What was M.33?

Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain

HMS M.33This is HMS M.33, a relic of another time – yet a time of not so very long ago – and of almost-forgotten battles. M.33 was a monitor, essentially a floating gun platform.  Designed to operate in shallow waters, close to shore, she was one of almost 40 monitors ordered to be built at the height of the First World War by Winston Churchill, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty (first time round).  Constructed by Workman Clark in Belfast, His Majesty’s Ship M.33 was put together in, it seems to me, a remarkably short time: her keel was laid on 1 April 1915, she was launched on 22 May and, equipped with two 6” guns, by July she was on her way to the Dardanelles and war.

HMS M.33 in WW1The Dardanelles, or Gallipoli, Campaign began in February 1915.  The aim was to break through Turkish defences in the narrow Dardanelles Strait, into the Sea of Marmara and thence on to capture Constantinople (Istanbul) and take Turkey out of the war.  M.33 arrived in time to support a major Allied offensive at Sulva Bay, bombarding Turkish gun positions that were threatening Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces.  Gallipoli was one of the most disastrous military campaigns in history and cost more than 100,000 Turkish, British, French Australian and New Zealand lives.  Never able to secure more than a narrow strip of land, by January 1916, less than a year after the attack had begun, all Allied troops had been withdrawn.

M.33 remained on station off the Gallipoli peninsula until the end of the evacuation and was then sent to Salonika (Thessaloniki), where a multi-national Allied force (British, French, Serbian, Italian and Russian) faced a mainly Bulgarian enemy.  Apparently, she was also involved the seizure of the Greek fleet at the Salamis Naval Base in 1916 – an event which I confess to knowing nothing about until writing this article.  M.33 guarded the Allied base at Salonika and participated in various operations across the Aegean for the next two years, including bombarding the Turkish coast and salvaging guns from her sister ship, M.30, which had been sunk by Austro-Hungarian artillery in the Gulf of Smyrna.  In 1918, M.33 was one of the naval vessels standing by as armistices were signed with Bulgaria on 29 September and with Turkey on 30 October.

Navy monitor M.33After three years away, in early 1919, HMS M.33 sailed home.  You can’t help wondering about her crew – what they were like and where they came from.  Three years is a long time to spend in what is, frankly, a fairly crude, unhealthy, metal box with few creature comforts. It must have been extremely cramped, too.  M.33 is tiny – just 177 feet (53.95 m) long with a beam of 31 feet (9.45 m) and had a company of 72 officers and men sharing one deck.  She was slow as well – a top speed of little more than 10 mph.  Compare that to one of the Royal Navy’s largest battleships, HMS Hood, launched in 1920, which was 860 feet (262 m) long, with a maximum beam of 104 feet (31.8 m), a crew of about 1400 and a top speed equivalent to 35 mph.  You would not choose to spend any length of time aboard M.33, especially in rough weather.  There were far too many unforgiving metal surfaces to hit yourself on, she must have been unbearably hot in good weather, freezing cold in bad and, let’s be honest, I imagine the atmosphere was occasionally somewhat dense and fragrant.  Visiting M.33 brought to mind the novel, The Cruel Sea, in which Nicholas Monsarrat describes conditions on another type of small ship, a flower-class corvette, during the Second World War.

HMS M.33Still, having lost no men to enemy action, M.33 had a reputation as a ‘lucky’ ship.  However, after a brief refit, in May she was dispatched to Archangel in northern Russia for service with the White Sea Squadron.  This was part of what is euphemistically referred to as the Allied ‘intervention’ in Russia following the revolutions of 1917.  Initially, the intention was to bolster Russian involvement in the war against Germany and protect Allied interests, but by 1919 it had degenerated into a kind of messy participation in the civil war between the Bolshevik ‘reds’ and the counter-revolutionary ‘whites’.  Nations indulging in this included Britain, France, Australia, Canada, the USA, Italy and Japan.  M.33 spent three months in the area, supporting Allied ground troops from the River Dvina, during which she was hit several times but, miraculously, still suffered no casualties.  British troops finally withdrew in September 1919 and M.33 came home again.

HMS M.33 and HMS VictoryThe story of HMS M.33 thereafter is a little more mundane.  She was converted to a minelayer, renamed HMS Minerva, served as a tender and office in Portsmouth harbour, a boom defence vessel on the Clyde during the Second World War, and then a workshop and office at Gosport, across the harbour from Portsmouth.  She was sold to Hartlepool Ship Preservation Trust in the 1980s, but was acquired by Hampshire County Council in 1990 and towed back to Portsmouth.  After a considerable amount of restoration and conservation, HMS M.33 opened to the public in 2015, much as she would have looked in 1915-19, at Portsmouth’s Historic Royal Dockyard.  She is moored next to the much larger, older and more famous HMS Victory.  However, M.33 is of unique historical significance, because of her service record and as one of just three surviving Royal Navy ships from the First World War. The other two are HMS Caroline, a light cruiser currently moored in Belfast, and HMS President (1918), originally a Q ship named HMS Saxifrage, until recently moored on the Thames in London and used for events, but as of 2020 undergoing restoration.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is an astonishing place, at one time the largest industrial complex in the world.  It is now home to several museums, including the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Mary Rose Museum, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. A tour of the harbour is included in the ticket price – go visit.

HMS M.33, Portsmouth Dockyard

49 thoughts on “What was M.33?

  1. Andy

    Of course the Spartans also had a tough time with their campaigns in the Dardanelles around 410 BC so they would not have been surprised at the allied failure. Your description of life onboard the M.33 reminds me of the impressions you get from the movie Das Boot. A not so groovy kind of funky. I don’t think I ever went to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I have been on the Cutty Sark as a wee lad, and then replicas of the Batavia, the Golden Hind, and most recently the Nina when we were in Florida last. What jolly fun. I love boats and ships, especially when I can visit them in dry dock and buy and postcard and an ice-cream on the way out.
    oh … the life on the ocean wave
    etc

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Grab the chance to visit Portsmouth Dockyard if you ever get it – though I appreciate that it may be unlikely! As for conditions aboard M.33, I was reminded of ‘The Cruel Sea’!

  2. robertawrites235681907

    This is very interesting, Mike. I am doing a lot of research on WW1 for my latest WIP. Your comment “Three years is a long time to spend in what is, frankly, a fairly crude, unhealthy, metal box with few creature comforts. It must have been extremely cramped, too.” Of course, that would be spot on, but better than the trenches.

  3. willedare

    The statistics (the Gallipoli campaign “cost more than 100,000 Turkish, British, French Australian and New Zealand lives…”) are heart-breaking. And somehow the photos of M33’s kitchen and storage areas really summon the reality of what serving on that vessel might have felt like… Thank you for another glimpse into Britain’s (and the world’s) history.

  4. Richard

    Absolutely loved this post, Am sad that I cannot now revisit Portsmouth, living in the land of Oz as I do.
    A pro pos the ‘West’ assisting the ‘Whites’, only tenuously linked to royal connections with The British Empire, Lenin’s avowed intention was to carry the revolution through to the Atlantic, with the mass uprising of the workers in the intervening countries. Lenin’s annulment of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and movement of his troops Westward from 1918 is witness to this.

  5. artandarchitecturemainly

    I can see that Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty had a busy agenda for their Belfast-built ship, tasks which were properly done. But I don’t understand why a British ship should be sent to intervene in another nation’s internal struggle. Who dispatched them to Archangel in northern Russia for service with the White Sea Squadron? How do we know that the initial intention was to bolster Russian involvement in the war AGAINST Germany?

    The civil war between the Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary White Armies were brutal, but Allied interventions to support the White Armies were immoral. No wonder British troops finally withdrew in September 1919.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I think you’re judging this by 21st century standards. Actually, if the Soviet Union had been strangled at birth, Russia, and the world, would have avoided an odious regime and millions of lives might not have been lost.

  6. thehungrytravellers.blog

    Hi Mike, an interesting post, I can’t imagine what it would be like living for so long in those cramped conditions. I used to live in Portsmouth and loved the docks and seeing the naval ships sailing in, always a great sight. Michaela

  7. Jim Borden

    1 April 1915 to 22 May does seem incredibly fast to build something like this.

    and I can’t imagine spending three years on something like this.

    and the Dockyard does sound like a great place to visit…

  8. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – what an interesting life of a ship – and to know it’s in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and we can visit … thanks for the shout-out. Cheers Hilary

  9. catladymac

    Thank you for this post. I have read a lot about the American Civil War but this is the first time I have encountered a reference to another monitor ! (my shortcoming) Very interesting to learn there were others..

  10. Peter's pondering

    Fascinating Mike, thank you. I knew nothing of these ships. I did sail on HMAV Arakan and Ardennes which were 225 feet long and flat bottomed, so can imagine, with horror, what 3 years aboard would be like!

  11. petsheltalktalknet

    Thanks for this Mike. I had looked at M33 from the outside during my last visit to H.M.S. Victory. You are right. Portsmouth Naval Dock yard is absolutely fascinating. Just across the water in Gosport, the submarine museum is also a must see.

  12. quercuscommunity

    Excellent article – I did see her years ago when visiting HMS Victory – a fascinating survival. I’d definitely rather have served on M33 than on the Victory! 🙂

  13. John

    Three years aboard a ship that size would have been terribly difficult, wow! She served well, it’s nice that she’s in dry dock and open to the public now. A well deserved rest! ❤️

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