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In memoriam

The World War II may have ended 65 years ago to the day, but its memories live on fresh as ever

travel Updated: May 07, 2010 17:31 IST

I had just parked my car at the Albert Dock in Liverpool and was heading towards 'The Beatles Story', a tour that charts the life and music of the Beatles as much as it presents the times and culture of a country just emerged from war. Alongside walked an elderly gentleman, whose car was parked next to mine but he didn't seem to remember that. I offered to direct him to his car and he accepted it with a smile. He told me that his short term memory wasn't as good as it used to be. He often forgot where he'd parked his car, but these new remote locking systems often helped him with their beeps and flashing lights.

Hearing I was from India he told me that he was posted there in the 1930s as a young soldier in the British army.

We got talking.

'In Nagpur to be precise' -- his long term memory was as sharp as a tack. He was so interesting to talk to that I asked him to have a cup of coffee with me. He was called back to England when the war broke out; he had escaped from the Germans in the mass exodus at Dunkirk.

He survived the London Blitz and had fought Rommel's panzers in Libya. He told me that even to this day he get a little anxious when planes fly overhead, half expecting the bombs to come crashing down as they came over London in September 1940.

"When victory was declared in Europe on May 8, 1945, all of us were delirious with joy. It was the beginning of the end of six years of misery, pain and hardship.
To me the eighth of May remains a landmark day in my life. We had sustained and sacrificed so that the world would remain free."

Preserved in a museum
It is this very spirit that is enshrined in two museums -- the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road and the RAF Museum in Grahame Park, London.

I have read a lot about World War II, and am fascinated by old aircraft. But I walked out of them with a new admiration -- for the men and women who built and flew these planes, endured the bombs and the bullets, and lived through the hardships.

Victory in Europe Day, on which Europe was freed from the clutches of dictators and despots, may be just another date in history for us, but for veterans like my friend in Liverpool and those who lost their loved ones in the war, this day signalled the beginning of a new era.
The Imperial War Museum exhibits a fascinating range of aircraft and tanks. There are also pieces of war memorabilia such as ration books and personal letters that tug at your heartstrings.

Visitors are treated to stories about secret weapons and can even explore the inside of a bomber. Amongst the various artifacts on display is one of the original engines and fuselage of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 that Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, flew to Scotland on May 10, 1941, in his effort to broker peace with Britain.

A salute to the human spirit to improvise are the displays of the tools prisoners of war made to effect an escape and straw snow shoes the German soldiers made, to survive the bitter Russian winter.

The Royal Airforce museum at Grahame Park is dedicated to the great pioneering spirit of aviation. For me the most awe inspiring sights were the huge Liberator and Lancaster bombers. Standing below these gigantic flying machines, one cannot but help think of the crew -- whose average age was 22 years and survival expectancy 6 weeks.

These planes had primitive instrumentation. The navigator had to compute the route from the readings, the pilot had to nanny all four engines to keep them running at optimum performance and the bomb aimer had to apply trigonometry to drop bombs on target -- all this while dodging enemy fire.

If you, too, are fascinated by the war just as much as I am, you'll most probably end up spending a whole day in each museum. It's what I did.

Rishad is happiest when he's exploring a new city behind the heel of a car

Getting there
There are regular flights from Mumbai to London from several major carriers.
Both the museums are in London and can be accessed by public transport. Keep half-a-day free for each museum -- at the very least.

To get to the RAF museum take the Edgeware branch of the Northern Line of the tube, and alight at Colindale. Turn left out of the station. The museum is a 10-minute walk.

If you prefer the bus then it's Route 303. Check out www.tfl.gov.uk for tube and bus services.
If you're driving, set postcode NW9 5LT on the GPS. The museum is clearly signposted from there.

The Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road is a 20-minute walk from the Big Ben across the Westminster Bridge. But you can also take the tube to Lambeth North station or Elephant and Castle station from where it is a 7- and 9- minute walk respectively.

Must see exhibits

Imperial War Museum: Instrument of unconditional surrender, signed on this day 65 years ago, displayed in the Lower Gallery.

The 1932 Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle that was the prized possession of British archaeologist T.E Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia. He had a terrible accident while riding the bike on May 13, 1935 and died of injuries six days later.

Royal Airforce Museum: Consolidated B24L-20-FO Liberator that was given to the RAF museum by the Indian Air Force and is displayed in the Bomber Hall.

Messerschmitt Me 262A-2a Schwalbe (Swallow) which was the world's first ever jet engined fighter. A pilot who flew it exclaimed, "What an aircraft! It was as though the angels were pushing it!"

Don't miss the mascots that were painted on the fighters and bombers.