HMS Belfast played a pivotal role in the Korean War, which broke out on 25 June 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea. 

In her two years of service in Korea, HMS Belfast saw more action than at any point during the Second World War, firing more than 8,000 rounds of ammunition from her 6-inch guns.

At the time the war began, HMS Belfast was stationed in East Asia and was soon at the forefront of intense action. Blockading the coast along North Korea and shelling shore targets in support of United Nations and South Korean forces on land, HMS Belfast spent more than 400 days on patrol during the conflict. 

For almost 18 months, HMS Belfast was in active combat against communist-led North Korea and steamed over an impressive 80,000 miles. But as the Korean War was primarily fought on land, why did HMS Belfast see such intense action during this period? Why was the navy so important during the war and what made the so-called Forgotten War so brutal?

We explore these questions and uncover more about HMS Belfast's crucial contribution to the Korean War in our YouTube video below:

The hottest point of the Cold War

Robert Rumble: “We're currently standing on the flag deck of HMS Belfast. Belfast is now the most significant surviving Second World War Royal Navy warship. She served throughout the Second World War but some of the most challenging action Belfast saw came soon after World War II during the Korean War.

The Korean War was Belfast's busiest period of active combat, even more so than the Second World War. For almost 18 months and 404 days in total, Belfast was in active combat against the communist enemy.”

In 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. HMS Belfast, stationed in the Far East at that time, was soon in action. In fact, in her two years of service in Korea she fired more than 8 000 rounds from her six-inch guns, steamed over 80,000 miles and spent over 400 days on patrol. The Korean War was primarily fought on land, so why did HMS Belfast see such intense action during this period?

Video footage: “In June 1950, with Soviet approval and assistance, a North Korean communist army invaded the south. The United Nations army was sent to Korea to hold the aggressors at bay [music].”

The Korean War broke out on the 25th of June 1950, when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and it went on to be one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, with over three million left dead. The major cities of Seoul and Pyongyang were both left heavily damaged by aerial bombardment and atrocities were committed on both sides.

Robert Rumble: “The history of the Korean War is closely linked to the history of the global Cold War. Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Korean Peninsula, which had for decades been under Japanese colonial rule was split in two between western powers, the United States and the communist powers of the Soviet Union. The Korean Peninsula was almost split in half along what was known as the 38th parallel and in the five years following the surrender of Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union set up their own governments in each zone of Korea. Both Korea’s were meant to be a temporary solution to the partition of the country, and neither of them could accept the other's existence and both eventually wanted to unite the Korean Peninsula under their own state."

In the run up to 1950, the dictator of North Korea had military support from the Soviet Union and from communist China. Kim II-sung, with permission from Joseph Stalin, ordered the People's Korean Army to invade the south in June 1950. This invasion caught the world by surprise. The focus of the Cold War up to that point had been Berlin in central Europe. Within hours the UN Security Council condemned the invasion. Two days later, Resolution 83 was passed, allowing for direct UN intervention in the war in support of South Korea. The Soviet Union was boycotting the security council at this time over the UN’s refusal to recognise the recently established People's Republic of China. This meant the Russians could not use their veto and the resolution was passed. From July 1950, UN forces began to land in South Korea, along with UN naval and air forces to control the seas and the shipping routes. The UN forces were primarily American but support also came from the commonwealth forces such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and the United Kingdom.

Robert Rumble: “Following the Second World War, Britain had been near bankrupted but still saw itself as a great world power. It wanted to re-establish its former colonial possessions in the Far East, places such as Singapore, Hong Kong. As soon as it could the Royal Navy deployed forces from its pacific fleets fighting Korean waters. Britain’s armed forces went to war as part of the United Nations Resolution, but very much in support of larger US forces.”

Video footage reporter: “For the first time the three nations of the world fought together in the name of the United Nations. At any time, the need may arise again.”

Robert Rumble: “On the 25th of June 1950, HMS Belfast was docked in the small Japanese port of Hakodate. As soon as Captain Aubrey Sinclair Ford heard the news of the invasion, he prepared his ship for war. Belfast sailed to Yokohama where it could rearm and re-equip and soon went into action in Korean waters."

The North Koreans pushed down the peninsula and the south came close to defeat. UN forces were forced into the southern tip of South Korea. They were able to regroup and hold an area around the city of Pusan, which became known as the Pusan Perimeter. In August 1950, UN forces turned the tables and broke out of the perimeter. Using heavy firepower, they began to force the North Koreans back. At the same time, General MacArthur, the Commander-in-chief of the UN forces, came up with an ambitious plan to outflank the North Koreans. He ordered an amphibious landing along the Korean west coast at a place called Inchon. The landing at Inchon in September 1950 took the North Koreans completely by surprise and they were roundly defeated. The UN forces pushed the North Koreans back up the Peninsula. The North Korean capital of Pyongyang fell to UN forces, and they were forced all the way back up to the border with China along the Yalu River. This had not gone unnoticed by the Chinese and Mao Zedong was especially fearful of the presence of U.S troops along his border.

At the invitation of the North Koreans, a massive volunteer army of Chinese troops invaded Korea and pushed the UN forces all the way back down the Korean Peninsula. This was some of the bloodiest and heaviest fighting that the UN forces faced during the war, and despite their efforts from land, sea and air, these battles resulted in some of the worst military defeats for the United Nations.

Robert Rumble: “During the Korean War, naval forces played a significant role. The Korean Peninsula has hundreds of miles of coastline, thousands of small islands, so control of the sea was crucial for UN forces during the Korean War. The North Koreans didn't have a significant navy, so most of the actions were supporting marine forces, bombarding enemy positions, disrupting enemy lines of communication. And Belfast would use its six- and four-inch guns to regularly bombard enemy railway lines, enemy roads, enemy gun emplacements or anywhere that needed firepower on the spot quickly to support British, American or South Korean land forces."

Ron Yardley: “One of the main functions of the Belfast during the Korean War was carrying out heavy bombardment of enemy targets. And when you have got six six-inch guns, immediately above your mess deck which are firing literally every few minutes, getting sleep was almost like a thing of the past than that, you know. If you were in your hammock, the blast is to lift you up and drop you down again. When you experienced that for the first time it was very, very scary, very scary indeed. But after a time, you kept on thinking, well come on, you know, isn't it time you fired the gun so and so it went on and on.”

Robert Rumble: “So, behind us here are two of Belfast’s six-inch gun turrets. Belfast was equipped with 12 Mark 23 6-inch guns, cased in four triple gun turrets. They're called six-inch guns because six inches was the diameter bore of the gun barrel. These Mark 23 guns had a range of 14 miles and each gun turret would have been crewed by 27 men with shell rooms and tordite compartments deep below in the ship, supplying the shells and explosives to fire the guns. The larger six inch guns were better for heavily armoured long-range targets, such as gun emplacements, and she'd use her smaller 4-inch guns to bombard enemy railway lines, or troop formations, or supply roads along the Korean coast. Belfast fired over eight thousand six-inch shells during the conflict, so many in fact that the gun barrels were worn out and had to be replaced during the refit at Singapore.

So, HMS Belfast went into action on the 6th of August 1950. As Belfast had been in the Far East on peacetime operations, she didn't carry a full crew compliment. In fact, only three of the four 12-inch gun turrets were operational during the first operations of the war because of a lack of crew. However, in September 1950, Belfast was recalled back to Great Britain to re-equip, re-arm and to receive over 900 men to put her at a wartime footing.”

By the summer of 1951, the war ground into a stalemate, with both sides unable to break the front line. Various operations along the Korean coastline attempted to break the deadlock, but no real force could outflank the enemy's troops. The fighting became a war of attrition, which lasted for the next two years, from July 1951 through to July 1953.

Robert Rumble: “HMS Belfast returns to the Korean theatre in 1951, but by then the war had changed in its nature. The front line had stabilised along the original border along the 38th parallel, so Belfast was mainly concerned with supporting actions against the islands along the Korean coasts and trying to outflank the communist enemy."

Throughout this time, truce negotiations were ongoing. One of the major sticking points remained, the prisoners of war. By this point in the war, tens of thousands of prisoners of war had been taken by both sides and the welfare of those that were held by the North Koreans was a great concern to the US military.

Video footage reporter: "This is a prison camp in North Korea, the year 1950."

Although it was difficult to be sure, it was thought that some 15,000 allied soldiers had died in communist hands from torture, execution, starvation and medical mistreatment, and the vast majority of these were South Koreans.

Robert Rumble: "Being a larger ship, HMS Belfast was equipped with a sick bay, with large mess decks and also holding cells. Prisoners of war or POWs were an important factor in the Korean War. Belfast itself took enemy prisoners during some of the island operations and her Royal Marines would look after the captured enemy combatants until they could be transferred either to larger UN ships or transferred ashore to prisoner of war camps."

Eventually an armistice was signed in July 1953, bringing an end to the fighting. Although the armistice was signed by the United Nations, the North Koreans and the Chinese and agreed to by the south Koreans, this was not a peace treaty. Technically, both North and South Korea are still at war with each other to this day. 

The war in Korea is often overshadowed by the Second World War and the Vietnam War, earning it the name the 'Forgotten War'. Yet, the Korean War was unexpectedly bloody and destructive for all involved. The war devastated the infrastructure and cities of Korea in both the north and south. Around 3 million people lost their lives, including a huge civilian death toll. Although there were very few naval battles throughout the war, five US navy ships were lost to mines during the action and HMS Belfast saw more action in Korea than at any point during the Second World War.

Robert Rumble: "HMS Belfast was relieved by HMS Birmingham and HMS Newcastle in September 1952, both town class cruisers the same class as Belfast. Belfast was considered by superstitious sailors to be a lucky ship. It was launched on St Patrick's Day 1938 and carried Irish luck. Only one sailor was killed during Belfast action in Korea, Leading Steward Lao So from Hong Kong. His funeral was held on Belfast's quarter deck. This war was not the end of Belfast's career or her time in the Far East. Between 1959 and 1963, Belfast took her final tour of duty, performing peacetime exercises and a tour of the world's great ports."

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A divided Korea

At the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided along a circle of latitude known as the 38th parallel. North Korea fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, with the Korean People's Army (KPA) established in February 1948. South Korea was reliant upon the support of the Americans.

When the KPA invaded South Korea, the United Nations quickly called upon its members to support the south. Troops from across the world, including Great Britain, Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand fought in support of South Korea against the north.  

The Korean War went on to be one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, with over three million dead and thousands of casualties. 

Find out more in: A short history of the Korean War.

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