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Anchors aweigh! All aboard!
HMS Belfast (London)
Member Name: rosie.s
HMS Belfast (London)
Date: 06/09/02, updated on 15/09/02 (360 review reads)
Advantages: You get a feel of what it must have been like on board, Lots to see and do on board
Disadvantages: Steep stairs, limited access for the disabled.
HMS Belfast is a cruiser, which was built in 1938 with the purpose of protecting convoys. She served extensively throughout WW2, providing cover for merchant fleet in the Arctic convoy, taking vital supplies to north Russia. She also played an important part in the D-Day Landings in Normandy. Later she served a lot of time in the Far East and supported UN forces during the Korean War. Anchored in the Thames just by Tower Bridge since 1971, she’s the sole surviving example of a Royal Navy gun armoured warship from the first half of the 20th century.
It’s quite easy to reach; just a few minutes walk from London Bridge station. You get your tickets in the small shop that’s landside and then enter the boat via a long walkway or gangplank if you want to be nautical. Upon your arrival you are given a map of the boat which at first seems incomprehensible but if you just follow the numbered sections that are signposted throughout the ship, it’s quite easy and you can make it right around without missing anything out. You start the tour at the Quarterdeck, and the first of many steep stairs, more like a ladder, up to the Y Turret and its guns. Callum thought all this was great and marvelled at all the equipment, if a little put out that things like the phone receivers were screwed down and couldn’t be played with.
We moved on through the ship, along the boatdeck where aircraft and boats used to be stored wh
en not in action. There was the first of several video information monitors here – TV screens showing a short video about the relevant part of the ship, with a combination of old footage, graphics and narration from a newsreadery type. We watched this first one because they were showing old reels of planes being launched into the air by a big catapult thingy, but afterwards we’d walk on by the screens. It was a bit like watching the History Channel on cable and we could have stayed at home to do that.
Much more fun for children is the gun deck where they can play on two 40mm Bofors guns, winding big levers to elevate and train the guns. They also like sitting in the captain’s chair on the Bridge, fiddling with various buttons and controls and listening to the tape recreating the HMS Belfast’s part in the battle with the German warship Scharnhorst. Lots of shouting and gunfire create a sense of drama, but I found it slightly embarrassing. I much preferred to look out of the windows and imagine for myself, what it must have been like to be up on that Bridge out at sea. The drama on tape continued in the Operations Room, with spotlights lighting up various figures sitting at desks, or plotting out their course.
The Wireless Room was stacked full of old radio equipment and faded black and white photos. The Officers Cabins were also restored to how they would have looked during WW2, before the boats refit. Even the Captains cabin looked basic with just a bunk, desk and chair, some shelves and a washbasin. Then you descend into the Mess Decks and realise it was luxury in comparison to the living conditions of the crew who slept in hammocks strung above the long wooden tables where men played cards, read and wrote letters to their loved ones when they weren’t on duty. In fact, there were so many crew on board during WW2 that some had to sleep in the Capstan Machinery Space, their hammocks strung between the machinery us
ed for anchoring the ship. In the far corner of this space are the Punishment Cells where sailors could be locked up for misdemeanours such as sleeping while on watch, being drunk on duty, or absconding without leave. They were locked up with basic rations and were only allowed to read The Bible or other books of a religious nature.
A small section of the ship is given over to a permanent exhibition which takes you through the history of the HMS Belfast with artifacts including pages from a diary written by a young seaman who served on the ship. There’s also, poignantly, the telegram his mother received stating that he was missing in action, whilst serving on HMS Hood when it was sunk by the Bismarck in the Battle of the North Atlantic. There were also pictures of the handful of German sailors who survived after the Scharnhorst was sunk. From a crew of almost 2000 only 36 survived and they are shown here after they had been captured, blindfolded and being led off an Allied ship.
Section seven on the HMS Belfast shows how the living quarters looked after the extensive refit following World War 2. You can see the sick bay, complete with operating tableland bunks. There is a dentist’s room and a small chapel, which is still sometimes, used today, and the galley where all the food was prepared. Further down, well below the waterline is the engine rooms, and the place where they stored all the shells and magazines for the ships guns. Surprisingly, the steering position is also situated down here. The man responsible for steering was actually all the way down in the bowels of the ship, in virtual darkness, taking instructions from someone up on the bridge who could see where they were going.
Much of the boat has been kept as it was and you do get a real feel for what it must have been like to serve on-board all those years ago. Of course, some modifications have been necessary in order for it to cater for the visitors. The
fé – the Walrus Café – next to the boat-deck that serves sandwiches, drinks and hot-dogs at not tooextortionate prices. HMS Belfast also caters for childrens parties and corporate functions. See their website for more details: iwm.org.uk/belfast/index.htm. I’ve just been there and noticed that in the October half-term they are going to have actors on board playing the part of crew, who will answer any questions you have about seafaring life. For the rest of the year, there are quite a few staff around who seem quite helpful if you have any questions.
It is an interesting place to visit although there are a lot of very steep steps so it’s not advisable to go with very young children, ie under 2, unless you don’t mind carrying them everywhere. Access for the disabled is limited too. It takes about two hours to get round it all and if you have time afterwards, take a look at the new City Hall just nearby, and check out the exhibition inside that shows all the new building work going on in London at the moment.
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