Portsmouth and HMS Belfast, A Chicago Wargamer in London
This shouldn't come as a surprise, but when it comes to history and even gaming, I'm consistently drawn to naval history and gaming. On a trip to England it's almost impossible to avoid finding some connection to the Royal Navy, so I had lots of options to explore. This time, I chose to visit the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards and HMS Belfast, a Second World War era light cruiser on the Thames in London. I've been to Portsmouth before, so I had a pretty good idea of what to see, but I hadn't visited HMS Belfast. I could have spend several days at Portsmouth and Gosport across the harbor, but HMS Belfast is a good way to spend a few hours. And both locations do a very good job of connecting the exhibits to the men who served there and in many cases died there.
The main attraction at Portsmouth is HMS Victory, the oldest commissioned ship in the world. She served the British nation for over half a century and participated in multiple fleet actions during the many wars with France. But it's her connection to Admiral Horatio Nelson that she's best known for. On HMS Victory there are two plaques commemorating Nelson. The first marks the spot where he was felled by a French sniper. The second is deep inside the ship, marking the spot where he died after being told the battle was won. No other man, ship, and battle are so deeply connected than Horatio Nelson, HMS Victory, and Trafalgar.
The harbor tour is a really fun way to see the whole port. Since you can't actually go into the naval dock, this is the only real way to see the Royal Navy ships in port. And the day I went most of the Royal Navy was in port, which is not an uncommon occurrence. There are six Daring class destroyers in operation and I saw four of them. The other two were at Plymouth Harbor. I also got to see the largest ship in the Royal Navy, their newest carrier. It was an immense ship and assuming the F-35 can actually work properly, should be an effective carrier.
After the harbor tour I headed down the dock and found a museum I completely missed last time. It was a mix of exhibits, from stories on the sailors of the navy to detailed models of ships, I also walked by this gun which fired the first shots of World War One, at least for the Royal Navy. By the museum was a monitor built for the First World War that saw action against the Ottomans. I would not have wanted to serve aboard her if given the choice.
There's also Mary Rose, a ship built by Henry VIII early in his reign and sank nearly 500 years ago. She was raised from the bottom of the Solent just outside Portsmouth in the 1980s and was carefully preserved over the next thirty years. Now her bones are on display for all to see, with the thousands of artifacts buried with her around her. Only the structure buried in the channel floor survived and it's eerie seeing a ship in this condition. She had just fired the guns on one side of the ship and was turning hard to bring the other guns to bear. A gust of wind hit at the wrong moment and she heeled even further over. This brought the lowest gunports under-water and she flooded rapidly. Anti-boarding nets trapped most of her crew and almost everyone drowned.
In addition to these exhibits Portsmouth has quite a few others. By the entrance is HMS Warrior, the first completely steam drivenship to serve in the Royal Navy. Launched in 1860 she was built in response to a French ironclad and was the most advanced ship in the world, at least until USS Monitor launched two years later. I didn't visit her this time but the ship is an amazing mix the new and the old. Her gundeck looks very similar to HMS Victory but she also has electrical lights, massive machinery and a laundry machine!
After Portsmouth I visited a Second World War era light cruiser, HMS Belfast. She's parked on the Thames just across from the Tower of London and I saw her last year. But this time I had the opportunity to go aboard and explore her. She was built just in time for the war and almost immediately sailed over a mine. After that she spent three years getting patched up before serving with Home Fleet, protecting the Arctic Convoys. Then she shelled German positions on D-Day and later headed for the Pacific. She was in the Pacific again for the Korean War and served in Hong Kong as the station commander for years before finally coming home.
I've seen a few ships from this era and HMS Belfast has a few areas open to visitors that most don't, like the shell rooms and the main battery turrets. Walking around you get the feel of what life was like for the 600+ men who served aboard her. Amazingly, the sailors still received a daily rum ration right up until the 1970s when someone got concerned about the combination of slightly buzzed sailors and nuclear weapons. I can't imagine why...
Below decks the engine room was very similar to another ship I've been aboard, USS Texas. Down here it's easy to get lost in the maze of pipes and walkways. Working in the space would be a nightmare of loud noises and hot steam. Another space I got to visit was the forward ammunition rooms. The cordite magazine was inaccessible below but I've never seen one of these before. The crew in this space would have worked hard to keep the guns above firing as there were three guns firing a round every six to ten seconds. That could be 36 shells every minute going up to the turret.
In comparison the gundeck of HMS Victory in rather plain but absolutely covered with guns. Each deck has about thirty guns and I had to duck through most of them due to the very low bulkhead above. Normally men would have lived alongside their guns, eating and sleeping with them. In battle this deck would have been filled with men and boys desperately working their guns while the air filled with smoke. On HMS Belfast, a dozen or so men would have worked in magazine with another thirty in the turret.
Visiting both these museums has given me some great ideas for games to run in the future. I could see a fast cruiser action from my trip to HMS Belfast while Portsmouth gave me ideas for an attack on a port. Even though several members of the group have threatened to beat me with a two by four if I ever start collecting Napoleonic era figures, I don't think warships from this era count. So maybe we'll be refighting Trafalgar someday in the future.