HMS Belfast: Waxworks & Torpedoes on a WWII Navy Cruiser

HMS Belfast is a floating anachronism. A rusting, bobbing, WWII-era cruiser moored in the Thames at London’s heart; overshadowed by the glass and steel leviathans of 21st century urban development.

Launched on St Patrick’s Day in 1938, the Belfast served in the British naval blockade against Nazi Germany. She hit a German mine in ’39 but after two years of convalescence the ship was put back to sea with a refit of newly improved hardware and firepower. The Belfast took part in the 1943 Battle of North Cape, she ran Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union and in 1944 played a supporting role in the Normandy landings. Post WWII, HMS Belfast joined the British Pacific Fleet in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Returning home in 1963, the Belfast was very nearly scrapped. It took a combined effort by the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence to campaign for the ship’s preservation as a floating museum. The British government remained opposed to the idea up until 1971, when finally a private HMS Belfast Trust was founded, with the government eventually transferring the ship to its care in July that year.

Visiting the ship today, it feels as though very little has changed since the 70s. The Belfast smells of mildew, oil and boot polish, manned by a cast of wonderfully uncanny waxwork dolls. The light-up display in the radio room took me right back to the electronic battleships game I had as a child. Up on the bridge, meanwhile, that same observation window which once looked out on the Normandy landings now frames a view of London’s riverside landmarks.

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