Why Do The Guns Of HMS Belfast Point At A Motorway Service Station?

By M@ Last edited 40 months ago
Why Do The Guns Of HMS Belfast Point At A Motorway Service Station?

The guns of Belfast, by Stuart Miller in the Londonist Flickr pool.

It sounds like an urban myth. The forward-facing guns of HMS Belfast are permanently positioned to score a direct hit on the London Gateway service station at Scratchwood.

It is no myth. The target is intentional. If the six-inch guns were loaded with shells, they could deliver an awesome pounding to the M1 cafe and toilet stop. Each shell weighs 112 pounds, similar to a sack of coal, and much more explosive. The forward guns could fire eight rounds per minute, meaning that Scratchwood could be obliterated in seconds.

But why this target in particular? It has nothing to do with the exorbitant price of its cappuccinos.

The imperilled service station sits neatly on the radius of the guns' comfortable range (about 18.5 km at 45º elevation, but the artillery could stretch to 23 km if pushed). A point anywhere within that band might have been chosen for the resting formation of the six forward guns. According to the ship's Chief Yeoman, Kevin Price, Scratchwood was picked on because it was a well-known landmark on the M1 motorway. "We could also hit Cheshunt, or Gidea Park, or fall just shy of Dartford," he tells us. Scratchwood, though, has a certain quotidian monotony that invites comparison with Betjeman's "come friendly bombs" prejudice.

The targeting was decided as long ago as 1971. This was the year HMS Belfast was first moored in the Pool of London to serve as a museum ship, following decades of distinguished service as one of the Royal Navy's most powerful light cruisers. It goes without saying that the Belfast would never have cause to bombard the motorway — but the guns had to point somewhere, and targeting a famously humdrum location could only help with press and popular attention.

Google map showing the approximate range of the forward six-inch guns, including Scratchwood to the top-left.

The other guns on the ship have not been so deliberately targeted, and are often swivelled. The numerous four-inch guns along the vessel's sides would probably hit surrounding buildings, making short work of the More London complex. If they could clear the skyline, they'd have a maximum range of about 18 km. This is precisely the distance to Sutton town centre.

HMS Belfast is operated by Imperial War Museum and is open daily to the public.

Last Updated 16 February 2015


See that Rainham in Essex is in range !


My boyfriend's brother, a performance artist, once tried to get them to position the guns on the family house in Watford. Their mother wasn't too happy, to say the least...


Maybe they could raise scarce restoration funds by having the guns pointed at various targets for a period of time... Imagine Tories and Labour politicos paying to point the guns at each others homes!


please obliterate Romford! I'll buy the shells


It's true - 12 years ago my mum was quite nervous. Here are some details:

Artist to point guns of HMS Belfast at his mum’s house in Watford

London, 18 July 2003 – Artist Richard DeDomenici will this week move the primary gun turrets of HMS Belfast so that they are pointing at his mother’s semi-detached house in Watford, where he lives.

25 year-old DeDomenici and the battleship’s Chief Technical Officer Andy Curran will begin moving the guns - which have a range of 23 kilometres and are currently targeted on the M1’s London Gateway
Services in North London - at 2pm this Friday 25 July.

Described by the artist as a ‘discreet anarcho-surrealist intervention’, the event will launch DeDomenici’s one-month residency at the Edinburgh Fringe, during which he’ll investigate whether the huge cannons at Edinburgh Castle could be hijacked and fired at the almost-completed Scottish Parliament Building. The project has Arts Council funding and is the Fringe’s first ever artist-in-residency.

Regarding HMS Belfast, DeDomenici comments: ‘In these times of heightened security I was at first unnerved to discover that such a powerful weapon was parked in the middle of London. The fact that I’m willing to target it at my place of residence is a testament to the safety measures in place. I just hope Edinburgh Castle will be equally cooperative’

DeDomenici admits that his mother is a bit apprehensive about his plans, ‘My mum’s always been very supportive of my creative endeavours - although this project might be stretching her goodwill a bit.’ The artist hopes, however, that the project will have beneficial side effects: ‘It’ll bring a bit of the city to the suburbs, perhaps boosting tourism in Watford. Additionally, the knowledge that I’ve got six enormous guns pointing at my house will help motivate me to get out of bed in the morning - you’ve got to suffer for your art.”

In addition, DeDomenici says that he may temporarily target the guns at the Big Brother house, in ‘cathartic revenge for all the time I’ve wasted watching the programme over the past ten weeks.’

The event takes place on Friday July 25 from 2pm at HMS Belfast, Tooley Street, London.


Philip Broad

I once heard that the howitzer on top of the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner (erected in 1925) is trained on Berlin.