HMS Belfast Salutes The Commonwealth Sailors Of WWII

By Richard Moss | 28 November 2005
shows a black and white photograph of Indian sailors cheering on board a ship

Indian ratings give three cheers before their ship, HMS Narbada, leaves port. (1943). © IWM A16838

Hosting a temporary exhibition on a floating museum like HMS Belfast is potentially problematic. With seven decks and innumerable places to explore it is in itself a fascinating exhibition. No real need for any extra exhibitions.

But amidst all the nooks and the crannies, the gun turrets and the galleys there is a temporary exhibition on one of the lower decks that is worth stopping and looking at - before you resume your exploration of this fascinating ship.

shows a black and white photograph of sailor on the deck of a ship examining a Japanese Samurai sword

Officers and men of a Burma RNVR motor launch during operations near Ramree Island, Burma, January 1945 © IWM 28505

Commonwealth Navy runs until March 31 2006 and highlights the massive contribution that men and women from the Commonwealth and Empire made to the Navy in World War Two.

The Royal Navy was very much a multicultural force and the misconception that Britain 'stood alone' in June 1940 is swept away at the beginning of this exhibtion. A stoyboard points out that Great Britain enjoyed the support of an Empire and Commonwealth, which at the time covered a quarter of the earth’s surface.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India all contributed sizeable navies to Royal Navy forces and each suffered casualties and braved the elements from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. One of the ships at the Battle of the River Plate was in fact a Kiwi vessel.

But it's by cleverly balancing the human stories against the circumstances of the time that the exhibtion succeeds in telling its story - via storyboards, artefacts, film, photographs and sound recordings.

shows a black and white photograph of sailors below deck singing and playing musical instruments

Messdeck scene aboard the Canadian destroyer HMSC Niagara. © IWM A3297

Good use is made of the IWM’s vast sound archive and visitors can listen to testimonies of sailors and sample some extraordinary stories and a range of exotic accents.

“The blast was so severe that it tore the lockers away from the bulkhead mess – we knew we’d been hit – there was no mistaking it.”

So begins a crackling recording from WJH Mills, a Canadian serving with the Royal Navy, describing the sinking of the sloop HMS Dundee in the North Atlantic by U48, September 15 1940.

Mills’ experience is of course one that was common to many Canadian servicemen who served also with the Royal Canadian Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. A propaganda film of the period rams this home by following the exploits of the HMCS Port Arthur as it ploughs the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic Convoys.

Some great photographs have also been unearthed from the IWM archive. The German U-boat U-210 is shown from the bows of the Canadian destroyer HMCS Assiniboine in August 1942. The Canadian ship is on a course to ram the German submarine.

shows a bare chested young Indian man on the deck of a ship collecting empty shell casings into a sack

A Royal Indian Navy rating collects empty shell cases following a night bombardment on the Arakan coast, Burma, February 1944. © IWM. A23453

Some of the colonies that rallied to the aid of Britain in its darkest hour were of course too small to form an independent navy, so men from these places joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

Amazing stories emerge from the actions of these men. Sailors from the Burma RNVR saw active service in support of the 14th Army in Burma. Some men formed part of Force Viper – an irregular unit that destroyed the docks at Rangoon as the Japanese approached in March 1942. This unit then fought their way back to India along the Irrawaddy River in small boats.

Again films bring alive the contributions of the different nationalities. Ceylonese Fleet Air Arm recruits are filmed in training, while 'He’s in the Navy', a recruitment film produced in 1940, follows the progress of a Royal Indian Navy recruit Zahir, from enlistment through basic training to his first sea voyage.

HMS Belfast also has a more tangible link with the Commonwealth as many men from different countries served on her in her long working life. A picture of an Afro-Caribbean sailor posing with the ship’s cat has been discovered in the archives - it was taken shortly after the sinking of the Scharnhosrt in Scapa Flow December 1943.

Simple pictures like this sweep away the misconception that Britain’s wartime Navy was a white Royal Navy and gently reminds us that were it not for the contribution made by brave men of the then Commonwealth, we might be living in far different times. That at least has to be worth your attention and time.

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