Feature article by Ian Ruscoe
HMS Belfast and her immediate sister ship were the third group of “6 inch” armed light cruisers of what became known has the “Town” class. These vessels were laid down in the early 1930’s and were designed to combat the Imperial Japanese Navy’s big “9 inch” cruisers of the Mogami class. The Town’s were armed with 12 x 6 inch gun main armament mounted in 4 x triple turrets which were able to overwhelm their “prey” with highly accurate concentrated fire. The design was based on a 9,100 ton hull with the first batch consisting of HMS Southampton, Newcastle, Birmingham, Glasgow and Sheffield. This hull design was modified slightly with the second batch of ships HMS Liverpool, Manchester, Gloucester. When the Admiralty started on the third batch HMS Edinburgh and HMS Belfast the vessels had increased their tonnage to just over 10,000 tons. The third batch was 22 feet longer and 4 feet wider in the beam than their earlier sisters. This enabled them to be fitted with thicker deck armour and longer belt armour along the sides of the hull.
HMS Belfast joined the Fleet on 31st August, 1939 in the 18th Cruiser Squadron. The Squadron operated from the Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. However with the torpedoing of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow Belfast and other Units were moved to safer and more remote bases. Belfast was transferred on the 10th of November to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron which was assembled at Rosyth as a new Striking Force. On the 21st November the Force was proceeding out of the Firth of Forth on its first sortie, when a large explosion was both seen and felt on Belfast. Initially it was thought to be a torpedo fired by a U-boat but was later discovered to have been a magnetic mine that had broken her back. The ship was gently towed back to Rosyth where the hull was sufficiently strengthened and made seaworthy for passage to Devonport which she reached on 30th June 1940.
With her broken back and extensive shock damage she was almost scrapped, however due to the shortages of ships the Navy decided to rebuild her. During the 2 year period she was repaired and modified taking advantage of the new range of modern radar and light anti aircraft weapons, as well as degaussing coils (fitted internally). Belfast re-emerged from her re-build on 3rd November, 1942 and after successful sea trails and crew training rejoined the Fleet by early January 1943. Belfast was stationed with the Home Fleet which by that time was heavily engaged in escorting the Arctic Convoys of which Belfast joined. Her most famous action was her participation in the Battle of North Cape during late December 1943 which involved several Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers and the King George V class battleship HMS Duke of York. These units trapped and shot to pieces the German battleship Scharnhorst in an on/off battle that lasted most of the day in atrocious weather including snow storms.
Belfast was next in action on D-Day June 6th provided shore bombardment for British and Canadian Forces ashore until 8th July when with her main gun barrels worn she departed the Normandy coast back to Britain for an extensive refit and re-barrelling of her main armament. The bulk of the refit was to fit the ship out for the service in the Pacific against the Japanese. To this end the vessel was fitted with the latest weapons and fire control as well as air conditioning, to help combat the “kamikaze” threat then being experienced by the Allied forces out there. The ship re-joined the Fleet and along with other ships made her passage to join the British Pacific Fleet in April 1945.
After the War in the Pacific ended Belfast continued to serve with distinction overseas including supporting Allied ground forces fighting in Korea, 1950-1952. She returned home on the 4th November 1952 and was put into reserve while her fate was determined. The Admiralty eventually decided to save the ship, but due to the rapid change of sea warfare the vessel was again sent for an extended refit in January 1956 that lasted until May 1959, where she re-appeared and continued to give sterling service until her eventual retirement in 1971 as a museum ship on the river Thames at London.