VE Day 60 Years: A Soldier's Life - The Army In World War Two

By Graham Spicer | 29 April 2005
Shows a black and white photo of Sikhs in turbans with a captured anti-aircraft gun. They appear to be in the desert.

Sikh soldiers of the British army in Libya, 1941. They had captured this anti-aircraft gun from the German forces. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

During World War Two British and Commonwealth soldiers saw action across the globe, in Europe, Africa and the Far East.

The National Army Museum in London’s Chelsea shows how soldiers lived and fought during the conflict and the Imperial War Museum in London gives a comprehensive overview of the war and the army’s role in it.

Its main hall houses Field Marshall Montgomery’s Lee/Grant tank from the North Africa campaign and in the World War Two galleries there is a wide range of uniforms and equipment used in the conflict, from North Africa to Burma to the Russian front.

Other collections across the country highlight individual areas of the army’s operations during World War Two.

As the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above South East England, the threat of German invasion loomed. Men across the country formed Home Guard units, and unknown to most, a secret army was being trained. Small, specialist cells of resistance fighters were being assembled to fight a guerrilla war in the event of invasion.

Shows a photograph of three WWII veterans standing outside the Imperial War Museum in London.

Veterans Mr Blake, Harry Verlander, Reginald Maurice Rowbotham outside the Imperial War Museum in London for the launch of the Their Past Your Future Initiative. © IWM

The history of these so-called auxillary units has only recently come to light and is examined at the Museum of the British Resistance Organisation, at Parham Airfield in Suffolk.

When Stalin brought the Soviet Union into the war in 1941 he pressed Britain and America to open up a second front to ease the pressure on his forces in the East. Britain’s experience of massive loss of life in the trenches in the First World War made her wary of invading mainland Europe too soon.

The second front was instead launched in North Africa, with Allied troops landing in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch to support other units based further east in Egypt and Libya.

Field Marshall Montgomery commanded units like the famous Desert Rats against Rommel’s German and Italian forces. The Imperial War Museum’s site at Duxford has a North Africa tableaux, showing what it was like for the men who fought the desert war.

Shows a black and white photo of soldiers driving an armoured duck boat onto the shore. Two soldiers are crouched on the top of it with no shirts on.

Allied DUKWS amphibious landing craft in North Africa during Operation Torch. Courtesy Bovington Tank Museum.

The Allied armies were finally ready to launch the big attack from the west by 1944. The liberation of Europe was to start with Operation Overlord - a massive invasion of France’s Normandy beaches. Its launch was codenamed ‘D-Day’ – June 6 1944. Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum tells the story of the planning and execution of what was to become known as ‘the longest day’.

The Imperial War Museum London also has a permanent D-Day exhibition, launched in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the action.

The infantry landings were supported by a huge naval bombardment aerial troop deployment. More than 16,500 paratroopers and 3,500 troops in gliders were dropped during Operation Market Garden, launched on September 17, 1944. The Museum of Army Flying in Middle Wallop, Hampshire, shows some of the gliders that were used on D-Day, in Sicily, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing and explains their role.

The Commando Museum in Spean Bridge in Scotland traces the origins of these elite units that were active throughout operations like D-Day, and highlights the training methods that formed the basis of their success.

Shows a black and white photograph of lots of soldiers on the beach. They are in combat gear. In the background you can see other soldiers wading through the shallows towards the shore.

Troops of the 3rd British Infantry on 'Queen Red' Beach, Sword Area, on D-Day. © Imperial War Museum.

Tanks and other motorised armour had been introduced in the First World War and put to devastating effect in Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, where they overwhelmed the defences of countries like France and Poland.

British forces learnt from their humiliating retreat and evacuation from Europe at Dunkirk in June 1940, and after D-Day it was the turn of the Allies to press into enemy territory. The Bovington Tank Museum has a collection of more than 300 vehicles, including an American Sherman Tank and the notorious German Tiger tank.

Firepower! The Royal Artillery Museum, at Woolwich in London, charts the history of the big guns that supported the infantry.

Shows three tanks driving past a row of bombed building in the desert

Sherman tanks making their way through a damaged village, headed by a British designed Crusader, during the North Africa Campaign. Photo courtesy Bovington Tank Museum.

The Forgotten War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum Duxford highlights the war in the Far East, and particularly Burma, from 1941 to 1945. While much of the public’s focus was on the war in Europe and their experience of the blitz, British and Commonwealth soldiers in South East Asia fought a long and difficult campaign.

In this harsh environment 120 men were evacuated with sickness for every man that was wounded or killed in action. In Burma alone, 26,000 men died and 20,000 of those have no known graves.

The Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot traces the development of battlefield medicine and how the service coped with the realities of modern warfare.

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.