On a typical October Pompey morning, Wendy (who took the picture) bid us all a fond bon voyage as we set off on the VOS trip to the capital city. The nightstop in London was organised by Peter Vallender and Pips and we, the happy band of travellers, were soon on our way. The weather was dreadful as we headed north but it cleared the moment we arrived at London’s outskirts.
A couple of hours after leaving Portsmouth, we were driving through the city’s familiar streets, passing some of its iconic buildings and architecture. With 17 of us in a 17-seater, there was some concern about congestion charges but we were spared this, and as someone pointed out, we avoided any emission charges too. Not so for the Prime Minister though for, as we entered Westminster, she got wind of the arrival of the Portsmouth Task Force and the news broke that she had resigned.
Next thing we knew, we were at the Union Jack Club. Bags were unloaded and checking-in started. With instructions to be back for a 1500 briefing, we offloaded in our rooms.
Following the briefing, the party split into smaller groups. Some enjoyed a visit to the Imperial War Museum. Spot the deliberate mistakes…
With the kinks ironed out and an impending Waterloo sunset, the disbanded group returned to the fold in time for freshening-up and dinner.
The dinner was most enjoyable and a reasonable price considering our central London location. Some of the people we should thank for this outing are Pips (for organising) and Steve (for driving there and back)…
Then there’s also Peter V, whose idea this was. He’s seen here with some of the other VOS brothers-in-arms.
Then to bed and a good night’s sleep all around to prepare us for a busy and interesting tomorrow. Following breakfast the next day, we all made our ways to HMS Belfast. Some on foot and the rest in the team bus. Unlike during the drive up to London, the weather held out and the 30 or 40 minute walk along the Thames was most pleasant.
Visit to HMS Belfast
My favourite fact about HMS Belfast is that her forward-facing guns are permanently positioned to score a direct hit on the London Gateway service station at Scratchwood. It sounds like an urban myth but it’s true and the target is intentional. If the six-inch guns were loaded with shells, they could deliver an awesome pounding to the M1 cafe and toilet stop. Each shell weighs 112 pounds, similar to a sack of coal, and much more explosive. The forward guns could fire eight rounds per minute, meaning that Scratchwood could be obliterated in seconds.
But why this target in particular? Apparently, it’s nothing to do with the exorbitant price of its cappuccinos. The imperilled service station sits neatly on the radius of the guns’ comfortable range (about 18.5 km at 45º elevation, but the artillery could stretch to 23 km if pushed). A point anywhere within that band might have been chosen for the resting formation of the six forward guns. According to the ship’s Chief Yeoman, Kevin Price, Scratchwood was picked on because it was a well-known landmark on the M1 motorway. “We could also hit Cheshunt or fall just shy of Dartford,” he tells us. Scratchwood, though, has a certain monotony that invites comparison with Betjeman’s “come friendly bombs” prejudice against Slough.
The targeting was decided as long ago as 1971. This was the year HMS Belfast was first moored in the Pool of London to serve as a museum ship, following decades of distinguished service as one of the Royal Navy’s most powerful light cruisers. It goes without saying that the Belfast would never have cause to bombard the motorway — but the guns had to point somewhere, and targeting a famously humdrum location could only help with press and popular attention. (With thanks to Londonist)
Of course, there’s much more to be said about HMS Belfast. Built by Harland and Wolff in 1936, she was launched by Anne Chamberlain (wife of the then Prime Minister) on St Patrick’s Day in 1938 and was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939 under the command of Capt GA Scott DSO RN.
Designed for the protection of trade (more about that sort of thing later) as well as offensive action, she was immediately called into service patrolling northern waters in efforts to impose a blockade on Germany. However, disaster struck after only two months when she hit a magnetic mine. This put her out of action for three years.
As the RN’s largest and most powerful cruiser, fitted with cutting-edge radar technology, she saw a great deal of action in WWII. This included action in the protection of Arctic convoys and in support of the D-Day landings. After the Second World War she played an active role in the Korean War before being retired from the Service in 1963. She was then brought to London as a part of the Imperial War Museum and was opened to the public on Trafalgar Day (rather fitting for the VOS visit) 1971.
Private tour and talk at HMS President
Leaving HMS Belfast at around 1230, we made our way along the embankment, crossing the river on the world-famous Tower Bridge and down to St Catherine’s Dock to “board” HMS President. A busy RN Reserves HQ (amongst other things) we walked on the same decks as many had done before us – including HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and Lt Cdr James Bond RNVR. The attentive and friendly Mr Charles Perrett MStJ VR RNR (Naval Liaison Officer) welcomed us aboard with a concise briefing on the history of the ship.
We were then invited into the Wardroom for refreshments and an explanation into the current purpose of the RN, so many years after its inception. As was the raison d’etre of HMS Belfast, protecting Britain’s interests in commerce and industry is still a role undertaken by the modern RN.
Then, at around 1430, we boarded the bus for another stormy journey along the A3. The rainy weather seemed to spare us whilst we were on the ground in London but the Heavens opened up on us going there and back!
A teatime arrival at the RMC saw the conclusion of yet another great VOS activity. Many thanks once more to all those involved from all of us who enjoyed this great trip. New things were learned, old friendships reaffirmed and a great deal was gained by us all. Big thanks to VOS of course for making all this possible.
(Written by C. Kimber)
If you’re a veteran from the UK Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy (from any time of service) or a partner to one, VOS would love for you to join our community. We are here to offer our support: call us on 02392 731 767, visit an upcoming drop-in, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
VOS is immensely grateful to the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust and the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, as without their support and funding we would not be able to provide activities such as this one.