HMS BELFAST: POCKET MANUAL

Reviewed by: Robert Muddysley

Osprey (now part of Bloomsbury) are a prolific publishing house, releasing up to ten new titles a month. They are somewhat niche, probably best known for their authoritative ‘Men at Arms’ series, well-illustrated monographs on units, weapons, or even particular members of various armed forces.
This is obviously a book intended to be sold at the ‘HMS Belfast (1938)’ bookshop (as we will soon have to refer to her with a Type 26 of the name pending). It is aimed at a general readership, but assumes, despite a good glossary, that a reader has some naval knowledge. While correctly described as a pocket book both in size and being only 156 pages long, it includes a surprising amount of detailed and technical information about the ship, her fittings and armament, and handling characteristics. What this reviewer found particularly fascinating was the section on the ships embarked (until June 1943) aircraft, the Supermarine Walrus. Despite its apparently frail biplane structure, it was a much loved and robust aircraft that could be ‘spun looped and rolled’ but these manoeuvres were uncomfortable for the crew, because being a flying boat, it tended to gather oily water in the bilges!
The book is essentially a chronological history of the ship and her people; even her rats get a generous mention (or rather, obituary!). It covers changes made at refits; the application of the disruptive camouflage is given in some detail, for example, boats to be painted white below the waterline to counteract ‘contained shadow in the area of the boat’s stowage’. Incidentally, the description is of the 1942 scheme, not the later one that she currently displays, although that is briefly described as well. The ships operational history is well covered, both by factual history and personal accounts. Obviously one of the high points in her service was the action off the North Cape when the Scharnhorst was sunk. Interestingly to a pedant like your reviewer, she is referred to as a battleship rather than a battlecruiser, patently incorrect description that is too often used, even in contemporary accounts.
Among other personal recollections, there are three extracts from the papers of Captain Welby-Everard (that have been serialised in the Review) who, as a commander, was the executive officer during World War 2, and include episodes from the Korean War.
The extracts also include the correspondence surrounding Winston Churchill’s abortive efforts to be present at the D Day landings on board Belfast, which was apparently to be the first ship to open fire. It took the King to finally dissuade him.
One feature of the book is the number of ‘names’ who served in her at various points in their career; she was obviously not only a happy ship, a ‘tiddley’ ship but a promotion ship as well judging by the numbers of names that feature at various points that were later to appear on the flag list.
If you visit the ship, do buy the book, it will fully occupy the train ride home, and more.