Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
This 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.
The 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than a narrow strip of land, by January 1916, less than a year after the attack had begun, all Allied troops had been withdrawn.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.
After 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.
Still, 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.
The 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.