HMS Belfast Light Cruiser: World War II

///HMS Belfast Light Cruiser: World War II

HMS Belfast is a Town-class light cruiser that was built for the Royal Navy, currently permanently moored as a museum ship on the River Thames in London, England, operated by the Imperial War Museum.

Construction of Belfast, the first ship in the Royal Navy to be named after the capital city of Northern Ireland and one of ten Town-class cruisers, began in December 1936. She was launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938.

Commissioned in early August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Belfast was initially part of the British naval blockade against Germany. In November 1939, Belfast struck a German mine and spent more than two years undergoing extensive repairs.

Belfast returned to action in November 1942 with improved firepower, radar equipment, and armour. Belfast saw action escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union during 1943 and in December 1943 played an important role in the Battle of North Cape, assisting in the destruction of the German warship Scharnhorst.

In June 1944, Belfast took part in Operation Overlord supporting the Normandy landings. In June 1945, Belfast was redeployed to the Far East to join the British Pacific Fleet, arriving shortly before the end of the Second World War.

Belfast saw further combat action in 1950–52 during the Korean War and underwent an extensive modernisation between 1956 and 1959. A number of further overseas commissions followed before Belfast entered reserve in 1963.

In 1967, efforts were initiated to avert Belfast’s expected scrapping and to preserve her as a museum ship. A joint committee of the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum, and the Ministry of Defence were established and then reported in June 1968 that preservation was practical.

In 1971, the government decided against preservation, prompting the formation of the private HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for her preservation. The efforts of the Trust were successful, and the government transferred the ship to the Trust in July 1971.

Brought to London, she was moored on the River Thames near Tower Bridge in the Pool of London. Opened to the public in October 1971, Belfast became a branch of the Imperial War Museum in 1978.

A popular tourist attraction, Belfast receives over a quarter of a million visitors per year. As a branch of a national museum and part of the National Historic Fleet, Belfast is supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, admissions income, and the museum’s commercial activities.

The ship was closed to visitors following an accident in November 2011 and re-opened on 18 May 2012.

Belfast is a cruiser of the third Town class. The Town class had originated in 1933 as the Admiralty’s response to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mogami-class cruiser, an 11,200-ton cruiser mounting fifteen 6-inch (152 mm) guns with a top speed exceeding 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph).


The Admiralty’s requirement called for a 9,000-ton cruiser, sufficiently armoured to withstand a direct hit from an 8-inch (203 mm) shell, capable of 32 knots (59 km/h) and mounting twelve 6-inch guns.

Seaplanes carried aboard would enable shipping lanes to be patrolled over a wide area, and the class was also to be capable of its own anti-aircraft defence. Under the Director of Naval Construction the new design evolved during 1933.

The lead ship of the new class, the 9,100-ton HMS Southampton, and her sister HMS Newcastle, were ordered under the 1933 estimates.

Three more cruisers were built to this design, with a further three ships built to a slightly larger 9,400-ton design in 1935–36.

By 1935, however, the Admiralty was keen to improve the firepower of these cruisers to match the firepower of the Japanese Mogami and American Brooklyn-class cruisers; both were armed with fifteen 6-inch guns. The Admiralty rejected a design featuring five triple turrets as impractical, while an alternative design fitting four quadruple turrets was rejected as an effective quadruple turret could not be developed.

In May 1936 the Admiralty decided to fit triple turrets, whose improved design would permit an increase in deck armor. This modified design became the 10,000-ton Edinburgh subclass, named after Belfast’s sister ship HMS Edinburgh. Belfast was ordered from Harland and Wolff on 21 September 1936, and her keel laid on 10 December 1936.

Her expected cost was £2,141,514; of which the guns cost £75,000 and the aircraft (two Supermarine Walruses) £66,500.


She was launched on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1938, by Anne Chamberlain, the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The launch was filmed by Pathe News. From March to August 1939, Belfast was fitted out and underwent sea trials.

When completed, Belfast had an overall length of 613 feet 6 inches (187.0 m), a beam of 63 feet 4 inches (19.3 m) and a draught of 17 feet 3 inches (5.3 m). Her standard displacement during her sea trials was 10,420 long tons (10,590 t).

She was propelled by four three-drum oil-fired Admiralty water-tube boilers, turning Parsons geared steam turbines, driving four propeller shafts. She was capable of 32.5 knots (60.2 km/h; 37.4 mph) and carried 2,400 long tons (2,400 t) of fuel oil. This gave her a maximum range of 8,664 nautical miles (16,046 km; 9,970 mi) at 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph).

Belfast’s main armament comprised twelve Mk XXIII 6-inch guns in four triple turrets. With a rate of fire of up to eight rounds per gun per minute, her main battery was capable of a total maximum rate of fire of 96 rounds per minute. Her secondary armament comprised twelve 4-inch guns in six twin mounts.

Her initial close-range anti-aircraft armament was sixteen 2-pounder “pom-pom” guns in two eight-barrel mountings, and two quadruple Vickers .50 machine guns. She also mounted six Mk IV 21-inch torpedo tubes in two triple mounts and fifteen Mk VII depth charges.

Belfast was protected by a 4.5-inch (114 mm) main armor belt, with deck armor of 3 inches (76 mm) over her magazines, and 2 inches (51 mm) over her machinery spaces. Her six-inch turrets were protected by up to 4 inches (102 mm) of armor.

One of Belfast’s Supermarine Walrus aircraft, photographed in an Icelandic fjord, 1942–1943.

Belfast’s aviation capability was provided by two catapult-launched Supermarine Walrus amphibious biplanes. These could be launched from a D1H catapult mounted aft of the forward superstructure and recovered from the water by two cranes mounted on either side of the forward funnel.

The aircraft, operated by the Fleet Air Arm’s HMS Belfast Flight of 700 Naval Air Squadron, were stowed in two hangars in the forward superstructure.


1939–1942: Commissioning, prize capture, mining, and repairs

Belfast sailed for Portsmouth on 3 August 1939, and was commissioned on 5 August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her first captain was Captain G A Scott with a crew of 761, and her first assignment was to the Home Fleet’s 2nd Cruiser Squadron.

On 14 August, Belfast took part in her first exercise, Operation Hipper, in which she played the role of a German commerce raider attempting to escape into the Atlantic. By navigating the hazardous Pentland Firth, Belfast successfully evaded the Home Fleet.

On 31 August 1939 Belfast was transferred to the 18th Cruiser Squadron. Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands, 18th Cruiser Squadron was part of the British effort to impose a naval blockade on Germany. Germany invaded Poland the following day, and Britain and France declared war on 3 September. At 11:40 that morning, Belfast received the message ‘Commence hostilities at once against Germany’.

On 8 September Belfast put to sea from Scapa Flow with the battlecruisers Hood, Renown, her sister ship Edinburgh and four destroyers, on a patrol intended to intercept German ships returning from Norway. In particular, they were to search for the Norddeutscher Lloyd liner Europa. No enemy vessels were found.

On 25 September, Belfast took part in a fleet operation to recover the submarine Spearfish, during which the ship was attacked by German aircraft, but suffered no damage. On 1 October 1939 Belfast left Scapa Flow for a patrol in the North Sea. On 5 October Belfast intercepted and boarded a neutral Norwegian factory ship that was sailing in company with six whaling ships.

On 8 October the ship sighted the Swedish merchant ship C. P. Lilljevach but, in poor weather, did not intercept or board her. The following day she boarded Tai Yin, a Norwegian ship. Tai Yin had been listed by the Admiralty as suspicious, so a prize crew from Belfast sailed her to Kirkwall for investigation. On 9 October Belfast intercepted a German liner, the 13,615-ton Cap Norte, 50 miles (80 km) north-west of the Faroe Islands.

Disguised as a neutral Swedish vessel, SS Ancona, Cap Norte was attempting to return to Germany from Brazil; her passengers included German reservists. Under the Admiralty’s prize rules, Belfast’s crew later received prize money. On 12 October Belfast boarded the Swedish ship Uddeholm, which was also sailed to Kirkwall by a prize crew. Returning to harbour, on the night of 13–14 October, Belfast was among the few ships anchored in Scapa Flow, following intelligence reports of an expected air raid.


That night, the battleship Royal Oak was torpedoed by German submarine U-47, which had infiltrated the anchorage. On the morning following the sinking, Belfast left for Loch Ewe.

On 10 November Belfast was taken off the northern patrol and reassigned to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. This squadron was to form an independent striking force based at Rosyth. On 21 November, Belfast was to take part in the force’s first sortie, a gunnery exercise. At 10:58 am she struck a magnetic mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. The mine broke Belfast’s keel, and wrecked one of her engine and boiler rooms.

Twenty officers and men required hospital treatment for injuries caused by the explosion, and a further 26 suffered minor injuries. One man, Painter 2nd Class Henry Stanton, was hospitalised but later died of a head injury, having been thrown against the deckhead by the blast. The tugboat Krooman, towing gunnery targets for the exercise, released her targets and instead towed Belfast to Rosyth for initial repairs.

Initial assessments of Belfast’s damage showed that, while the mine had done little direct damage to the outer hull, causing only a small hole directly below one of the boiler rooms, the shock of the explosion had caused severe warping, breaking machinery, deforming the decks and causing the keel to hog (bend upwards) by three inches.

On 4 January 1940 Belfast was decommissioned to Care and Maintenance status, becoming the responsibility of Rosyth Dockyard, and her crew dispersed to other vessels. By 28 June she had been repaired sufficiently to sail to Devonport, arriving on 30 June under the command of Lt Cdr H W Parkinson.

During her repairs, work was carried out to straighten, reconstruct and strengthen her hull. Her armour belt was also extended and thickened. Her armament was updated with newer 2-pounder pom-pom mountings, and her anti-aircraft armament improved with eighteen 20 mm Oerlikon guns in five twin and eight single mountings, replacing two quadruple 0.5-inch Vickers guns. Belfast also received new fire control radars for her main, secondary and anti-aircraft guns.


Her November 1942 radar fit included one Type 284 set and four Type 283 sets to direct the main armament, three Type 285 sets for the secondary guns, and two Type 285 sets for the 2-pounder anti-aircraft guns. She also received a Type 273 general surface warning radar, Type 251 and 252 sets for identification friend or foe (IFF) purposes, and a Type 281 and Type 242 for air warning. Her 1942 electronics suite also included a Type 270 echosounder.

Due to her increased topweight, a bulge was introduced into her hull amidships to improve stability and provide extra longitudinal strength. Her beam had increased to 69 ft (21 m) and her draught to 19 ft (5.8 m) forward and 20 ft 2 in (6.15 m) aft. Her displacement had risen to 11,550 tons.

1942–1943: Recommissioning, Arctic convoys and Battle of North Cape

Belfast was recommissioned at Devonport on 3 November 1942, under the command of Captain Frederick Parham. On her return to the Home Fleet Belfast was made flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Robert Burnett, who had previously commanded the Home Fleet’s destroyer flotillas. The squadron was responsible for the hazardous task of escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union, operating from Scapa Flow and bases in Iceland.

Her radar suite reduced Belfast’s need for aerial surveillance, and her aircraft were disembarked in June 1943. Belfast spent 1943 engaged on convoy escort and blockade patrol duties, and on 5–6 October of the same year, formed part of the covering force during Operation Leader, an airstrike against German shipping in the waters of northern Norway near Bodø by the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.

On 26 December 1943, Belfast participated in the Battle of North Cape. This battle, which occurred during the Arctic night, involved two strong Royal Navy formations; the first, Force One, comprised the cruisers Norfolk, Sheffield and Belfast (the 10th Cruiser Squadron) with three destroyers, and the second, Force Two, comprised the battleship Duke of York and the cruiser Jamaica with four destroyers.


On 25 December 1943, Christmas Day, Nazi Germany’s Scharnhorst-class battleship Scharnhorst left port in northern Norway to attack Convoy JW55B, which was bound for the Soviet Union. The next day Force One encountered Scharnhorst, prevented her from attacking the convoy, and forced her to turn for home after being damaged by the British cruisers. As Scharnhorst did so, she was intercepted by Force Two and sunk by the combined formations.

Belfast played an important role in the battle; as the flagship of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, she was among the first to encounter Scharnhorst and coordinated the squadron’s defense of the convoy. After Scharnhorst turned away from the convoy, Admiral Burnett in Belfast shadowed her by radar from outside visual range, enabling her interception by Duke of York.

1944: Tirpitz and D-Day

After North Cape, Belfast refuelled at Kola Inlet before sailing for the United Kingdom, arriving at Scapa to replenish her fuel, ammunition and stores on New Year’s Day 1944. Belfast sailed to Rosyth on 10 January, where her crew received a period of leave. February 1944 saw Belfast resume her Arctic convoy duties, and on 30 March 1944 Belfast sailed with the covering force of Operation Tungsten, a large carrier-launched Fleet Air Arm airstrike against the German battleship Tirpitz.

Moored in Altafjord in northern Norway, Tirpitz was the German navy’s last surviving capital ship. Forty-two Fairey Barracuda dive-bombers from HMS Victorious and HMS Furious made up the strike force; escorted by eighty fighters. Launched on 3 April, the bombers scored fourteen hits, immobilizing Tirpitz for two months, with one Barracuda shot down.

Belfast underwent minor repairs at Rosyth from 23 April to 8 May, while her crew received a period of leave. On 8 May Belfast returned to Scapa Flow and carried the King during his pre-invasion visit to the Home Fleet.


For the invasion of Normandy Belfast was made headquarters ship of Bombardment Force E flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton and was to support landings by British and Canadian forces in the Gold and Juno Beach sectors. On 2 June Belfast left the River Clyde for her bombardment areas.

That morning Prime Minister Winston Churchill had announced his intention to go to sea with the fleet and witness the invasion from HMS Belfast. This was opposed by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the First Sea Lord, Sir Andrew Cunningham. An intervention by the King eventually prevented Churchill from going.

The invasion was to begin on 5 June but bad weather forced a 24-hour delay. At 5:30 am on 6 June, Belfast opened fire on a German artillery battery at Ver-sur-Mer, suppressing the guns until the site was overrun by British infantry of 7th Battalion, Green Howards.

On 12 June Belfast supported Canadian troops moving inland from Juno Beach and returned to Portsmouth on 16 June to replenish her ammunition. She returned two days later for further bombardments. On the night of 6 July Belfast was threatened at anchor by German motor torpedo boats (“E-boats”).

She evaded them by weighing anchor and moving to the concealment of a smoke screen. Belfast fired her last round in anger in European waters on 8 July, in company with the monitor HMS Roberts and the battleship HMS Rodney, as part of Operation Charnwood. On 10 July she sailed for Scapa, the fighting in France having moved inland beyond the range of her guns.

During her five weeks off Normandy, Belfast had fired 1,996 rounds from her six-inch guns.


1945: Service in the Far East

On 29 July 1944, Captain Parham handed over command of HMS Belfast to Captain R M Dick, and until April 1945 Belfast underwent a refit to prepare for service against Japan in the Far East which improved her accommodation for tropical conditions, and updated her anti-aircraft armament and fire control in order to counter expected kamikaze attacks by Japanese aircraft.

By May 1945, Belfast mounted thirty-six 2-pounder guns in two eight-gun mounts, four quadruple mounts, and four single mounts. She also mounted fourteen 20 mm Oerlikons. Her two aftmost 4-inch mountings were removed, and the remainder fitted with Remote Power Control. Her empty hangars were converted to crew accommodation, and her aircraft catapult was removed.

Her radar fit now included a Type 277 radar set to replace her Type 273 for surface warning. Her Type 281 air warning set was replaced by a single-antenna Type 281B set, while a Type 293Q was fitted for close-range height-finding and surface warning. A Type 274 set was fitted for main armament fire direction.

On 17 June 1945, with the war in Europe at an end, Belfast sailed for the Far East via Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Port Said, Aden, Colombo and Sydney. By the time she arrived in Sydney on 7 August Belfast had been made flagship of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet.

While in Sydney Belfast underwent another short refit, supplementing her close-range armament with five 40 mm Bofors guns. Belfast had been expected to join in Operation Downfall, but this was forestalled by the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.


Post-war service 1945–50

With the end of the war, Belfast remained in the Far East, conducting a number of cruises to ports in Japan, China and Malaya and sailing for Portsmouth on 20 August 1947. There she paid off into reserve, and underwent a refit during which her turbines were opened for maintenance. She also received two more single Bofors guns, in place of two of her single 2-pounder mountings. She was recommissioned on 22 September 1948 and before returning to the Far East visited her home city of Belfast arriving on 20 October.

The following day, 21 October 1948, the ship’s company marked Trafalgar Day with a march through the city. The next day Belfast took charge of a silver ship’s bell, a gift of the people of Belfast. She sailed for Hong Kong on 23 October to join the Royal Navy’s Far East Station, arriving in late December. By 1949, the political situation in China was precarious, with the Chinese Civil War moving towards its conclusion.

As flagship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron, Belfast was the Far Eastern Station’s headquarters ship during the April 1949 Amethyst Incident, in which a British sloop, HMS Amethyst, was trapped in the Yangtze River by the communist People’s Liberation Army.

Belfast remained in Hong Kong during 1949, sailing for Singapore on 18 January 1950. There she underwent a minor refit between January to March 1950 and in June she joined the Far East Fleet’s summer cruise. On 25 June 1950, while Belfast was visiting Hakodate in Japan, North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel, starting the Korean War.


Korean War 1950–52

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Belfast became part of the United Nations naval forces. Originally part of the US Navy’s Task Force 77, Belfast was detached in order to operate independently on 5 July 1950. During July and early August 1950, Belfast undertook coastal patrols and was based at Sasebo in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture. From 19 July Belfast supported troops fighting around Yongdok, accompanied by USS Juneau.

That day Belfast fired an accurate 350-round bombardment from her 6-inch guns, and was praised by an American admiral as a “straight-shooting ship”. On 6 August she sailed for the UK for a short (but needed) refit, after which she again set sail for the far east and arrived back at Sasebo on 31 January 1951.

During 1951 Belfast mounted a number of coastal patrols and bombarded a variety of targets. On 1 June she arrived at Singapore for refitting, arriving back on patrol on 31 August. In September 1951 Belfast provided anti-aircraft cover for a salvage operation to recover a crashed enemy MiG-15 jet fighter. She conducted further bombardments and patrols before receiving a month’s leave from operations, returning to action on 23 December.

In 1952 Belfast continued her coastal patrol duties. On 29 July 1952 Belfast was hit by enemy fire while engaging an artillery battery on Wolsa-ri island. A 75 mm shell struck a forward compartment, killing a British sailor of Chinese origin in his hammock and wounding four other Chinese ratings. This was the only time Belfast was hit by enemy fire during her Korean service.

On 27 September 1952 Belfast was relieved by two other Town-class cruisers, HMS Birmingham and HMS Newcastle, and sailed back to the UK. She had steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the combat zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds from her 6-inch guns during the Korean War. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.


Modernisation and final commissions 1955–1963

In reserve, Belfast’s future was uncertain: post-war defence cuts made manpower-intensive cruisers excessively costly to operate, and it was not until March 1955 that the decision was taken to modernise Belfast. Work began on 6 January 1956.

Although described as only an extended refit, the cost was substantial for this large middle aged cruiser, 5.5 million pounds Changes included: providing the new twin MK 5 40 mm and the twin 4-inch mount with individual MRS8 directors; the 4-inch guns training and elevation speed was increased to 20 degrees a second; and protecting key parts of the ship against nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

This last consideration meant significantly enlarging and enclosing her bridge, creating a two-tiered, five-sided superstructure which radically altered her appearance. The most significant change was better accommodations for a smaller crew more fitting of post-war needs, her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts, and timber decking replaced with steel everywhere except the quarterdeck.

The overall effect was to create a cruiser significantly more habitable but different internally and to a degree in external appearance from wartime cruisers but only marginally superior in capability from its late-war fit. Belfast recommissioned at Devonport on 12 May 1959.

Her close-range armament was standardised to six twin Bofors guns, and her close-range fire direction similarly standardised to eight close-range blind fire directors fitted with Type 262 radar. Her 1959 radar fit also included Type 274, retained for main armament direction, Type 277Q and 293Q for height-finding and surface warning, Type 960M for air warning, and 974 for surface warning. In order to save weight, her torpedo armament was removed.

Belfast arrived in Singapore on 16 December 1959, and spent most of 1960 at sea on exercise, calling at ports in Hong Kong, Borneo, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia, the Philippines and Japan. On 31 January 1961, Belfast recommissioned, under the command of Captain Morgan Morgan-Giles. On her final foreign commission Belfast joined a number of exercises in the Far East, and in December 1961 she provided the British guard of honour at Tanganyika’s independence ceremony in Dar-es-Salaam.

The ship left Singapore on 26 March 1962 for the UK, sailing east via Hong Kong, Guam and Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, Seattle, British Columbia, Panama and Trinidad. She arrived at Portsmouth on 19 June 1962.


Recommissioned in July, she made a final visit to Belfast from 23–29 November, before paying off into reserve on 25 February 1963. In July 1963 Belfast was recommissioned for the last time, with a crew of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and a number of Sea Cadets flying the flag of the Admiral Commanding Reserves, Rear Admiral Hugh Martell.

Belfast sailed for Gibraltar in company with sixteen RNR minesweepers for a two-week exercise in the Mediterranean on 10 August. Martell’s obituarist considered this commission a well-judged contrivance which ‘did much to restore the confidence and image of the new RNR’ which had undergone an acrimonious amalgamation with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1958.

Reserve, decommissioning, and preservation efforts 1963–1971

Belfast returned to Devonport on 24 August 1963 and underwent a short refit to prepare her for paying off into reserve, which occurred in December 1963. In January 1966 parts of the ship and power systems were reactivated and from May 1966 to 1970 she served as an accommodation ship (taking over those duties from Sheffield), moored in Fareham Creek, for the Reserve Division at Portsmouth. While Belfast lay at Fareham Creek the Imperial War Museum, Britain’s national museum of twentieth-century conflict, became interested in preserving a 6-inch turret.

The turret would represent a number of classes of cruiser (then disappearing from service) and would complement the museum’s pair of British 15-inch naval guns. On 14 April 1967 museum staff visited Gambia, a Crown Colony-class cruiser also moored in Fareham Creek at the time. Following the visit the possibility was raised by whom? of preserving an entire ship. Gambia had already severely deteriorated, so attention turned to the possibility of saving Belfast.

The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, which reported in June 1968 that the scheme was practical and economic. However, in early 1971 the government’s Paymaster General decided against preservation.

On 4 May 1971 Belfast was “reduced to disposal” to await scrapping.


Imperial War Museum 1978–present

By 1977, the financial position of the HMS Belfast Trust had become marginal, and the Imperial War Museum sought permission to merge the Trust into the museum.

On 19 January 1978 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Shirley Williams, accepted the proposal stating that HMS Belfast “is a unique demonstration of an important phase of our history and technology”.

The ship was transferred to the museum on 1 March 1978, and became the Imperial War Museum’s third branch, Duxford aerodrome having been acquired in 1976.

In October 1998, the HMS Belfast Association was formed to reunite former members of the ship’s company. The Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive also seeks to record oral history interviews with former crewmen.


*This article was originally published at

By | 2018-01-04T09:21:34+00:00 January 4th, 2018|Categories: World War II|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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