From spies to submarines and life on the Home Front, Imperial War Museums is bringing history into the homes of families across the world, sharing unique and personal stories from our extraordinary collections.

Adventures in History 

Discover fascinating stories about people who lived through extraordinary events in Adventures in History,


Ahoy! Welcome on board, it's great to welcome you back here aboard my boat. My name is Ngaire, I work for Imperial War Museums and on our Adventures in History we have explored the paintings, letters, photographs, interviews and objects that make up the collections of the Imperial War Museums that tell the stories of real people whose lives have been affected by war and conflict. And well, for today's adventure, I feel like leaving the wheelhouse of my own little boat, stepping ashore and venturing off to one of the objects in the museum's huge collections. And huge is the right word because the object I'm thinking of is the biggest of all our objects and while I could tell you a bit about it from sitting here it'd be much better to go and visit it ourselves. So come on I'm taking you with me.  

We made it! Welcome to HMS Belfast, the largest object in Imperial War Museums collection, a warship but also a floating town home to nearly a thousand men in the Second World War. Inside there is a carpenter’s, a butcher’s, a baker’s, a post office, a shop, a doctor’s and, a dentist.... everything that you might find in your community is here on board to make sure the sailors were fed healthy and able to do their jobs. How do we fit it all in? Well, there are nine decks of HMS Belfast, and every deck holds clues and each of those clues leads to a different story. Stories of real people in some of the biggest moments of history and our first clue is right behind me just on the gun turret. If we take a close look, you can see the ship's badge. Now when HMS Belfast was first built in 1936, she was the first ship to be given the name of Belfast, so she didn't have a badge with her own picture on it. In fact, the name of the ship was much easier to come up with - she was built in the city of Belfast, so the name was the straightforward part of her ship's badge. I bet you won't have heard of the shipyard that built HMS Belfast - Harland and Wolff aren't well known - however, I bet you've heard of another ship that they built, probably the most famous ship in the world. It wasn't a warship like this one, it was a huge, big passenger ship and on its very first voyage, hit an iceberg. You've got it now, haven't you? Yes, Titanic. HMS Belfast and Titanic were both built in the same shipyard in the city of Belfast. So that's how she gets her name but let's go back to the story of her badge.  

So, there was no picture because Belfast was the first ship to have this name, so we now need to think about a sailor called Stuart Ferguson. So, while the ship is still being built, Stuart Ferguson - who is a chief engineer - is sent by the Royal Navy to see how work is getting on. Now Stewart was a drawer and a bit of a keen walker and one of his walks he had picked up the skeleton of a seahorse and realizing that there was also a seahorse in the crest of the city of Belfast, drew his idea of putting a seahorse right in the middle of Belfast's badge. He sent it to the admiralty, and they accepted the design and so that is how Belfast got her badge. So, one tiny detail like the ship's badge reveals a whole big story and that's true of HMS Belfast. In fact, there's lots of different naval words on board that a young sailor would have to learn. So, I'm not stood talking to you on the floor I'm stood on the deck. This isn't a wall it's a bulkhead, even something often overlooked as a drain is called a scupper. All of this naval slang would have to be learnt by the sailors when they first stepped on board. It's a bit like the language that you might use at home in your communities or where you're from. Words change according to different places and that's another reason that Belfast is a bit like her own floating town.  

Let's go down the ship's waist on the port the left side and find out about another one of those sailors who lived and worked here. Ah popped by the ship's bakery just to see what was being made today but I'll save this for later. However, it does remind me of a story we heard about in our last Adventure in History. Do you remember the little boy whose mum was working in the munitions factory and after a long day in the midst of all the rationing of the Second World War, she came home with a doughnut for that little boy as a special sugary treat? And that little boy had wanted to grow up to become a sailor? And he did indeed fulfil that ambition! And HMS Belfast became Bernie Bristoll's place of work and the place where he lived and had donuts freshly baked by the ship's Bakery. Up above me is the back of the bridge wireless office. Bernie joined the royal navy at the age of 16 and when he joins the crew of HMS Belfast, he is fully trained as a radio operator - a telegraphist. Now that means he is trained to use a very special code called Morse code. Now if you look at morse code on the page it's a series of dots and dashes, each letter of the alphabet has its own combination of dots and dashes, it's quite complicated, though I can always remember the letter E because that's just a single dot - because E is the most used letter in the English alphabet. Well Bernie was very, very good at Morse code and so he's trained up and on-board Belfast he is receiving and sending messages in morse code at a rate of 25 words a minute. That's faster than I can type on a keyboard. Below my feet is where Bernie lived, he slept in a hammock in a mess deck -another one of those sailor slang words.  

A mess deck was your home on board and your mess mates were a bit like your family, they were the people who did a similar job to you, and you all live together. You ate scran - healthier than doughnuts! Most of the time scran was the navy nickname for food and it might be also where you went and got some nutty. Now if you remember the Adventure in History with my friend Ed - he was the submariner - and you'll remember that he said nutty was the slang for sweets and chocolates on board. So, if you needed to go and visit the dentist because you've had too much nutty, there's one of those on board here as well. It's quite hard to imagine this ship teeming with life with men doing their jobs and it's also really hard to imagine here on the river, the sort of motion that a ship even as big as this one would have had going on under our feet. If you felt seasick as a sailor there was no going to the doctors, that was not considered an illness - you'd be given short shrift and told to get straight back to work! You might have a friendly mess mate or a work companion who would give you some time up on deck for some fresh air or maybe someone would give you some dry toast to help settle your tummy. And I do know that one of the other preferred remedies for seasickness was something called KYE. And KYE is probably my favourite bit of navy language because that's hot chocolate and they had a special way of making it on board. Slabs of pure chocolate grated into a great big saucepan, taken down to the boiler rooms a steam pipe diverted to put hot steamy water onto that with some condensed milk and then mixed in with lots of sugar. Apparently, the test of a good mug of KYE was if your spoon pretty well stood up in it. And it wasn't just for seasickness. This ship never slept, it was a 24 hour a day job on board and so a good hot sweet mug of KYE would keep you going on those long hours of your watch in the middle of the night as well.  

Let's think more about that rough weather and to do that we'll carry on going forward towards the bow of the ship and think about some of the worst weather that the crew and this ship have ever experienced. It's quite hard to imagine on a bright sunny day here on board and on the lovely calm river just how appalling the weather conditions could get for the men who lived and worked here particularly in the Second World War when the ship was in the arctic. She was protecting the arctic convoys on their dangerous, perilous way to Russia with vital supplies for that ally. And the Arctic might give you a clue to just how bad the weather conditions could get not only would the seas be incredibly rough with great big wave plunging over the front of the ship where we are now, but the old sailors would come back where Belfast is today, look at some of the buildings on the shore side and say the waves were as high as that building over there. These great big walls of water crashing over the ship and freezing once they hit the frozen metal. Remember this is the Arctic, it was colder out here than the inside temperature of your freezer. And to every wave that hits is another layer of frozen water, so the men have to walk around and try and not fall overboard. Because if you fall into these Arctic waters, you're going to last about two minutes before you freeze to death. So sometimes while the men were working, they'd actually tie rope around their waist and tie themselves physically to Belfast so that it would protect them and keep them on board. One of those sailors who remembers a very important day when he had his life saved by HMS Belfast was John Harrison and to find out about his story, we need to go to his gun turret. 

This is a turret and John Harrison wasn't just a sailor on board HMS Belfast, he was a gunnery officer, and this was his turret. And the men who worked inside were his gun crew and even in the Arctic conditions these guns still had to be kept working and maintained because even these could freeze up in those really harsh temperatures. So, it's one incredibly rough day at sea and John Harrison is trying to get from the doorway - another one of those sailor slangs the hatch - to his gun turret to get to work and there are huge waves crashing over the side of the ship. John thinks he's been a bit smart; he thinks he sees a slack wave - a wave with much less energy and power – approaching and so he takes that moment to dash across to his turret. He just gets his hand onto the door handle when this great big wave hits him. It wasn't a slack wave it was like being hit by a brick wall. It takes John's feet from under him, and he would have been dragged overboard over the side of the ship into those frozen waters. But John's hand is still attached to the door handle, and I say attached because it's not because John is very strong that he is still there on that handle. Can you think what happened? Yes, that's right, his hand had frozen - had stuck to the metal of the door handle. Now when John picks himself up and gathers his feet back underneath him he does have to peel finger by finger his hand off of that door handle. He lost some skin but better than losing his life in those Arctic waters. It's a little bit like if you've got an ice cube out the freezer and stuck it to your tongue - so it can be a bit painful trying to peel it off but better that than losing his life. John still returned to his ship because he really did think of her as his and every time, he came back on board he'd look at this turret and say, “thank you” for saving his life.  

John is many of the veterans that have lots of stories to tell about HMS Belfast. We started on the quarter deck at the stern at the back of the ship, we looked at the ship's badge. We walked down the waist and stopped on the boat deck and thought about morse code and Bernie Bristoll growing up to become a leading telegraphist on this ship. We thought about some of the horrendous conditions that the men faced in the Arctic of the Second World War, and we thought about the men who worked on board in those horrendous conditions and John Harrison, whose life was saved from being sent into those Arctic waters. In each of these places we have walked in the footsteps of those crew and here the ship waits for you to come back and visit her. The men were incredibly proud of HMS Belfast, they called her by the affectionate nickname of 'tiddly b'. Tiddly is slang for tidy or looking neat and shipshape and b for Belfast. So the tiddly b was their home and somewhere they were really proud of as well. Beneath my feet remember those nine decks full of the places where men would have done their jobs and also had their homes on board, but it wasn't just men that lived here. 

In the Second World War there were also three cats on this ship as well. Now while they might have provided a bit of a reminder from home, they were also here to do a job hunting out the rats and the mice that might have got into the food supplies that were here for all those months away at sea. So, from three cats and 950 men all looking after this ship, all with a job to do, we think about your next Family Mission what job on board would you have been most suitable for? Join CBBC presenter Ben Shires on Friday as he sets your latest Family Mission. You can also start planning your very own Adventure in History. For while HMS Belfast stays shut for just a little bit longer, IWM North in Manchester, IWM London Churchill War Rooms and IWM Duxford are ready to open their doors and welcome you back from the 1st of August. We can't wait to see you! Until then, farewell! 

Ever wondered what life would be like as a crew member aboard a Navy ship? Join IWM expert Ngaire this week as she helps us discover the extraordinary stories from the deck of the largest object in IWM’s collection, HMS Belfast.

Watch now >



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