Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

H.M.S. Belfast

Under the bridge, turn left down a narrow alley and I am back to the riverside. After only a few steps I have arrived at HMS Belfast, the last of the heavy British Navy “Town Class” cruisers.

Cruisers were designed with the purpose of protecting commercial shipping, and when they were built HMS Belfast and her sister ship HMS Edinburgh were the largest and most powerful cruisers in the Royal Navy. HMS Edinburgh was sunk in May 1942, but Belfast survived the war and has been preserved for the nation, the first Royal Navy ship to be preserved since HMS Victory.

H.M.S.Belfast has been moored here as a museum ship since it was opened to the public on 21st October 1971, appropriately enough that date being Trafalgar Day. The vessel receives over 250,000 visitors per year, but many more I suspect spend time as I am doing now, leaning on the riverside rails admiring the ship with the Tower of London on the opposite bank serving as a spectacular backdrop.

The ship is now part of the Imperial War Museum and is open daily. During service the decks would have bustled with the activity of up to 850 men, but today it is swarming with schoolchildren out on a history lesson.

The ship was built at Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, and launched on 17th March 1938 by Mrs Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister’s wife.

Displacement 11,553 tonnes
Length 613ft (187m)
Beam 69ft (21m)
Draught 19ft 6in (6.1m)
Armament 12 x six-inch guns
8 x four-inch guns
12 x Bofors Anti-aircraft guns
Maximum speed 32 knots
Propulsion 4 x Admiralty three-drum boilers
4 x steam driven Parsons turbines
4 x drive shafts generating 80,000 shaft horsepower
Complement 750 to 850

Following completion HMS Belfast was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5th August 1939 under command of Captain G.A.Scott DSO RN.

HMS Belfast spent the first few weeks following the outbreak of the war on patrol out of the Cruiser base at Scapa Flow, (Orkney). The principal objective of the patrols was to cut off the German supply line to their ports, and on October 9th 1939 HMS Belfast successfully boarded and captured the SS Cap Norte.

The initial glorious success of Belfast came to an abrupt end only a month later when on 21st November the cruiser was severely damaged by a magnetic mine when coming out of the Firth of Forth. Although casualties were light there was severe damage to the hull and machinery and it would be almost three years before Belfast would be able to be repaired and resume active service.

Belfast came back to service in November 1942 considerably “beefed up” with the latest fire-power and technology and was soon back in the thick of the action, this time in the icy waters of the Arctic. The ship’s mission this time was to keep open the supply routes to the northern Russian ports. These routes were essential in order to keep the Russian forces supplied for the Eastern Front, but the risk was extremely high. Up to half of a convoy could be sunk before reaching the safety of a port. During the operations the Merchant Navy lost over 30,000 men and over 5,000 ships keeping the Eastern Front supplied.

On December 26th 1943 the Belfast was a key player in one of the most significant sea battles of the North Atlantic. The Scharnhorst was one of Germany’s largest battle cruisers and following an unsuccessful attack on a convoy was hit by a shell from HMS Norfolk that caused considerable damage. The German ship tried to regain port, but was pursued by HMS Belfast and HMS Sheffield who managed to drive the Scharnhorst into the guns of the waiting HMS York. The Scharnhorst was literally “dead in the water” and sank into the waters.

On D-Day the Belfast was a key part of the bombardment of the Normandy coast to protect the allied troops as they landed and made their way inland. Belfast gave support to the British and Canadian troops on “Gold” and “Juno” beaches for the first five weeks of the invasion.

Belfast was back in action for the Korean War giving support to British, American and South Korean forces until September 1952 when she returned to Britain.

The next few years were spent on routine patrols and exercises until finally HMS Belfast was signed off at Devonport on 24th August 1963. There followed a vigorous campaign to save the ship from the scrap-yard, and eventually in 1971 HMS Belfast arrived at her retirement home on the south bank of the River Thames.

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