Life aboard HMS Belfast revealed on warship’s 80th anniversary
A 104-year old Second World War veteran who served on the warship has described facing magnetic mines and Arctic storms during the conflict.
Stories and rare documents revealing life serving aboard HMS Belfast are being shared to mark the 80th anniversary of the historic warship’s launch.
The oldest surviving Second World War veteran of HMS Belfast, John Harrison, has described the dangers of serving at sea, facing German magnetic mines and treacherous Arctic conditions.
And the first “certificate for wounds and hurts” issued on the warship has been revealed by the Imperial War Museums, which owns and runs the vessel as a museum moored near Tower Bridge on the Thames in London.
The document, which records the “accidental traumatic amputation” of Boy John Campbell’s “first two phalanges” – finger bones – while carrying out a gun-drill on HMS Belfast’s 4-inch guns, is dated August 18, 1939, the same month the warship was commissioned into the Royal Navy.
The insights are being shared ahead of the 80th anniversary weekend on March 17-18, when visitors to have a chance to meet surviving veterans from HMS Belfast, explore the ship and take part in free nautical-themed activities.
They will even be able to even enjoy a slice of nine-tiered cake, inspired by the ship and made by Sophie Faldo, the 2017 winner of the Great British Bake Off and a serving officer in the Army.
HMS Belfast was launched in 1938, and was involved in the Arctic convoys between the Allies and the Soviet Union, played a leading role in D-Day, helped liberate internment camps in the Far East in 1945, and was in the Korean War.
By 1971, the ship was on the verge of being scrapped, but the Belfast Trust stepped in to save it, docking it in London and opening it to the public. It was taken over by the IWM in 1978.
Mr Harrison described HMS Belfast as “a lovely ship, there’s some ships that are warm, and that was, it was a lovely ship, it still is”.
The 104-year-old, who served as an ordinance artificer on HMS Belfast in the Second World War, described the dangerous conditions in the Arctic, including narrowly avoiding being swept overboard while trying to get to his gun turret.
“I came to these big waves coming over, and I dashed to my turret, grabbed the turret door,” he said.
“Another one came over, my legs went up with the water, and my hand was actually frozen onto the the turret handle, otherwise I’d have gone over the side with it.
“I had to massage my hand when the wave’s gone to get my hand off it, open the turret door and get in.
“That was a scary moment.”
He also experienced the ship being hit by a German magnetic mine, feeling the deck bounce, his head squashed down into his shoulders and thinking the air bottle he was working on had blown up – although that would have killed. him.
“The deck stopped bouncing, but it was very very still and very, very dark.
“I found my way out and up, as I opened the hatch, water came pouring in and I thought ‘my God, we’ve sunk’, but one of the fire hoses had been distorted with the explosion and had directed right down my poor old hatch,” he said.
Ian Kikuchi, senior curator at the IWM said HMS Belfast was an “unique witness” to 20th century conflict.
“During this anniversary weekend visitors can come on board and experience the ship’s life and adventures by walking the same decks, ducking through the same hatches and climbing up and down the same ladders as the crew who served on board,” he said.