Launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938, at Harland & Wolff Belfast, HMS Belfast is the largest surviving British warship from World War II. A group 3 Town-class ‘large light cruiser’, she has a displacement of 11,500 tons and is armed with twelve 6-inch guns in four turrets. The seemingly oxymoronic designation reflects inter-war naval treaties. Any non-capital ship armed with guns of a calibre above 6.1 inches was deemed to be a ‘heavy cruiser’, and there were strict limits to the numbers of such ships a navy was allowed to possess. But there were no such limits on light cruisers. Consequently, navies began building large but relatively under-gunned cruisers. The US Navy’s Brooklyn class was another example of the type. Perhaps the best-known ship of this class was the USS Phoenix, later serving with the Argentine Navy as the ARA General Belgrano.
The Belfast was commissioned in August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the war. In November, she struck a mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. One man was killed and 46 officers and men injured. The ship sustained heavy damage and was out of action until November 1942. Belfast spent 1943 on Arctic convoy duty, and on Boxing Day of that year, flying the flag of Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, she took part in the Battle of the North Cape, off the coast of Norway. While escorting a convoy, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst and coordinated the defence of the convoy, forcing the Scharnhorst to turn away. Belfast shadowed the Scharnhorst by radar, enabling the battleship HMS Duke of York to intercept the German warship. As the Duke of York made radar contact, Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst with star shells. Soon after, the two capital ships began slugging it out, but the Scharnhorst was heavily outgunned by the British battleship. The Scharnhorst fought to the bitter end, but eventually sank with the loss of all but 36 of her crew.
Belfast’s next battle honour came on D-Day, when she took part in the naval bombardment that preceded the Normandy landings. During her five weeks off Normandy, she fired 1,996 rounds. This was her final action in European waters.
After undergoing a refit, Belfast was deployed to the Far East to take part in the war against Japan, but the Japanese surrendered before she saw action. With the war over, she remained in the Far East and was the Far East Squadron’s headquarters ship during the 1945 Yangtze Incident, when the British frigate HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze River by Chinese communist forces.
From 1950 to 1952, Belfast was involved in the Korean War, taking part in coastal patrols and bombarding shore targets in support of ground forces. During the course of the conflict, she steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the war zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.
Between 1955 and 1959, Belfast underwent an extensive refit, during which her bridge was rebuilt and her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts. It was a swansong for a ship now essentially obsolete in an era where ships were armed with guided missiles rather than large-calibre guns. She took part in a number of naval exercises in the Far East, but in December 1963 she was finally decommissioned.
While Belfast was laid up at Fareham Creek, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in preserving a 6-inch gun turret but then began to consider the possibility of preserving the entire ship. The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, but after several years of can-kicking, the Paymaster General decided against preservation. The Belfast looked to be bound for the scrap yard, but in March 1971 a former captain, Rear-Adm. Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, now Conservative MP for Winchester, formed a trust and argued strongly in Parliament for the preservation of his former command. He was supported by Gordon Bagier, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who had served in the Belfast at the Battle of the North Cape. Although the ship’s movable equipment had already been stripped out, the government postponed scrapping and in July agreed to hand Belfast over to the HMS Belfast Trust. On 15 October, the ship was towed to her present location above Tower Bridge, and six days later, on Trafalgar Day, she opened to the public for the first time. Belfast became the first naval vessel to be preserved since Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.
Although the Belfast was an immediate hit with the public, the Trust struggled financially, and in 1977 the Imperial War Museum sought government permission to take over the running of the ship. Approval was given, and on 1 March 1978, Belfast was transferred to the Imperial War Museum. She remains at Tower Bridge to this day, where she is frequently ‘visited’ by warships of the Royal Navy and other navies. Unlike Victory, the name Belfast was not ‘retired’, and the third of the new Type 26 frigates will be named HMS Belfast. The original Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast (1938). This is perhaps a little unfortunate, given her distinguished service in both WW II and the Korean War.