Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
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.
HMS Belfast is 613’ (187m) long and 63’ (19m) wide. It had a crew of 760, a maximum speed of 32.5 knots (37.4 mph) and its guns could hit a target 14 miles away.
just a small follow up from my last comment,when we docked in gibralter I think it was the drednought (the sub ) docked next to us ,we were also shadowed by mine sweepers on our voyage across,being a ten year old I found this very exciting,(sorry I am not very good on computers) trying to wright about this is bringing back happy times.
kind regards phil Williams.
Thanks, Phil. I’m delighted it’s bringing you some good memories! It must have been an amazing experience – and parked next to Dreadnought too!
i am 70 years of age and when I was 10 I spent 4 days at sea on the Belfast we moored in Gibraltar .
That must have been quite an experience, but particularly for a 10-year old. Thank you so much for leaving a comment – I’m flattered that you did.
i toured it with my children at school on thursday!! it was amazing!✔✔
I have plaque from hms belfast last cruse hand made from the mess crew with all ports of call would you be interested in. ps picked up at a swap meet in texas
That must be quite a treasure for you. I wonder how it ended up in Texas!
Where is the Asdic ?
Hi – thanks for visiting A Bit About Britain. I’m afraid I can’t answer your question – I would have thought the control room, somewhere quiet. But perhaps it’s best to ask direct – start here http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast
By the way, all featured attractions are listed in the directory, where there is a link to any helpful website. Let us know how you get on.
Hi Mike,sorry for the long time to reply,but I have not got very far.I was told that most of the ships instruments were removed when she went on public display.Where they went is a mystery! But I have an Asdic Range receiver which could have been part of the inventory and I would like to locate details regarding any other similar equipment.Perhaps it is still on the secret list!,
A great history! But those wax people – a little weird. 😀
Great photos and commentary, thank you 🙂
It is somewhere I have always meant to visit but not quite got around to. Yet 😉
I remember visiting her some years ago. I felt claustrophobic the whole time, but it was very interesting!
That’s one place I’ve never been in my several visits to London. You’ve made me interested in a visit, maybe next time I’m town.
Wow, this was a bloody awesome post, thank you, so much
Hi Mike – my brother had one of his big birthdays on it … and we were allowed to tour around – it was before the dreaded mobile phone – otherwise I’d have some photos – so thank you for yours. I see it’s been updated with a cafe, shop etc now … I imagine it’s an amazing ship to look around if you have an interest … but I can see the lure of a book, glass of wine and a quiet session to await the minstrels return from the tour! Cheers HIlary
Seasickness, claustrophobia.. oh dear that’s me out Mike 🙂 but I thoroughly enjoyed going along on your tour of this fabulous old heroic beauty.
What a life she’s had! Very interesting post, thanks Mike. I had no idea the ship is now part of the Imperial War Museum; I’d love to visit and am sure my husband would too though he does get a little claustrophobic at times.
She saw a lot of action! I’d enjoy touring that.