13 July 2018

HMS Belfast, Revisited (22 April 2018)

Given MoMI's last visit to HMS Belfast, the Second World War Royal Navy cruiser turned museum ship, was in August 2009, we decided it was time to go back and see what was new, what had changed, and how the ship looked after eight years, eight months, and four days.  If you wish to compare these 2018 photos to those taken in 2009, check out Travel and Tourism Gallery 3 - HMS Belfast at

First, a bit of history...

Built by the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland between December 1936 and August 1939, HMS Belfast was one of ten Town-class light cruisers commissioned into the Royal Navy between 1937 and 1939.  She was commissioned on 5 August 1939, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and was soon participating in the naval blockade of Nazi Germany.  However, on 21 November, Belfast struck a German magnetic mine while sailing out of the Firth of Forth, the explosion warping the ship's keel and causing extensive damage that required two years of repair work.  With her damage repaired and now sporting improved firepower, radar, and armour, HMS Belfast re-entered service in November 1942 and saw action escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union throughout 1943.  In December 1943, Belfast assisted in the sinking of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst during the Battle of North Cape.  In June 1944, Belfast supported the Allied landings in Normandy (Operation Overlord) and, in June 1945, was sent to join the British Pacific Fleet in the war against Japan, arriving in the Far East shortly before the end of hostilities.  In the post-war period, HMS Belfast participated in naval combat operations in 1950-1952 during the Korean War and underwent an extensive modernisation between 1956 and 1959.  In 1963, HMS Belfast was decommissioned and placed in reserve, after which efforts to preserve her eventually led to her conversion into a museum ship in the Pool of London, opening to the public on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 1971.  Transferred to the Imperial War Museum in 1978, HMS Belfast has become a popular tourist attraction, garnering over 250,000 visits per year and supported financially through a combination of admissions revenue, commercial activities, and funding from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.      

HMS Belfast key specifications:

Length: 613 feet 6 inches overall
Beam: 63 feet 4 inches
Displacement: 11,550 tons
Powerplant: 4 x Admiralty oil-fired three-drum boilers, 4 x Parsons single reduction geared steam tubines producing 80,000 shaft horsepower
Top speed: 32 knots (59 km/h)
Maximum range: 8,664 nautical miles (16,046 km) at 13 knots (24 km/h)
Complement: 781-881
Main armament: twelve 6-inch Mk XXIII guns in four triple turrets

And now, here is HMS Belfast, as visited on 22 April 2018...

HMS Belfast, moored in the Thames upriver from Tower Bridge since 1971.  Although Belfast is structurally preserved as she appeared following her 1956-59 refit, her Admiralty Disruptive Camouflage scheme was only worn between November 1942 and July 1944. 

Below: The front and reverse sides of the HMS Belfast visitor guide provided with payment of admission.

Looking forward along the port side of HMS Belfast on a sunny Sunday morning.  The wooden platforms alongside the ship are called 'dolphins' and are used to keep Belfast properly oriented during the rise and fall of the tides in the River Thames. 

HMS Belfast's honours board, showing battle honours earned over her career, from the Arctic convoy battles and the Battle of North Cape in 1943, through to the Normandy landings in 1944 and the Korean War, 1950-52. The ship's Latin motto, Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus (For so much, how shall we repay?) is also inscribed here.

HMS Belfast's silver bell, presented to the ship by the citizens of Belfast, Northern Ireland on 22 October 1948.  Returned for safekeeping to the City of Belfast in November 1962 prior to the decommissioning of HMS Belfast, the bell was once again returned to the ship by the city's Lord Mayor on 21 October 1977. 

HMS Belfast's after-most turret ('Y' turret).  The ship's main armament consisted of four such triple turrets, comprising a total of 12 Mk XXIII 6-inch guns.  Each gun was capable of firing up to eight rounds per minute, with a maximum battery rate of fire of 96 rounds per minute.  Each turret was protected by up to four inches of armour.

A view of one of the three 6-inch guns inside 'X' turret, located one deck above 'Y' turret.  Open to the visitors as part of the tour route, a looped video and sound effects provide a sense of the atmosphere in the turret while engaged in firing.  The guns fired 6-inch diameter shells weighing 112 pounds and propelled by cloth bags containing 30 lb charges of cordite or flashless powder.  Maximum firing range of a Mk XXIII gun was 25,480 yards at 45 degrees of elevation.  Each of the ship's four turrets were served by a crew of 27 men.     

The ship's Laundry.

The industrial-sized washing machines and dryers of the ship's Laundry, installed as part of HMS Belfast's 1956-59 refit.  During the Second World War, sailors were responsible for their own laundry, washing their clothes in a bucket of soapy water, a process known as dhobying (from the Hindi word dhobi or 'washerman').

The Shipwrights' Workshop.  Shipwrights were responsible for maintaining the ship's structure, as well as carpentry.  Work ranged from repairing the steel hull to maintaining the ship's heads (toilets).

The Mail Room, into which letters and parcels for the ship's crew arrived from fleet headquarters ashore, where all mail was received and sorted before being forwarded on to individual ships.

The Sound Reproduction Equipment Room, installed aboard HMS Belfast during her 1956-59 refit.  It was from this room that music and radio programmes could be played over the ship's Main Broadcast System to entertain the sailors.

The Ship's Company Galley, installed as part of the 1956-59 refit.  It was here that up to 26 cooks prepared more than 2,000 meals per day for the crew.  Here, a cook fillets fish for fish and chips.  A giant tray of peas is on the right. 

Two more galley staff peel potatoes and slice onions. 

One of the crew's bathrooms, outfitted with stainless steel sinks and showers.  These bathrooms, which were installed during HMS Belfast's 1956-59 refit, were located on either side of the boiler and engine rooms to ensure a ready supply of hot water.  Distilled fresh water for domestic purposes, like bathing and cooking, as well as for the boilers which generated high-pressure steam to drive the ship's turbine engines, was produced by evaporators, each of which could produce up to six tons of fresh water per hour.

The Forward Boiler Room.  Entry to the boiler room was via an airlock, which prevented sudden changes in air pressure occurring, which could cause the boilers to 'flash back' and incinerate anyone in front of them.  

One of HMS Belfast's four Admiralty three-drum boilers.  Heavy furnace fuel oil was injected through sprayers into the brick-lined boiler and ignited, with the resulting fire heating water-filled boiler tubes and creating superheated steam at 350 pounds per square inch.  This superheated steam was piped through to the turbines, which drove the propeller shafts through a reduction gearbox.  Sufficient airflow to ensure efficient combustion within the boiler furnaces was provided by four large forced draught turbo-fans, which drew air into the boiler room.  It took approximately four hours to raise sufficient steam to move the ship. 

The cavernous Forward Boiler Room, one of two such boiler rooms aboard HMS Belfast.  The superheated steam generated by the ship's four boilers produced 80,000 shaft horsepower (equivalent to 60,000 kilowatts) and could propel HMS Belfast at speeds of up to 32 knots (58 km/h).  During the ship's 1956-59 refit, equipment was installed that would allow the boilers to be controlled remotely from the forward engine room, allowing the boiler room to be evacuated in the event of nuclear, biological, or chemical contamination.

HMS Belfast's Forward Engine Room. The ship has four propeller shafts, two outer shafts driven by turbines in the forward engine room, and two inner shafts driven by turbines in the after engine room. Each shaft was driven by a turbine generating a maximum of 20,000 horsepower. Each of HMS Belfast's four engines comprised two high pressure and two low pressure turbines, which efficiently worked to generate full power ahead. An additional, cruising turbine in each engine provided for economical cruising speeds, and another astern turbine permitted the ship to be propelled backwards. Control throttles in the engine room were used to direct superheated steam to the desired combination of turbines rotors. 

An engine room telegraph, used to communicate engine speed orders from the bridge to the engine room.  At full speed, each three-bladed propeller at the end of HMS Belfast's four propeller shafts turned at 275 revolutions per minute, with the propulsive force generated by this action being transmitted through the thrust blocks located in the engine rooms.

The Common Machine Workshop, containing standard metal working machines which would have been found in any light industrial shop of the 1950s.  As HMS Belfast was expected to operate independently and be self-supporting, this machine shop was installed to permit the ship's crew to repair and maintain Belfast's own machinery. 

The Beef Screen, consisting of a walk-in cool room and a preparation area, was managed by two Royal Marine butchers during the Second World War.  As the ship's main freezers were located deep in the ship's hull, meat would be moved to the cool room to thaw before being butchered.  

The ship's Bakery, where HMS Belfast's six bakers worked to prepare bread for the ship's company of nearly 800 men, as well as for smaller ships of the fleet that lacked their own onboard bakeries.  During the ship's first Korean War service in 1950-51, HMS Belfast's crew consumed 250 tons of bread on their own.  

HMS Belfast's dental clinic.  A ship the size of Belfast, with nearly 800 men aboard, warranted its own dental officer, who also served as the anesthetist for surgical operations conducted by the ship's medical officer.

HMS Belfast's well-equipped Sickbay was managed by the ship's surgeon commander and two surgeon lieutenants. 

Beds in the Sickbay, for ill crewmen.  Smaller warships lacking advanced medical facilities would also send their sick or injured crewmen to larger vessels, like Belfast, for surgical procedures and other more complicated treatment.

The ship's Navy Army Air Force Institute (NAAFI) Canteen, where sailors could purchase sweets, chocolate, soft drinks, gum, paperback books, and other comfort items.  The NAAFI Canteen Service has operated on Royal Navy ships and at naval shoreside establishments since 1921.

The Provision Issue Room, from which food and the daily rum ration was administered.  In a seafaring tradition going back to the 17th century, every crewman below the rank of officer and over the age of 20 was issued a tot of rum at 11:00 am every day.  During the Korean War, HMS Belfast's crew consumed over 56,000 pints (32,000 litres) of rum.  The rum ration was abolished in 1970 in the face of growing concerns about the safety of sailors operating heavy machinery when under the influence of alcohol.  The ship's storerooms and refrigerated compartments, located two decks below, held enough food rations for up to three months of operations at sea.

The Sailmakers' Workshop, where the ship's craftsmen made and repaired rope and canvass equipment, such as hammocks, awnings, and signal flags.

One of HMS Belfast's messdecks, where sailors lived, ate, and slept.  The sailors slept in hammocks slung from bars overheard, only 21 inches between each hammock.  Although Belfast's messdecks were modernised in the 1956-59 refit, at which point the hammocks were replaced by bunk beds, this messdeck has been restored to its appearance in 1942-44, when the ship was escorting Artic convoys to the Soviet Union.   

A tableau depicting off duty sailors relaxing in their messdeck, playing games, reading, and writing letters home.

The punishment cells, located in the bows of the ship.  The captain had the authority to sentence offenders to periods of up to 14 days imprisonment for such offences as sleeping on duty, drunkeness, and being absent without leave.   

The 'B' turret shell room located deep in the interior of the ship, below the waterline and behind HMS Belfast's armoured belt.  Ammunition for 'B' turret's 6-inch guns was stored here and nine shell room crewmen passed shells up to the guns via a shell hoist.

A closer view of the shell hoist in the 'B' turret shell room.  During bombardment operations to support the Normandy landings in June-July 1944, HMS Belfast's guns fired over 4,000 6-inch shells at targets on land. 

Looking aft from HMS Belfast's bows.  The guns of the ship's 'A' and 'B' turrets are aimed high.  When the ship's crew was at action stations, gun crews slept in the turrets so that they could go into action as soon as called upon. 
A spare anchor sits on the bow should HMS Belfast lose one of its two principal anchors.  This anchor was manufactured by W.L. Byers & Co. Ltd of Sunderland.

The Admiral's Bridge, which allowed HMS Belfast to serve as a flagship.  When serving as a flagship, Belfast would carry an admiral in command of several ships, who could exercise command over the squadron from this bridge without interfering in the running of Belfast by the cruiser's own captain.  The Admiral's Bridge was fitted with additional communications equipment to control the squadron, as well as accommodation space for the admiral and his staff.     

A builder's plaque, presented by Harland & Wolff Shipbuilders & Engineers on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the launching of HMS Belfast in 2014. 

Looking skywards at HMS Belfast's forward mast, containing various sensors, communications antennae, transponders, electronic warfare equipment, and radar receivers.  The ship's two steel lattice masts were installed during the 1956-59 modernisation refit and replaced Belfast's original tripod masts, which were inadequate to carry the large number of modern sensors required in the post-war era.

The port side bridge wing 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun mounting. Six such twin Bofors mountings were installed aboard HMS Belfast in the late 1950s to replace obsolete Second World War-era light anti-aircraft guns. Each pair of mountings was controlled by a Close Range Blind-Fire Director that used radar to engage targets beyond visual range; however, each mounting could also be controlled locally by its four-man crew using visual sighting.  Behind the gun, in the distance, stands The Shard, a 95-storey office tower opened in February 2013, which ranks as the tallest building in the United Kingdom at 1,016 feet.

Looking aft from the port side bridge wing, overlooking the boat deck.  HMS Belfast's two funnels can be seen, as well as the main mast, and part of the crane which was used to hoist the ship's boats on and off the ship.  The open deck space was originally the site of a rotating catapult from which Belfast could launch its two Supermarine Walrus seaplanes for aerial spotting and reconnaissance work.  With improved radar and sensors, the need for the seaplanes was eliminated, and the Walrus aircraft and their catapult were removed in 1945.

A warning sign on the door of the soundproofed Bridge Wireless Office, through which all of HMS Belfast's incoming and outgoing radio messages passed.  Manned by up to 14 signallers, messages would generally be received encoded, and only certain officers were allowed to decipher them. 

Some of the vintage 1950s equipment found in HMS Belfast's Operations Room, the 'brains' of the ship.

Information from radar, sonar, and intelligence reports would be collated and displayed on plots and and state boards here in the Operations Room, providing Belfast's Captain with a current view of the tactical situation.  The Operations Room has been reconstructed to appear as it was used for large overseas live fire training exercises, such as the multinational Operation Pony Express, conducted by Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation navies off the coast of North Borneo in April 1961.   

HMS Belfast's Compass Platform, also known as the Bridge, located forward of the Operations Room and with high chairs for the Captain and Navigating Officer.  Between the two chairs is the ship's pelorus, used to take bearings of other objects, especially for coastal navigation where prominent towers or cliffs appear on charts.  The Compass Platform was originally located one deck above the current location but was moved and fully enclosed during Belfast's 1956-59 modernisation refit. 

Looking west out over HMS Belfast's forward turrets and bows from the windows of the Compass Platform.

Another look at the Compass Platform.  The Navigating Officer's Sea Cabin and Chart House were located adjacent to the Compass Platform to permit instantaneous navigational corrections to be ordered.  The Chart House stored the various nautical charts used by the Navigating Officer and his assistants to plot the ship's course.

An officer's cabin located near the Compass Platform.  Although most officers' cabins were located in the after end of the ship, a few were located forward as HMS Belfast carried as many as 78 officers at a time during her active service life.  This cabin reflects a fairly typical officer accommodation of the late 1950s, following the ship's extensive refit.  The Captain and Admiral both had small sea cabins located up here, near the Compass platform, to enable them to get into action quickly when at sea; however, they both had much more spacious cabins located aft, under the Quarterdeck, for use when the ship was in harbour.     

As originally built, HMS Belfast carried two Supermarine Walrus seaplanes of 700 Naval Air Squadron for reconnaissance and aerial targeting of the ship's guns.  These seaplanes were housed in hangars in the forward superstructure, and launched from a rotating catapult mounted on the deck aft of the forward superstructure.  Two cranes mounted on either side of the ship's forward funnel allowed the seaplanes to be recovered and hoisted back aboard Belfast after landing.  With the removal of the seaplanes in 1945,  the catapult and cranes were also removed and the hangars converted into additional accommodation space.  The area formerly occupied by the catapult was used to stow the ship's boats, ranging in size from 14-foot recreational dinghies to a 35-foot landing craft, and a new crane installed to hoist the boats on and off Belfast.    
A 16-foot fast motor boat, Number 5385 but informally known as 'Skimming Dish'.  HMS Belfast carried this type of boat, and 'Skimming Dish' is the sole surviving example still with its original hull and Coventry Climax Supercharged 2-stroke diesel engine.

Looking inside one of HMS Belfast's twin, high-angle/low-angle 4-inch gun mountings, which comprised the ship's secondary armament.  Originally fitted with six twin 4-inch mountings, two were removed in 1945.  Each mounting required a crew of 16 men, with each of the two guns capable of firing 10 rounds per minute.  The range of the 4-inch guns was 39,000 feet for aerial targets and 11 miles for surface targets.  

A final look at HMS Belfast, floating proudly on the River Thames.

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