By John P. Wallace
On Sunday, 12 November 2006, a group of nineteen Australian, Canadian and American gun aficionados (including four of their ladies), met in London to begin a three week odyssey of museums, battlefields and gun collections in England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. This tour was arranged and guided by Ian Skennerton, noted Australian firearms expert and author of books pertaining to British military rifles and ammunition. A few of the Australians had already spent three days in Thailand visiting various locations, including the Aussie Museum, war graves, a Thai Navy warship and the Thai Navy Museum. Sunday was a catch up day in London and several of the group attended the War Remembrance Ceremony held at the Centotaph, the First World War Memorial, near 10 Downing Street. Over 9,000 British Veterans were on parade and there was a wonderful wreath laying ceremony by the Queen and assorted dignitaries.
The next four days in London were spent touring the British Museum (fantastic collection of Greek and Roman antiquities); The Tower of London (including a Regimental Museum with its history from the 1600s through the Boer War and World War One); The White Tower, with its collection of suits of armor, armored horses, and racks and racks of early rifles and pistols along with a basement display of cannons; The Imperial War Museum with its marvelous displays of armament, tanks, aircraft, cannons and small arms from World War One and World War Two; The National Army Museum, containing several floors of displays depicting the history of the British Army throughout time; and The Royal Artillery Museum now located in its new setting in the arsenal buildings at Woolich.
They housed a splendid array of artillery pieces, machine guns, tanks, self-propelled guns from both World Wars to present. There were also a number of antique artillery pieces including some from the earliest days of cannons in China. We also visited The Rotunda, a tent like structure build after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and housing a tremendous collection of small arms, cannons, experimental pieces, tanks and odd and ends. This building used to house the entire Woolwich Collection. The Rotunda is now officially closed pending disposal of its collections and possible demolition of the fine old building. The group was permitted an “inside” tour of the myriad of firearms stored and displayed there. There were literally hundreds of miscellaneous firearms and weapons of every description. Next, we went on to The Wallace Collection (no relation to the author) of one of the world’s largest collections of suits of armor; Blunderbuss militaria shop which was packed full of bits and pieces from Britain’s military past and The gun shops of Bond Street... Boss, Purdey, Holland and Holland, and William Evans - all wonderful shops, full of hand crafted, expensive rifles and shotguns for the discriminating buyer. Only 90,000 British Pounds ($180,000) for a nice piece. What a grand visit to London and many of its wonders.
Next, the group was off to Godstone, England and the International Military Antiques (IMA) warehouse filled with thousands of the firearms treasures recently obtained from the Nepal Firearms Treasury. Literally hundreds of SMLE’s, Long Lee’s, Martini Henry’s, Maxim, Vickers and Lewis machine guns, Madsen machine gun number one, Sten guns, pistols, revolvers, percussion rifles, bayonets and bits and pieces were available for review. IMA President, Christopher Cranmer, provided us all with a grand tour and history of the cache.
The next day the group was in Portsmouth, England, great center of British military history. They visited the magnificent Royal Marines Museum, the D-Day Museum, The HMS Victory (Lord Nelson’s flagship), the Gosport Submarine Museum, and Explosion, an old armory and warehouse area now housing a huge display of British Naval Guns and related items.
On to the British Army Small Arms Training Center at Warminster. Peter Laidler, noted author on British sniping rifles, the Sten SMG, the Sterling SMG and the Bren gun, led the group through the massive small arms working collection. This collection is used extensively by the British military in training its troops for overseas deployment and is also used by the British police. It is open to serious inquiries regarding the collection. Almost every model of military rifle, pistol, submachine gun and machine gun was on display. Included was the first Thompson submachine gun to arrive in Britain as part of the US Lend Lease Program, a Thompson taken early-on from the IRA, a German MP-44 with the “shoot around the corner” barrel, and a complete collection of British bayonets.
Next, the group found itself at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. We were there just in time to watch the 105mm Howitzer being fired to set the time for all in a twenty mile radius of Edinburgh (1pm). There is fine Scottish War Museum located on the grounds depicting the magnificent history of the Scots through the ages, including current deployments.
Another day and there we were, at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. This is a fine collection of antique to modern firearms displayed over several floors of the museum. Housed on the museum grounds is the old Ministry of Defense Pattern Room, well known to gun enthusiasts and Small Arms Review readers. The Pattern Room was closed down in Nottingham, boxed up and put into storage a couple of years ago. Its future did not look good. Eventually it was re-established as part of the Royal Armouries in Leeds and is still undergoing unpacking and set up problems. The basic fact is the collection is still intact and still available to the military, police and bona fide collectors and scholars to view and enjoy. The Pattern Room Library is being organized and re-established. The Pattern Room Collection is a sight to behold: thousands of rifles, pistols, submachine guns, machine guns, experimental firearms, trials guns, whatever, are on display and available for study. Every known model of many firearms is there. The list is endless. Richard Jones, SLA Resource Manager of the National Firearms Centre, and well known firearms expert, led the group on its tour of what was formerly the MOD Pattern Room collection.
Enough of firearms for a while, so some of the group took off to the York Air Museum, housed in the original buildings, hangars and control tower of the World War Two fighter base. Dozens of World War Two to current aircraft are on display here along with many under renovation. One fine display was manned by actual turret gunners from the war. It included eight gun turrets from aircraft used in the war and meticulously rebuilt and repaired to like new condition by the veterans who actually used them.
That afternoon, the group went to the York National Train Museum, an old rail yard and roundhouse, literally full of locomotives and cars and paraphernalia related to the British Rail System. There were engines from the 1700s to the last steam engine used. Also, a major display concerned the Royal Family Trains over the years. These were magnificent engines and cars, all decked out in their royal finery.
Another day of aircraft was spent at the huge air museum at Duxford. Hundreds of airplanes are on display. The United States 8th Air Force display was well attended. After walking up a ramp to about the third story, you walk in the hanger right into the nose of a B-52. Under its wing is a gorgeous F-4 Phantom. Around the hanger was a B-29, B-17, B-25 and numerous U.S. fighter aircraft. In the Ground Museum next door are dozens of vehicles, tanks, artillery pieces, anti-aircraft guns and marvelous displays. There is a great Regimental museum and a new display on vehicles used in the Normandy invasion. While the group was visiting, a Spitfire fighter plane circled the field and came in for a landing - a glorious sight.
On to the Chunnel train to Paris. We spent an afternoon and another full day taking in all the sights. It was a nice walk to the Eiffel Tower, past the Military School to the Hotel des Invalides or better known as the Musee de L’Armee. This is fine museum housing sections on the French Resistance during World War Two, the Jewish Concentration Camps, the Underground Activities, First and Second World Wars, Ancient Armor and Firearms, models of various ancient cities and hall after hall of cannons, armor and firearms. In the main hall, there is the tomb of Napoleon and a memorial to Marshall Foch, supreme commander in World War One.
Into the battlefields of France the group charged... First stop at the huge Australian Monument and cemetery at Villers-Bretoneaux, where the names of 17,000 Australian dead are listed whose remains are ‘known only unto God.” A nice stop at “Le Tommy” café in Pozieres, right in the middle of the Somme battlefield, to see Dominique and his back yard. This is an unique museum made up of an actual trench from the Somme battle and now completely filled with artifacts he has found or been given that tell the story of the battle. Many in the group bemoaned the fact that there in the trench, in the mud, out in the weather, were actual uniforms, equipment, machine guns, trench mortars, artillery pieces and all the accoutrements of war.
Over to the Thiepval Monument to the British Dead. This is another huge monument listing the names of 73,000 British soldiers whose remains are “known only to God.” In the rear of the monument were the grave sites of 300 British and 300 French soldiers, again their names are unknown, but at least they had enough left to be buried. Next, we traveled into the completely rebuilt city of Ieper, Belgium. During the Great War, this city was completely destroyed and leveled by German artillery. It was rebuilt exactly like is was before and is gorgeous. The city is dominated by the Cloth Hall, a huge edifice, taking up two city blocks, that houses the Flanders Field Museum depicting artifacts and the history of World War One in Ieper. There were lots of fine firearms, machine guns and artillery pieces displayed.
A few of the group took a four hour tour of the Ieper Battlefield, with stops at Flanders Field, cemeteries, bunkers and Hill 62, a fine old café and museum, again full of artifacts from the war that encompassed that whole region. Here too, was a big back yard full of the entrenchments used during war. Housed in a building in the rear were hundreds of bits and pieces found on the battlefields including many fine looking rifles, machine guns and mortars.
We then went on to Delft, Holland. This is an ancient city set on canals, with narrow streets and quaint houses and shops. On one street at the end of a canal, is the Delft Army Museum. This building houses a fine collection of military and civilian firearms from all ages. We were met and hosted by Mattieu Willemsen, Curator of the Leger Museum (Delft Army Museum).
Upstairs, the group was afforded a grand tour of the working collection, similar to the Pattern Room in its use and purpose. There were hundreds of rifles of every description and of particular interest were all the experimental breech loading rifles. Every conceivable submachine gun, machine gun, mortar and anti-tank rifle was available. Drawers were filled with numerous pistols and revolvers. Many of the firearms were over 100 years old and were brand new! Most had been used in various trials and then put away. The rest of the museum was three floors of firearms from the 1870s through World War One and Two, Korea, United Nations actions, to Indonesia with the Dutch Army to current activities in Afghanistan. There was a floor of tanks and armored vehicles including a cut-a-way T-55 Tank. There were horse drawn artillery pieces, a two-dog cart with an 08 Maxim and a display on how bolts, receivers and bayonet lug/end caps were made for the M95 Dutch rifle.
There was one more major museum to visit. This one was the German Army Museum at Koblenz, Germany, known as the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung. This collection was housed in a huge old army building and consisted of five large floors of goodies. The fifth floor was all rifles, the fourth floor was radio communication equipment from World War One to present, the third floor was pistols, submachine guns, cannons and grenade launchers, the second floor was uniforms and gas mask equipment and the first floor was heavy machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces and through two big doors, a magnificent collection of tanks, armored cars, helicopters and airplanes. All the items were in marvelous condition and well displayed. The only drawback was the fact all the descriptions were written in German. This was truly a fine museum and a wonderful collection of arms and armor. It was a fitting museum to finish out our grand tour.
Throughout England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany there exist many firearms related museums depicting almost every weapon known to man. They are there to be viewed and enjoyed. May you too have an opportunity to visit them as we did. Bon Voyage!
John P. Wallace is a former U.S. Marine Captain and a retired FBI Agent. He is a noted firearms collector and travels extensively. See his article on General Kalashnikov’s 85th Birthday Celebration in the May, 2006 issue of Small Arms Review.
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