The third of ten Town-class cruisers, the keel-laying of HMS Belfast took place in December 1936. She was launched by the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 17th March 1938, and was commissioned into service with the Royal Navy in August of the following year - less than a month before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Town-class cruisers had originated in 1933 as the Admiralty's response to the Japanese Navy's Mogami-class cruiser. The requirement demanded cruiser of around 9,000 tons, sufficiently armoured to withstand a direct hit from an 8-inch shell, capable of reaching a speed of 32 knots, whilst armed with twelve 6-inch guns.
Immediately upon entering service she was tasked with patrolling the northern waters, taking part in the maritime blockade against Germany - and in October she intercepted and captured the blockade runner SS Cap Norte near the Faroe Islands. Disguised as a neutral Swedish vessel, SS Ancona, Cap Norte was attempting to return to Germany from Brazil with German military reservists amongst her passengers. However, on 21st November 1939 whilst in the Firth of Forth en route to gunnery practice she struck a German magnetic mine. Twenty officers and men were injured by the explosion and needed hospital treatment, and a further 26 suffered minor injuries. One man later died of his head injury.
HMS Belfast was towed to Rosyth for initial repairs. The ship's hull was badly damaged and for a time it was considered that she may need to be scrapped. Her keel had been bent and one of her engine and boilers rooms almost destroyed. The ship would spend the next two years being both repaired and upgraded. Her armour belt also extended and thickened, and her armament was updated including the replacement of her two quadruple 0.5 inch Vickers guns with eighteen 20 mm Oerlikon guns in five twin and eight single mountings. The ship also received new fire control radars. Due to the increased weight, a bulge had to be introduced into her hull amidships to improve stability and provide extra longitudinal strength.
In November 1942, HMS Belfast was recommissioned at Devonport under the command of Captain Frederick Parham. She was still the largest and most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy. operating from Scapa Flow and bases in Iceland, HMS Belfast was made flagship of 10th Cruiser Squadron responsible for escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union. The ship would spend 1943 engaged on convoy escort and blockade patrol duties, and in October of that year took part in Operation Leader against German shipping in the waters of northern Norway.
Over Christmas in 1943, HMS Belfast played an important role in the Battle of North Cape which would see the eventual sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst. As flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, she was among the first to encounter the Scharnhorst, and coordinated the squadron's defence of the convoy before shadowing the German ship by radar from outside visual range, enabling HMS Duke of York to intercept her. Only 36 men of the Scharnhorst's almost 2,000-man crew survived.
HMS Belfast returned to her role on convoy duty during the early part of 1944. For Operation Neptune she was made headquarters ship of Bombardment Force E in support of landings at the British and Canadian sectors of Gold Beach and Juno Beach. She left the River Clyde for her bombardment areas on 2nd June, the same morning that Winston Churchill announced his intention to go to sea with the fleet and witness the invasion from aboard HMS Belfast. General Eisenhower and the First Sea Lord, Sir Andrew Cunningham, both strong opposed the idea, and only an intervention by the King thwarted Churchill's plan.
At 05:27hrs on 6th June 1944, HMS Belfast opened fire on the four Regelbau 669 casemates of the German artillery battery of La Marefontaine at Ver-sur-Mer, suppressing its Czech-built 100mm guns until the site was overrun by British infantry of 7th Battalion, Green Howards aided by flame-throwing tanks of the 141st Regiment Royal Armoured Corps. She was not, as many report, the first ship to fire on D-Day. The ship's log records that another cruiser to her west opened fire several minutes before she did. However, the intense firing from HMS Belfast's guns did result in cracks in some of the ship's toilet bowls.
HMS Belfast was one of the larger warships in the invasion fleet in Normandy and had a fully equipped sick bay, a surgeon commander and two surgeon lieutenants. Early in the afternoon of D-Day she started to receive wounded British and Canadian casualties for treatment from ashore. She remained in action off the coast of Normandy until 16th June before returning briefly to Portsmouth to replenish her ammunition. She returned two days later for further bombardments.
By 23rd June the fighting ashore had largely moved out of range of Belfast's guns and life aboard was quieter than the previous weeks. Some members of the crew were chosen to form working parties to go ashore and help clear debris and abandoned equipment from the beaches. The working parties were not popular amongst the crew.
HMS Belfast spent 33 days in support of the Normandy landings, expending more than 4,000 6-inch and 1,000 4-inch shells. The ship fired her last round in anger on 8th July, in company with the monitor HMS Roberts and the battleship HMS Rodney, as part of Operation Charnwood, the and Anglo-Canadian offensive during the Battle for Caen. Two days later she sailed for Scapa by way of Portsmouth and Devonport.
After a well-earned refit, HMS Belfast was despatched to the Far East, where she would spend much of her time over the next seven years, including being assigned to the US Navy's Task Force 77 during the Korean War. In July 1952 she was hit by enemy fire whilst engaging an artillery battery on Wolsa-ri island. One sailor was killed and four others wounded when a 75mm hit one of her forward compartments. Two months later HMS Belfast returned to the UK and in December she entered the reserve fleet at Devonport.
In 1956 HMS Belfast underwent modifications to improve her weapons systems and to protect parts of the ship against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This included major changes to her bridge which significantly altered her appearance. Her accommodations were improved, her masts changed and the timber decks mostly replaced with steel. In order to save weight, her torpedo armament was removed. The work was completed in 1959 and the ship re-entered service.
The following years would see Belfast recommissioned on numerous occasions into various roles. In 1966 she began service as an accommodation ship moored in Fareham Creek near Portsmouth harbour. The Crown Colony-class cruiser HMS Gambia was also moored in the Creek, and in 1967 visitors from London's Imperial War Museum visited Gambia with a view to preserve one of her 6-inch turrets. This later morphed into the idea of preserving an entire ship - and since Gambia was in far poorer condition attention turned to Belfast.
Despite a joint committee comprised of the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Ministry of Defence concluded in 1968 that it would be practical and economic to save the ship for the nation, the government rejected the idea. Subsequently, in 1971 HMS Belfast was designated for disposal and was to await scrapping. A private trust was formed with the aim of preserving the ship, and the government agreed to postpone the decision to scrap the ship whilst the Trust formulated their proposal. In July of 1971, the government agreed to hand HMS Belfast to the Trustees.
Known as "Operation Seahorse" the Trust's aim was to move Belfast to London. The ship was towed from Portsmouth to Tilbury, where she was fitted out as a museum before being towed again to the River Thames, near Tower Bridge, where she remains to this day. Her career as a museum officially began on 21st October 1971 - Trafalgar Day - when she was opened to the public. Though no longer part of the Royal Navy, HMS Belfast was granted a special dispensation to permit the flying of White Ensign.
Today HMS Belfast is operated and maintained by the Imperial War Museum. She is kept in excellent condition and many different areas of her interior can be visited across all nine decks. The wax mannequins used in some of her areas to illustrate life on board are bespoke designs and almost uncannily realistic. The dentists' office will definitely send a shiver down the spine of odontophobics. There are also videos and interactive displays as visitors learn about not only the ship but the men who lived and worked aboard. Although the recommended visiting time is around 90 minutes, to do your visit justice and ensure you see everything at least a few hours should be allowed for.
On 16th March 2018, veteran sailors and other guests attended a celebration on board HMS Belfast to celebrate the ships 80 anniversary. The oldest veteran, 104-year-old John Harrison, sailed aboard during the Second World War facing German magnetic mines and treacherous Arctic conditions. One of the ships 6 inch guns was fired in salute of the occasion.
Visit the Imperial War Museum's HMS Belfast website here.