11 Secrets Of HMS Belfast

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 23 months ago
11 Secrets Of HMS Belfast
Climb aboard the Belfast to find out her secrets. © IWM

HMS Belfast is moored up near Tower Bridge and serves as a museum to the second world war. Unsurprisingly it holds a lot of secrets within, how many of these did you know about?

Lack of camouflage

The wooden deck was originally painted with camouflage patterns to prevent it being easily spotted by enemy planes. But the Admiral of the time decided that he hated the look of it so stripped it back to its original teak. Luckily the Belfast did not suffer any aerial attacks due to this purely aesthetic decision.

A valuable bell

Everyone comes on board towards the rear of the ship, and may spot a solid silver bell.  It was given as a gift to the Belfast when she was launched, but there was concern that such a valuable item may be lost if the ship was sunk during the war — clearly the loss of the crew not being as much of a concern. So the bell was kept in storage and only placed on the ship in 1948, once the war was over.

This silver bell was far too valuable to be risked being lost at sea.

Officer privileges

Walking along the side of the ship next to the bell, the observant visitor may spot a brass line along the deck. This is the line that demarcates the part of the deck that was only accessible to officers. There was a clear hierarchy on board and only the officer classes could relax and smoke on this part of the deck.

The first casualty

The first casualty on board was in 1939 when Boy Seaman John Campbell incorrectly loaded a shell with an open fist, instead of a closed one. The breech of the gun closed on his hand and he lost two fingers. There was very little sympathy for him at the time and he didn't receive any compensation until 1987, nearly 50 years later.

Careful when loading the guns or fingers may be lost

An aircraft carrier?

The Belfast is clearly not an aircraft carrier but it used to have a plane on board. Take a look at the structures above deck and there is a conspicuous gap between the front and rear structures.

This is because a reconnaissance plane used to sit here and it was launched using a catapult. This increased the range of the Belfast's vision. But once radar came along, the plane became obsolete and they got rid of it.

A terrified reindeer

The Russian Admiral Golovko gifted a reindeer called Olga to the Belfast, which they used to keep in an aircraft hangar — the one used for storing the reconnaissance aircraft. But before they could get the reindeer home the Belfast was involved in the fierce gun battles of the Battle of North Cape.

After the battle they found the reindeer so distressed from the noise that she was impossible to calm and they had to put her down. As it was close to Christmas, the officers had themselves a lovely Christmas lunch.

A dead mongoose

The reindeer isn't the only animal story about the Belfast. A rather eccentric officer named Captain Ellison had a pet mongoose. One day a foul smell spread around the Belfast as the mongoose had clearly climbed into a hidden part of the ship and died. Hundreds of the crew had to be enlisted in looking for a mongoose corpse somewhere on the ship.

See those pins just below the guns? They stop the bow of the ship being accidentally blown off.

Don't blow the bloody bow off

The main guns  at the front of the Belfast are able to fire downwards in case there's an enemy ship alongside it.  But there are pins in front of the guns to stop the guns rotating downwards when they're facing forward.

If these pins weren't there it would be possible to accidentally blow the bow of the ship off.

Some of the guns are still capable of being fired and occasionally do to mark anniversaries such as D-Day. Thankfully they only fire blanks on these special occasions.

Nuclear protection

Some very small pipes sticking out of the ship are the vestiges of a system called pre-wet. It was designed to shoot out fountains of water in case of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Theoretically the fallout would hit the water and run off the sides of the ship. Even at the time they were suspicious as to whether this would be effective and by today's standards it seems very rudimentary and unlikely to be successful.

Lots of instruments on the bridge but where's the wheel?

What, no wheel?

The bridge affords the opportunity to sit in the Captain's chair. There are plenty of instruments but there doesn't seem to be any way to steer the boat.  This is because the bridge provides a great view of the battle but is also the easiest part of the ship to target. And the last thing a ship needs is to lose steering in the heat of a battle.

So the actual wheel and controls are located deep in the protected interior of the Belfast and orders are relayed from the bridge.

Sleeping in the corridors

The Belfast was extremely crowded, so many of the crew would have to sling their hammocks in the corridors. When walking along these corridors keep an eye out for hooks high up on the walls. These denote where the crew would attach their hammocks when they needed some kip.

Next time you're aboard HMS Belfast, keep your eyes peeled for many of these secrets. Admission prices may be found on the website.

A special thanks to Yeoman, Michael Smith for the tour he gave us which was the source of all this information.

Last Updated 02 September 2016