Launched on the eve of the Second World War, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast played a role in some of the most crucial naval actions of the war. Today, she is permanently docked on the Thames River as a floating museum.
HMS Belfast Museum
In the aftermath of the First World War, naval combat was dominated by the big-gun battleship. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany and began preparing for a re-match, they began a frantic campaign to rebuild their Navy, turning out a number of large battleships (such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz), smaller “pocket battleships” (like the Graf Spee) and “battle cruisers” (including the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau).
In response, the British expanded and updated their own fleet with a series of new battleships. To protect their capital ships from enemy torpedo boats and aircraft, the Royal Navy also added a number of light cruisers. These were fast lightly-armored ships with batteries of anti-aircraft guns, torpedo tubes, and 12 6-inch guns in four turrets, for anti-ship and shore bombardment actions. One of these light cruisers was HMS Belfast, who entered service in August 1939. Just one month later, Britain and Germany were at war. The Belfast was assigned, along with her sister ship Edinburgh and the light cruisers Sheffield and Aurora, to patrol the British coast searching for Nazi U-boats.
But on November 21, as she as sailing out of Rosyth harbor for another patrol, Belfast hit a magnetic mine that had been laid by a submarine, and suffered extensive damage. The Royal Navy at first considered her un-repairable and were going to scrap her, but because she was so new and Britain needed every available ship, it was decided to fix her. Repairs kept her out of action for the next three years.
It wasn’t until November 1942 that Belfast took to sea again, as protection for supply convoys to Arctic ports in the Soviet Union. The convoys were vital. Both England and Russia were desperate for the supplies which they needed to keep them in the fighting, and the Germans in turn knew that they could win the war if they could cut off the convoys with their submarines and surface raiders.
One of these surface raiders was the battle cruiser Scharnhorst. Hidden in the innumerable Norwegian coastal fjords, the German cruiser could appear suddenly, wreak havoc on a passing convoy with her 11-inch guns, then disappear.
In December 1943, the Scharnhorst left the protection of port. Two supply convoys, one sailing for Russia and the other returning, were due to pass each other off North Cape, and it was a target too tempting to pass up. But unknown to the Germans, the British had broken their naval codes, and the Royal Navy knew that the raider was on her way. As the Scharnhorst approached on December 26, she was intercepted by a group of three light cruisers, with the Belfast as their flagship. In the dark, the British fleet was able to take her completely by surprise, opening fire at a range of just 13,000 yards. After several hits, the German cruiser turned away.
But rather than pursue the Scharnhorst in the dark, the British broke off the engagement. They knew that the Germans would soon be back. And indeed, two hours later, the Scharnhorst re-appeared on their radar screens, and the British cruisers opened fire again. For the next 20 minutes the two sides exchanged shells, until the Scharnhorst broke and ran again. But this time, the Germans ran straight into another British force with the battleship Duke of York. The Nazi battle cruiser was faster, however, and began to pull away–until a lucky shot hit her boiler room and crippled her engines. Caught between the two British fleets, the Scharnhorst was pounded to bits and sunk. There were only 36 survivors. The Battle of North Cape would be the last naval fight between big-gun warships. From then on, air power would be the decisive naval force.
But the Belfast’s war was not over yet. Plans were already being made for the invasion of occupied Europe, and the light cruiser was now assigned to Operation Overlord. The D-Day landings in France depended upon the largest naval force ever assembled to that time. Just before 6am on June 6, 1944, the Belfast joined in the pre-landing bombardment, targeting German guns on Gold and Juno beaches. Over the next 3 days, she would fire some 5,000 shells at ground targets in France. Then, after a short re-fit in England, Belfast was assigned to the Pacific, where she was scheduled to take part in the invasion of Japan. The war ended just as she arrived.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Belfast served as an escort and in shore-bombardment duty. After the war, she remained in the Pacific until being pulled from active duty back to England and placed in reserve in 1963.
In 1967, the Belfast was scheduled for scrapping. The Imperial War Museum had been looking into the possibility of preserving a World War Two cruiser as a floating museum, but the British government decided against it. So a private Trust was set up instead, with one of Belfast’s former captains as its head, to raise money and save the ship. The Belfast is now anchored in the Thames River near the Tower of London, where she is visited by around 250,000 tourists each year.