The Scuttlefish Travels to England. Welcome Aboard the Ship that Launched D-Day and Rendered Big Naval Gunships (Like Herself) Obsolete: HMS Belfast.

by Chris Dixon

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The HMS Belfast – a massive incongruity, floating on the muddy Thames right across from the Tower of London. Her history – from literally firing the opening shots on the D-Day invasion, to the sinking of one Germany’s most fearsome ships – is both heroic and tragic. Photo: Chris Dixon

Editor’s Note:
My family and I spent much of June trekking through England. We passed a week in London and the rest of a working vacation navigating a little camper through the verdant midlands and breathtaking coastline of my distant ancestral motherland. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll share a little of what we found on this island most fair.

Today, the incredible HMS Belfast, the last surviving heavy gunship in Her Majesty’s fleet.


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The full panorama – clear down to the Tower of London. Photo: Chris Dixon

She’s a massive, floating incongruity rising from the southern shoreline of the muddy Thames. HMS Belfast looks way, way too big to be so far upriver, yet there she lies moored, forever standing guard, over The Tower of London, and a stone’s throw from The London Eye, Big Ben, and other blood and brine-soaked landmarks of this ancient seafaring metropolis.

On a chilly morning my son and I strolled across the Tower Bridge to walk her nearly 80-year-old decks and explore her labyrinthine passageways that extend over seven decks. She’s an incredible sight to behold, and a damn fine museum, as my six-year-old son will gladly attest. Here’s a little of what we saw and learned.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

The Belfast was commissioned in May, 1936 as a response to Adolf Hitler’s alarming re-arming of Germany. She was to be a fast cruiser, 613 feet long by 69 feet wide, displacing 11,500 tons – smaller and more agile than a battleship, with lighter armor and smaller guns (compared to the 830 foot long, 46,000 ton battleship HMS Hood). But her agility was one of her best weapons. Despite a four-inch thick steel armor band around her hull, she could cruise at an incredible 32 knots, or 36 miles per hour. 

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Unlike every other heavy gunship in Her Majesty’s fleet, Belfast avoided the scrapyard when she was saved by the Imperial War Museums. She was towed up the Thames and under the Tower Bridge in 1971 and has been there ever since. Here’s a postcard of her upriver journey past the old docklands.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

The Belfast‘s decks support four “six-inch” guns – each rotation turret weighs over 170 tons. Each gun assembly holds three turrets that are still today capable of blasting a six-inch diameter, 112 pound armor piercing shell a distance of 14 miles. She could saturate a target and inflict enormous damage. With full broadsides, she could fire a ton of shells every fifteen seconds.

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Image: Hostilities Only.

A frigid hell on high water. On below-zero days, her crew was kept busy hammering ice off guns, on skating rink slippery decking, in massive seas.  Able Seaman Thomas Day standing against the ice encrusted barbette for B turret in November 1943.

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If your gloves failed, you could lose fingertips – easily. Click to blow up. Photo: Chris Dixon. 

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Photo: Chris Dixon

In addition to her big guns, Belfast bristled with smaller four-inchers, rapid fire anti-aircraft guns and three torpedo tubes. She entered service on August 5, 1939. A month later, England and Germany were at war.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

On her first deployment in late 1939, Belfast struck a German mine. She was so badly damaged, that the British considered scrapping her. Instead she was refitted, but didn’t return to service until 1942. During her time in port, quantum leaps were made in radar technology. Belfast now boasted a targeting system that could literally aim her guns in the dark. A revolutionary game-changer that would render her – and every ship like her – obsolete.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

While we were aboard, the Belfast was just ending a strange exhibit that imagined her venerable mannequin crewmen with carnival outfits and Maori-style face tattoos.By our arrival, the Carnival outfits had already come off. We first thought that maybe the guys tattoed their own faces while at sea. As the Beatles would say: Very strange.

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Artist Hew Locke’s reimagined Belfast crew. Some veterans in particular were not amused

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Photo: Chris Dixon

The radar system aboard Belfast could aim her guns – in the dark. Radar Aiming System information was transmitted seven decks below to a station deep in the hull.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

The inside of a gun turret – where a shell was loaded. Each turret had 26 men crammed into its belly at battle stations. Magazines at the bottom of the ship fed shells through an elevator. Seven men per gun practiced loading and firing – nonstop – until they were so proficient, they could fire in pitch dark, loading and firing in eight seconds.

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Photo: Chris Dixon

You’re allowed to roam far down into the bowels of the Belfast. It’s a claustrophobic maze. Boiler crews toiled way down here in the heat and deafening roar, choking on fuel oil fumes. If a big enemy shell punctured the hull, they assumed that they would be among the first die.

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A bridge that once looked out onto 45-foot waves today frames Parliament and Big Ben.
Photo: Chris Dixon

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The ship housed nearly 1000 men. They needed a lot of everything. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The mannequins in still life. Cooking potatoes. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Communications room frozen in time. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Photo: Chris Dixon

Captain Frederick Parham captained Belfast during the epic battle of North Cape. In late December, 1943, Belfast joined a phalanx of 13 other British ships in the hunt for the German battleship Scharnhorst. “It was David hunting Goliath,” said a crewman. It would be the last classic sea battle in the age of battleships and the last heavy German surface ship battle.

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Image: Wikipedia. 

The Germans didn’t know it, but their coded transmissions had been cracked, allowing the Scharnhorst to be tracked down. When Scharnhorst was found on December 26, her radar failed to detect British ships, but advanced radar guns aboard Belfast tracked her in complete darkness, ushered in a new era of electronic warfare and soon rendered big gun ships like the Belfast obsolete – because now these ships could now be hit anywhere and anytime. When Scharnhorst was blasted to the seafloor by Belfast and her flotilla, over 1900 Germans went down with her. Only 36 were saved.

Crewman George Burridge witnessed the ship’s final moments. “She was completely engulfed in flames. It was a terrible sight when you think about it. I can see it now.”

“My thought,” said another crewman named Harrison. “Poor devils. That’s how I felt. Swimming in that fuel oil? Can you imagine? He’s only a sailor just like you. So you don’t ever have any hatred. Or I don’t believe any sailors do. You’re seasick. Just the same. It’s a matter of survival. They go down or you go down.”

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Gun aiming portals. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The elevator that carried the heavy shells topside. “They made a hell of a crack, those guns,” recalled a crewman. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The belowdecks slices of life – and food – are fascinating. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Pouring out the gruel. Photo: Chris Dixon

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What’s for dinner? Photo: Chris Dixon

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The ship is incredibly period authentic. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Royal rot. The ship’s dentist work on tooth decay features real life sounds of drills and groaning crewmen. My son was a little freaked out. So was I. Photo: Chris Dixon

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If your appendix bursts, well, off to the surgeon. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Perhaps you’ll get a visit in sick bay. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Cat. Nap. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Photo: Chris Dixon

“You don’t exactly like everybody, but you put up with everybody,” said a crewman in the documentary HMS Belfast – Steel Fortress (linked at the end of this story). “You’ve got to.” Canvas hammocks date back to the tradition of British sailing ships. Grab an overhead bar, swing yourself in, the ship rocks you to sleep.

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Tight quarters near the bow. They had to be. Nearly 1000 men kept Belfast humming. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Some slept, some gambled, some dozed, some wrote home. Others slept overhead.  Photo: Chris Dixon

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Even officers quarters were tight. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Navigation room. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Repairing all those hammocks and other textiles was a full-time job. Even if there were no sails. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Ship’s store. Beer, Wrigley’s gum, Mars Bars and smokes. Photo: Chris Dixon

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That’s a lot of tea kettles. Photo: Chris Dixon

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A 16′ fast motor boat. This may be the last surviving intact example with original hull and motor. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Photo: Chris Dixon

The Belfast‘s guns today guard the 87-story tall London office Icon, The Shard. On June 6, 1944, at 5:30 AM, Belfast opened up on the coast of Normandy with her big guns shattering the dawn and marking the start of D-Day. An officer told the boiler crew: “History is being made up there. If you want to risk your lives and see what’s going on, you have two minutes.”

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Her last deployment – Korea, 1952. But no guns were fired. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Tough to imagine seeing your youngster off into such battles. Photo: Chris Dixon


Battle Stations: HMS Belfast – Steel Fortress. A terrific, and haunting documentary. Belfast‘s crew discusses the Battle against Scharnhorst and D-Day.

A British newsreel on the sinking of the Scharnhorst. 

Surviving crewmen of the Scharnhorst are featured in the documentary Battleship Scharnhorst. Their haunting, harrowing description of the ship’s sinking begins at about 30 minutes in. War is truly hell. –CD

Visit the HMS Belfast by clicking here. 

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