Friday, 4 March 2016


Last October I blogged about HMS President, one of only three surviving WWI warships. I used to be a frequent visitor when she was moored at the Embankment. She's in dry dock now for repairs, but last weekend I was in Portsmouth and I had the chance to see over the unromantically named HMS M33. She was built in an astonishing seven weeks, specifically to serve in the Gallipoli campaign and she is one of the two other survivors of the Great War. 

HMS M33 is a monitor: a vessel built to serve simply as a gun platform. She carries two six inch guns and a smaller six pounder. She draws only six feet, enabling her to operate in the shallow waters of the Dardanelles, bombarding the Turks from very close range.

As a gun platform, she was not designed to take part in naval conflict, so she carries no armour. The very thin steel that she is made of helped keep her weight down – important if her draught was to be kept so shallow. It meant, though, that she had no protection against enemy shells and the patches covering holes where shells punched straight through her sides are readily visible. Miraculously, none of the shells that hit her exploded inside the ship and during the five months that she spent on station at Gallipoli none of her crew died. She was considered a lucky ship – though her luck ran out at the end of the war when Spanish flu hit her before she could return to England.

Crew Quarters

HMS M33 had a crew of 72. Although the officers had small individual cabins, most of the crew shared one large open area where they ate and slept. With such a shallow draught, the ship was prone to rolling and life on board must have been quite horrible.

In 1919, after years of service in the Mediterranean, M33 moved to Archangel to support White Russian troops who were fighting the Bolsheviks. In addition to the discomfort caused by her limited crew accommodation and unnaturally shallow draft was added the horror of the cold. The thin plate of her hull provided no protection against the freezing temperatures outside and the only heating for the crew was provided by the small stove shown in the photograph above. The stove’s chimney had to be removed to give a clear field of fire when the fore-gun was in use, so the crew will have had no heating when the ship was at action stations. To add to their woes, the galley was amidships and the only access to the crew quarters was through deck hatches. All the food therefore had to be carried across the deck to their mess and that which was not spilled must have been, at best, lukewarm by the time it arrived with them.

M33 is an astonishing reminder of the nature of warfare only 100 years ago. Built in just a few weeks with her plans changed while construction was in progress to accommodate some additional weight, the ship offered the bare minimum of facilities to its crew. Yet she saw active service from 1915 to 1919 and then performed a variety of roles, ending up without engines or armaments as a floating office. She was finally sold out of the Navy in 1984 and was bought by Hampshire County Council for her historic interest. She is now displayed in dry dock at Portsmouth.

I've now had the great pleasure of seeing two of the surviving warships of the Great War. The third, HMS Caroline, is currently undergoing restoration work in Belfast, where she will be on display later this year.

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