JOHN HARRISON with ‘A’ turret behind him on the occasion of HMS Belfast’s 80th anniversary (left). John while serving serving the Second World War. Images via IWM.
JOHN HARRISON, HMS Belfast’s oldest volunteer and a veteran of the ship’s first commission died on peacefully on 18 January 2020 at the age of 105… and six months.
He loved the ship as only one who has lived protected by it’s steel flanks, who has worked in its labyrinthine spaces and found the sort of companionship that exists only between those who don’t just say they trust each other but do implicitly, as to not give your all could result in your death and those of literally hundreds of others.
He knew the ship like no one else, having been drafted to HMS Belfast when it was fresh from being fitted out – a ship where everything was new.
Finishing his training, he found himself Petty Officer Ordnance Artificer responsible for maintaining all the workings of ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets – the most forward of the four main turrets on the ship.
As he describes in an interview in IWM’s collection, initially much of what he learnt he discovered by trial and error.
His time serving on the ship was relatively short but action packed.
He was on the ship when only weeks into the war, HMS Belfast intercepted and captured the Cap Norte a German merchant vessel which was disguised as Swedish vessel ‘Anacona‘, which surrendered without a shot being fired.
On another occasion he was almost washed overboard by freezing waves in the Denmark Straits early one morning on his way to ‘A’ turret as Belfast patrolled, looking for German shipping.
Experienced in the ways of the the sea, he knew that the freezing cold waves were breaking over the ship to a rhythm and that there was a lull between the sets of waves.
Timing his move he made it to the port turret door and grabbed the handle…
But the sea sometimes has to remind Man that it can’t be tamed – or even understood.
Suddenly an unexpected wave knocked John’s off his feet.
What saved him from being swept away into the freezing water was that his bare hand had frozen to the metal handle.
John was also aboard when the ship hit a magnetic mine in the Forth of Forth on 21 November 1939.
He also describes how he was overseeing work a forward turret a German magnetic mine detonated beneath the ship, severely damaging it to such a degree that HMS Belfast would not return to the fleet for more than two years.
Once more the turrets would save his life.
One man died and forty-six were injured in the explosion and John would later suffer severe headaches as a result of the mine explosion and was discovered to have broken two vertebrae.
But as devastating as the damage was, the mine also probably saved his life.
Because of his engineering expertise he and a small number of others were asked to help assess the damage once the ship had been towed into Rosyth naval dockyard.
The majority of his shipmates from HMS Belfast were sent to HMS Hood, which was lost 24 May 1941 in the Denmark Strait while intercepting the German ships KMS Bismark and KMS Prinz Eugen.
More than 1400 men aboard the Hood were lost.
Just three men were rescued.
Later John served in the destroyer HMS Atherstone and then then undertook shore duties.
Although at times frail-looking he was always strong of mind, recounting his career and responding to the questions he always received gently, but firmly correcting errors that people repeated within earshot.
He will be truly missed by his family, by members of the HMS Belfast Association and by those thousands of school children, families and other visitors from across the globe who have been privileged to meet him or indeed to have heard from staff and volunteers of his exploits during the first commission that HMS Belfast undertook.
Source and further information
The information in this post is based on an interview with John in IWM’s Sound Archives. it can be found at https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80020219.
In addition a number of short videos featuring John and other veterans who served on HMS Belfast can be found at https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+harrison+hms+belfast