The U.K. still bears physical evidence of World War II, whether it’s bomb damaged buildings, fortifications or buildings used for military planning. They make great places to take the kids to teach them about the war, but also to have a fun day out. Here we are compiling a list of the best sites to take your children to – add it to your bookmarks as we will be adding to this list regularly. And if you know of any we should visit, please do get in touch. If you are looking for a list of D-Day specific sites in the U.K. then 15+ D-Day Sites to Visit in England would be the best place to start.
There are a great many World War II sites in the U.K. where visitors can learn about the site’s role in the war and the lives of the people who lived there at the time. Some sites can be no more than a remnant of a concrete wall, but this article focuses on the larger sites, which people can make a day trip out of or include on a visit to the area, safe in the knowledge that there is plenty there to entertain the children, as well as educate them, so that the whole family can have a great day out. For example, Fort Henry, pictured above, is a World War II bunker in a beautiful seaside town with picture perfect beaches and plenty of traditional seaside attractions to keep kids of all ages happy for days.
H.M.S Belfast, London
H.M.S. Belfast in front of Tower Bridge on the River Thames.
HMS Belfast, launched in 1938, is the only British ship remaining from the bombardment fleet of D-day, and one of only three left in the world. She was active for much of the war, capturing enemy vessels and patrolling the Atlantic, taking part in several battles. For D-Day, HMS Belfast was made the HQ ship for Bombardment Force E supporting the British and Canadian forces at Gold and Juno, where she stayed for a month until the fighting had moved too far inland. After the war, HMS Belfast was sent to the Far East and took part in campaigns there including the Korean War until she was decommissioned in the 1960s. Now a museum ship on the River Thames in London, the ship is a branch part of the Imperial War Museum collection.
The small NAAFI inside the ship, where sailors could buy basic provisions to ease the monotony of rations.
My son and I visited on a surprisingly sunny day in February this year, as part of our trip to do a Silent Night tour in the East End of London. Easy to walk to from the London Bridge underground station, we hadn’t pre-booked tickets but there was only a short queue to get in. The walk from the ticket office to the ship is down a gangway with lovely views over Tower Bridge that deposits you on the deck of HMS Belfast. Audio guides are available, which we took, and then you are free to explore the ship as you wish. And what a wonderful ship it was to explore!
You can go pretty much anywhere, from the gun turret on the very top to the engine rooms right in the bowels of the ship. Getting around for kids is great fun, as you scramble up and down steep ship's ladders and just explore where you fancy. Each room had a little information panel telling you the basics and some pertinent facts, and then the audio guide would give you much more comprehensive information.
Watching an explanation of how the ship works, deep in the bowels of the engine room.
The ship has been restored to show how it looked in the 1940s and 1950s, with mannequins illustrating how the sailors lived on board. We saw the galley, the laundry, the tobacco store, punishment cells, sick bay, the provision issue room, heads and so much more. We learnt all sorts of fascinating facts, such as how each sailor was given a daily ration (a 'tot') of rum at 11 a.m. each day, meaning that the ship got through 32,000 litres of rum during the Korean War. This tradition was phased out in the 1970s for health and safety reasons, probably much to the disappointment of the sailors at the time. We learnt how soap and tobacco supplies were kept apart from everything else due to their strong scent, and how cats were kept on board to kill the rats. There was a fully equipped dentist's surgery as well as an operating room, and a sick bay which used 35 miles of bandages and 600 pounds of cotton wool during a two year period.
Mannequins are used throughout the ship to help the imagination to bring it to life.
We stood in the spot where HMS Belfast had received significant damage from a German mine in 1939, leaving her out of action until 1942. We sat in the Captain’s chair, used the interactive displays in the Operations Room and experienced battle in the gun turret, with smoke and cordite wafting around us as we watched the action of the men firing the guns on screens.
We both thought it was a great museum experience, there was so much to see and it was all really well presented. I would highly recommend taking kids there as it is such a good combination of education and fun.
Visiting HMS Belfast
Every day from 10h00 - 18h00
Closed 24, 25, 26 December
Buy online to save 10% on the door price to pay
Other concessions and family tickets available
How to get there: The nearest tube stop is London Bridge which is 4 minutes walk away.
Churchill War Rooms, London
A vast network of rooms and passageways underneath the streets of Westminster in London allowed Britain’s war cabinet to plan strategies and missions during the war in relative safety away from the repeated bombings by the Luftwaffe. Now a branch of the Imperial War Museum, the labyrinth of tunnels house the Cabinet War Rooms, the Churchill Museum and an exhibition about life for all of the staff who worked in the bunker during the war.
I visited with my son on our London trip which included HMS Belfast. Fortunately we had pre-booked tickets for a set arrival time, as there were long queues to get in and we were at least guaranteed entrance. For the people who had just turned up, they had a long and uncertain wait as to if they would even get in, and we did overhear grumbling in the ranks as we walked past them, trying not to look smug.
Inside one of the underground offices, with a bank of telephones and mannequins really bringing it to life.
After you have descended the stairs into the basement, and picked up your audio guide, the visit starts with the main cabinet war room, laid out exactly as it was during the war, with Churchill’s wooden chair right in the middle. All of the rooms are behind glass, many with costumed mannequins to bring the room to life. We explored the huge maze of tunnels and rooms and found it all utterly fascinating.
Staff lived down here for most of the war; many could go weeks without seeing daylight or feeling fresh air on their faces. There were countless bedrooms, offices, communications rooms and a really large map room with maps filled with drawing pins to mark out the various campaigns. We liked the old broom closet that had been disguised as Churchill’s loo but was actually a Transatlantic Telephone room where he used to speak to the President of the USA without being overheard, everyone thinking it was improper to loiter outside.
Inside the Churchill Museum, one of the noiseless Remmington typewriters that Churchill insisted his staff use as he couldn't bear to work with noisy distractions.
The Churchill museum is incredibly comprehensive and provides information about his entire life, including all of his early military career, his political campaigning and his latter days after the war. There are plenty of interactive screens and devices to keep children entertained and the whole museum is well thought out.
One of the stark and functional bedrooms where staff could sleep and work.
Exhaustion setting in as my son reads about Churchill's political career.
The only downside is that it was utterly packed with people; you really did have to fight your way around and through crowds at times. Museum fatigue sets in quickly in such situations, and the lack of daylight added to the slightly claustrophobic nature of the place, so that we did end up with my son just sitting down while I looked at the exhibits.
It was highly educational and very interesting and he did enjoy it, it was just very tiring and we didn’t stay as long as I would have liked or if I’d been there alone. Just outside, however, is St. James Park which is a great place to get some fresh air, something to eat and to watch the resident pelicans while you recover.
Visiting Churchill War Rooms
Every day from 09h30 - 18h00
Closed 24, 25, 26 December
Other concessions and family tickets available
Book online to avoid the long queues, as you will get immediate access at your chosen time slot if you do.
How to get there: The nearest tube stop is Westminster which is 3 minutes walk away.
Studland and Swanage, Dorset
The whole of the south coast was under threat during the war, being the front line for any enemy invasion that could take place. Fortifications sprang up along the coastline, until 1942 when the threat of invasion passed and the focus turned to planning the re-occupation of mainland Europe. Sites were chosen for their similarities to the landing beaches of Normandy for troops to practise the logistics and tactics of invasion, one of which was Studland in Dorset. Operation Smash, just six weeks before D-Day, saw a large scale practise watched by Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery and the King. Swanage still has many remnants of its wartime heritage and Operation Smash and is a truly fantastic place to visit with kids. More information, photographs and details >>
The Palace House at Beaulieu where spies were trained during World War II.
Beaulieu Palace is a large country estate in Hampshire in the south of England. The land was once used as a royal hunting lodge, before the construction of an abbey, of which the existing Beaulieu Palace was the gatehouse. The estate has been in the hands of the Montague family for over 400 years. During the war, the house acted as a ‘finishing school’ for agents of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) whose purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance across occupied Europe and to aid local resistance.
3000 agents were trained in what was known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’. Spies from all Allied nations were taught silent killing, housebreaking, safe-blowing, forgery, sabotage, survival techniques, how to resist interrogation, how to use secret inks, coding, black propaganda and a whole host of other nefarious skills. Such was the secrecy that neither the Montague family or the local villagers knew anything about what was going on.
The SOE agents were used to support resistance groups and to supply them with equipment and weapons. The role of the SOE agents and resistance groups for D-Day was not decided until a week beforehand, and on the night before the invasion, a coded message was sent out to all agents asking them to make ‘maximum effort’ in carrying out sabotage, a message which was picked up by the German High Command but fortunately not acted upon. After D-Day, the SOE were used to co-ordinate the actions of the resistance groups and to disable transport and communication links to Normandy, causing as much disruption as possible to the Germans.
Beaulieu estate was one of the first grand country houses to open its doors to visitors, in 1952, and since then has added a great many attractions. It is now home to the National Motor Museum with an astonishing collection of vehicles, a World of Top Gear, a James Bond collection, a monorail, rides, gardens and much more. Tucked away in the grounds is the small unassuming original building which houses the Secret Army Exhibition.
Some of the tools of the trade for the spies and agents who spent time at Beaulieu in the SOE 'finishing school'. Photograph © Beaulieu Palace/p>
I have visited the estate several times, most recently with a friend and our sons, and both boys were fascinated by the SOE museum. It is packed with spy equipment, such as everyday items like dominoes and hairbrushes, all with secret compartments. There is a pen with a hidden compass and maps. There are exhibits of the more brutal side of their work, with knives and knuckle dusters, as well as a lot of information about the spies how they were trained, techniques used and how they died, as it was a dangerous job and at one point SOE radio operators had a life expectancy of just six weeks. The exhibition is well laid out, is thoroughly absorbing and was manna from heaven for two young boys.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang now lives in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
Beaulieu is a great way to teach children history and let them have fun at the same time, as the there is so much to do there with all of the other exhibitions and rides on offer, as well as exploring the abbey, the palace and grounds. We learnt a great deal about the spies during the war and I would highly recommend a day out here for parents and kids alike.
25th May - 22nd September - 10h00 – 18h00
23rd September - 24th May - 10h00 - 17h00
Open every day except Christmas Day
Children aged 5-16 £9.50
The above prices are if you book tickets online the day before your visit
Concessions and family tickets available
How to get there: come off Junction 2 of the M27 and head south on the A326. There is free parking on site.
Lepe Beach, Hampshire
Lepe is a small hamlet on the shore of the Solent in Hampshire. Used as a port since Roman times, Lepe has had successive harbours and sea based trades including 18th century shipbuilders and an oyster industry. In 1943 the local manor house was requisitioned by the Navy to be the Headquarters of J-Force Assault Group for the West Solent embarkations, as 6000 men left for France from Lepe.
At the same time, Lepe was used as a secret manufacturing site for the breakwaters to build six massive reinforced concrete caissons built as part of the artificial Mulberry Harbours which were used as temporary portable harbours off the shore of France after the D Day landings, until the French ports could be recaptured and used by the Allies. Lepe was also the location where P.L.U.T.O (Pipeline Under The Ocean) left mainland England, carrying fuel across to the Isle of Wight and then further on under the channel to Normandy.
Lepe today is a country park, with a recently revamped visitor centre, café and car parks to accommodate the increase in visitors. We visited on an unfortunately freezing cold day in March this year, but the place was still packed with people. The golden beaches are interspersed with wooden groynes to prevent coastal erosion, and higher up on the cliff is grassland where people enjoy BBQ’s and family time.
Assorted rubble still litters the whole area where the manufacturing buildings once stood, and where the troops loaded onto ships to sail across to Normandy.
If you walk further on than the beaches and follow the coast round, you come to Stansore Point, the main area where the factories and buildings once stood. The whole site is littered with fragments: piles of bricks, huge concrete slabs, reinforced roads, all in a massive jumble of weather worn bricks and twisted metal. There are beach hardening mats that look like chocolate bars, designed to take the weight of the Duplex Drive Sherman tanks as they moved onto landing craft, rusted bollards for tying up ships, invasion slipways used to launch the caissons, construction platforms, rolling track walls and housing for winching gear.
These 'dolphins' once formed the pier heads used to load the ships before the re-occupation of Normandy.
What really stands out are the ‘dolphins’ still in the sea, their thin frames belying the strength they once had when they formed the pier heads used to load the ships going to Normandy. There was a lot to see and a lot to explore, as everything is left exposed to the elements, and the kids clambered over the ruins, everything still surprisingly sturdy after the main buildings had been dismantled. There were several information boards around so we could see what had been where, and it was a great way of teaching the kids about the logistics and planning of D-Day, as so much these days is just focused on the actual day that the sheer volume of work that went into getting it underway is often overlooked.
The dolphins in the background of the main manufacturing site on the shoreline.
Behind the mass of concrete and metal is a nature reserve filled with brackish pools, shingle and a multitude of sea shore wildlife. I’m sure it would have looked lovely on a sunny day, but by this time the weather had turned and unfortunately we had to head back to the car.
Lepe is a great place to take the kids to teach them more about D-Day and the preparations that went into it. With a good beach, café, facilities and ice creams, it’s an ideal way to combine some historical education with a typical day by the sea. Just check the forecast before you go!
My kids enjoying the sunshine at Lepe on a previous, sunnier, visit.
November - March 07h00 - 19h00
April - October 07h00 - 22h00
How to get there: Directions as for Beaulieu then follow signs to Exbury Gardens.
The only costs are parking, which is a maximum of £6.50 per day
Wilton House, Wiltshire
Wilton House, the HQ of Southern Command during World War II. Photograph ©Herry Lawford
Wilton House near Salisbury in Wiltshire, is a large country estate which has been owned by the Earl's of Pembroke for over 400 years, was requisitioned in 1940 as the headquarters of Southern Command and is where much of the planning for D-day took place. Overseeing operations from Land's End to Sussex, 750 miles of telephone wire was laid around the estate to keep communications open at this vital time. In nearby Fugglestone was the American Southern Command, and Eisenhower and Churchill would regularly meet at Wilton House to plan the reoccupation of Europe.
The Cecil Beaton exhibition at Wilton House, curated by Jasper Conran, is really imaginatively laid out.
There are two types of tickets to get into the estate: either house and grounds or grounds only. The grounds are extensive and include a Japanese garden, an adventure playground, entry to the Earls supercar display and other exhibitions, currently one about Cecil Beaton curated by Jasper Conran, which is cleverly done and well worth a visit. Entrance to the house is for a self-guided tour around some of the public rooms, with a guide in each room to answer any questions, which is the one we did.
The impressive gilt covered double cube room at Wilton House. Photograph ©Wilton House
The main state rooms are included on the house visit, the highlight of which is the magnificent Double Cube room. This was where much of the D-Day planning took place. Sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, the great room designed by Inigo Jones in 1653 was designed to house the family portrait collection painted by Van Dyke. With white walls embossed with gold fruit and foliage designs and a painted ceiling depicting the story of Perseus, this is an incredible room and quite breath-taking when you step inside.
Unfortunately there is very limited information about the role of the house and wider estate in the war, but it is still quite a feeling to know that you are in one of the main places where the D-Day operation was planned.
My son and friend on one of the outdoor trampolines in the adventure playground at Wilton House.
For kids, the house can be just another stately home, but where Wilton really comes into its own for them is with its grounds. The adventure playground is impressive, with huge wooden structures amongst the trees with slides, scramble nets, climbing frames, boat swings, trampolines and more. Families picnic on the immaculate lawn while the children run around and play. There is a café on site, an ice cream stall, and a gift shop, as well as all of the necessary facilities.
A visit to Wilton House makes a good day out for parents and kids, where the adults can soak up the magnificent Palladian architecture, stunning interiors, and kids can let off steam charging around in the fresh air.
Visiting Wilton House
Sun - Thurs, 11h30 - 17h00 from 5th May - 1st September
Other concessions and family tickets available
How to get there: Take the A36 north of Salisbury and follow the signs. There is free parking on site.
St. Dunstan in the East, London
The poignant bombed out ruins of St. Dunstan in the East in the cold February sunshine.
Wreathed in ivy and verdant greenery, the ruins of the church of St. Dunstan in the East are a peaceful enclave away from the chaos and intensity of the banking institutions that surround it. A shell of a church with blackened walls, no ceiling and empty gothic windows; all that remains intact is a bell tower designed by Christoper Wren.
St. Dunstan's was a parish church near the Tower of London, built around 1100. It was seriously damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and patched up in the following years with a new tower added in 1668. Rebuilt in the 1800s when they found that the bulk of the building was shifting, the new church opened in 1821, with the tower still retained.
1941 was the peak of the Blitz, a massive German bombing campaign that saw 30,000 tonnes of high explosive dropped over the UK, a large amount of it over London. Much of the East End was destroyed, including this once proud parish church, which lost its ceiling and some of its walls, although the tower remained standing.
Being too costly to repair, the ruins were turned into a public garden in the 1960s, with a lawn planted and a fountain added in the middle. Since then it has been a place of peace and refuge as the city of London grew around it, giving a small oasis of green amongst all the concrete and chrome.
The ruins are free to visit and are a delightful spot for a quick visit and a picnic on one of the benches. Sadly when we visited in February there was some repair work going on, but it was still a great place for my son to explore and to really spark the imagination with its mysterious dark walls and empty windows. Possibly the only remaining building damaged in the Blitz in London, it is one of the few places left that children can really get a glimpse of the damage caused during World War II.
Visiting St. Dunstan in the East
08h00 - dusk or 19h00, whichever is earlier
The site is sometimes closed to the public for private functions.
How to get there: The nearest tube stations are Monument or Tower Hill