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Outbreak 1939 at the Imperial War Museum

London SE1 website team

Seventy years after the start of the Second World War, the Imperial War Museum has opened a new exhibition exploring the first three months of the conflict.

A barrage balloon is inflated outside the Imperial
A barrage balloon is inflated outside the Imperial War Museum. Picture courtesy IWM.

The collection of newspaper front pages from Britain and other English-speaking countries for the days around 3 September 1939 is fascinating.

The exhibition tells the story of the early days of the conflict through the eyes of ordinary Britons as well as the actions of royals, politicians and journalists.

As well as the items of obvious national significance – such as Neville Chamberlain's pocket diary for 1939 – the exhibition features several small items of local interest.

There is a picture showing the evacuation of St Thomas' Hospital by Green Line coaches, as well as a piece of Christmas artwork by St Thomas' probationers who were moved to Park Prewett Hospital near Basingstoke.

The section on blackout shows the white markings added to the stairs at Waterloo Station to help passengers successfully negotiate the exit in the dark.

Visitors can also hear John Harrison, a 23-year-old ordnance artificer on HMS Belfast, recalling his lucky escape when the cruiser was rocked by the detonation of a magnetic mine in the Firth of Forth on 21 November 1939.

The exhibition includes HMS Belfast's commissioning document and the ship's original bell. The ship entered service in August 1939. Since 1971 she has been a floating museum on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

• Outbreak 1939 is at the Imperial War Museum for the next year; admission is free.

• The exhibition accompanies an ITV1 documentary to be broadcast on Thursday 3 September at 10.35pm.

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