Of all the hundreds of Royal Navy capital ships that fought in World War Two, the sole survivor is the light cruiser HMS Belfast. Since 1971, the 12,000 ton old warrior has sat in a petrified state of preservation on the River Thames, across the river from the Tower of London, and within walking distance of Tower Bridge.
It costs around eighteen pounds to board the ship today. You can tour the lower crew mess decks, and see first hand the cramped, utilitarian life of a major warship, but without enduring the endless yawing, pitching and rolling that the ship would have experienced as an escort for the Arctic convoys in the depths of a pitiless winter.
You can see all four of the triple six inch gun turrets, frozen in both time and space. The barrels of the two forward ones are still raised as if ready to hurl steel death across the city skyline at any moment. At certain times, you can even go inside.
Their finest hour was on December 26th 1943, at the Battle of North Cape, Scharnhorst, the last of Adolf Hitler’s combat ready battleships and the so called ‘lucky ship’ of the German navy, set sail on Christmas Day to make a desperate lunge at a vital Arctic convoy. She was actually sailing into the jaws of a trap.
Belfast was the flagship of Admiral Bob Burnett and, along with sister cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield, it was she that first encountered and checked the advancing Scharnhorst in the teeth of a howling gale. In complete darkness, they lost contact with the German ship. But Scharnhorst came back for another try. It sealed her fate.
Belfast and her sisters again parried the raider. By the time Scharnhorst broke off and headed for home, it was too late. Caught in the jaws of a gigantic vice, she was battered to a standstill, lanced with torpedoes, and then hammered into a flaming wreck that blew up in total darkness. It was the last major action between battleships north of the equator.
Belfast went on to serve during the D-Day landings, providing gunfire support for the ground forces earmarked for Operation Overlord. She also served with distinction during the Korean war, before being finally decommissioned in 1967. Plans for her preservation were by then already well in hand.
Today the proud, pristine cruiser is a much loved and familiar sight on the London skyline, with her pair of sprightly grey smokestacks and a phalanx of spiky anti aircraft guns that still quarter the horizon to this day, as if expecting the Luftwaffe to appear overhead at any moment.
You’ll also have the opportunity to tour the bridge, including Admiral Burnett’s cabin. There’s also a food and drink outlet on board, as well as a small souvenir shop. If you’re intent on seeing this unique piece of English maritime history properly, then I recommend that you allow yourself at least a full hour and a half.
The nearest underground stations to HMS Belfast are Tower Hill and London Bridge
Opening times: 10am-6pm March to November (Last admission 5pm) 10am-5pm December to February (Last admission 4pm) Closed 24, 25 and 26th of December.
Disabled: Wheelchairs are available on loan aboard the ship. However, the layout and original construction of the ship makes access to lower decks difficult for disabled visitors.