The Imperial War Museum is marking 50 years since HMS Belfast was saved from the scrapheap with newly-released footage of the warship arriving at its home on the Thames in 1971.
HMS Belfast is a light cruiser that saw action in the Second World War, including on D-Day and in the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union, as well as in the Korean War in the 1950s.
Launched in 1938, HMS Belfast was destined to be scrapped in 1971 before its former captain, Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles MP stepped in to save it. The MP convinced the British government to turn Belfast over to a trust he formed to manage the ship.
The trust then arranged for Belfast to be moved from Portsmouth to the Pool of London, between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, where it is today.
Crowds lined the Thames to watch Belfast arrive at its current home in October 1971.
Ron Yardley, who served on HMS Belfast during the Korean War as a telegraphist, recalled the ship arriving in London: “I saw the Belfast when she arrived home again to the Pool of London and I thought, at that time, a very big part of my life had come back again.”
The ship is now a museum run by the Imperial War Museum (IWM). As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, HMS Belfast has had new displays, stories from crew members and new, interactive experiences since reopening this summer.
As well as the newly-digitised footage, the IWM collection also includes documents from the early establishment of the HMS Belfast trust, showing the alterations to the geography of the Thames that were considered in order to add Belfast to the city’s skyline. Minutes from a meeting of the trust note that the clearance between the water and the walkways of Tower Bridge was only fifteen feet larger than Belfast’s own masthead meaning it would be a tight squeeze to get through.
IWM also holds an official letter from the Secretary of State to the HMS Belfast Trust allowing the ship to fly the white ensign, which made Belfast the only ship outside the Royal Navy to be allowed to fly one at this time.
Nigel Steel, curator at the Imperial War Museum, said “As the largest item in the IWM collection, HMS Belfast was, and remains, a complex living machine. The operation of the ship involved multiple, intricately balanced steps that combined technical, electronic and mechanical processes and all were undertaken by the thousands of men who lived on board during the years of operational service.
“For half a century, Belfast has been interpreted and presented to bring its ship’s company to life, restoring them individually and collectively, to the places where they fought, worked and lived. The new displays unveiled in summer 2021 are the latest iteration of this, ensuring that the spirit of HMS Belfast will live on for generations.
“It was with immense foresight that Captain Morgan-Giles and the HMS Belfast Trust set about saving the ship for the public to enjoy and we at IWM are dedicated to safeguarding this great survivor, and the stories of all those who served onboard, for many years to come.”