On Christmas Day 1942, the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, along with five destroyers, left its Norwegian base and headed for a series of Arctic convoys, the British fleets transporting material and support to the Soviets. The townclass cruiser HMS Belfast, used to escort the convoys through some of the most dangerous seas in the world, played a vital role in the Royal Navy’s clever game of bait-and-blast that resulted in the destruction of the Scharnhorst, a monster that had already sunk a British carrier and two destroyers. Belfast, the most powerful cruiser in the Navy at her relaunch in 1942 (she hit a mine in 1939 and needed three years of repairs), now sits in the Thames by City Hall, a visitor attraction operated by Imperial War Museums.
One recent Saturday, I visited HMS Belfast with a young man of military mindset. But it was my idea to go; he’d just as soon have sat at home vaping and watching YouTube videos about Admiral Nelson. The week before the Belfast visit, I went to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth for the second time in several months, poring over the propaganda posters and letters from soldiers about daily life in the trenches; taking in a midget submarine and ogling a Spitfire flown in the Battle of Britain.
The truth was I fancied – indeed, increasingly fancy – the details of wars gone by, and especially, like so many others, of the first and second world war. I crave and tingle at information about weaponry, military regimen, of desperate schemes and ploys that sometimes worked; of explosions, incredible discomfort, the humdrum bits of daily routine, the fateful impact of uncontrollable variables like storms and ice and waves and miscalculated naval physics and, of course, of the heroism ordinary men and women showed entirely without premeditation.