It may sound somewhat unassuming, but Oil Berth 3, sitting at the entrance to Musgrave Channel in Belfast Port, was once at the centre of a fascinating piece of Northern Irish history. In 1969, with the escalation of the IRA campaign, the Army deployed on Operation BANNER. This surge of troops led to a desperate need for emergency accommodation to house the thousands of additional troops sent to Northern Ireland on emergency tours. A recommissioned WW2-era submarine supply ship was the answer, and Oil Berth 3 was its home.
History of HMS Maidstone
Launched in 1937, HMS Maidstone was a massive submarine depot ship, serving submarine operations during WW2 and beyond before a temporary decommissioning in 1967. Due to the evolving civil emergency in Northern Ireland, the decision was made in October 1969 that the ship was to be recommissioned and refitted before being sent to Belfast. This refit saw Maidstone capable of accommodating up to 2,000 British troops, and was staffed by a skeleton Royal Navy engineering and maintenance contingent. If this wasn’t enough, this remarkable ship saw another chapter written in 1971 when two decks at the stern were adapted to house Republican prisoners interned under Operation DEMETRIOUS. Increased security ensued, including sand-bagged guard posts and extensive barbed wire defences including a 10ft high fence surrounding the deck, and a submerged perimeter of barbed wire surrounding the ship to prevent unwanted marine visitors. As good as the defences might have seemed, the night of 17 January 1972 saw the escape of seven internees who managed to lower themselves to the water, swim their escape through a damaged section of the barbed wire perimeter and onwards to the shore and their freedom. This is the only recorded escape. To end the brief story of the involvement of HMS Maidstone in Op BANNER, the ship was eventually towed to Rosyth in Scotland and on 23 May 1978 was scrapped.
Two other ships served in Northern Ireland at the same time; HMS Hartland Point, berthed to the stern of Maidstone, and HMS Rame Head berthed up in Londonderry on the River Foyle alongside Fort George. Their role was deemed so permenant at the time that Hartland Point and Maidstone had holes cut in their hulls to accommodate a steel gangway between the two.
Located in what was, and still is, the entrance to Musgrave Channel in Belfast Docks, Oil Berth 3 is the largest of 3 large berths designed to moor ships offloading their cargo of fuel. For the duration of Maidstone’s stay in Belfast, the ship was berthed here. It remained an industrial berth, with only the inclusion of some rudimentary protection; as was the case with most requisitions in the early era of the operation. What remains now is largely unchanged from 1969. Still a prohibited area due to the presence of fuel pumping facilities, the concrete dock is unremarkable and otherwise uninteresting. The top image on this page shows the three oil berths, No.3 is the right most berth, with 3 concrete pontoons. Below is a ground level image of the berth today.
In addition to the moorings for HMS Maidstone, is a later addition to the military marine infrastructure of Belfast. I have read no reference to this camp, and am calling it the ‘marine operations compound’ until an operational name surfaces. Located directly upstream from the Oil Berth (100m) is this small fenced and gated compound with its own berth into the channel. While the camp has been sold off, the current civilian owners have maintained the perimeter fence and guardhouse, and CCTV cameras remain along with barbed wire fence, as do all internal buildings I believe. In the aerial photograph, this compound and small berth can be seen on the right side of the image as a light blue ‘L’ shaped configuration of roofs.
Probably operated by the Roval Navy or Royal Marines, the compound would most likely have been used to launch small RIB or rigid raider craft for conducting marine operations on Belfast Lough such as shore and water searches, or searches of incoming vessels in support of the coastguard and harbour authorities. Below are a few photographs form the public road of the compound.