I was born in London, England in 1951 near Hampton Court beside the River Thames. In 1955, my parents moved us to Canada and I didn’t return to London until I was 22 years old in 1973. I wanted to see everything. But the site that captured my attention the most was the large ship moored just before Tower Bridge. She (that’s the designation for ships….don’t get all PC on me now) was the HMS Belfast, the Town-class light Cruiser that saw action in the Second World War and beyond.
I swore to myself then and during every subsequent trip to London that one day I’d go aboard and hang the expense. 44 years later it happened. And, I did not regret one penny of the expense. I get senior rates now, so it only cost me £12.80 to go aboard. I’ll bet it was a bit cheaper in 1973. I tried to find those prices, but came up with nothing on Google. My best friend found a number to call, but I’m not that interested. Still…cheaper I’ll be bound.
We came off our own boat for a while and were looking after someone’s flat near London Bridge while they were off somewhere exotic. My best friend went to visit her grandkids and I had a day free. What to do? I know. How about finally going aboard the HMS Belfast, not my best friend’s idea of a good time, but mine definitely. My dad was with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in the war, so there was always an affinity with the navy.
The above picture was taken in 1941 of RAF Swinderby where dad was seconded by the FAA because so many RAF personnel were lost during Dunkirk. I thought I’d give context to a rather bleak yet astonishing part of Britain’s history.
Meanwhile at sea, the HMS Belfast ran into a mine as it blockaded German ships in the Baltic in 1939 and was 2 years in dry dock for repairs, returning to action in time to help sink the German battleship, Scharnhorst, in the Battle of North Cape on Boxing day 1943. the Belfast was there during D-Day, covering the landings on Gold and Juno beaches of Normandy. After this, the Belfast went to the Far East and served later during the Korean War.
Over the years, HMS Belfast had several re-fittings, modernizing radar, various electronics, even the haul and so on. By 1963, the Belfast had served its purpose and was being prepared for scrapping. Fortunately, a group of Members of Parliament who had been navy men, one of whom had served on the Belfast, saved the ship and after several more changes of hand, the Belfast ended up the property of the Imperial war Museum.
It was good that I waited so long to go aboard. Apparently, until 2011, only certain parts of the ship were accessible to tourists. Since then, the whole ship has been opened and I was able to explore most of the ship and enjoy its history through TVs at various points telling stories of the Belfast.
As an added feature, the rear 6 inch guns give the visitor a taste of what it was like to be in the turret when the guns fired. The noise was incredible (while being told the recreated sound of the guns was nowhere near the actual sound), the turret shakes when the gun goes off and I nearly fell over, followed by cordite fumes coming up from the guns vent, filling the turret with the smoke.
The beautiful thing was, I had the whole ship to myself for quite a while. I was first on at 10am the day I visited. Off I went, all over the ship, into the boiler and engine rooms, walking by one of the torpedoes used by these ships to sink the Schornhurst, along to the bakery and kitchens, down to the boiler and engine rooms, back up to other work areas (like the rum room), forward to the sailors’ mess and sleeping quarters, sick bay, down to the munitions bay where the shells and powder charges were sent up to the gun turrets, back up and up to the admiral’s perch, down to the captains lookout and back to navigation, up to the radar room and a look around at tall the anti-aircraft guns, then forward to the main front gun turrets and finally to the bow.
There’s more, but it would take ten Blogs to give all the details. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of stuff to see. And….well, I stood at the bow peak and, yes, did the obligatory, ‘I’m the King of the World’ thing. Had to be done. You’d have done it too. Not the Titanic, I know, but a very big ship all the same. Fortunately, no one was around when I did it.
I worked my way back to the stern, looking up at the huge smoke stack and other equipment on the main deck. I used the toilet, had one more look back and left the ship along the gangplank that links ship to shore. It’s a rather long gangplank and I stopped half way to look along the old Cruiser. 44 years. Glad I made it.
I was on my own as I said. Had my best friend been there, she probably would have talked sense into me when I arrived at the gift shop. I am a sucker for tat (touristy junk). On this occasion, it was a tossup between a brass rum cup (for my even tattier shot glass collection from all over the world) or a Bosun’s whistle (also brass….with wood). The cup had no writing on it. Could have come from anywhere, but the whistle….well, it said it was authentic. Who am I to argue?
I bought the whistle. Never mind how much it cost me. After all, I live on a boat and I have been known to pipe people aboard using my mouth as the whistle….entirely unsatisfying. So, when I got back to our own boat, I drove everyone crazy practicing with my new Bosun’s whistle. To my credit, I did go online to see how to blow it correctly. I was working on it until the other day when I went to get it to practice and couldn’t find my Bosun’s whistle anywhere. Where could it be? I’ll have to ask my best friend if she has seen it.