Boost your D-Day knowledge on board the HMS Belfast

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

On the Thames, between the London Bridge and the Tower Bridge, the HMS Belfast rests at anchor. Now a popular tourist attraction, the cruiser served Britain’s Royal Navy fleet from the time of her commissioning in 1939 until her last use as an accommodation ship through to 1970. Moored at her present resting place in 1971, she’s been cast in the role of museum ship and is run as part of the Imperial War Museums, a network of five museums which tell the story of war and conflict from the First World War to the present day.

The HMS Belfast had many jobs in her day. In the early days of WWII, she escorted Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union’s northern ports, and in December of 1943, she played a key role in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst during the Battle of the North Cape.  She served in the Far East in 1945, and made up part of the United Nations’ naval forces in the Korean War from 1950-1952.

The cruiser also played an important role as part of the bombardment fleet engaged in the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.  The flagship of Bombardment Force E, she supported troops landing at Gold and Juno beaches. Her first target was the German gun battery at La Marefontaine, and as a result of her bombardment, the battery played no meaningful role in the defense of the beaches. As one of the larger warships in the fleet, she could boast of a fully equipped sick bay staffed by surgeons, who began treating the war’s wounded from the early afternoon hours of that day. In total, the HMS Belfast spent 33 days and fired over 5,000 shells in Normandy. The Normandy campaign represented the last time her guns were to be fired in the Second World War.

In her role as a museum, the HMS Belfast offers a fascinating glance at how serving in the Royal Navy would have looked in decades past, in times of both war and peace. By means of a self-guided tour and an audio recording featuring the reminiscences of those who served on board, visitors can make their way past and through the ship’s turrets, engine rooms, operations rooms and crews’ quarters. With lots of climbing up and down ladders, a tour could pose a challenge to the less mobile but adds an element of fun for kids. In areas depicting the life of sailors in the lower ranks, full-size mannequins carry out everyday labors such as peeling potatoes or lounge in their hammocks between duties. Upon entering the sick bay, visitors not only see a patient undergoing surgery but hear the persistent hiss of the operating equipment and smell the ward’s slightly metallic, medicinal odor. It’s precisely such details that enable a visit to the HMS Belfast to convey not only a picture of military might but a feel for the highs and lows of a typical day spent on the high seas in service of one’s country.

The HMS Belfast is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Adult entry costs 18 pounds, ages 5-15 pay 9 pounds, and those four and under enter free.      

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