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IWM Stories: The last survivor of the ‘Big Gun’ generation

Our museums may be temporarily closed, but we’ll continue to send you handpicked stories that resonate in remarkable times for your enjoyment at home. Your support – as ever – is appreciated.

“YOU WERE BELFAST, AND THERE WAS GREAT PRIDE IN THAT” Bob Shrimpton, ASDIC Operator

HMS Belfast was launched on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1938 by Anne Chamberlain – the wife of then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – and spent 24 years in active service.

At the time of her construction she was the largest warship ever built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As a mark of her importance, she was assigned yard number 1000, a number reserved especially for her.

Harland and Wolff built some of the most iconic ships of the 20th century, including the Titanic. During the Second World War, over 140 warships, 123 merchant ships and more than 500 tanks were built in the shipyard.

As this new state of the art warship slipped down the slipways, a storm of deepening tension was spreading across the world. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939, when HMS – His Majesty’s Ship – was added to her name. She was the first ship built for the Royal Navy to be named after the city of Belfast.

HMS Belfast was christened with a champagne bottle broken against her bow, in keeping with the centuries old Royal Navy tradition.

A ribbon was attached to the champagne bottle which was swung against the side and broken as the ship was launched and christened. This ribbon is a surviving memento from the occasion and remains within our collections today.

HMS Belfast was immediately called into service to help impose a maritime blockade on Germany. After only two months at sea she was hit by a magnetic mine whilst on patrol.

Though there were few casualties, the damage to her hull was so severe that she would not return to active service for another three years.

When she re-joined the fleet in 1942, HMS Belfast was still the largest and most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy. More importantly, she was also equipped with the most advanced radar systems.

This allowed her to play a crucial role in protecting Arctic Convoys the Allies sent to Russia, which would become a key supply route during the Second World War.

In the war that followed her launch, HMS Belfast’s six-inch guns would also play a key role in the Battle of North Cape and on D-Day. After the war, she moved to East Asia, and in 1950 was ideally positioned to take part in the Korean War – firing more shells than she did during the entire Second World War.

In 1971 she was saved for the nation; the last survivor of the era of ‘Big Gun’ warships to be found anywhere in Europe.

 

ATTENTION ALL FAMILIES

Every Wednesday and Friday join us on Facebook and Twitter for ingenious, surprising and moving stories for children, families and teachers that you won’t have heard in the classroom.

This week our subject is ‘food’, exploring how people got creative in the kitchen during the Second World War.

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BRING HMS BELFAST INTO YOUR HOME

Although she is temporarily closed, you can still order your own memento of HMS Belfast. Whether you’re looking for something new for your tea break or to add a little nautical charm around the house, take a look at our top five products.

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WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

If you took part in the Eye as Witness Virtual Reality Experience at IWM North earlier this year, the University of Nottingham would like to hear your feedback.

CLICK HERE

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