After decades of distinguished service, HMS Belfast was heading to the scrapman before a charitable trust sailed to her rescue and ultimately opened her as a floating museum in the heart of London. Today, she is managed by Imperial War Museums (IWM) and is one of the capital’s premier visitor attractions. Editor Nigel Price goes aboard the famous ship to soak up the atmosphere.
Sentiment is rarely a factor when it comes to the disposal of military equipment, especially after a war. What are today regarded as important historical items are all too often discarded for the price of their scrap value – an economic reality that can be hard to understand given the luxury of hindsight. Thankfully, individuals and groups are sometimes able to intervene and preserve artefacts that go onto become treasured national assets. One of the best examples that comes to mind is HMS Belfast.
The ship served with great distinction, protecting the Arctic convoys and fighting on D-Day during World War Two, and also taking part in the Korean War. She fought in the Cold War, helping to project the UK’s maritime power around the world. But by mid-1962, her days as a frontline ship in the Royal Navy had come to an end. She was decommissioned and relegated to the role of an accommodation ship at Fareham Creek near Portsmouth as part of the reserve fleet and her long-term future was bleak.
Her futures changed in 1967 when a team from the Imperial War Museum visited Portsmouth, hoping to preserve a gun turret from the cruiser HMS Gambia, then moored near the Belfast. Gambia was in poor condition, but during the visit the idea was floated of preserving a complete ship – and Belfast was the standout candidate. A committee was established and put forward a proposal to save the vessel from breakers, but the government rejected the idea in 1971 and things again looked black for the Belfast.
But her would-be preservers didn’t give up and, in response to the setback, formed the HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for the ship’s conservation. Its chairman was Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, the vessel’s captain during her last overseas cruise. As a Member of Parliament, Morgan-Giles lobbied for the Belfast to be saved for the nation, speaking in the House of Commons in support of the plan to open her as a museum.
The campaign worked and, after some remediable work, the warship left Portsmouth under tow, bound for London, in September 1971. She was opened to the public at her new berth on the River Thames on 21 October – Trafalgar Day – of that year. In 1978, the HMS Belfast Trust was merged with the Imperial War Museum, the ship becoming the IWM’s third branch and its largest single exhibit.
She was opened to the public at her new berth on the River Thames on 21 October – Trafalgar Day – of that year
Today, visitors have much to explore, with nine decks open for viewing and access to the Bridge, main gun turrets and forward engine room – the latter being 15ft below sea level. There’s plenty of interactive displays, plus information panels and helpful staff to guide people around and get the most from their trip aboard. There is a café and great views of London can be had from the upper decks.
Keeping the Belfast Shipshape
The task of keeping the famous warship in top condition is eagerly undertaken by the team led by the IWM’s Andy Curran, the ship’s conservation manager. He has 80 volunteers on his roster, plus two conservation technicians. Andy, a marine engineer by trade, joined the ship’s crew around 15 years ago, so has a wealth of experience and knowledge of his charge. Addressing corrosion is a major part of the work carried out – Belfast is, after all, a largely metal vessel that is sitting in water. The team also look after the general maintenance around the ship, keeping everything safe, clean and tidy.
Conservation of the ship is of paramount importance and, to assist the process, Andy and the team created a maintenance management system in the mid-2000s. This itemises all the components and systems on board – a mammoth, but important task. Andy explains its value: “It helped us to prioritise our work, and still does. We use it to decide what needs doing and the best approach to use, whether that’s preservation, conservation or replication if needs be. For example, we have reconstructed a couple of compartments which had been completely stripped out using the original drawings from the modernisation refit.”
This feature continues in the December issue of Britain at War – in UK shops from today.