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Craig recommends… Here’s my latest HMS Belfast review. There’s another WWII cruiser at Chatham Dockyards, plus a Cold War submarine. Or how about the submarine at Portsmouth Dockyards? The only other boats in London are the Cutty Sark clipper ship and Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde. Or you can catch a boat from Westminster to Greenwich with City Cruises, TRS and Thames Clippers.
HMS Belfast began production on the 21st September 1936, and was launched on 17th March 1938. She entered active service just one month before World War II broke out, under the command of Captain G A Scott.
The warship is 613-feet long, and had a crew of 750 to 850, a top speed of 32 knots, and was armed with twelve 6-inch guns (4x3), eight 4-inch HA/LA (4x2) and twelve Bofors AA (6x2).
The ship’s most famous engagement came in the winter of 1943 at the Battle of the North Cape. The German High Command was trying to put pressure on the arctic convoys and sent the battle cruiser Scharnhorst to cut off supplies.
Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British has been cracking the Enigma codes for months, which gave them plenty of time to send some ships to head her off. HMS Belfast was joined by two more cruisers: HMS Norfolk and HMS Sheffield, whilst HMS Duke of York and HMS Jamaica blocked her off from the south.
Scharnhorst was soon hit by two of Norfolk’s massive 8-inch shells, and HMS Belfast set off in hot pursuit. The Duke of York pounded her again, before Belfast delivered the parting blow. Of the 1,963 men aboard, only 36 lived to tell the tale.
At the conclusion of the war HMS Belfast was first posted to China, and then on to Korea to help the Americans. She returned to Britain in September 1952 for a series of peace patrols and training exercises.
She remained the Royal Navy’s largest cruiser until she was decommissioned in 1963, and now serves as a floating museum moored in front of Tower Bridge.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
It was pelting it down with rain so I felt like I was rolling around in the North Sea. When you go in you have to hand you ticket over to a guy dressed up in full naval uniform, complete with the shoulder stripes and hat and shiny shoes – I think he was a real Royal Navy guy. There are loads of people like that all over the place. I saw one of them polishing a torpedo. Another one was checking the dials on the bridge.
It’s hard to distinguish the navy guys from the Madame Tussauds waxworks sometimes, because the rooms are decorated like they’re still in use. You’ll find them sleeping in the hammocks and having a laugh, peeling potatoes in the kitchens, and checking the radar for incoming enemies, and then all of a sudden a real Royal Navy guy will walk by and think they’ve come to life!
Be warned: the corridors and cabins are very cramped. If you’re over six-feet tall then take a tip from me: leave the high-heels at home. And if you’ve got dodgy knees (like me) then you might not be able to make the stairs either, because they go straight up – vertically. They are so steep that you can’t even come down facing the front because your feet are too long… you’ll just go head over heels. You have to turn around and do it backwards, with your feet facing sideways. You could probably hook your elbows onto the railings and slide down, like they do in the movies, but I’d crack my head open if I tried that.
You get given a little audio guide at the start, but I gave up following the arrows after five minutes because the whole place is like a maze. I just started on the deck where the big guns are. If you got shot by one those then it would probably hurt quite a lot, I would imagine, given that they’re about thirty-feet long.
You can go below and see where they load up all the shells and missiles as well. If the ship got hit they have flooded the room to stop it exploding, and buried the crew inside a tomb of water.
Then you get led up to the bridge where all the wheels and levers are and radar screens are, so you can see if London is being attacked. Obviously I thought about pressing some buttons but I chickened out – I didn’t know whether those guns are still loaded. I didn’t stay outside for too long either because of the rain, and I didn’t want to get swept overboard and die, so I delved deeper into the living quarters.
You can explore the mess hall and kitchens, and even a little wood-panelled chapel. They’ve even got the original shop where they bought their 1940s tobacco. They seemed to like Kit-Kats during the war, because the shelves were full of them.
Then you get led into the operating theatre, complete with waxwork doctors doing something too gruesome to mention. The dentist surgery has got a deadly dentist drilling into some poor sailor’s face, and there’s a little four-bed ward with patients skiving off their duties.
After that comes a little exhibition as with models of the boat and pictures of the ship in action, but it’s all been done dark and gloomy so it’s very atmospheric, with the sound of World War II tunes piped through the speakers.
Finally you reach the engine rooms. You have to be super skinny to make your way through here because the walls are literally two inches from your face, tight around your body. And you have to walk along a little gangway suspended halfway between the floor and ceiling to get anywhere.
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If you enjoy this then try: Churchill War Rooms (catch the tube from London Bridge to Churchill War Rooms) and Imperial War Museum (walk it in 28 mins or catch a train from London Bridge to Imperial War Museum).