HMS Belfast is a museum ship, originally a Royal Navy light cruiser, permanently moored on the River Thames and operated by the Imperial War Museum. A popular tourist attraction, she receives around a quarter of a million visitors per year. Commissioned in early August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Belfast was initially part of the British naval blockade against Germany.
As a branch of a national museum and part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection, Belfast is supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by admissions income, and by the museum’s commercial activities.
HMS Belfast is also the headquarters of the City of London Sea Cadet Corps, and her prestigious central London location means she frequently has other vessels berth alongside; in October 2007 Belfast hosted the naming ceremony of the lighthouse tender THV Galatea with the Queen and Prince Philip in attendance.
When completed in 1939, Belfast had an overall length of 187 m, a beam of 19.3 m and a draught of 5.3 m. Her standard displacement was 10,590 tonnes. She was propelled by four three-drum oil-fired Admiralty water-tube boilers driving four propeller shafts. Being capable of 32.5 knots (60.2 km/h) and carrying 2,400 tonnes of fuel oil gave her a maximum range of 8,664 nautical miles (16,046 km) at 13 knots (24 km/h).
Launched in March 1938, HMS Belfast had several assignments during World War II. However, in November 1939 she struck a German mine and spent more than two years undergoing extensive repairs. Belfast played an important role in the Battle of North Cape, assisting in the destruction of the German warship Scharnhorst. In June 1944 she took part in Operation Overlord supporting the Normandy landings.
Belfast, the first Royal Navy ship to be named after the capital city of Northern Ireland and one of ten Town-class cruisers, was ordered from Harland and Wolff on 21 September 1936, and her construction began on 10 December 1936. She was launched on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1938, by Anne Chamberlain, the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
Belfast sailed for Portsmouth on 3 August 1939, and was commissioned on 5 August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of World War II. On 31 August 1939 Belfast was transferred to the 18th Cruiser Squadron. Germany invaded Poland the following day, and Britain and France declared war on 3 September. Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, 18th Cruiser Squadron was part of the British effort to impose a naval blockade on Germany. On 10 November Belfast was taken off the northern patrol and reassigned to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. This squadron was to form an independent striking force based at Rosyth.
On 21 November, Belfast was to take part in the force’s first sortie, a gunnery exercise. At 10:58 a.m. she struck a magnetic mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. The mine broke Belfast’s keel, wrecked one of her engine and boiler rooms and injured twenty-one of her crew. Initial assessments of Belfast’s damage showed that, while the mine had done little physical damage to the outer hull, causing only a small hole directly below one of the boiler rooms, the shock of the explosion had caused severe warping, breaking machinery, deforming the decks and causing the keel to hog (bend upwards) by three inches.
Returning to action in November 1942 with improved firepower, radar equipment and armour, Belfast was the largest and arguably most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy at the time. Her beam had increased to 21 m and her draught to 5.8 m forward and 6.15 m aft. Her displacement had risen to 11,550 tonnes.
On her return to the Home Fleet Belfast was made flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Robert Burnett, who had previously commanded the Home Fleet’s destroyer flotillas. The squadron was responsible for the hazardous task of escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union, operating from Scapa Flow and bases in Iceland. Her radar suite reduced Belfast’s need for aerial surveillance, and her aircraft were disembarked in June 1943.
Belfast spent 1943 engaged on convoy escort and blockade patrol duties, and on 5–6 October formed part of the covering force during Operation Leader, an airstrike against German shipping in northern Norway near Bodø by the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
On 26 December 1943, Belfast participated in the Battle of North Cape. This battle involved two strong Royal Navy formations; the first, Force One, comprised the cruisers HMS Norfolk, HMS Sheffield and Belfast (the 10th Cruiser Squadron) with three destroyers, and the second, Force Two, comprised the battleship HMS Duke of York and the cruiser HMS Jamaica with four destroyers. On 25 December 1943, Christmas Day, the German Navy’s Gneisenau-class battleship Scharnhorst left port in northern Norway to attack Convoy JW55B, which was bound for Russia. The next day Force One encountered Scharnhorst, prevented her from attacking the convoy, and forced her to turn for home after being damaged by the British cruisers. As Scharnhorst did so, she was intercepted by Force Two and sunk by the combined formations.
Belfast played an important role in the battle; as flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron she was among the first to encounter Scharnhorst, and coordinated the squadron’s defence of the convoy. After Scharnhorst turned away from the convoy, Belfast shadowed her by radar from outside visual range, enabling her interception.
February 1944 saw Belfast resume her Arctic convoy duties, and on 30 March 1944 Belfast sailed with the covering force of Operation Tungsten, a large carrier-launched Fleet Air Arm airstrike against the German battleship Tirpitz.
In June 1944 Belfast took part in Operation Overlord supporting the Normandy landings. For the invasion of Normandy Belfast was made headquarters ship of Bombardment Force E flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton, and was to support landings by British and Canadian forces in the Gold and Juno Beach sectors. On 2 June Prime Minister Winston Churchill had announced his intention to go to sea with the fleet and witness the invasion from HMS Belfast. This was opposed by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the First Sea Lord, Sir Andrew Cunningham. An intervention by the King eventually prevented Churchill from going.
The invasion was to begin on 5 June but bad weather forced a 24-hour delay. At 5:30 a.m. on 6 June Belfast opened fire on a German artillery battery at Ver-sur-Mer, suppressing the guns until the site was overrun by British infantry of 7th Battalion, Green Howards. On 12 June Belfast supported Canadian troops moving inland from Juno Beach and returned to Portsmouth on 16 June to replenish her ammunition. She returned two days later for further bombardments. During her five weeks off Normandy Belfast had fired 1,996 rounds from her six-inch guns.
On 17 June 1945, with the war in Europe at an end, Belfast sailed for the Far East via Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Port Said, Aden, Colombo and Sydney. By the time she arrived in Sydney on 7 August Belfast had been made flagship of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet. Belfast had been expected to join in Operation Downfall, but this was forestalled by the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.
In June 1945 Belfast was redeployed to the Far East to join the British Pacific Fleet, arriving shortly before the end of World War II. Belfast saw further combat action in 1950–52 during the Korean War and underwent an extensive modernisation between 1956 and 1959. A number of further overseas commissions followed before Belfast entered reserve in 1963.
With the end of the war, Belfast remained in the Far East, conducting a number of cruises to ports in Japan, China and Malaya and sailing for Portsmouth on 20 August 1947. There she paid off into reserve, and underwent a refit during which her turbines were opened for maintenance. She was recommissioned on 22 September 1948. She sailed for Hong Kong on 23 October to join the Royal Navy’s Far East Station, arriving in late December. Belfast remained in Hong Kong during 1949, sailing for Singapore on 18 January 1950.
On 25 June 1950, while Belfast was visiting Hakodate in Japan, North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel, starting the Korean War. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Belfast became part of the United Nations naval forces. Originally part of the US Navy’s Task Force 77, Belfast was detached in order to operate independently on 5 July 1950. On 6 August she sailed for the UK to pay off and recommission, and arrived back at Sasebo on 31 January 1951. During 1951 Belfast mounted a number of coastal patrols and bombarded a variety of targets.
In 1952 Belfast continued her coastal patrol duties. On 29 July 1952 she was hit by enemy fire while engaging an artillery battery on Wolsa-ri island. A 75 mm shell struck a forward compartment, killing a British sailor of Chinese origin in his hammock and wounding four other Chinese ratings. This was the only time Belfast was hit by enemy fire during her Korean service.
She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December. In reserve, Belfast’s future was uncertain: post-war defence cuts made manpower-intensive cruisers excessively costly to operate, and it was not until March 1955 that the decision was taken to modernise Belfast. Work began on 6 January 1956.
Belfast recommissioned at Devonport on 12 May 1959. She arrived in Singapore on 16 December 1959, and spent most of 1960 at sea on exercise, calling at ports in Hong Kong, Borneo, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia, the Philippines and Japan. On 31 January 1961 Belfast recommissioned again, under the command of Captain Morgan Morgan-Giles. On her final foreign commission Belfast joined a number of exercises in the Far East, and in December 1961 she provided the British guard of honour at Tanganyika’s independence ceremony in Dar-es-Salaam.
The ship left Singapore on 26 March 1962 for the UK, sailing east via Guam and Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, Seattle, British Columbia, Panama and Trinidad, paying off into reserve on 25 February 1963. In July 1963 Belfast was recommissioned for the last time. She returned to Devonport on 24 August and paid off into reserve. From May 1966 to 1970 she was an accommodation ship, moored in Fareham Creek, for the Reserve Division at Portsmouth.
While HMS Belfast lay at Fareham Creek the Imperial War Museum, Britain’s national museum of twentieth century conflict, became interested in preserving a 6-inch turret. The turret would represent a number of classes of cruiser (then disappearing from service) and would complement the museum’s pair of British 15-inch naval guns. On 14 April 1967 museum staff visited HMS Gambia, a Crown Colony-class cruiser also moored in Fareham Creek at the time. Following the visit the possibility was raised of preserving an entire ship. Gambia had already severely deteriorated, so attention turned to the possibility of saving Belfast. A joint committee was established by the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence, which reported in June 1968 that the scheme was practical and economic. However, in early 1971 the government’s Paymaster General decided against preservation. On 4 May 1971 Belfast was ‘reduced to disposal’ to await scrapping.
Following the government’s refusal, a private trust was formed to campaign for the ship’s preservation. The HMS Belfast Trust was established and thanks to its efforts, the government agreed to hand over Belfast to the Trustees in July 1971.
Belfast was towed from Portsmouth to London via Tilbury, where she was fitted out as a museum. The ship was opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1971. The date was significant, as Belfast was the first naval vessel to be saved for the nation since HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship’s opening was well received: in 1972 the HMS Belfast Trust won the British Tourist Authority’s “Come to Britain” trophy.
By 1974 areas including the Admiral’s bridge and forward boiler and engine rooms had been restored and fitted out. That year also saw the refurbishment of the ship’s Operations Room. By December 1975 Belfast had received 1,500,000 visitors.
By 1977 the financial position of the HMS Belfast Trust had become marginal, and the Imperial War Museum sought permission to merge the Trust into the museum. The ship became the Imperial War Museum’s third branch on 1 March 1978.
When Belfast was first opened to the public, visitors were limited to the upper decks and forward superstructure. As of 2011, nine decks are open to the public. Access to the ship is via a walkway which connects the quarterdeck with the pedestrianised footpath on the south bank of the River Thames.
The Imperial War Museum’s guidebook to HMS Belfast divides the ship into three broad sections. The first of these, ‘Life on board the ship’, focuses on the experience of serving at sea. Restored compartments, some populated with dressed figures, illustrate the crew’s living conditions and the ship’s various facilities such as the sick bay, galley, laundry, chapel, mess decks and NAAFI. Since 2002 school and youth groups have been able to stay on-board Belfast overnight, sleeping in bunks on a restored 1950s mess deck.
The second section, ‘The inner workings’, below the waterline and protected by the ship’s armoured belt, contains core mechanical, electrical and communication systems. As well as the engine and boiler rooms, other compartments include the transmitting station (housing the ship’s Admiralty Fire Control Table, a mechanical computer), the forward steering position and one of Belfast’s six-inch shell rooms and magazines.
The third section, ‘Action stations’, includes the upper deck and forward superstructure with the ship’s armament, fire control, and command facilities. Areas open to the public include the operations room, Admiral’s bridge and gun direction platform.
In addition to the various areas of the ship open to visitors, some compartments have been fitted out as dedicated exhibition space. Permanent exhibitions include ‘HMS Belfast in War and Peace’ and ‘Life at Sea’.