British troops practising for D-Day, 1944

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Second World War

The Second World War took place between 1939 and 1945 and was the bloodiest conflict in human history. It split the world's nations into two opposing military alliances, the Allies and the Axis Powers.

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Explore Second World War stories

Field Marshal Auchinleck, c1947

Claude Auchinleck: The auk

After initial successes in North Africa during the Second World War, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck transferred to India as Commander-in-Chief. His unstinting logistical support there was vital to the Allied re-conquest of Burma.

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East African soldiers with a captured Japanese flag, 1944 

Far East campaign

Between December 1941 and August 1945, British Commonwealth troops and their allies fought a bitter war across the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean against a tenacious and often brutal enemy.

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Major Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler and a colleague paddling a canoe, c1942

Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler: A Cockleshell Hero

Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler was an inventor, pioneering yachtsman and special forces canoeist. In December 1942, he led the daring ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on Bordeaux harbour.

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Captain Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott, c1944

Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott: Covert beach surveyor

During the Second World War, Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott founded the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties to undertake covert beach reconnaissance. This proved vital for the success of Allied seaborne invasions.

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Captain Roger Courtney, 1943

Roger Courtney: SBS pioneer

Major Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney founded the Special Boat Section during the Second World War. This became one of Britain’s most important Special Forces and was a parent unit of the modern Special Boat Service.

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Lieutenant Colonel Robert 'Paddy' Mayne near Kabrit, Egypt, 1942

'Paddy' Mayne: An Irish Lion

Lieutenant-Colonel 'Paddy' Mayne is a legendary figure in the history of the Special Forces. A celebrated sportsman with a turbulent character, he played a vital role in the early successes of the Special Air Service (SAS), becoming one of its most important commanders.

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Lieutenant Jock Lewes, 1940

'Jock' Lewes: SAS mastermind

As the co-founder of the Special Air Service (SAS), Lewes played a vital role in establishing the unit’s ethos and high standards of training and discipline.

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Major David Stirling, c1942

David Stirling: The Phantom Major

Colonel David Stirling was a pioneer of British Special Forces. In 1941, he founded the Special Air Service (SAS) in Egypt to undertake small-scale raids behind enemy lines.

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Gun disguised as a pen for use by SOE agents, 1945

Special Operations Executive

Formed in 1940, SOE was an underground army that waged a secret war in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia. Its agents demonstrated incredible courage and resourcefulness in their guerrilla war.

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Sergeant Herbert Chambers with fellow Special Boat Service soldiers in Athens, 1944

Origins of the Special Forces

During the Second World War, Britain created a range of special units who undertook a variety of daring operations against the Axis Powers. The bravery and commitment of these forces has become the stuff of legend.

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Bagnold sun compass used by the LRDG, c1942

Desert innovator: Bagnold's sun-compass

The Long Range Desert Group were masters of navigation. They owed much of their success to the scientific talents of Major Ralph Bagnold, whose sun-compass invention revolutionised desert travel.

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Propaganda poster depicting a commando raid on a German-held port in Norway, 1940

The Commandos

In 1940, the British established a new raiding and reconnaissance force. Well-trained and highly mobile, they were to carry on the war against the Axis after the evacuation from Dunkirk.

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Explore Second World War events

What is Total War?
Secondary workshop

3 September 2018 - 23 July 2019

FREE

What is Total War?

Investigate the concept of Total War by tracing the steps taken to prepare an individual for industrialised conflict in the First and Second World Wars.

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London in the Second World War: The Blitz
Primary workshop

3 September 2018 - 23 July 2019

FREE

London in the Second World War: The Blitz

Use sleuthing skills to discover the stories revealed in our Second World War time capsules. Delivered in partnership with the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

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Britain's Finest Hour: The liberation of Bergen-Belsen
Talk

25 January 2019, 11.30am

FREE

Britain's Finest Hour: The liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Professor Rainer Schulze will discuss the British Army's involvement in liberating Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the Second World War.

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The King's War: A Commoner, the Crown and Britain's Greatest Struggle
Talk

1 February 2019, 11.30am

FREE

The King's War: A Commoner, the Crown and Britain's Greatest Struggle

Join Mark Logue as he discusses the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue during the Second World War.

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SAS Italian Job
Talk

15 February 2019, 11.30am

FREE

SAS Italian Job

Damien Lewis reveals the story of a Second World War mission to destroy a supposedly impregnable Nazi fortress.

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The women of the SOE and Ravensbrück camp
Talk

8 March 2019, 11.30am

FREE

The women of the SOE and Ravensbrück camp

On International Women’s Day, join Dr Kate Vigurs to learn about seven significant women who risked their lives for an important cause.

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The Wasbies in the Second World War
Talk

15 March 2019, 11.30am

FREE

The Wasbies in the Second World War

Elizabeth Lockart-Mure tells the little-known story of the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma), which ran mobile canteens for the Allied troops involved in the Burma campaign.

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Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Talk

28 March 2019, 6.00pm

£15.00

Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Join Andrew Roberts for an evening talk on his new book, examining how much Winston Churchill’s belief in his own personal destiny affected his wartime premiership.

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