HMS Belfast, the ‘straight shooter’ with a very distinguished history

HMS Belfast has been moored on the Thames since 1971 and attracts more than 250,000 tourists annually
HMS Belfast has been moored on the Thames since 1971 and attracts more than 250,000 tourists annually

To mark 80 years since the launch of HMS Belfast, on St Patrick’s Day in 1938, historian GORDON LUCY looks back at what was for many years the largest and most powerful cruiser in the entire Royal Navy fleet with an enviable reputation for accuracy

On St Patrick’s Day 1938 Anne Chamberlain, wife of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, in front of thousands of spectators, launched HMS Belfast, destined to be the largest and most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy, from the Musgrave Yard.

The ship was 187 metres long, had a width of 19 metres and could travel at about 60kmh. She carried 12 large guns, as well as torpedoes and depth charges.

On November 21 1939 after only two months at sea HMS Belfast fell victim to a German magnetic mine.

The damage to her hull was so severe that it put her out of action for three years.

Between the outbreak of war and the end of November 1939 magnetic mines sunk 29 British ships (including the destroyer HMS Gipsy), striking evidence of what an effective weapon the magnetic mine was.

When she rejoined the fleet in 1942, HMS Belfast was still the largest and most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy. She returned to service with improved firepower, the most advanced radar systems and enhanced armour.

Between 1942 and 1944 HMS Belfast played a key role in escorting the Arctic convoys to Murmansk.

Conditions were among the worst faced by any Allied sailors.

As well as the Germans, they faced extreme cold, gales and pack ice.

The loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route.

Over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians.

As well as tanks and aircraft, these included less sensational but still vital items like trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines and boots.

Although the supplies were valuable, the most important contribution made by the Arctic convoys was political.

They proved that the Allies were committed to helping the Soviet Union, whilst deflecting Stalin’s demands for a ‘Second Front’ (an Allied invasion of western Europe) until they were ready.

In December 1943 HMS Belfast played a vital role in the Battle of North Cape, assisting at every stage in the destruction of the German warship Scharnhorst.

HMS Belfast was allocated an important role on D-Day. Prime minister Winston Churchill even wished to sail with the invasion fleet aboard HMS Belfast and watch the bombardment of the German defences, Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall, from the bridge.

King George VI had to deploy all his skill to the utmost to dissuade him.

“My dear Winston, I want to make one more appeal to you not to go to sea on D-Day. Please consider my own position.

“I am a younger man than you, I am a sailor, and as King I am head of all the services.

“There is nothing I would like better than to go to sea but I have agreed to stay at home; is it fair that you should do exactly what I would have liked to do myself?”

Before the troop landings took place, HMS Belfast, targeted and destroyed the Ver-sur-Mer battery near Juno beach where the 3rd Canadian Division was to land.

Though many veterans who served on HMS Belfast fondly imagined that their ship was the first to open fire on June 6, unfortunately this would appear not to be so.

Lieutenant Peter Brooke Smith, who was serving on board HMS Belfast, recorded in his diary that another cruiser to the west fired first at 0523.

The entry in HMS Belfast’s log records that she opened fire three minutes later at 0527, ‘with full broadside to port’.

HMS Belfast is credited with getting closer to the shore than any other bombarding ship. She spent 33 days in support of the landings and fired over 4,000 six-inch and 1,000 four-inch shells, including the last shot of the Normandy action.

The invasion of Normandy was the last time HMS Belfast fired her guns during the Second World War.

In July, she set sail for Plymouth Devonport and a well-earned refit, before being despatched to the Far East.

She arrived just after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

HMS Belfast assisted in rescuing and evacuating the emaciated survivors of Japanese POW and civilian internment camps.

In October 1945 the ship’s crew held a party for the children from the camps.

Most of the children had never tasted chocolate before and found it very pleasant.

The crew ensured that not a single piece of chocolate survived the party.

HMS Belfast played an active role in the Korean War.

Her main duties were patrolling and shore bombardment.

She acquired an enviable reputation for the accuracy of her gunnery and became known as ‘that straight shooting ship’.

When Belfast sailed for home in September 1952 she had spent 404 days on active service in the Korean War, a deployment as long and as arduous as her service with the home fleet during the Second World War.

Her final years were spent performing peace-keeping duties until she was retired from service in 1963.

In 1967, efforts were initiated to avert HMS Belfast’s scrapping and to preserve her as a museum ship.

A joint committee of the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum, and the Ministry of Defence was established and then reported in June 1968 that preservation was practical.

In 1971, the government decided against preservation, prompting the formation of the private HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for her preservation.

Since 1971 HMS Belfast has been moored on the River Thames near Tower Bridge.

A popular tourist attraction and part of the Imperial War Museum since 1978, HMS Belfast attracts over 250,000 visitors annually.

She is one of only three surviving bombardment ships which supported the D-Day landings.

The two other ships are museum ships in the United States.

In September 2017, the defence secretary announced that the third of the Royal Navy’s Type 26 frigates would be named Belfast.

At the same time, the Imperial War Museum announced that the museum would be renamed as ‘HMS Belfast (1938)’ in order to avoid any confusion.