Moored near to Tower Bridge on the Thames in Central London, the Royal Navy’s light cruiser HMS Belfast was in active service with from 1939 until 1963, seeing action in the North Sea, the Arctic and the East China Sea, the latter during the Korean War. She has been at her current berth since 1971, and is now part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.
A visit to this floating museum will allow you to access almost all areas over nine decks, from the magazines storing the shells for the ship’s main guns (heavily armoured boxes well below the waterline for safety), to the bridge with its commanding view of Tower Bridge just up the river. You can visit compartments throughout the ship, many of which have tableaus showing what activities would have taken place there – ratings peeling potatoes in the galley all the way through to the ship’s surgeon carrying out an operation in the sick bay. Most of the deck is also accessible, allowing you to examine the decks and to climb inside one of the gun turrets. Worryingly, the displays inside indicate that the ship’s bank of 12 6″ main guns are currently trained on the motorway service area at Scratchwood in Hertfordshire – a distance they could hit accurately even though, as the crow flies, this is over 20 miles away from the ship’s berth on the Thames!
Two of HMS Belfast’s most interesting exhibits can be found on the two decks below the bridge. As well as containing banks of radar displays and other tactical equipment, visitors to the operations room can take part in simulated naval exercises using several large touch-sensitive ‘tables’ (which I think are examples of the ‘Microsoft Surface’, but I can’t be certain). You can also visit the radio room, which contains lots of old equipment as well as some newer gear which is still in operation – that’s because the radio room is actually home to the very active GB3RN ham radio club. Ham radio enthusiasts may be interested to know that during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant this Sunday the radio room will be fully staffed, and will be operating under the special call-sign GB60QE. It was manned when I visited on Sunday, and as a licensed operator I was invited to use the equipment – in fact, I had a lengthy contact with a radio amateur all the way over in the USA, who had trouble believing where I was transmitting from!
Due to a botched repair job, in November of last year HMS Belfast’s gangway collapsed, however it has was reopened to the public after the repairs were completed on 18 May. I’m assured that the newly-engineered gangway is much safer than its predecessor so you should have no worries when boarding. The ship is open from 10am until 6pm every day and tickets for adults are priced at £14, but note that for security reasons she will be closed on Sunday 3 June. I should also mention that a visit may not be suitable for people with limited mobility or families who are intending to bring very small children, as there are many sets of very steep stairs to negotiate between decks throughout the ship