging studies. A memorable moment was hearing a recording of a First World War captured Indian soldier singing a song remembering the garden he had left back home – one of the extraordinary recordings made in 1915 by German anthropologists and today held by the Humboldt University in Berlin.  We then heard from Stephen Bourne who movingly told us how his interest in the Caribbean experience of the Second World War had grown from his own research into his adoptive aunt’s story – and how this led him to further work and three books.   The lack of written and oral history accounts was a constant theme and we discussed the different ways of remedying this and the difficulties of writing history when the official, coloniser’s voice is so dominant. The full programme will be available soon on our website.

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Photograph of Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert - Amiens Road, September 1916.

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert – Amiens Road, September 1916. IWM Q1201

For a large part of 2012 the Research Department has been working on an AHRC-sponsored scoping study called Whose Remembrance?. The study asked the IWM to identify whose stories were being included in the history of the First and Second World Wars and how this was affecting patterns of remembrance. In particular the IWM has looked at how the experiences of colonial troops have been studied by academics and displayed by museums.

Both conflicts mobilised the British Empire and its Commonwealth for war and necessitated the deployment of enlisted men and women across the world, in foreign places far from home. To take just a few instances from the First World War, this meant not only would an Englishman have served abroad in Palestine and Egypt but men of the Indian Army and British West Indies Regiment would have served on, or in support of, the Western Front in France and Belgium.

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Image of The remains of Surrey Lodge, an apartment building destroyed by a V2 rocket on 4 January 1945.  The photograph was apparently taken on the following day and graphically shows how a 5 storey building was reduced to rubble.

The remains of Surrey Lodge, an apartment building destroyed by a V2 rocket on 4 January 1945. The photograph was apparently taken on the following day and graphically shows how a 5 storey building was reduced to rubble. Courtesy of Lambeth Archives.

Barely 150 metres from Imperial War Museum London is the site of the most destructive explosion in Lambeth during the Second World War, which killed 43 people.  Just before 8.30pm on the night of Thursday 4 January 1945 a huge explosion destroyed an apartment building, Surrey Lodge, on the corner of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road.   The old Lambeth Baths and a chapel on the opposite side of Lambeth Road were also severely damaged.  The blast also extensively damaged the northern and western sides of the  Imperial War Museum as well as many surrounding buildings.

There was no warning – no air raid sirens or sounds of approaching aircraft – just the explosion.  However the initial detonation was followed by a distinctive roaring noise and a sonic boom, because the disaster was caused by a German V2 rocket – the world’s first ballistic missile – diving into the building faster than the speed of sound.

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The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film  and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.

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