Built by Messrs Harland & Wolff in 1936, HMS Belfast was launched by Anne Chamberlain, wife of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on St Patrick’s Day in 1938. After fitting out and builder’s trials, HMS Belfast was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939.
Designed for the protection of trade and offensive action she was immediately called into service patrolling the northern waters in efforts to impose a maritime blockade on Germany. However, disaster struck after only two months at sea when HMS Belfast hit a magnetic mine. There were few casualties but the damage to her hull was so severe she was out of action for three years.
On rejoining the home fleet in 1942 she was still the largest and most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy and most importantly she was equipped with the most advanced radar systems. HMS Belfast was immediately called into action and played a crucial role in protecting the arctic convoys, Russia’s supply route throughout the war. Most notably in her role during the Battle of North Cape which saw the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst and the loss of all but 36 of her 1,963 crew. HMS Belfast remained protecting the arctic convoys until 1944 when she spent five weeks supporting the D-Day landings.
On 6 June 1944, HMS Belfast was the flagship of Bombardment Force E, supporting troops landing at Gold and Juno beaches. Her first target was the German gun battery at La Marefontaine. As a result of HMS Belfast’s bombardment, the battery played no meaningful role in the defence of the beaches. Though many of HMS Belfast’s veterans believe their ship was the first to open fire on 6 June, this wasn’t the case. Lieutenant Peter Brooke Smith, who was serving on board HMS Belfast, recorded in his diary that another cruiser to the west fired first at 0523. The entry in HMS Belfast’s log records that she opened fire three minutes later at 0527, ‘with full broadside to port. The vibration of HMS Belfast’s guns firing during D-Day ended up cracking the crew’s toilets.
HMS Belfast was one of the larger warships in the fleet, with a fully equipped sick bay, a surgeon commander and two surgeon lieutenants. At 1300 on 6 June, casualties began to arrive on board.
On 25 June, during one of the quiet periods when fighting had largely moved out of range of HMS Belfast’s guns, some of the unoccupied members of the crew were chosen to form working parties to go ashore and help clear the beaches. In total, HMS Belfast spent 33 days in support of the landings and fired over 4,000 6-inch and 1,000 4-inch shells. The invasion of Normandy was the last time HMS Belfast fired her guns during the Second World War. In July, she set sail for Plymouth Devonport and a well-earned refit, before being despatched to the Far East.
After the Second World War HMS Belfast played an active role in the Korean War from 1950-1952 by working with other Allied Forces to support the retreating American and South Korean troops. HMS Belfast gained the reputation as ‘that straight-shooting ship’, and oversaw the escape of HMS Amethyst. Her final years were spent performing peace-keeping duties until she was retired from service in 1963.
As early as 1967 the Imperial War Museum had been investigating the possibility of preserving a Second World War cruiser. This led to the formation of a trust, headed up by one of HMS Belfast’s former captains. After some years the trust was successful and HMS Belfast was brought to London opening to the public on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1971. Belfast receives over a quarter of a million visitors per year.
Today she is the last remaining vessel of her type – one of the largest and most powerful light cruisers ever built. HMS Belfast is one of only three remaining vessels from the bombardment fleet which supported the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. The other vessels are the destroyer USS Laffey, part of the historic ships grouped at Patriots Point, South Carolina, and the dreadnought battleship USS Texas at San Jacinto, Texas.
The forward-facing guns of HMS Belfast are permanently positioned to score a direct hit on the London Gateway service station at Scatchwood. It is no myth. The target is intentional. According to the ship’s Chief Yeoman, Kevin Price, Scratchwood was picked on because it was a well-known landmark on the M1 motorway. “We could also hit Cheshunt, or Gidea Park, or fall just shy of Dartford”. Scratchwood, though, has a certain quotidian monotony that invites comparison with Betjeman’s “come friendly bombs” prejudice.