The ship’s history is a fascinating one, so to celebrate the anniversary, we thought it would be interesting to put together a potted history of its eight decades.
HMS Belfast was built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast - the city after which it was named. The Belfast was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5th August 1939 and had a crew of 791. The initial sea trials lasted a matter of weeks before the war began and the ship was called into action to hunt down enemy raiders and protect Allied convoys in the Atlantic.
In November 1939, the Belfast hit a magnetic mine which killed one crew member and injured many others. The blast broke the ship’s back, putting it out of action for repairs for nearly three years.
At the end of 1943, HMS Belfast was back in service escorting a supply convoy to Russia. The convoy was attacked by a German battleship, the Scharnhorst. The Belfast defended the convoy, then gave chase when the German ship retreated. By constantly communicating the enemy’s position, a British battleship was able to join the Belfast in its pursuit of the enemy vessel. Eventually they caught up, opened fire and sank the Scharnhorst, taking the surviving 36 crew members prisoner.
In June 1944, HMS Belfast was involved in Operation Overlord - the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France. The Belfast was one of the ships that protected boatloads of commandos as they landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. After three months, and once the Allies had the area secured, the Belfast came back to the UK for a refit.
In 1945, the ship headed out to help the war effort in the Pacific, arriving in Australia the day after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima - unaware of the effects of radiation, crew members later visited the city to see the damage for themselves.
For the next three years, the Belfast’s job was to help maintain the fragile peace after the end of the war, but it was put back into active service in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. The ship was used to shell shore targets in North Korea to support the South Korean army and UN forces.
In the late 1950s, the Belfast was rebuilt with new anti-aircraft weapons and a fully enclosed bridge. It was also fitted with equipment that would help to protect the crew in the event of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.
The ship was recommissioned by the Navy in May 1959, and peacetime exercises took the crew around the world. They didn’t return to the UK until June 1962, after which the ship was decommissioned and spent a few years as an accommodation ship in Fareham. The Belfast would have then been sent to the scrapyard, but the Imperial War Museum formed a Trust that lobbied Parliament to save the ship for the nation.
The ship was taken to its current mooring in London and was opened to the public in 1971. HMS Belfast has since become a London landmark, but is not just a physical museum. In the holidays, it welcomes war veterans on board to talk to young people about what life was like at sea in wartime. There are also lots of fascinating photos, archive footage and videos of people reminiscing about the time they served on the Belfast.
Throughout August, HMS Belfast is hosting a Family Mission: D-Day Edition. This is a unique chance for the kids to learn more about the biggest invasion in history through activities and storytelling. It’s part of general admission, so there’s no reason not to give it a go!