OK, so it’s not exactly small but HMS Belfast – an offshoot of the Imperial War Museum moored permanently on the Thames near Tower Bridge – does make a fascinating museum in which to spend a few hours.
Commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5th August, 1939 (just in time for the start of World War II), the HMS Belfast is a large light cruiser built, along with the HMS Edinburgh, as an improvement on the then existing ‘Southampton’ class vessels. It is now the only surviving example of the many big gun armoured warships which were built for the Royal Navy in first half of the twentieth century.
Assigned to the Home Fleet on the outbreak of war, the ship operated out of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles in far north Scotland and was charged with patrolling the northern waters as part of efforts to impose a maritime blockade on Germany. Striking a mine in November of that year, however, it was put of out action until two years later when it rejoined the Home Fleet and then began escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union – a mission which saw it take part in the Battle of North Cape off the Norwegian coast in late 1943 (this battle saw the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst).
The HMS Belfast later saw action on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 6th June, 1944, when it was employed to bombard German positions onshore before, heading to Japan where, after the end of the war, it was used to evacuate survivors of prisoners-of-war and internment camps in China.
The HMS Belfast saw action in the Korean War and then spent further time in the Far East before – under threat of being disposed of and broken up – it was acquired as a museum and moored in London. The first visitors were admitted on Trafalgar Day, 1971, and, as of last year, nearly 10 million people have taken up the chance to look at the ship.
These days there’s a well-defined route through the vessel, complete with audio guide (it’s included in the admission price), which takes visitors on an informative journey describing what life was like for those who served onboard the Belfast – including everything from the Arctic messdecks where ratings slept in hammocks to the NAAFI store where they could buy supplies, sick bay, the ‘modern’ laundry room, and chapel as well as the engine room, shell rooms and magazines, and , of course, the bridge.
Many of the rooms have been set up – some using life-sized manniquins – to show how they would have looked during a typical day. Particularly worth a look is the new Gun Turret Experience: A Sailor’s Story 1943, an immersive film, light and sound show which gives a glimpse into what life was like working inside one of the six inch gun turrets.
It can take a while to get around the whole ship (and parents are asked not to take small children into the boiler room) but it’s well worth taking the time to explore properly. In addition to the features of the ship itself, there are two exhibitions – one looking at the role of the ship in peace and war, and the other, an interactive experience in what life was like on board.
WHERE: HMS Belfast is moored on the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Entry is from the south bank of the Thames near Morgans Lane (nearest Tube stations are London Bridge, Tower Hill or Monument); WHEN: 10am-6pm (last admission 5pm) daily until 31st October, then 10am to 5pm (last admission 4pm); COST: £13.50 adults/£10.80 seniors and students/children under 16 free (price includes a voluntary donation); WEBSITE: http://hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk.