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HMS Belfast is an ex-Royal Navy Town-class cruiser and now a museum ship operated by the Imperial War Museummarker. Commissioned in August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Belfast spent much of the early war years undergoing repairs after being damaged by a German mine in November 1940. Recommissioned in November 1942, she saw action escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Unionmarker during 1943 and participated in the Battle of North Capemarker in December of that year. In June 1944 Belfast took part in Operation Overlord supporting the Normandy landings. She saw further action during the Korean War.

Decommissioned in 1963 following a number of overseas tours Belfast was initially expected to be disposed of as scrap. After a campaign by a private trust she was preserved as a museum ship and berthed on the River Thames in the Pool of Londonmarker. Opened to the public in 1971 Belfast has been maintained as a branch of the Imperial War Museummarker since 1978. In Royal Navy service for 24 years HMS Belfast was, in the view of historian and Imperial War Museum director Noble Frankland, capable of representing "a whole generation of [historical evidence]". A popular tourist attraction, Belfast receives around a quarter of a million visitors per year. As a branch of a national museum, Belfast is supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by admissions income and the Imperial War Museum's other commercial activity.


Belfast is a Town class cruiser. The Town class had originated in the early 1930's as the Admiralty's response to the Imperial Japanese Navy's Mogami class cruiser, an 11,200 ton cruiser mounting fifteen 6-inch guns with a top speed exceeding 35 knots. The Admiralty's requirement called for a 9,000 ton cruiser, sufficiently armoured to withstand a direct hit from an 8-inch shell, capable of 32 knots and mounting twelve 6-inch guns. The original proposal included sixteen 6-inch guns, in quadruple turrets, but an effective quadruple turret proved impossible to manufacture, and triple turrets were substituted. Meanwhile, seaplanes carried aboard would enable shipping lanes to be patrolled over a wide area, and the class was also to be capable of its own anti-aircraft defence. The first of the Town class cruisers, the 9,100 ton HMS Southampton, was launched on 10 March 1936.

Construction of HMS Belfast began later that year, with her keel laid on 10 December 1936 at Harland and Wolffmarker in Belfast. Her expected cost was £2,141,514; of which the guns cost £75,000 and the aircraft (two Supermarine Walruses) £66,500. She was launched on Saint Patrick's Day, 17 March 1938 by Anne Chamberlain, the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. By this point the Town class had evolved into three subgroups; Belfast and her sister ship HMS Edinburghmarker formed the final group with a displacement of 10,000 tons, the greater weight the result of thicker armour.

Prewar service

On 3 August 1939 Belfast sailed for Portsmouthmarker and was commissioned on 5 August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her first captain was Captain G A Scott with a crew complement of 761, and her first assignment was to the Home Fleet's Second Cruiser Squadron. On 14 August Belfast took part in her first exercise, Operation Hipper, in which she played the role of a German commerce raider attempting to escape into the Atlantic. By navigating the hazardous Pentland Firthmarker, Belfast successfully evaded the Home Fleet.

Second World War

1939: Prize capture and mining

On 31 August 1939 Belfast transferred to the 18th Cruiser Squadron. Germany invaded Poland the following day, and Britain and France declared war on 3 September. Based at Scapa Flowmarker in the Orkneymarker islands, 18th Cruiser Squadron was part of the British effort to impose a naval blockade on Germany. On 1 October 1939 Belfast left Scapa Flow for a patrol in the North Sea, and on 9 October intercepted a German liner, the 13,615-ton Cap Norte, 50 miles north-west of the Faroe Islandsmarker. Disguised as a neutral Swedish vessel, the SS Ancona, Cap Norte was attempting to return to Germany from Brazil; her passengers included German reservists. Two other vessels were captured that day, and all were steamed back to Scapa by prize crews from Belfast. Under the Admiralty's prize rules, Belfast's crew later received prize money.

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 Rosythmarker. On 21 November, Belfast was to take part in the force's first sortie. At 10:58 a.m. she struck a magnetic mine while leaving the Firth of Forthmarker. The mine, laid by the German submarine U-21 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Fritz Frauenheim, broke Belfast's keel, wrecked one of her engine and boiler rooms and injured 21 of her crew. Belfast was taken under tow by the target tug Krooman and tugged to Rosyth for initial repairs.

1940-1942: Repairs

Initial assessments of Belfast's damage showed that while the mine did little physical damage to the outer hull, causing only a small hole directly below one of the boiler rooms, the shock of the explosion caused a severe warping, breaking machinery, deforming the decks and causing the the keel to hog (bend upwards) by three inches. On 4 January 1940 Belfast was paid off into Care and Maintenance and her crew dispersed to other vessels. By 28 June she had been repaired sufficiently to sail to Devonportmarker, arriving on 30 June.

During her repairs, work was carried out to straighten, reconstruct and strengthen her hull. Her armoured belt was also extended and thickened. Her armament was updated with newer 2-pounder 'pom-pom' mountings, and her anti-aircraft armament improved with eighteen 20mm Oerlikon guns in five twin and eight single mountings, replacing two quadruple 0.5-inch Vickers guns. Belfast also received new fire control radars for her main, secondary and anti-aircraft guns. Her increased topweight also led to her hull being bulged amidships, to improve her stability and provide extra longitudinal strength. Belfast recommissioned at Devonport on 3 November 1942, under the command of Captain Frederick Parham. Her displacement had risen to 11,550 tons, making her the largest and arguably most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy.

1942-1943: Recommissioning, Arctic convoys and Battle of North Cape

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. She was now responsible for the hazardous task of escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Unionmarker, operating from Scapa Flow and bases in Icelandmarker.

26 December 1943, Belfast participated in the Battle of North Capemarker. 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 battlecruiser Scharnhorst left port in northern Norway to attack Convoy JW55B, which was bound for Russia. The next day, 26 December, 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, Admiral Burnett in Belfast shadowed her by radar from outside visual range, enabling her interception by Duke of York.

1944: Tirpitz and D-Day

HMS Belfast's 4 inch guns bombarding German positions in Normandy at night
30 March 1944 Belfast sailed as part of Operation Tungsten a large carrier-launched Fleet Air Arm airstrike against the German battleship Tirpitzmarker. Moored in Altafjordmarker in northern Norway, Tirpitz was by this point the German Navy's last surviving heavy unit. The strike was launched on 3 April. Forty two Fairey Barracuda divebombers from HMS Victorious and Furious made up the strike force with eighty escorting fighters. The bombers scored fourteen hits, immobilising Tirpitz for two months, with one Barracuda shot down.

For the invasion of Normandymarker 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 Goldmarker and Juno Beachmarker sectors. On 2 June Belfast left the River Clyde for her bombardment areas. That morning 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 Eisenhower, and the First Sea Lord, Sir Andrew Cunningham. An intervention by the King eventually prevented Churchill from going.

invasion was to begin on 5 June but bad weather forced a twenty four hour delay. At 5:30am 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. On the night 6 July, Belfast was threatened at anchor by German motor torpedo boats ('E-boat'). She evaded them by weighing anchor and moving to the concealment of a smokescreen. Belfast fired her last round in anger in European waters on 8 July, in company with the monitor HMS Roberts and the battleship HMS Rodney, as part of Operation Charnwoodmarker. On 10 July she sailed for Scapa, the fighting in France having moved beyond the range of her guns. During her five weeks off Normandy Belfast had fired some 1996 rounds from her six-inch guns.

1945: Service in the Far East

On 29 July 1944 Captain Parham handed over command of HMS Belfast to Captain R M Dick, and until April 1945 Belfast underwent a refit to prepare for service against Japan in the Far East. This refit improved her accommodation for tropical conditions, and updated her anti-aircraft armament and fire control in order to counter expected kamikaze attacks by Japanese aircraft. 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. While in Sydney Belfast underwent another short refit, supplementing her close-range armament with five 40mm Bofors guns. Belfast had been expected to join in Operation Downfall, but this was forestalled by the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.

Post-war service 1945-50

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 recommissioned on 22 September 1948 and before returning to the Far East visited her home city of Belfast arriving on 20 October. The following day, 21 October 1948, the ship's company marked Trafalgar Day with a march through the city. The next day Belfast took charge of a silver ship's bell, a gift of the people of Belfast. She sailed for Hong Kongmarker on 23 October, to join the Royal Navy's Far East Station, arriving in late December. By 1949, the political situation in China was precarious, with the Chinese Civil War moving towards its conclusion. As flagship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron, Belfast was the Far Eastern Station's headquarters ship during the April 1949 Amethyst Incident, in which a British sloop, HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze Rivermarker by the communist People's Liberation Army. Belfast remained in Hong Kong during 1949, sailing for Singaporemarker on 18 January 1950. There she underwent a minor refit between January and March 1950 and in June she joined the Far East Fleet's summer cruise. On 25 June 1950, while Belfast was visiting Hakodate in Japan, North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel and opened the Korean War.

Korean War 1950-52

March 1951: Belfast fires a salvo against enemy troop concentrations on the west coast of Korea
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. During July and early August Belfast undertook coastal patrols and was based at Sasebo in Japan's Nagasaki Prefecturemarker. From 19 July, Belfast supported troops fighting around Yongdok, accompanied by the USS Juneau. That day Belfast fired an accurate 350-round bombardment from her 6-inch guns, and was praised by an American admiral as a 'straight-shooting ship'. On 6 August she sailed for the UK to pay off and recommission, and arrived back at Sasebo on 31 January 1951.

1951 Belfast mounted a number of coastal patrols and bombarded a variety of targets. On 1 June she arrived at Singapore for refitting, arriving back on patrol on 31 August. In September 1951 Belfast provided anti-aircraft cover for a salvage operation to recover a crashed enemy MiG-15 jet fighter. She conducted further bombardments and patrols before receiving a month's leave from operations, returning to action on 23 December.

In 1952 Belfast continued her coastal patrol duties. On 29 July 1952 Belfast was hit by enemy fire while engaging a battery on Wolsa-ri island. A 75mm shell struck a forward compartment, killing a Chinese sailor in his hammock and wounding four other Chinese ratings. This was the only time Belfast was hit by enemy fire during her Korean service. On 27 September 1952 Belfast was relieved by two other Town-class cruisers, HMS Birmingham and HMS Newcastle. She had steamed over 80,000 miles in the combat zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds from her 6-inch guns during the Korean conflict. She paid off in Chathammarker on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.

Modernisation, final commissions and decommissioning 1955-1971

The modernised Belfast, showing the new enclosed bridge, lattice mast and twin Bofors mountings.
reserve, Belfast's future was uncertain. Post-war defence cuts made manpower-intensive cruisers a costly proposition, and it was not until March 1955 that the decision was taken to modernise Belfast. Work began on 6 January 1956. Changes included standardising her close-range weapons with six twin Bofors mountings, replacing her 4-inch guns with more modern weapons, removing her torpedo armament, and protecting key parts of the ship against nuclear, biological or chemical attack. This last consideration meant enclosing her bridge, creating a two-tiered, five-sided superstructure which radically altered her apppearance. Her fire control and crew accommodation was also improved, her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts, and timber decking replaced with steel everywhere except the quarterdeck. Belfast recommissioned at Devonport on 12 May 1959.

Belfast 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 Lankamarker), Australia, the Philippines and Japan. On 31 January 1961 Belfast recommissioned, under the command of Captain Morgan Charles 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-Salaammarker.

The ship left Singapore on 26 March 1962 for the UK, sailing east via Guam and Pearl Harbour, San Francisco, Seattle, British Columbia, Panama and Trinidad. She arrived at Portsmouth on 19 June 1962. Recommissioned in July, she made a final visit to Belfast from 23-29 November, before paying off into reserve on 25 February 1963. In July 1963 Belfast was recommissioned for the last time, with a crew of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and a number of Sea Cadets flying the flag of the Admiral Commanding Reserves, Rear Admiral Hugh Martell. Belfast sailed for Gibraltar in company with sixteen RNR minesweepers for a two-week exercise in the Mediterranean on 10 August. Martell's obituarist considered this commission a well-judged contrivance which 'did much to restore the confidence and image of the new RNR' which had undergone an acrimonious amalgamation with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1958. She returned to Devonport on 24 August 1963 and paid off into reserve. From May 1966 to 1970 she was an accommodation ship for the Reserve Division at Portsmouth, and on 4 May 1971 she was 'reduced to disposal' and moored in Farehammarker Creek to await scrapping.

Museum ship: 1971-present

During the 1960s, the Imperial War Museummarker acquired a pair of British 15-inch naval guns, representative of the dreadnought era of Royal Navy seapower. In 1967 the museum sought to preserve a 6-inch turret, representative of a number of classes of cruiser which were then disappearing from service. After a visit to HMS Gambia on 14 April 1967 the possibility was raised of preserving an entire ship. Gambia had already deteriorated too much to be preserved, and so attention turned to the possibility of saving Belfast. A joint committee was established by the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museummarker and the Ministry of Defence, which reported in June 1968 that the scheme was practical. However, in early 1971 the government's Paymaster General decided against preservation.

HMS Belfast Trust

Following this refusal a private trust was formed to campaign for the ship's preservation. The HMS Belfast Trust was established; its chairman was Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, captain of Belfast from January 1961 to July 1962. As Member of Parliament (MP) for Winchester, Morgan-Giles addressed the House of Commonsmarker on 8 March 1971. He described Belfast as being in 'a really wonderful state of preservation' and that saving her for the nation represented a 'case of grasping the last opportunity'. Among the MPs who spoke in support of Morgan-Giles was Gordon Bagier, MP for Sunderland Southmarker, who served as a Royal Marine gunner aboard Belfast and was present at both the sinking of the Scharnhorst and the Normandy landings. Speaking for the government, the Under-secretary for the Navy, Peter Michael Kirk, said that Belfast was 'one of the most historic ships which the Navy has had in the last 20 years', but that he could not prevent the stripping of the ship's removable equipment, as this was already too far advanced to be halted. He did, however, agree to postpone any decision on Belfast's scrapping to allow the Trust to put together a formal proposal.

Following the Trust's efforts the government agreed to hand over Belfast to the Trustees in July 1971, with Vice Admiral Sir Donald Gibson as her first director. At a press conference in August, the Trust announced 'Operation Seahorse', the plan to bring Belfast to London. She was towed from Portsmouth to London via Tilbury, where she was fitted out as a museum. She 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 Victorymarker, Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker. Though no longer part of the Royal Navy, HMS Belfast was granted a special dispensation to allow it to continue to fly the White Ensign.

The Operations Room of HMS Belfast.
first opened to the public, visitors were limited to the upper decks and forward superstructure. Support for the ship's restoration was received from individuals, from the Royal Navy and from commercial businesses, such as in 1973 when the Worshipful Company of Bakers provided dummy bread for display in the ship's NAAFI and bakery. 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 a team from HMS Vernon, and the return of Belfast's six twin Bofors mounts, along with their fire directors. In 1976 the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society restored the ship's Bridge Wireless Office to working order.

In 1972 the HMS Belfast Trust won the British Tourist Authority's Come to Britain trophy and by December 1975 had received 1,500,000 visitors.

Imperial War Museum

By 1977 however the financial position of the Trust was marginal and the Imperial War Museum sought permission to merge the Trust into the museum. On 19 January 1978 the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Miss Shirley Williams, accepted the proposal stating that 'HMS Belfast is a unique demonstration of an important phase of our history and technology' . The ship was transferred to the museum on 1 March 1978.

HMS Belfast in July 1981.
Note the derelict condition of the buildings on the riverbank behind, and the ship's all-over grey colour scheme.
being brought to London Belfast has twice been drydocked as part of the ship’s long-term preservation. In 1982 she was docked at Tilburymarker and in June 1999 Belfast was towed to Portsmouthmarker. Whilst in dock, her entire hull was cleaned and blasted, her hull blanking plates inspected and an ultrasonic survey carried out. While under tow to Portsmouth she was delayed by bad weather and arrived a day late: it had been intended that she would arrive on 6 June 1999, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Following the maintenance work, Belfast was repainted in a camouflage scheme officially known as Admiralty Disruptive Camouflage Type 25, which she had worn from November 1942 to July 1944. This was objected to by some, due to the anachronistic conflict between her camouflage, which reflects the majority of her active Second World War service, and her present configuration, which was the result of Belfast's extended refit from January 1956 to May 1959.

With the establishment of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships in 2006, Belfast was listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection.

Areas open to the public

Arctic messdeck in a forward compartment.
, nine decks of HMS Belfast 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.

Forward boiler room.
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.

Finally 'Action stations' includes the upper deck and forward superstructure with the ship's armament, fire control, and command facilites. Areas open to the public include the operations room, Admiral's bridge and gun direction platform. To emphasise the range of the ship's armament, the forward six-inch guns of A and B Turrets are aimed at the London Gateway service area on the M1 motorway, some 12½ miles away on the outskirts of London. One of the 4-inch gun mounts and a 4-inch shell hoist are kept in working order for use during blank-firing demonstrations by the Wavy Navy re-enactment group. In 2002 Belfast introduced 'Kip in a Ship', allowing school and youth groups to stay onboard Belfast overnight, sleeping in bunks on a restored mess deck.

One of Belfast's four-inch gun mountings.
August 2009 it was announced that Belfast would receive £150,000 from DCMS and the Wolfson Foundation to support the reinterpretation of the ship's bridge command and control centre. In addition to the various areas of the ship open to visitors, some compartments have been fitted out as dedicated exhibition space. Permament exhibitions include 'HMS Belfast in War and Peace' and 'Life at Sea'. The cost of admission to HMS Belfast includes a multilingual audio guide, and the museum also hosts an online virtual tour.

Associated organisations

HMS Belfast hosts a number of other organisations. These include the HMS Belfast Association, formed to reunite former members of the ship’s company. In 1976 Belfast was reaffiliated with the successors to the British Army's Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Irish Rangers. HMS Belfast is also the headquarters of the City of London Sea Cadet Corps, and the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society operates the callsign GB2RN from the Bridge Wireless Office. The Wavy Navy re-enactment group mounts recreations of wartime activities, in particular the battle of North Cape. Belfast also regularly hosts the Naval Wargames Society which mount naval wargames for society members and the visiting public.

Vessels berthing alongside

HMS Westminster alongside Belfast, December 2005.
Belfast often has other vessels berth alongside. In recent years these have included the Royal Navy's HMS Westminster (December 2005), the training ship Stavros S Niarchos, and the French Navy anti-submarine frigate Latouche-Tréville in November 2006. In October 2007 Belfast was visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, for the naming ceremony of the lighthouse tender THV Galatea which was berthed alongside.



The Ballad of HMS Belfast by Ciaran Carson

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