Nick Hewitt
Thursday 18 January 2018

HMS Belfast was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939 but its war service came to a premature end on 21 November, when it detonated a German magnetic mine. On Christmas Day 1942, repaired and modernised, it arrived under the command of Captain Frederick Parham to join the 10th Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. There followed a punishing 18 months operating in support of the Arctic Convoys, delivering essential supplies to the Soviet Union.

By 1942 the Arctic Convoy route to Russia via Iceland had become one of the great naval battlegrounds of the Second World War, and HMS Belfast's first year was a demanding one. Its role included convoy screening (defending the ships in convoy) and endless duty on the Northern Patrol off Iceland, watching for attempts by enemy warships to break out into the Atlantic. In the Arctic the weather was arguably a greater threat than the Germans, and the special Arctic clothing issued was barely adequate. Just moving around the icy decks in rough seas and darkness could be lethal for the unwary, despite the safety ropes which were provided. Veterans remember mess decks inches deep in dirty sea water and going months without mail or leave, other than brief runs ashore to the tiny island of Flotta, the site of Scapa Flow’s Fleet Cinema.

While afloat, sailors made their own entertainment. Cards, and ‘uckers’, the Royal Navy’s version of Ludo, were popular, as were model-making, boxing competitions and, perhaps unexpectedly, embroidery. ‘Crown and Anchor’, the illegal gambling game in which vast sums were won and lost, was popular everywhere, despite the risk of severe punishment if the participants were caught. The men also read whatever they could get their hands on.

Convoying essential war supplies to the Soviet Union did not guarantee the sailors a warm welcome. Murmansk, the principle destination for HMS Belfast, was small, poor and close to the front line, with the local inhabitants living under the iron grip of Stalinism. 

Mostly, Arctic service consisted of endless time at sea in foul weather and constant daylight at the height of summer, or unbroken darkness in mid-winter, with little to break up the monotony. The grim highlight for many was the Battle of North Cape on 26 December 1943.

After North Cape, life was relatively quiet for Belfast and its crew. Apart from providing distant cover for Operation ‘Tungsten’, an aircraft carrier strike against the German battleship Tirpitz, the cruiser spent the winter at Scapa Flow or Rosyth. On 17 April 1944 it was sent to the Clyde for a refit before taking part in Operation ‘Overlord’, the D-Day landings.

Firing on Fortress Europe: HMS Belfast at D-Day by Nick Hewitt is available to buy from the IWM shop.