HMS Belfast, launched in 1938, is the only British ship remaining from the bombardment fleet of D-day, and one of only three left in the world. She was active for much of the war, capturing enemy vessels and patrolling the Atlantic, taking part in several battles. She now floats on the Thames in central London as part of the Imperial War Museum. Visitors can go onboard, explore the ship and learn all about this fascinating vessel.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF HMS BELFAST
Work began on the construction of the Belfast in 1936, she was launched in 1938 and was officially commissioned in August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. Initially, she was part of the naval blockade of Germany, but in November she struck a German mine, and spent two years having to be repaired. She return to action in 1942, escorting Arctic convoys and acting as the flagship in the battle of the North Cape.
L: The visit of HM King George VI, 15 May 1944: Ship's company of HMS Belfast cheering King George VI as he leaves the ship in a drifter. Photograph © IWM
R: HMS Belfast's 4-inch guns bombarding German positions in Normandy at night
For D-Day, HMS Belfast was made the HQ ship for Bombardment Force E supporting the British and Canadian forces at Gold and Juno beaches. Her first target was the German gun battery at La Marefontaine, rendering it useless against the invasion. She spent a month off the Normandy coast, firing over 4,000 6-inch and 1,000 4-inch shells. When the fighting moved inland beyond the range of her guns, she returned to England.
In 1945 she headed to the Far East and took part in campaigns there including the Korean War until she was decommissioned in the 1960s. By early 1971, the Belfast was awaiting the scrapheap, until a trust was formed to save it. It opened to the public later that year, and became part of the Imperial War Museum in 1978. Permanently moored in the Thames just down from Tower Bridge, it is a popular tourist attraction.
My son and I visited on a surprisingly sunny day in February this year. Easy to walk to from the London Bridge underground station, we hadn’t pre-booked tickets but there was only a short queue to get in. The walk from the ticket office to the ship is down a gangway with lovely views over Tower Bridge that deposits you on the deck of HMS Belfast. Audio guides are available, which we took, and then you are free to explore the ship as you wish. And what a wonderful ship it was to explore!
You can go pretty much anywhere, from the gun turret on the very top to the engine rooms right in the bowels of the ship. Getting around for kids is great fun, as you scramble up and down steep ship's ladders and just explore where you fancy. Each room had a little information panel telling you the basics and some pertinent facts, and then the audio guide would give you much more comprehensive information.
The ship has been restored to show how it looked in the 1940s and 1950s, with mannequins illustrating how the sailors lived on board. We saw the galley, the laundry, the tobacco store, punishment cells, sick bay, the provision issue room, heads and so much more.
We learnt all sorts of fascinating facts, such as how each sailor was given a daily ration (a 'tot') of rum at 11 a.m. each day, meaning that the ship got through 32,000 litres of rum during the Korean War. This tradition was phased out in the 1970s for health and safety reasons, probably much to the disappointment of the sailors at the time.
We learnt how soap and tobacco supplies were kept apart from everything else due to their strong scent, and how cats were kept on board to kill the rats. There was a fully equipped dentist's surgery as well as an operating room, and a sick bay which used 35 miles of bandages and 600 pounds of cotton wool during a two year period.
We stood in the spot where HMS Belfast had
received significant damage from a German mine in 1939, leaving her out of action until 1942.
We sat in the Captain’s chair, used the interactive displays in the Operations Room and experienced battle in the gun turret, with smoke and cordite wafting around us as we watched the action of the men firing the guns on screens.
We both thought it was a great museum experience, there was so much to see and it was all really well presented. It is great for adults but I would also highly recommend taking kids there as it is such a good combination of education and fun. It gives a different perspective of London with the views from the middle of the Thames and overall was a highly enjoyable and entertaining place to visit.
Visiting HMS Belfast
Every day from 10am - 6pm
Closed 24th - 26 December
Buy online to save 10% on the door price
Other concessions and family tickets available
How to get there: The nearest tube stop is London Bridge which is 4 minutes walk away.