One of the most famous sights along the Thames is HMS Belfast – a 20th century warship that was retired from service in the 1960s, and is now moored up as an exhibit in the Thames. It stands as testament to the wide and varied role the Royal Navy played in the mid-20th century, and aims to bring to life the lives and stories of those ordinary men who served on her.
1. HMS Belfast was launched in 1938 – but nearly didn’t survive the year
HMS Belfast was commissioned from Harland & Wolff (of Titanic fame) in Belfast in 1936, and was launched by Anne Chamberlain, wife of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain on St Patrick’s Day 1938.
Uncertainty was in the air by this point, and a gift from the people of Belfast – a large, solid silver bell – was prevented from being used on the ship over fears that it would be sunk and the large quantity of silver lost.
Belfast was put into action almost immediately patrolling the North Sea in an attempt to impose a maritime blockade on Nazi Germany. After a mere 2 months at sea, she hit a magnetic mine and her hull was so damaged that she was out of action until 1942, missing much of the action in the first 3 years of the Second World War.
2. She played a vital role in protecting arctic convoys
One of the jobs of the Royal Navy was to help guard convoys providing Stalin’s Russia with supplies so that they could continue fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front and relieve the worst of the shortages during events like the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Belfast spent a tough 18 months escorting convoys across the North Sea and patrolling the waters round Iceland.
HMS Belfast escorted convoys over winter – daylight hours were short, which reduced the chance of being bombed or spotted, but meant that the men on board endured freezing Arctic conditions for the duration of the voyage. There was little to no chance of receiving mail or going ashore, and the winter clothes and equipment given out were so bulky men could barely move in them.
3. And an even more vital role in The Battle of North Cape
The Battle of North Cape, on Boxing Day 1943, saw HMS Belfast and other Allied ships destroy the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and 5 other destroyers after they attempted to intercept and attack the arctic convoy they were accompanying.
Many joke that the Belfast missed out on her moment of glory: she’d been instructed to finish the Scharnhorst (which had already sustained torpedo damage), but as she was readying to fire, there was a series of underwater explosions and the radar blip disappeared: she’d been sunk by the Duke of York. Over 1927 German sailors were killed – only 36 were rescued from the icy waters.
4. HMS Belfast is the only remaining British bombardment vessel from D-Day
The Belfast was the flagship of Bombardment Force E, which was supporting troops at Gold and Juno beaches, targeting batteries there so well that they could do virtually nothing to help repel Allied forces.
As one of the larger warships involved, the Belfast’s sick bay was used to treat a myriad of casualties, and her ovens produced thousands of loaves of bread for other nearby ships. The vibrations from the shells were so intense that the porcelain toilets on board cracked. The Belfast normally carried up to 750 men, and so during quieter patches of fighting and shelling, it was not unusual for crew to be dispatched ashore in order to help clear the beaches.
In total, the Belfast spent five weeks (33 days in total) off Normandy, and fired over 4000 6-inch and 1000 4-inch shells. July 1944 was the last time the ship fired her guns during the Second World War.
5. She spent 5 lesser known years in the Far East
Following a refit in 1944-5, Belfast was dispatched to the Far East in order to help the Americans in their fight with Japan in Operation Downfall. By the time she had arrived however, the Japanese had surrendered.
Instead, Belfast spent the 5 years between 1945 and 1950 in cruising between Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, restoring some British presence in the area following Japanese occupation and generally undertaking ceremonial duties on behalf of the Royal Navy.
The Belfast’s crew had a significant number of Chinese servicemen, and for much of her time in service, the crew employed around 8 Chinese men to work in the laundry from their own wages – keeping their uniforms spotlessly white was a task they had little appetite for, preferring to outsource and pay for those who knew what they were doing.
6. Peace didn’t last for long
In 1950, the Korean War broke out and the Belfast became part of the UN naval force, undertaking patrols around Japan and occasionally beginning bombardments. In 1952, the Belfast was hit by a shell which killed a crew member, Lau So. He was buried on a nearby island off the coast of North Korea. This remains the only time a crew member was killed on board the ship during service, and the only time the Belfast was hit by enemy fire during her Korean service.
7. The ship was nearly sold off for scrap
HMS Belfast’s life of active service came to an end in the 1960s, and she ended up as an accommodation ship from 1966. The possibility was raised by Imperial War Museum staff of saving a whole ship for both practical and economic reasons and HMS Belfast was their candidate of choice.
The government initially decided against preservation: the ship would have generated over £350,000 (the equivalent of around £5 million today) if sent for scrapping. It was largely thanks to the efforts of Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, a former captain of Belfast and then an MP that the ship was saved for the nation.
HMS Belfast was handed over to the newly formed HMS Belfast Trust in July 1971 and a special berth was dredged in the Thames, just past Tower Bridge, to be her permanent mooring in the Thames. She was opening to the public on Trafalgar Day 1971, and continues to remain one of central London’s biggest historical attractions.