London Lantern

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HMS Belfast - A Proud History

24/04/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 23165 votes

She rests quietly quay side on the Thames River, the White Ensign fluttering on the jack staff, content to enjoy her well deserved rest, a rest earned over many years of playing a role in the defense of freedom and civilization on the blue waters of the world’s oceans and proud that she, when called, answered. She is a reminder of those dark times when people stared across the English Channel and saw a continent being crushed beneath the heel of a barbarous conqueror while Londoners looked skyward and shook their fists at the airborne legions who rained terror down upon them and their city but failing to break their will. She is a veteran of a time when, though all else seemed to be going wrong and England stood alone the man in the street could take comfort in the fact that the navy was there. The Navy. The Royal Navy.

Today grandfathers point out to their grandchildren places onboard where as young boys they grew into manhood; fathers take children through the decks and remind them that the freedoms enjoyed today were bought and paid for with the blood of earlier generations. Visitors to London marvel at stories of sacrifice and heroism under trying conditions. But HMS Belfast takes it all in stride for she has seen a world at war and seen the sight and heard the sound of men at war, fighting to preserve the liberty won by their forefathers. Her story is one of the high cost of guarding the things we hold dear. And, the high cost of nearly losing them. It is a story that bears telling one more time.

Every story has a beginning and her story begins in the yards of Harland and Wolff, builders of the RMS Titanic, in the city whose name she bears. Her sister was the Edinburgh (who would be lost in 1942 her holds containing a cargo of Russian gold). As befits a ship built in an Irish yard, she was launched on St. Patrick’s Day of 1938 and with her main armament of six-inch guns she was one of the most powerful cruisers to fly the white ensign during the Second World War; soon she would be putting her power to good use protecting civilization from the virus of the new barbarism which had infected the body of Europe and threatened the world.

Many years ago in a time not that far removed from ours but one that is already taking on the aura of a distant age, men fought savage battles in the frigid, icy waters above the northern tip of Europe not far from the polar regions of the world. While some fought to push their ships laden with war material, holds bulging with the supplies needed to fight the foe on the snowy steppes of Russia, other men peered through inky darkness and searched the night in hopes of catching a glimpse of their prey, for that night a killer was on the loose and stalking prey of its own on the high seas; the killer must be found and brought to bay for if it found them first, they would be the ones to die in the frozen waters off the North Cape.

It was 1943, the Christmastide, and while the Second World War had reached a stage, to paraphrase British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, where the allies might not be able to glimpse the beginning of the end, they could say that they had seen the end of the beginning. Though the tide was turning on all fronts Germany remained a fearsome foe, unbeaten and unbowed. In the east Russia had finally begun to push back the German legions, but continued success depended on a steady flow of munitions and other war material from America and Britain. Bringing this stream of supplies from busy factories in the west was the job of the arctic convoys. Stopping the flow of armaments was the goal the ships and submarines of Hitler’s navy, the Kriegsmarine.

Already in the oceans near the top of the world the Germans had scored notable triumphs in stanching the convoys carrying badly needed weaponry. The worst disaster to befall an allied convoy had taken place off the North Cape when German submariners and airman virtually destroyed an entire convoy. Yet courageous seamen continued to force their way through to Murmansk and Archangel.

This particular December with one convoy sailing toward Russia, the ships holds full of ordinance and another convoy, holds empty having successfully made the run, now leaving for the return trip to Britain, the Germans send forth the mighty battlecruiser Scharnhorst with the intent of destroying the convoys and impeding the allied war effort.

However protecting the east bound convoy were not only the attendant destroyers and corvettes but also the cruisers Sheffield, Norfolk and Belfast. On the bridge of the Belfast commanding the cruisers and trying to determine the next move Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett. As lookouts kept watch, hoping to sight the enemy before they were sighted it would fall to the all-seeing radars of the three ships to raise the first alarm; out there in the fog and snow the killer was approaching hoping to catch her victims unawares. As the command for ‘action stations’ went out gunnery officers calmly speaking into voice tubes began calling out coordinates as the gun crews prepared for the coming battle.

Moments later star shells illuminated the night and before them in plain view was the beast, the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst. Now the guns of the British cruisers fired shells tipped with explosives and suddenly there could be seen a flash somewhere on the hull of the German ship. First blood, it appeared had been drawn. (To be continued next month)

David McIntosh

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