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

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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Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, 1938

Archibald Wavell: Britain's first wartime victor

Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell led an imaginative and flexible campaign against the Italians in North Africa. His triumph over their vastly superior forces was Britain’s first success of the war and paved the way for later victories.

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Model of a London and North Eastern Railway engine, c1943

A prisoner's model masterpiece

A British prisoner of war’s model train, painstakingly made from scraps of rubbish, sheds light on the experiences of soldiers incarcerated in Germany during the Second World War.

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Antony Mallaby's dressing gown with formation badges sewn on it, c1943

Dressing gowns that earned their stripes

A child’s dressing gowns, decorated with patchworks of military badges, reveal a moving story of growing up in Britain during the Second World War and the loss of a beloved parent.

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Explore Second World War events

Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945
Exhibition

8 May 2020 - 8 May 2021

FREE

Foe to Friend

POSTPONED: Keep an eye out for revised dates for this major exhibition exploring the experiences of British soldiers living and serving in Germany over the past 75 years.

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What is Total War?
Secondary workshop

1 - 30 July 2020

FREE

What is Total War?

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

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London in the Second World War: The Blitz
Primary workshop

1 - 30 July 2020

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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Explore Second World War learning resources

How To Draw: Transport
Home Activity

KS1-KS2 (Ages 5 to 11)

How to Draw: Transport edition

Use our simple step-by-step instructions to draw Army-related transport.

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Pack your bag: Scavenger hunt
Home Activity

KS1-KS2 (Ages 5 to 11)

Pack your bag: Scavenger hunt

Download our at-home scavenger hunt and get ready to pack your bag for an adventure around the house.

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How to Draw: Second World War edition
Home Activity

KS1-KS2 (Ages 5 to 11)

How to Draw: Second World War edition

Use our simple step-by-step instructions to have a go at drawing items from the Second World War.

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Morse code challenge
Home Activity

KS2 (Ages 7 to 11)

Morse code challenge

Can you crack the code? Try our Morse code challenge at home!

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"First time @NAM_London today. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Thought the presentation & interpretation made the subject accessible..."