When you visit London, it’s hard to avoid seeing HMS Belfast moored by London Bridge. This grand old lady of the seas, the Royal Navy’s last surviving cruiser and the largest preserved warship in Europe, has been part of the London scene since 1971. With a backdrop of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, it must be one of the most photographed sights in the capital and it’s probably the most famous ship in Britain after HMS Victory.
HMS Belfast was built by Harland and Wolff (the same people that gave you the Titanic) in Belfast, launched in 1938 as the storm clouds gathered over Europe and commissioned in Portsmouth in 1939, just in time for the Second World War. In October 1940, Belfast intercepted and captured a German liner disguised as a neutral ship, but the following month struck a mine that put her out of action for two years. By 1943 she was operating with the Arctic Convoys, taking vital supplies to the Soviet Union, when the temperature could fall to minus 20 degrees C, unprotected skin touching bare metal could be left behind on railings and ladders, and survival in the sea was measured in seconds. Waves as high as houses broke over ships, tossing them like bath toys, with the weight of ice forming on decks, guns and superstructure putting them at risk of capsizing. Conditions below decks could be appalling. Churchill called the Arctic Convoys, “The worst journey in the world.” In December 1943, HMS Belfast had a critical role in the Battle of North Cape, which culminated in the German battlecruiser, Scharnhorst, being sunk – eventually by HMS Duke of York.
On 6th June 1944, Belfast blasted German defences in support of British and Canadian troops landing on Gold and Juno beaches in Normandy, part of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Western Europe from ports on the south coast of England, leading to the ultimate defeat of the Nazis in the west. Belfast’s 12, 6” guns were capable of delivering up to 96 shells a minute – and that was just her main armament. After Normandy, she was re-fitted for war in the Far East and arrived in Sydney only a week before the Japanese surrendered and the Second World War ended. HMS Belfast next saw action during the Korean War from 1950-52, as part of the United Nations forces deployed against Chinese-backed communist North Korea, when she was damaged by an enemy shell.
Taken out of active service in 1963, Belfast was moored in Portsmouth Harbour for the next 8 years. My brother tells me he remembers seeing it when he was going to school. Many years later, it was virtually outside the window of the office in London where I worked. But HMS Belfast’s real claim to fame must be that my mother was guest at a dinner on board hosted by Edward Heath in the 1970s when he was Prime Minister; she said it was “very nice.” I’m sure he had a splendid time too.
These days, HMS Belfast is a branch of the Imperial War Museum – and they have done a fine job. You can tour nine decks, with many areas fitted out as they would have been when the ship was operational. These include mess decks, officers’ cabins, galley, sick bay, stores – even the dentist. The engine and boiler rooms – to a layman like me a mass of confusing metal ladders, walkways, dangerous looking pipes, valves, boilers and other mysterious things – are absolutely amazing. And huge. I was particularly impressed by the wonderful brass thingummy that you see in films – you know, when the captain rings for ‘full speed’, ‘slow ahead’ – or whatever. I believe this device is called an engine order telegraph (EOT) – or chadburn. You can also get up to the bridge and sit in the Captain’s Chair, pretending to be Jack Hawkins or Noel Coward (but only if you’re old enough to remember who they were). The Imperial War Museum has set up ‘Y’ turret to simulate the gun being in action – it is very well done, the noise is satisfyingly loud and there is lots of smoke. Then there are exhibitions, sailors’ stories…
I enjoyed visiting HMS Belfast very much. The sea and the Royal Navy are part of our island’s history and traditions – and, quite frankly, this enormous warship is simply awesome – not an adjective I use lightly. But – and this is from personal experience – consider who you go with, because entry is not cheap. If your companion is likely to feel claustrophobic, get bored with the relentless battleship grey décor, find nautical tales tedious, become slightly nauseous with the scents of confined men, oil and cordite (OK, maybe that’s getting a bit carried away), perhaps even be prone to seasickness on the tossing Thames – or possibly merely anxious for a large glass of Pinot Grigio – suggest they pop over to Hays Galleria or up to Regent Street for a few hours while you indulge yourself.