H.M.S Belfast is a Second World War light cruiser preserved for the nation on the Thames at Tower Bridge. She is an eleven thousand ton, nine decked, four turreted lean, mean fighting machine and last Saturday night she was home for the Cubs of the 1st St Margarets Cub Pack.
In her war time ‘Dazzle’ camouflage, from the outside H.M.S Belfast looks exactly like what she is - an aggressive weapon of war that helped sink the German battle-cruiser ‘Scharnhorst’, protected the Arctic convoys, fired its massive guns at D. Day and saw action during the Korean War. Step inside and you find yourself in a confusing warren of narrow corridors and companionways lined not only with all the accoutrements of war but also with everything that you might expect to find in a small town - a dentist, a potato store, a butcher, a carpentry shop, a bakery, a chapel, a Welfare Office, a NAAFI selling long forgotten items like Capstan Full Strength cigarettes, Spangles and sherbet fountains and a Provision Room that supplied the sailors daily tot of rum.
The Cubs spent the night in G Mess, accessed by a steep ladder from the main deck and very close to the two forward turrets which are powerful enough to hit targets 14 miles away. As everyone observed ‘St Stephens School’ was a rather tempting target.
During the Second World War G Mess was where over 100 sailors slung their hammocks, ate their meals and spent whatever spare time they might have had. After a refit in the early 1950’s the hammocks were replaced with tiers of bunks - and it is there that we slept, in the same ‘pits’ as the men who fired over 8000 shells during the Korean conflict.
After breakfast, during which the Cubs discussed the merits of ‘Coco Pops’ as a weapon of war, they were given a graphic account of what it was like to fight the war at sea - the horror of working in engine rooms and magazines below sea level not knowing when an enemy shell, torpedo or mine might rip the ship apart - the heart stopping alarm of “Action Stations’ when the crew had just 2 minutes to drop whatever they were doing and get to their fighting positions - the grimness of the Arctic convoys with waves as high as a house - the lack of sleep, the absence of personal comforts and the general squalor of being packed into a ship that was already busting at the seams with everything it needed to wage war. The Cubs saw film of the ship beating its way through packs of ice, gun crews closing up as control officers, staring into primitive radar sets, frantically searched for enemy aircraft, ships and submarines. We saw men, exhausted almost beyond reason, sliding around the decks in minus 30 degree temperatures, chipping away at the accumulating ice that threatened to capsize them. They felt the weight of a 6 inch shell. They scrambled into hammocks and tried on wartime duffel coats so heavy they almost stood up by themselves. They put on the anti flash gear that protected the gun crews from burning and lugged around the large canvas bags of cordite used to fire the guns. Then they roamed the ship from the boiler room in the bowels to the Gun Direction Platform high above the bridge, ducking under shell hoists and steam pipes and squeezing their way through the narrow passages, hatches, ladders and claustrophobic bolt holes that 70 years ago echoed with the voices of the men who helped defeat fascism and bring us victory.
I think that in the future all the Cubs will see war not as a glorified video game that you can switch off when you’ve had enough, but as a life and death struggle for something far more important than points on a board. I think that in the future the Cubs will see veterans of that conflict, men and women, not as cranky, creaky old people whose opinions are best disregarded but as a remarkable generation whose courage, resilience and determination puts us all, with our petty ‘issues’, to shame.
Expected to be disposed of as scrap, in 1967 efforts were initiated to preserve Belfast as a museum ship. A joint committee of the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence was established, and reported in June 1968 that preservation was practical. In 1971 the government decided against keeping the ship, prompting the formation of the private HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for her preservation. The Trust was successful in its efforts, and the government transferred the ship to the Trust in July 1971. Brought to London, she was moored on the River Thames near Tower Bridge in the Pool of London. Opened to the public in October 1971 Belfast became a branch of the Imperial War Museum in 1978. A popular tourist attraction, Belfast receives around a quarter of a million visitors per year. As a branch of a national museum, Belfast is supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by admissions income, and by the museum’s commercial activities.
– from Martyn Day