HMS Belfast is a landmark of London, but why?

A veteran of WW2, HMS Belfast now educates rather than destroys.
Christopher McFadden
HMS Belfast moored in the Thames River. Imperial War Museum

Laid down over 80 years ago, HMS Belfastwhich survived the Second World War, is one of the most famous ships in British naval history. She saw action keeping Arctic convoys safe from German U-boats, helped hunt and destroy the German heavy cruiser SS Scharnhorst, provided support fire during the D-Day landings, and even did her bit in the Korean War. 

Still resplendent in her camouflage paint scheme, the ship attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to the very day. 

But, if you are not familiar with this great ship of war, let us give you a short overview of her illustrious military career. 

What is HMS Belfast, and why is she famous?

HMS Belfast is a Town-class light cruiser formerly in service to the Royal Navy. Her keel was laid in December of 1936, and she was launched, fittingly, on St. Patrick's day in 1938. 

HMS Belfast main shells
HMS Belfast's main battery fired 6-inch (152 mm) shells. Source: The Land/Wikimedia Commons

The first Royal Navy vessel to bear the name (due to her being built in Belfast, Northern Ireland), she joined the British Home Fleet in August of 1939 - just in time for World War 2. 

Her early days in the war were spent blockading German shipping routes, but she hit a mine and suffered extensive damage. After some plans to write her off, she underwent extensive repairs and rejoined the fight in 1942, sporting heavier armor, better guns, improved radar, and other upgraded equipment. 

Following her return to service, she spent some time in 1943 escorting Allied convoys through Arctic shipping lanes to support the Soviet war effort. That very same year, she played a pivotal role during the Battle of North Cape, which led to the destruction of the Kriegsmarine's feared battlecruiser Scharnhorst

The following year, HMS Belfast took part in Operation Overlord by supporting the Normandy Landings during D-Day. Her role was to help shell the beaches to clear obstacles and defenses for the amphibious landings to come. 

With the defeat of Germany more or less inevitable in June 1945, she was redeployed to the Far East to join the British Pacific Fleet and arrived shortly before the end of the Second World War. 

HMS Belfast at anchor
HMS Belfast at anchor in Sydney Harbour, August 1945. Source: Royal Navy/Wikimedia Commons

HMS Belfast saw further combat action post-war during the 1950–52 Korean War and underwent an extensive modernization between 1956 and 1959. Several different overseas commissions followed before she entered reserve service in 1963.

When the British government decided against preserving her as a museum ship, the private HMS Belfast Trust was formed to campaign for her preservation.

These efforts were eventually successful, and the government transferred the ship to the Trust in July 1971. She was brought to London, moored on the River Thames near Tower Bridge, and opened to the public in October 1971.

What are HMS Belfast's vital statistics?

Class: A Town-class light cruiser

Commissioned: August 5th, 1939

Decommissioned: August 24th, 1963

Ship pennant number: C35

Motto: "Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus" ("'What shall we give in return for so much?")

Displacement: 11,550 tons

Dimensions: Length 613 ft 6 in (186.99 m), beam 63 ft 4 in (19.3 m)

Propulsion: 4 Admiralty oil-fired 3-drum boilers turning 4 Parsons single reduction geared steam turbines, in turn, driving 4 propellers

Speed: 32 knots (59kph)

Armament: 12, 6 inch (152mm) main battery in three turrets, 12, 4 inch (102mm) secondary battery, 16, 2 pounder (40mm) secondary battery, 8, 0.5-inch (13mm) anti-aircraft guns, 6, 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo array 

Armor belt: At commissioning - Main: 4.5 inches (114mm), Turrets: 4 inches (102 mm), Decks: between 2 inches (51mm) and 3 inches (76mm) 

Aircraft: 2 Supermarine Walrus aircraft in 2 hangers with one shared catapult (removed after WW2)

Why is HMS Belfast in London?

After her years of service and striking from the Royal Navy's list, she was decommissioned and scheduled for scrapping. A campaign was then launched by some interested parties, including her former Captain, Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles (also a Member of Parliament at the time), to potentially save her. 

The UK Government refused to stump up the funds to save and preserve the ship but encouraged a trust to be founded. And so, the HMS Belfast Trust was established and successfully raised enough funds to save HMS Belfast from such an inglorious end. 

She was opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, October 21st, 1971, and has remained permanently moored on the River Thames ever since. In 1978, she became a branch of the Imperial War Museum. 

HMS Belfast in London
HMS Belfast at her permanent mooring on the River Thames, London. Source: Alvesgasper/Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, her main guns are all trained in on a specific location, a motorway cafe and toilet on the M1 motorway, Scratchwood. This target was chosen on purpose, as "targeting a famously humdrum location could only help with press and popular attention," explained HMS Belfast's former Chief Yeoman, Kevin Price, in an interview with the Londonist

Can HMS Belfast ever sail again? 

In short no. 

HMS Belfast has remained moored in London since the early-1960s, and despite her engines being fired up later that decade, she has remained dormant ever since. It is highly unlikely that she would be able to build up steam safely enough to provide enough power to get her moving.

Since then, if she has ever moved, she has been undertow. 

Her hull, however, should be in good order. HMS Belfast is regularly dry-docked, and the plate thickness is checked with ultrasound and issued the required certification to remain on an active waterway. This means she should be seaworthy and is watertight, but she likely would not be able to move under her own steam.

It is not out of the realm of possibility for HMS Belfast to undergo an extensive refit, but that would take millions of pounds and a lot of working hours. 

If you ever find yourself visiting London in the future, why not consider taking a detour to see this historical and magnificent ship? You won't be disappointed. 

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