HMS BELFAST, the first ship of that name in the Royal Navy, was a cruiser of the improved Southampton type, with a displacement of 10,000 tons, and a maximum speed of 32½ knots. She was built at BELFAST by Messrs Harland and Wolff, and was laid down on 10 December 1936, launched by Mrs Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1938 and completed on 3 August 1939 joining the 18th Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet, based on Scapa. From mid-November 1939, she was transferred to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet.
Her main armament consisted of twelve 6 inch guns, twelve 4 inch guns, four 3 pound and four 2 pound guns in addition to a number of smaller weapons.
On 21 November 1939 she was extensively damaged by a mine in the Firth of Forth and was out of action for three years. Her back was broken, engines dislodged, and she needed almost complete reconstruction, but eventually left Devonport for Scapa on 10 December 1942 virtually a new ship. By this time some of her smaller armament had been removed.
During 1943 she served with the 10th Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet, in various operations, including the escort of convoys to and from North Russia. On 26 December 1943, when serving as flagship of Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett, it was her radar which detected the German battle-cruiser SCHARNHORST south-east of Bear Island, and she played an outstanding part in the action which resulted in the sinking of that ship.
The BELFAST took part in further operations with the 10th Cruiser Squadron in 1944, including Russian convoys and support of Fleet Air Arm attacks on the TIRPITZ in Kaa Fiord.
She was among the Home Fleet ships lent for the landings in Normandy, Operation “Neptune”, on 6 June 1944, when she flew the flag of Rear-Admiral F H G Dalrymple-Hamilton, Commanding the 10th Cruiser Squadron. Allocated to bombardment Force ‘E’, in support of the Eastern Task Force under Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian, she took part in several shoots until 8 July. She afterwards went to the Tyne for a long refit, until April, 1945. On VE Day, 8 May, she was at Rosyth. A meeting with German delegates in connection with minefield clearance was held on board her on 14 May.
Allocated for service in the Far East, she left Scapa for her new station on 17 June 1945, but did not arrive until after Japan had surrendered. On 19 September, she was with the first Allied Force to arrive at Shanghai, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral R M Servaes, Commanding the 2nd Cruiser Squadron.
During the next two years, until her return to Portsmouth in October, 1947, the BELFAST visited all parts of the station – China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Malaya.
On 21 October 1948, a ceremony deferred for over nine years took place when the BELFAST visited her name port to receive a silver bell from the BELFAST Corporation. She afterwards returned to the Far East to relieve HMS SUSSEX.
HMS BELFAST’s involvement in the Korean war began on 29 July 1950, when she arrived in the area and became flagship for Flag Officer Second-in-Command Far Eastern Station (Rear Admiral W G Andrewes): HMS BELFAST was initially assigned to Task Force 96 under the command of Commander US Naval Forces Far East. On 5 August 1950, in company with other HM Ships, HMS BELFAST steamed up the hazardous approach to Inchon where she bombarded oil storage areas, factories, warehouses and gun positions. Bombardment in support of land forces and to a lesser extent blockade were to be her major tasks during the Korean War. She returned to Chatham, where she recommissioned on 19 October 1950, worked up at Malta and returned to Sasebo on 31 January 1951.
In February 1951, HMS BELFAST in company with Australian and US ships carried out a successful inshore bombardment at Wonsan, after having navigated some 37 Km of channel through minefields.
In March 1951 HMS BELFAST took part in concentrated bombardment of the west of Korea; in one such, BELFAST hit her target with the first salvo and dropped three succeeding salvos on the same spot. The BELFAST steamed through miles of pack ice during these operations and encountered ice floes up to 20 feet across and several feet thick. On 1 June 1951 she docked at Singapore for her annual refit, and returned to her patrol area on 31 August. On 20 November 1951, BELFAST was flagship of Task Group 95.8 (Rear Admiral A K Scott Moncrieff), and with Dutch and Australian ships made a co-ordinated strike against the industrial centre of Hungam on the East Cost of Korea.
Although short ranges were necessary for shore bombardments it was not until 29 July 1952 that the BELFAST was hit by return fire, when she was struck by a 76 mm shell, one Chinese rating was killed and four injured.
In September 1952 HMS BELFAST took part in the Cigarette Channel operation, an attempt to disrupt the enemy supply lines.
HMS BELFAST left the Korean theatre in September 1952. Since her arrival on 29 July 1950 she had steamed some 82,500 miles, fired well over 8,000 6-inch shells and spent 404 days at sea. She had been described by the US Naval Command as a ‘fast firing ship’ and had been much complimented on the effectiveness of her bombardments – a task for which her armament was admirably suited. She returned to Chatham on 4 November 1952, and was afterwards reduced to reserve at Devonport.
In March 1955 approval was given for HMS BELFAST to be modernised; this took place at Devonport during an extended refit from 6 January 1956 to 12 May 1959 during which time major alterations to structure and armament were made. After recommissioning she was allocated to the Far East station and on 28 April 1960 took part in the SEATO exercise SEALION. Between May 1960 and September 1961 she visited ports in Korea, Japan and Australia and on 3 November 1961 sailed from Hong Kong for the Tanganyika independence celebrations. In April/May 1962 she visited San Francisco and returned to Portsmouth on 19 June 1962 after nearly three years on the FES. On 2 July 1962 she was recommissioned for Home Sea Service and became the flagship of Flag Officer Flotillas, Home Fleet. On 2-8 November, wearing his flag, she visited Amsterdam with ships of the Home Fleet.
In August 1963, at which time she was wearing the flag of the Admiral Commanding Reserves, in Company with ships of the 10th (RNR) Minesweeping Squadron, she made the round trip to Gibraltar and back with Cadets of the CCF and SCC on board (Exercise ROCK HAUL).
In 1965 she was ordered to be retained in reserve at Plymouth and in August of that year she was at Plymouth for Navy Days.
In 1966 she was brought forward from reserve and reclassified as a harbour accommodation ship at Portsmouth, and on 17 May the offices of Captain Reserve Ships and Senior Officer Reserve Ships Portsmouth transferred to HMS BELFAST from the SHEFFIELD.
In 1967 a joint Imperial War Museum/National Maritime Museum/Ministry of Defence Committee was set up to consider the possibility of preserving HMS BELFAST as an example of the dying breed of ‘big-gun’ ships which had for so long borne the brunt of the defence of these Islands and civilisation throughout the world. It reported in 1968 that the scheme was a practical one but early in 1971 the Government decided not to preserve the
ship as a national museum.
However, a private Trust was set up in an attempt to preserve BELFAST and in July 1971 the Government agreed to hand the ship over to the Trust.
On 15 November 1971 HMS BELFAST was towed to her final mooring place just above Tower Bridge and officially handed over to the BELFAST Trust. In the person of Rear Admiral Morgan Giles, Chairman of the Trust and a former captain of the Ship). She is open to the public to serve as a constant reminder to future generations of the importance of maritime power in the Country’s past history and for her future prosperity. Although the BELFAST is no longer in commission, by special permission she continues to wear the White Ensign and is still regarded as a ship of the Royal Navy. At the time of her transfer to the Trust her tonnage was stated as 11,550, making her the largest cruiser ever to be constructed for the Royal Navy.
Battle honours awarded to the BELFAST are as follows:
- Arctic: 1943.
- North Cape: 1943.
- Normandy: 1944.
- Korea: 1950-1952.
FOI 2019/01021 dated 06 February 2019.
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