Visit to HMS Belfast

On the last Thursday of September, a small group of Rotary members paid a visit to the Pool of London. The main purpose of the visit was to go on a tour of HMS Belfast, and hopefully, see the opening and closing of Tower Bridge for the passage of a tall-masted ship. HMS Belfast is a museum ship, originally a light cruiser built for the Royal Navy, permanently moored in the Pool of London, and operated by the Imperial War Museum. The weather could not have been bettered for the visit, warm glorious sunshine, providing clear and stunning views in all directions of the fabulous London skyline.
The group first took the train from Seaford to the nearly completely refurbished London Bridge Station, and on arrival went to Hays Wharf, adjacent to the Thames, for coffee in one of the cafes and restaurants in the amazing Hays Wharf Galleria. From the Galleria, it was only a short walk along the Thames Path adjacent to the river to HMS Belfast.
Construction of HMS Belfast, one of 10 Town-class cruisers ordered by the Royal Navy, began in December 1936. She was commissioned in early August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and initially was part of the naval blockade against Germany. Unfortunately, in November 1939 she struck a German mine, and the consequential extensive repairs took more than 2 years. The ship returned to action in November 1942 with improved fire power, radar equipment, and armour, and subsequently saw action escorting arctic convoys to the Soviet Union in 1943, and in December of that year played an important role in the Battle of the North Cape off the Norwegian coast, assisting in the destruction of the German warship Scharnhorst. In June 1944, HMS Belfast took part in Operation Overlord supporting the Normandy landings. After the War she was redeployed to the Far East to join the British Pacific Fleet, and saw further combat action between 1950 and 1952 during the Korean War. Several further overseas commissions followed before Belfast entered the naval reserve in 1963.
In 1967, efforts were initiated to avert the expected scrapping of HMS Belfast, and to preserve her as a museum ship. Initially, the government decided against preservation, prompting the formation of the private HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for her preservation. The efforts of the Trust were successful, and the government transferred the ship to the Trust in July 1971. Brought to London, she was moored on the River Thames in the Pool of London, where she remains to this day. The sight of HMS Belfast at her berth in the Pool of London, painted in Admiralty Pattern Disruptive Camouflage, close to Tower Bridge has become one of the most iconic tourist views in London.
The length of the vessel is over 600 feet and her displacement is over 11,000 tons. The range of armament of the ship is extremely impressive with 12 x 6-inch guns, 12 x 4-inch guns, 16 x 2 pounder anti-aircraft guns, 8 x 0.5-inch AA machine guns, and 6 x 21-inch torpedo tubes. The ship is also constructed with heavy armour, 4 inches thick on the main gun turrets and 3 inches on the decks.
As a museum the ship is presented to portray as accurately as possible what life was actually like on board such a ship, and the real difficulties experienced by the crew at times of war. The prime requisite was that the ship should be as self-sufficient as possible. The ship, therefore, had a dental clinic, medical clinic, hospital ward, operating theatre, post office, machinery to make parts and repair equipment, NAAFI shop, kitchens, dining rooms, canteens as well as accommodation for the crew. The tour also included the experience of what it was like in a gun turret, when the big guns were fired. Not only was the noise terrific but also the gun turret itself shook violently. Quite an experience, and certainly one we are not likely to forget.
After the tour of HMS Belfast, we went for lunch at The Anchor Tap, one of the oldest pubs in London situated close to Tower Bridge. The pub, the first pub owned by John Courage, has been there since the early 1700's and is one of the most interesting pubs in the area, with mahogany wood panelling and furnishings. It is almost like stepping back in time after being surrounded, when visiting the HMS Belfast, by the futuristic high-rise buildings round the Pool of London. The speciality of the pub is homemade steak and kidney pie, chips, and vegetables, which was truly excellent.
After our meal, the group went to the visitor centre at Tower Bridge to check that the bridge would indeed be opening and closing at 15.00 hrs for the planned passage of the tall masted ship. Having confirmed the time, we took up suitable viewing positions close to the new City Hall on the Thames Path to see the opening and closing of the bridge.
At 14.55 hrs we saw the tall masted ship approaching from up river and at 14.58 hrs noticed that the vehicles on the approach ramps to Tower Bridge had been stopped by traffic lights. At exactly 15.00 hrs, a siren was heard, and the two road sections of the bridge started to rise. It took less than a minute for the road sections to be fully raised and for the ship to start sailing through. After the ship had passed down river, the two road sections were lowered, and the traffic was again using and crossing the bridge by 15.04 hrs. It was amazing that the whole process of bridge raising and lowering had delayed the traffic for less than 6 minutes!
In all the group enjoyed a really memorable trip to London to see HMS Belfast and the opening and closing of Tower Bridge. They hoped that it would be possible to arrange another such trip, possibly to the Museum of London or the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, later during this Rotary Year.

posted: Thursday, 28 September 2017

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