Sam and I have this little thing that we each take it in turns to organise ‘Date Day’ or ‘Date Night’. It was my turn and I chose to take Sam to visit HMS Belfast which is part of the Imperial War Museum. It was something I had been thinking about for a while, as we’ve been watching The Last Ship TV series and the USS Indianapolis film so war ships were something that had featured in things we have recently been watching. I knew Sam had never visited HMS Belfast as a child so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity, both as a day out and to learn a little history.
As we arrived at London Bridge station and walked towards the ship we were greeted with an amazing view of HMS Belfast at her permanent mooring on the thames. Its really quite something. She looks every inch a machine of destruction; heavy artillery, naval camouflage and masts with all kinds of communications and radar equipment attached. Every part of her served a purpose and was built for war. She looks like she could take an absolute battering whilst being a formidable opponent at the same time. I would not want to be on the receiving end of those massive guns.
I have always felt a great deal of respect for those that served in WWI and WWII and knowing this ship played a huge part made me feel incredibly humble. As well as saving the lives of thousands she’s also responsible for taking the lives of thousands. I was excited to be visiting HMS Belfast again with adult eyes; fully respecting what she was and what she symbolises now. But also fearful because I was imagining what life would have been like as a sailor all those years ago. I have an incredible amount of respect for those that lay their lives down to protect others.
The weather outside was cold and grey, the wind had a real iciness and it was a little damp from raining earlier. Sam and I watched a documentary about HMS Belfast when we got home that night and on one of her missions she went to the arctic to protect a trade route and the sailors had to endure temperatures of -30c! They had to hack off layers and layers of ice that had frozen on the guns to keep them operational and the sea spray would freeze instantly against the metal – it was a tough, repetitive job. It takes the meaning of ‘hard work’ to a whole new level. It made the 5c outside temperature in London seem relatively warm in comparison.
HMS Belfast’s crew was generally in the region of 700-950 strong. It depended on whether she was at war or just cruising. The Captain and officers had individual quarters but the rest of the crew slept in hammocks. These were positioned all over the ship – over tables where the sailors ate, over machinery and in corridors. Wherever there was a conceivable space there were black bars for hanging hammocks. It felt like they were crammed in wherever possible. Apparently, its British Naval tradition to sleep in a hammock; tying it up and learning to climb in is one of the first skills you are taught. They did say it makes for a good night’s sleep as each hammock sways in unison with the ship.
Belfast wouldn’t be a war ship without her artillery and armour. She is mounted with twelve Mark XXIII 6-inch guns in four triple turrets. These fire up to 96 rounds of armour piercing shells per minute. She was also loaded with another twelve 4-inch guns in six twin mounts and anti-aircraft ‘pom-pom’ guns in two eight barrel mountings as well as two machine guns. In addition to this she also has six torpedo tubes and depth charges.
All war ships must be armoured, so as well as dishing out damage they need to be able to withstand attack. She was protected by a 4.5inch armour belt with additional armour over the magazines and machinery. The six inch guns are protected by 4 inches of armour. Most of the armour and guns were added and upgraded following an incident with a magnetic mine in 1939 which left the ship so badly damaged that she was almost scrapped.
Directly below the guns, protected deep inside the bowels of the ship is the shell storage room and the machinery that fed shells and cordite explosives to the guns. The circular belt of armour piercing shells surrounding the delivery tubes was quite a sight, these were manually loaded by a team of sailors and they went straight up to the guns on the main deck to be handled by a crew of 28, firing up to eight shells per gun per minute, totalling the 96 rounds per minute fire rate. That means they had 7.5 seconds to load, re-load and fire each gun.
Each of the 28 gun crew were responsible for a single task, which had to be timed perfectly. One would have been opening the barrel, another loads in the shell, another loads the cordite, another closes the barrel, and another arms the gun and another presses the trigger. It was a well rehearsed action sequence that had to be timed perfectly. Their hearts must have been pounding, mistakes were something they could not afford. I can’t even imagine the noise and heat that was given off whilst the guns were firing at full rate.
The thing I loved most about exploring Belfast was going up and down the ladders and seeing the different decks and how much was actually crammed inside. There are 9 decks in total with 5 of them being below the main deck. There was a recreational room called a “mess”, prison cells, a kitchen, launderette and even a tuck shop run by the NAAFI, who still exist today. The ship had a sick bay, doctors surgery and even a dentists surgery which smelt strongly of cloves. There was even a work shop for sail making and machines designed to fix anything. The idea was that Belfast needed to be self sufficient – she had to be able to do minor repairs herself.
Perhaps one of the most amazing sections of the ship is the engine and boiler room. This room itself was about three floors of chambers, levers, pipes and dials. There was a Bose speaker in the corner of the engine room which played a life like sound although it was noisy and loud, it was much quieter than it would have been in real life! I forgot I was surrounded by water until I saw a sign in the boiler room that told me I was now standing below water level, on deck -5, at the very bottom of the ship. All this machinery enabled the ship to travel at a top speed of 32knots, equivalent to about 36mph.
After exploring the decks below we headed back up to explore the three decks above. These were much smaller and mostly contained the ship’s operational and navigation equipment. There was a radio communications room, a room where radar was monitored and information analysed, there was a telephone system – so that orders could be received around the ship and even a few desks dotted around here and there. It was in these places that important decisions were made and plans were formed. Each person had to do their specific job and keep everything running as it should.
Sam couldn’t resist sitting in the Captain’s chair. Apparently the guns point at a service station on the M1. From Belfast’s current position her firing range easily covers all of London and could fire as far as Gidea Park or even just shy of the QEII Bridge!
The ship closed at 5pm, a little after we took the photo above at Belfast’s bow. We decided to head back home and warm up our tummies with a takeaway when we got in.
HMS Belfast is worth a visit, its both educational and a fun day out. Tickets can be booked here.