HMS Cavalier

VR tour of historic warship launched as part of London Tech Week

Image credit: Chatham Historic Dockyard

Historian Dan Snow lauds new technological tools as a means of engaging the public, as museum's Richard Holdsworth says they will help boost visitor numbers by building a worldwide audience.

Armchair generals and military history geeks can now enjoy a free virtual tour of a Second World War military vessel that helped the Allies beat Nazi Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS Cavalier, a British Royal Navy ‘destroyer’ warship and the last surviving example of its kind, is preserved at Chatham Historic Dockyard, a maritime museum on the River Medway in Kent.

The ship and her crew helped escort maritime convoys bringing supplies – food, munitions and other goods - across the Atlantic from the United States to prevent Britain from being cut off and effectively starved into submission by the Nazis, who used U-boats to wreak havoc.

Some goods were then sent on to the Soviet Union through the Arctic to help prevent Hitler winning on the Eastern Front.

At the launch of ‘Virtually Inside HMS Cavalier’ at Google’s new UK office during London Tech Week yesterday, historian Dan Snow described the Battle of the Atlantic as “the thing that most kept Churchill up at night”.

Alan Turing and the team of Bletchley Park codebreakers who cracked the Enigma code had also been key to turning the tide in the Allies favour when it came to the war at sea, he added.

Snow, a presenter of TV documentaries, said opportunities presented by new augmented reality and virtual reality digital tools were “so exciting” for historians, predicting that they would enable fans to experience, from the comfort of their own homes, the next best thing to stepping inside spaces like Tutankhamun’s tomb and the stone circle at Stonehenge.

Richard Holdsworth, director of preservation and education at Chatham Historic Dockyard, added: “The more we can use this sort of technology to build audiences around the world and to build up a desire to come and see things, the better it will be for us.

“We have no idea for how many years we can keep ships like HMS Cavalier alive. She was built to have a 12 month life in 1944 and here we are in 2017… I think it’s really important to use modern digital technology to capture what it feels like inside for generations in centuries later to be able to go back and look at.”

Asked if the initiative could lead to fewer people visiting Chatham Historic Dockyard to see the ship for real, Tracy Spaight from game developer and publisher Wargaming.net compared virtual reality tours of historic spaces to the first live-broadcasted baseball games in the US, which he argued had boosted ticket sales and the number of fans flocking to stadiums.

“Exploring the ship in this way leads to a deeper appreciation for the speed and power of these vessels – and the courage of those who served on them,” he said.

Online game World of Warships joined forces with Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust and Google Arts and Culture to create the tour, which can be downloaded as an app from Google Play or Apple. It includes a look inside relatively inaccessible spaces like the ship's engine room. The tour is fully compatible with Google’s virtual reality headsets.

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