HMS Belfast is a Town-class light cruiser that served the Royal Navy during World War II and the Korean War.

Launched in 1938, she played major roles in the Battle of North Cape and the Normandy landings.

Today, HMS Belfast is permanently moored on the River Thames in London as a museum ship and is part of the Imperial War Museum.

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Design Of HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast, was constructed by Harland and Wolff, one of the world’s most prolific shipbuilders, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The ship was laid down on December 10, 1936, and launched on March 17, 1938, by Anne Chamberlain, the wife of then UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

After nearly two years of further outfitting, the Belfast officially joined the Royal Navy’s fleet on August 5, 1939.

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The ship stands at 187 meters (613 feet) in length, with a beam or width of 19 meters (62 feet) and a draught of 5.3 meters (17.3 feet).

With a full-load displacement of 11,553 tons, it was one of the largest light cruisers ever built in the history of British seafaring. Armed with twelve 6-inch guns, twelve 4-inch anti-aircraft guns along with a variety of other heavy weaponry, the vessel was designed for versatility and power in naval warfare.

HMS Belfast received several technological and design upgrades over the years. Soon after its launch, the ship was fitted with radar picket, making it one of the first vessels in the Royal Navy to have radar capacity.

HMS Belfast in Sydney Harbor, August 1945.

In the late 1940s, the Belfast underwent significant reconstruction to update its cannons, armor protection and propulsion system.

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Enhancements included a new steam turbine propulsion system for greater speed and a system of hydraulic pumps to simultaneously adjust the elevation of all six gun turrets. Furthermore, its close-range armaments were updated from the 40mm “pom-pom” anti-aircraft guns to the more effective Bofors 40mm guns.

Service History

Not long after her maiden voyage in 1939, HMS Belfast encountered her first major challenge during World War II. She hit a German mine and was put out of action for three years that were spent on comprehensive repairs.

However, in November 1942, she was once again ready for service and proved her worth at the Battle of North Cape in December 1943. Here, HMS Belfast was pivotal in sinking the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, her impressive radar capabilities and formidable main guns proving essential for the victory.

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HMS Belfast was deployed to support the landing forces at Normandy on D-Day in June 1944. Belfast was the flagship of Bombardment Force E, supporting troops landing at Gold and Juno beaches. Her primary task was to use her high-powered guns to shell German defenses. She fired thousands of rounds in support of the landing operations during the invasion.

HMS Belfast firing on German positions in Normandy, June 1944.

After the end of World War II, HMS Belfast was not put to rest. Instead, the ship played an active role in the Far East. She was deployed to join the British Pacific Fleet and played a part in reoccupying Hong Kong in August 1945. However, the ship was decommissioned shortly after the end of hostilities.

The ship was reactivated in 1950 and saw action in the Korean War from 1950 to 1952. HMS Belfast was involved in ground support and blockade operations and formed part of the United Nation’s naval forces. After the Korean War, HMS Belfast continued her service until 1963 when she was placed in reserve.

The final chapter in the operational history of HMS Belfast happened in 1963. While most ships of her class were scrapped, Belfast was saved from this fate largely due to her historical significance and rich history.

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The Imperial War Museum took ownership of the ship and in 1971, HMS Belfast was opened to the public, where she remains today on the River Thames in London.

The ship now provides insights into naval history, offering a first-hand look at what life was like on a mid-20th century warship.

HMS Belfast As A Museum Ship

The HMS Belfast Trust was established in 1967. It aimed at safeguarding the vessel for the benefit of the nation. In 1971, she proudly opened her hull to the public as a branch of the renowned Imperial War Museum. You can find her moored permanently on London’s River Thames, a stone’s throw away from the famed Tower Bridge, where she continues to educate and inspire visitors about her illustrious past.

HMS Belfast serves as a living museum, maintaining much of its original interiors and machinery. The exhibits include the ship’s operations room, engine room, living quarters, and weaponry.

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Each of these areas illustrates different aspects of naval life and technology during the mid-20th century. Visitors can wander the ship’s nine decks, exploring everything from the captain’s bridge to the boiler and engine rooms below the waterline. The museum also utilizes multimedia presentations and hands-on interactive displays to further provide insight into the daily lives of the crewmembers who served onboard.

The museum offers several educational resources and programs. These include teacher resources for school visits, an extensive range of learning sessions for students of all ages, and educational activities during the holidays.

The ship now resides on the River Thames. Image by Dickbauch CC BY-SA 3.0

Since becoming a museum, the HMS Belfast has been well-received, attracting millions of visitors annually. Much of the positive response is due to the hands-on and immersive nature of the exhibits, allowing visitors to gain a first-hand experience of life aboard a warship.

In addition to its permanent exhibits, HMS Belfast occasionally hosts special events and temporary exhibitions.

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For instance, they’ve hosted events including the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the 80th anniversary of the ship’s launch. These events often include additional exhibits, live performances, and expert talks.

HMS Belfast also participates in the annual London Museum’s Night Festival. During this event, the ship is open for free, and visitors can experience a different side of the museum as they explore it by night.

Why is HMS Belfast so famous?

HMS Belfast is famous for several reasons. First, it offers visitors a realistic experience of life on the ship during war times with its interactive facilities. You can explore all its decks and various rooms and even experience artificial smoke in the gun turret.

The ship features interactive videos, wax mannequins in uniforms, and first-hand accounts from World War II veterans. Additionally, it recently showcased an art piece by the renowned artist Hew Locke, providing an “alternative history” of the ship’s last voyage.