One of 2 Edinburgh subclass of Town class cruisers built by the Royal Navy between 1934-1936.
The Edinburgh class differed from the standard Town class in overall length, 614ft instead of 592ft. This was to allow the fitting of four quad 6 inch turrets but this was never taken further due to technical difficulties with the quad turrets. Instead they were fitted with the improved “long trunk” Mk XXIII triple 6 inch turrets along with four extra 4 inch secondaries and eight 40mm guns.
The whole family of Town class light cruisers were originally designed to combat the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mogami class cruisers.
Belfast original design weighed 10,000 tons and she was laid down in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard on 10 December 1936 with an expected cost of £2,141,514. She was launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938 by the Prime Minister’s wife Anne Chamberlain.
She was powered to her top speed of 32.5 knots (37.4mph) by 4 three drum oil-fired admiralty boilers running Parsons geared steam turbines and this was fueled by 2,400 tons of fuel oil that gave the ship a maximum range of 9,970 miles at 13 knots.
The ship’s main armament consisted of 12 mk XXIII 6 inch guns split into four 174 ton triple turrets (2 forward A&B and 2 astern X&Y), each turret was manned by 26 men with a rate of fire of up to 96 rounds a minute. Twelve 4 inch guns in six twin turrets and 16 close-in anti-aircraft guns called “Pom Poms” in two 8 barrel mountings. Her underwater armament consisted of 6 21 inch torpedoes in 2 triple mounts and 15 Mk VII depth charges.
Originally the ship had the capability to launch and recover spotter aircraft, the aircraft chosen for this role was the Supermarine Walrus which had been used on other Royal Navy ships of the time.These were kept in hangars built into the forward superstructure.
To protect the ship and her crew she was armoured with 4.5 inches of belt armour and upto 3 inches on her decks over her magazines. The boiler rooms and engine rooms were protected with up to 2 inch armour plate.
Belfast under the command of Captain Scott was commissioned into the fleet on the 5 August 1939, just under a month before war was declared. After conducting exercises with Home Fleet units she headed for Scapa Flow to join the 18th Cruiser Squadron and undertook blockade duties against Germany. On the 3rd September 1939 HMS Belfast received a signal from the Admiralty:-
“Commence hostilities at once against Germany”
The ship spent the first few months of the war operating around the North sea intercepting and searching vessels attempting to return to Germany. On the 8th October 1939 Belfast intercepted and boarded a German liner, Cap Norte, she was found to be returning military reserves to Germany. Belfast put a prize crew aboard and returned the ship to a friendly port, the crew later received prize money under the Admiralty’s prize rules. After returning to Scapa flow on the night of 13-14 October she was at anchor when the German submarine, U-47, entered the wartime anchorage of the Royal Navy and sank the battleship Royal Oak.
21 November saw Belfast heading out of the Firth Of Forth having been moved there along with the rest of the squadron following the sinking of the Royal Oak. She was heading for a gunnery exercise when at 10:58 the ship was rocked by an explosion, it was later discovered to be a magnetic sea mine. The explosion broke the ships back (the keel) along with destroying one of the ship’s engine rooms and boiler room. 20 of the ship’s crew required hospital treatment and 1 was to die later from his injuries after hitting his head. One of the tugs being used for in exercise came to the assistance of the now crippled cruiser and towed her back to Rosyth for emergency repair.
Once in Rosyth the dockyard team began an assessment of the ship to document the damage. It was found that little direct damage had been caused by the mine to the hull but pressure from the explosion (similar to a depth charge against a submarine) had caused machinery to break, the hull to wrap, decks to deform and the keel to bend upwards by 3 inches.
By January 1940 the ship had been reduced from active status to reserve status and her crew transferred to other ships and posts. It took until June that year for the ship to be seaworthy and to be transferred to Devonport for reconstruction.
It took 2 years for the ship to be rebuilt, during this time she underwent an overhaul and she received updated close-in anti aircraft pom-pom guns. The vickers machine guns were replaced with 18 20mm Oerlikon guns split into five twin mounts and 8 signal mounts. She was also fitted with new fire control radars and echo sounders. This increased her top weight but this was offset by altering her hull to include a bulge amidships to help her sea keeping and increase displacement from 10,500 to 11,550 tons.
In 1942 Belfast was returned to active service under the command of Captain Parham and returned to the Home Fleet as flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron under Rear Admiral Burnett. From 1943 Belfast and the rest of the Squadron were engaged in convoy escorts on the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union.
26th December 1943, Belfast was part of the force including cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield engaged in the Battle Of North Cape. Belfast and the rest of her squadron were escorting convoy JW55D to the Soviet Union when they came under attack by the German battleship Scharnhorst. The defence of the convoy was organised from Belfast as the flagship for the escort ships, due to the actions of the escorting warships Scharnhorst was forced to turn away from pressing the attack. The German battleship was tracked using Belfast’s radar until she could be intercepted by the force lead by the battleship Duke of York.
Scharnhorst was sunk by the Duke of York later that day. Following this engagement Belfast and the rest of the Royal Navy ships involved were awarded a Battle Honour.
Following the battle of North Cape in early 1944 Belfast formed part of the escort covering Operation Tungsten which saw the immobilising of the Tirpitz, the last major German Naval combat ship in the North Sea.
June 1944, Belfast was flagship for the naval bombardment force E under Rear Admiral Dalrymple-Mailton supporting the landing at Gold and Juno beaches. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed a need to be at the landings and to witness them from Belfast even though this was frowned upon by the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower and only after the intervention of HRH King George VI did Churchill choose not to go to the invasion beaches on D-Day.
05:30hrs on the 6th June 1944 Belfast’s guns opened fire on German artillery positions at Ver-sur Mer until it was secured by British ground forces. Following the landing casualties from the beaches started to arrive on board the ship from 1300, Belfast had a fully equipped sick bay and medical team.
On June 12th she provided naval gunfire support to Canadian troops moving from Juno beach inland.
16th June, Belfast was forced to return Portsmouth to resupply, she returned to station off the landing beaches 2 days later. On 25th June members of the crew were formed up into working parties and sent ashore to assist with the cleaning up of the beaches.
On the evening of 6th July Belfast was anchored off Normandy when she came under attack from a german E boat, she managed to avoid any damage and weighed anchor hidden in a smoke screen. During 33 days spent supporting the allied landings at Gold and Juno beaches she fired 4000 6 inch shells and 1000 4 inch shells. Belfast fired her last shots in European waters on the 8th July 1944 as part of Operation Charnwood.
After supporting the landing at D-day the she returned to port and underwent refit to replace her worn out barrels on the main turrets. This was in preparation for the ship being deployed to the Far East for possible operations against the Japanese. Part of this refit saw improvements to the crew’s living areas to help cope with the tropical conditions, also with the increased use of kamikaze attacks against Allied warships her anti-aircraft armament was increased and she now carried 36 two pounder guns in 2 eight guns mount and 4 quadruple mounts. Two of the rear 4 inch turrets were removed to help reduce her weight and the remaining 4 inch mounts were upgraded with remote power control. Her 2 Supermarine Walrus spotter planes were removed and accommodation placed in the now empty hangers and the catapult used to launch the aircraft was removed.
After sailing to join the British Pacific Fleet in Sydney she was again refitted with extra anti aircraft guns in the form of five 40mm bofors guns given the increased threat from aircraft in the Pacific theater. Belfast was attached to the 2nd cruiser squadron as flagship. The British Pacific fleet was due to enage in Operation Downfall but this was shelved due to the surrender of Japan on the 15th August 1945.
After the surrender of Japan and Germany in 1945 Belfast settled into a peacetime deployment and remained in the far east region. She returned in 1947 where she was reduced to reserves and underwent a deep clean and maintenance period. During this period her engine turbines were opened up to allow cleaning and any necessary maintenance that was required. She was recommissioned into the fleet in 1948 and she returned to to Hong Kong and joined the Royal Navy Far East Station. After the political situation in the region and the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War Belfast acted as flagship to the 5th Cruiser squadron during the incident involving HMS Amethyst; a Royal Navy Sloop was fired upon by military units of the People’s Liberation Army which became known as the Amethyst Incident a.k.a Yangtze Incident.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 Belfast would again be called to fire her 6 inch guns in anger, She joined the United Nations naval force but was ordered to operate independently. She undertook patrols along the coastline providing naval gunfire support for shore units. During one of these support missions she is believed to have fired 350 6 inch shells and was praised by the American admiral as a “straight shooting ship”.
On July 1952 Belfast was engaged in naval gunfire support when she was hit by a 75mm shell from a North Korean Artillery battery. This killed one rating and wounded 4 others, this was the only time she was hit by enemy fire during the Korean war. She was relieved by HMS Birmingham and HMS Newcastle in September 1952. Belfast returned to Devonport to be paid off into reserves.
The post war navy was uncertain as to Belfast’s future following on from defence budget cuts. These WWII era ships were very manpower intensive vessels to crew. In 1955 the Admiralty took the decision to modernise the ship and upgrade the ship’s systems to offer better protection against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. This involved enclosing the bridge. Up until this point Belfast had an open bridge and this altered the ships appearance dramatically. Removing and replacing her wooden decks with steel except for the quarterdeck. During this upgrade and refit her original tripod mast was removed and replaced with a lattice mast and her close-in armament was standardised and now contained six twin Bofors guns and their fire direction controls were similarly standardised and upgraded. The crew’s living conditions and accommodations were altered and upgraded to reflect the smaller peacetime crew numbers and to improve the general comfort levels on board, this involved installing bunks and the removal of hammocks which were still common place through the fleet. All these upgrades had added a lot of weight to the ship so her torpedo armament was removed.
Belfast was recommissioned into active service in early 1959 and after completing working-up trials she was dispatched back out to the Far East station. She arrived in Singapore in December 1959 and spent the following year conducting patrols, exercises and port visits around the region including Hong Kong, India, Australia and the Philippines.
Belfast departed the Far East station in March 1962 back to the UK calling in at Guam, Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, British Columbia, Panama and Trinidad. Finally arriving back in Portsmouth in June 1962, She made a final visit to her hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland before being paid off into the reserves. She was returned to active service in 1963 for the last time manned by a crew made up from the newly formed Royal Naval Reserves (RNR) and a number of Sea Cadets. She became the flagship of Rear Admiral Martell- Admiral Commanding Reserves, in company of 16 minesweepers also crewed by RNR personnel they sailed for Gibraltar on a two week training cruise. The cruise and following 2 weeks of exercise did much to raise the image and confidence of the newly formed RNR which had been merged from the old RNR and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves (RNVR).
Following this training cruise HMS Belfast was paid off into reserves for the last time in August 1963. Over the next few years she spent time as an accommodation ship based in Fareham Creek in Portsmouth, it was around this time the Imperial War Museum contacted the Admiralty to discuss the possibility of preserving one of Belfast’s 6 inch turrets. In 1967 museum staff surveyed Crown Colony cruiser HMS Gambia but was found to have not aged well after being left in reserves for a number of years. During this time the idea of saving the whole ship and opening her up as a floating museum started to build up support, however in 1971 even though found to be both practical and economic to preserve, the government at the time ruled against it and she was listed for disposal and awaited the breakers yard.
The “HMS Belfast Trust”, a private trust formed in early 1971 in an attempt to save the ship for the nation; chaired by former captain of Belfast Rear Admiral Sir Morgan-Giles and several Members of Parliament including Gordon Bagier MP who served on board the ship during WWII as a Royal Marine spoke in the Houses of Parliament in support of saving the ship. The Trust picked up support and the Government postponed any further plans to scrap the ship but they couldn’t postpone the stripping of the removable equipment that already begun prior to her being scrapped.
By mid 1971 the Government had agreed to hand over Belfast to the trustees and “Operation Seahorse” was announced to the public at a press conference. This was the name given to the plan to bring the ship into the Pool of London where she is currently moored. Following this the ship was towed from Portsmouth to Tilbury where she was fitted out for her new life as a museum ship, even though she was no longer an active ship with the Royal Navy she was granted special permission to fly the White Ensign similar to HMS Cavalier.
HMS Belfast sailed up the River thames and into the Pool of London on Trafalgar Day 1971 and moored opposite the Royal Palace and fortress the Tower of London and opened to the public. By December 1975 the ship received 1,500,000 visitors but by 1977 the trust were struggling financially, so the Imperial War Museum asked for permission from the Secretary of State for Education to merge the trust with the IWM. This was approved by 1978 and the ship was formally transferred to them in March 1978.
Since being used as a museum ship the Belfast has been dry docked twice; once in Tilbury and again in 1999 when she was towed back to Portsmouth. This later voyage was the first time the ship had been taken to sea in 28 years. These periods in dry dock allowed for inspection and maintenance of the underwater hull, which involved blasting and stripping the hull and repainting it and conducting ultrasound surveys of the lower hull. During her visit to Portsmouth in 1999 the ship was repainted in a camouflage known as Admiralty Disruptive Camouflage Type 25 which had been used on the ship from 1942-1944.
2006 HMS Belfast was listed as part of the National Historic Fleet. In May 2010 during the 65th anniversary of Victory in Europe the Russian Ambassador was on board honouring veterans of the Arctic Convoys with medals. It was also released that as part of the ongoing restoration of the ship Belfast required 2 new masts to replace the ones current on the ship which were suffering from corrosion. The new masts were going to be manufactured in a shipyard near to Saint Petersburg. These were funded by Russian businesses and donated to the ship.
Personally I have carried out a number of WWII events on board the ship as part of a group called “The Wavy Navy”, and I have enjoyed a couple of summers bringing the ship back to life for members of the public and firing off one of the ships 4 inch turrets, you begin to feel how difficult it must have been for men on board during an Arctic convoy. I enjoyed spending time on board the ship and passing on knowledge to the younger generation including scaring some children as they thought I was a mannequin in period uniform up to the point I moved!