HMS Belfast: A Cheat’s Guide

December 10, 2019 6:51 pm

Climb aboard HMS Belfast, the most famous surviving British World War Two ship. With entry included with The London Pass, we thought we’d prepare the ground for your visit. How? By supplying you with some much needed intel about the ship’s history and what there is to see. So read on for our HMS Belfast primer, answering all the questions that need answering, including…

  • What were HMS Belfast’s major successes?
  • Where did the HMS Belfast serve?
  • What parts are open to the public today?
  • And much more.

David Ormiston

History of HMS Belfast

The Second World War

HMS Belfast was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, Belfast; at the time she was the largest warship constructed at the site. She was first launched on St Patrick’s Day, 1938 by Anne Chamberlain, wife of then Prime Minister Neville, and commissioned into the Royal Navy in August 1939.

The declaration of war on Germany by Britain and France on 3rd September 1939 put paid to any chance of the newly appointed crew of 761 men getting a chance to bed in. At 11.40 on the morning of the 3rd, the ship received the directive, ‘Commence hostiles at once against Germany.’ HMS Belfast was put to work intercepting German ships and liners returning from Norway and further afield, and tracking down raiders looking to pass through the North Sea and into the Atlantic.

Wins and Losses

The ship enjoyed early successes, including the interception of a German liner, the Cap Norte, returning to Germany from Brazil with German reservists onboard. The Cap Norte was disguised as a Swedish vessel, but after a careful approach, the true identity of the liner was revealed. As Belfast crew member George Woodley put it, “The ship rolled gently and as the sun shone on her side, the name on the bows was seen to be freshly painted. She was not Swedish but a German liner, ‘Cap Norte’, with a valuable cargo. The boarding crew took the prize to Scapa Flow under escort.”

On the morning of 21st November 1939, HMS Belfast took part in a gunnery exercise with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. Heading out of the Firth of Forth, at 10.58 she hit something. A powerful explosion ripped through the ship’s back, knocking the engines out and killing one crew member, injuring 21. Belfast had been hit by a magnetic mine. One of the Nazis’ new weapons, the mines were triggered by the steel hull of any ship passing overhead. The damage was significant and left Belfast out of action for nearly three years.

HMS Belfast

David Ormiston

The Battle of North Cape

Recommissioned in November 1942, HMS Belfast became the flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Rear-Admiral Robert Burnett. Primarily charged with the vital and perilous task of escorting Allied merchant ship convoys to the Soviet Union, it was during one such mission that Belfast and her crew proved themselves jewels of the British Navy’s defensive and offensive strategies.

In December of 1943, in the freezing grip of an Arctic winter, HMS Belfast was helping escort a convoy of merchant ships to the Soviet Union. The German battleship Scharnhorst, the most powerful warship in the German navy, intercepted the convoy. Aboard Belfast, Burnett coordinated the defence of the convoy and Scharnhorst’s attack was thwarted.

Damaged by the British cruisers, Scharnhorst turned for home. The British squadron gave chase, shadowing the German ship, but remaining out of range. Burnett kept in close contact with a second British force, led by the battleship Duke of York. The second force intercepted Scharnhorst, and she was sunk by the combined attacks of both British squadrons. 1,932 Scharnhorst crew members were killed and 36 captured. The Battle of North Cape, as the event came to be known, was the last battle between big-gun capital ships of the Nazi and British forces.

D-Day and Beyond

Belfast and her crew further distinguished themselves during the D-Day landings, bombarding the coastal areas of Nazi-occupied France to prepare for the Allied invasion. She led the bombardment of two of the five landing beaches, repelling German forces, attacking turrets and allowing waves of Allied landing craft to reach the shore. Five weeks later, with fighting having moved inland and out of the range of her guns, HMS Belfast left the Normandy coast and sailed for Scapa.

After undergoing a major refit to prepare her for the weather conditions and combat situations of a new theatre of war, HMS Belfast left for the Far East. She arrived in Sydney, Australia on the 7th August 1945. It was just a day after the atom bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On the 9th August, a second bomb hit Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered soon after.

Staying in the region following the end of WWII, Belfast became part of the UN forces during the Korean War. She conducted a huge number of coastal patrols and bombardments on targets, covering more than 80,000 miles and firing over 8,000 rounds during the conflict.

David Ormiston

HMS Belfast: The Floating Museum

After 24 years of active service, HMS Belfast was decommissioned in 1963. In 1968, the Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence put together proposals to save the ship from shipbreakers and the scrapheap. Ultimately, the government rejected these initial plans.

However, after the formation of a private trust to campaign for her preservation, and plenty more back and forth with lawmakers, Belfast was handed over to trustees in 1971. She opened as a museum on Trafalgar Day, 1971. It was a notable date considering Belfast was the first naval vessel preserved for the public since HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

David Ormiston

What To See Aboard HMS Belfast

The most famous surviving British ship from the Second World War, HMS Belfast now sits permanently moored on the River Thames. All nine decks await exploration. Explore them as you work your way from the guns on the top deck, down the ladders into the belly of the ship. A ship museum, Belfast now features a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Each boasts interactive elements and artefacts in situ. Together, they help to drawn focus onto the realities of life aboard the ship and tell the vessel’s tale.

Serving the Seas

This permanent exhibition charts the history of HMS Belfast. It takes you with her as she escorts merchant convoys in the Arctic. As she bombards the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. Finally, as she heads out to East Asia. An interactive exhibition, the Serving the Seas area allows you to relive her achievements, suffer her challenges and darkest moments and follow her course right up to her current deployment as a leading tourist attraction and ship museum. The exhibition incorporates a wealth of personal testimonies from those who served aboard her. Recounting their experiences—positive and negative—they speak of a ship that became a home away from home for them.

Explore HMS Belfast

The other permanent aspect of HMS Belfast’s displays takes you around the ship’s nine decks, giving you a sense of what life at war and life at sea were like aboard the famous cruiser.

The exhibition shows visitors how the ship operated in battle with simulations such as the Gun Turret Experience, which recreates aspects of the Battle of North Cape, and the Pony Express Exercise which gives you the chance to run the ship through an interactive experience in the Operations Room.

The more ordinary, less perilous, but no less important aspects of life aboard Belfast get covered in an engaging, thought-provoking way. You’ll see the bakery (a Navy sails on its stomach, just as an Army marches on theirs); the dentist’s office; the sick bay and laundry room. The wax, costumed figures placed in situ help to illustrate the cramped, claustrophobic conditions onboard Belfast, where crew members were often living for weeks at a time. But again, it is the personal testimonies of former crew that really bring the whole ship, the work she did and the lives she protected into perspective. These touching and important interviews highlight how life at sea, and life at war, affected the morale and determination of those onboard.

David Ormiston

Visiting HMS Belfast

Getting There

HMS Belfast
The Queens Walk
London
SE1 2JH

Tube

London Bridge – Northern and Jubilee lines (5 minute walk)

Train

London Bridge – Southern, Southeastern, Thameslink services (5 minute walk)

Bus

Numerous bus routes stop close to HMS Belfast. Check the TfL site here to see which is the most convenient for you.

Opening Times

1st November – 28th February: 10.00 – 17.00
29th February – 31st October: 10.00 – 18.00

Accessibility

Areas below decks cannot be accessed by wheelchairs, pushchairs or those with limited mobility. However, the Main Deck, Quarter Deck, Boat Deck and Cafe are all fully accessible. You will see The Laundry, Chapel, The Bakery, Galley, Petty Officers’ Mess, Sick Bay, Dental Surgery and Arctic Mess Decks.

 

David Ormiston

So, that was our guide to the HMS Belfast. But if you have anything to add, let us know in the comment below. Until then, find out more about London landmarks on our blog. Here, for instance, we give you some facts about Westminster Abbey. And here are 10 facts about Wembley Stadium. And over in this corner, we’ve got our favourite deer-spotting parks in the capital.

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