HMS Belfast had an inauspicious start to her career when she hit a magnetic mine which took her out of commission for over two years. However, upon her return to the Fleet she spent over a year escorting Arctic convoys, played a key role in the sinking of the Scharnhorst and would later provide support to troops ashore during D-Day and later during the Korean War.
HMS Belfast was the second ship in a third batch of Town Class Cruisers - warships intended to sit between Battle-cruisers and Destroyers in the Royal Navy's Order of Battle. The class was designed against a backdrop of the London Naval Treaty (1930) that sought to prevent a maritime arms race between the world's leading powers. This severely constricted the design but, after lessons had been learnt from the earlier ships of the class, by the time HMS Belfast was ordered the Admiralty had modified the design to increase deck armour and add a new triple turret design. Built at Harland and Wolff in Belfast, the ship was launched on 17 March 1938 by Anne Chamberlain, the wife of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Fitting out and sea trials followed and HMS Belfast was finally commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939 - just four weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, HMS Belfast was part of the 18th Cruiser Squadron based in Scapa Flow - the Royal Navy's vast fortified anchorage in the Orkney Islands. However, an audacious attack by U-47 which sank HMS Royal Oak within the anchorage led to the Fleet being dispersed. HMS Belfast was detached to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron based in Rosyth. On 21 November 1939, as she sailed for her first operation with that unit, the vessel hit an air-dropped magnetic mine. The explosion injured 46 personnel, one of whom would later die from his wound, and the ship herself was also badly damaged with the keel broken and a boiler room destroyed. She was towed back to Rosyth and spent the next seven months there being repaired. In June 1940 she was sailed to Devonport and spent the next two years in refit and maintenance. This time was not completely wasted for her anti-aircraft armaments were upgraded and her hull armour improved - the restrictions of the London Treaty clearly no longer applicable. Critically she was also fitted out with a full suite of radar facilities including surface search, fire control, air picture and IFF (identification friend or foe).
HMS Belfast re-commissioned into the Royal Navy on 3 November 1942 under the command of Captain Frederick Parham. She was assigned to the role of flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron and embarked Rear-Admiral Robert Burnett. As part of this force, she spent 1943 escorting Arctic convoys to/from the Soviet Union ensuring vital war material was provided to the Red Army. She was also involved as a support/escort vessel to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger during Operation Leader - an air-strike against German shipping in Bodø, Norway.
Battle of North Cape
Radar played a critical part in the Battle of North Cape enabling HMS Belfast to track the Scharnhorst and vector HMS Duke of York onto the target.
Arctic convoys, which were suspended during the Summer months due to the long hours of daylight, resumed in November 1943. The darkness, coupled with the deteriorating weather, hampered the Luftwaffe's efforts to intercept the convoys with several making it through with no losses. To compensate the head of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Karl Doentiz, decided to use the battleship Scharnhorst in the role of a surface raider. The allies, who were reading German communications via the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, resolved to destroy the Scharnhorst and two battle-groups were assembled. Force 1 consisted of the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norwich and HMS Sheffield. Force 2 consisted of heavier assets including the battleship HMS Duke of York and HMS Jamaica as well as supporting Destroyers.
The subsequent fight with the Scharnhorst became known as the Battle of North Cape and was fought on the 26 December 1943. The previous day the German ship had sailed planning to intercept convoy JW 55A bound for Murmansk. HMS Belfast played a critical role in the action acting as flagship for Vice Admiral Robert Burnett, in command for Force 1, which was the first group to fire upon the German battleship. Initial salvoes disabled the radar of the Scharnhorst rendering her ineffective. After an attempt to skirt around the British ships failed, HMS Belfast then tracked the Scharnhorst as she attempted to return to port. With her accompanying cruisers unable to follow, the British ship was in a vulnerable position as the Scharnhorst comfortably out-gunned her. Yet HMS Belfast pressed on vectoring in HMS Duke of York, with its powerful 14-inch guns, which ultimately damaged Scharnhorst enabling HMS Belfast, HMS Jamaica and the accompanying destroyers to get close enough to sink her with torpedoes.
On 30 March 1944 HMS Belfast was attached to Operation Tungsten which was an attempt by the Royal Navy to eliminate the threat from the German Battleship Tirpitz which had moved into Altafjord, Norway - the same base that had been used by the Scharnhorst. The operation was centred around a carrier strike with Barracuda bombers launched from HMS Furious and HMS Victorious conducting the assault. For those on HMS Belfast it must have been a potent moment as it became clear the age of the big gun warship was being replaced. Tirpitz was badly damaged by the strike and spent the next two months undergoing repair.
HMS Belfast was assigned as Command ship for Bombardment Force E during Operation Neptune, the Allied invasion of Normandy. With Rear-Admiral Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton embarked, the ship provided fire support for the British landings at Gold breach and the Canadians at Juno. Notably, in the opening hours of the action on 6 June 1944, she fired against a German artillery battery at Ver-sur-Mer suppressing it until it was overrun by the army. Aside from periods to resupply ammunition and fuel, HMS Belfast remained on the gun line until 8 July 1944 firing a total of 1,996 shells in support of the troops ashore.
The air defences of HMS Belfast were upgraded prior to her deployment to the Far East due to the expectation of kamikaze attacks.
In late July 1944 HMS Belfast entered refit to prepare her for service in the Far East. Her anti-air defences were significantly enhanced, radars upgraded and the internal air conditioning, hereto configured for Arctic conditions, were modified for the tropics. She sailed from Britain on 17 June 1945 and arrived in Sydney, Australia three weeks later where she underwent a further refit including the addition of more anti-aircraft guns. The Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945 meant she saw no action in the war in the Far East but she remained in the theatre for the next two years 'flying the flag' for Britain. She returned to Portsmouth on 20 August 1947 and entered refit.
The Yangtze Incident
HMS Belfast re-commissioned on 22 September 1948 and was back in the Far East by Christmas. In April 1949 she acted as the command ship for Admiral Sir Patrick Brind who was responsible for efforts to rescue HMS Amethyst. The British Sloop had been tasked to proceed along the River Yangtze to Nanking where she was to act as a guard ship for the British Embassy during the ongoing Chinese Civil War. However she was attacked by shore batteries manned by the Communist People's Liberation Army and, when her bridge was hit, ran aground. After six weeks of negotiation, HMS Amethyst made a dash for freedom and escaped into open water.
In 1950 communist North Korea invaded the south starting the Korean war. A United Nations operation to protect South Korea followed and HMS Belfast was employed conducting coastal patrols and providing fire-support to troops ashore. During the two year conflict, HMS Belfast completed 404 days of active service in the theatre with her only significant breaks being a short refit in UK in Autumn 1950 and a maintenance period in Singapore in Summer 1951. She suffered damage from enemy fire in July 1952 when she was hit by enemy fire from a Communist battery on Wolsa-ri Island. HMS Belfast remained in theatre until September 1952 when she was relieved and returned to the UK. In total she had fired more than 8,000 rounds from her main guns during the war.
The enclosed bridge was added as part of the 1956 modifications to ensure the ship was capable of operating a chemical or biological threat environment.
HMS Belfast underwent her final, extensive refit in early 1956. Aside from upgrades to her weapons, the superstructure was substantially rebuilt to guard against potential nuclear, biological or chemical attack. This required the ship's air conditioning system to be able to create a positive pressure inside the ship. This meant the bridge, formerly open to the elements, had to be enclosed - doubtless to the delight of many young Seamen Officers! The upgraded warship returned to the Far East for a final time in December 1959 and remained on station until June 1962.
HMS Belfast was downgraded to the Reserve Fleet in 1963. In an attempt to save a vital part of Britain’s maritime heritage, the Imperial War Museum devised a scheme to preserve her. Overcoming Government resistance, including a decision to scrap the ship in 1971, it was eventually procured by the HMS Belfast Trust. Towed to London, it was opened to the public in October 1971 and became part of the Imperial War Museum in 1978. At the time HMS Belfast was the first naval vessel to be saved for the nation since HMS Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).
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HMS Belfast is a unique survivor from the 'big gun' warships that once made up the capital ships of the Royal Navy’s twentieth century arsenal. Located in central London, the ship is a major tourist attraction. For those planning to take photos it is worth noting that HMS Belfast frequently has other vessels berth outboard of her on a jetty that is under the control of the London Harbour Authority.
Supermarine Walrus. HMS Belfast was originally equipped with two Supermarine Walrus aircraft. These were launched via catapult and were recovered by landing on the sea and being craned back on-board. Operations were clearly limited by weather and they were removed in June 1943 as the ship's upgraded radar fit made such surveillance aircraft less important. Today all major warships of the Royal Navy routinely embark multi-purpose helicopters.
Admiralty Arch. This was built in 1912 as an official residence for the First Sea Lord and administrative offices for Admiralty staff. It is now in private ownership. Nelson's column and a statue of Captain James Cook are in the immediate vicinity.
HMS Belfast is found between London Bridge and Tower Bridge and is accessed from the south side of the River Thames. It is within easy walking distance of Tower Hill or Monument Tube Stations or London Bridge Railway Station. Admiralty Arch, along with Nelson's Column and the Captain James Cook statue, are found approximately 2 miles to the west on the Mall. Nearest Tube Station is Charing Cross.
Queen's Walk, SE1 2JH
The Mall, SW1A 2WH