Friday, 4 March 2016

British First World War Monitor - HMS M.33 (AKA HMS Minerva from 1925)

On my second visit to the historical dockyard at Portsmouth, I came across a monitor from WWI. It was the last surviving vessel of a type that was constructed for a specific purpose, so the guide would have me know. These ships were designed for coastal engagements. Not ship v ship action but supporting troops going ashore from sea. The ship’s forward and aft guns could fire many shells a minuet and would target enemy gun emplacements that were trained and defending against invading forces from the sea. In this case, British, Australian, New Zealand and other allied forces against the Turkish army in 1915 Dardanelles along the famous Gallipoli Peninsula.

This particular ship was called HMS M33 and was one of about sixteen such vessels. They were built in Belfast and under a rapid construction programme. They took just seven weeks to complete. One of these many vessels was to be sold to Chile for the South American nation’s navy. However, the British government requisitioned it to aid Britain before delivery abroad. When the Great War was over in 1918, the vessel was finally forwarded to Chile. This was not HMS M33 in the photos, but one just like it. This has significance to the M33 in later years.

The guide told me that when the M33 was being restored by the various trust bodies for the museum; the rusting hulk had been stripped. This was in 1984. The guns had long been removed and it was just laying moored and used as an office. Before this it had housed Wrens and before that, during WWII it was a training ship for mine laying. The preservation trusts that decided to restore the ship to its WWI days needed to find the right guns for the forward and aft decks. Our guide told us that the forward one was taken from a ship called HMS Delhi and when Chile found out about the ship’s restoration they gave the preservation trust one of the guns off of their monitor that had been long since scrapped. They had removed a gun and put it upon a shore gun emplacement. This was shipped back to Britain to be used as the aft gun replacement. The guide laughed and told us of the problems at HM Customs as they tried to get this revolving ship’s gun through the check point.

As the guides showed us around the ship they told us that the M33 was the ‘lucky ship’ because not one sailor was killed in action, despite the many coastal campaigns it was involved in. The ship was struck a few times by shells, but no one was killed. Most of the ship’s service was in the Aegean right up until 1918.

When WWI ended, HMS M.33 was sent into the White Sea Squadron to aid the counter revolutionary White Army in Russia fighting against the Bolshevik Red Army. The ship put into the port of Archangel in June of 1919 and was sent up the River Dvina to help the Russian counter-revolutionary forces. The ship took a number of hits from Bolshevik guns but survived without any crew member losing his life. This ship’s lucky status remaining intact.

Whilst the ship tried to return back to Archangel from the River Dvina adventure she ran aground and had to wait for the tied to rise her again. The Captain had the forward and aft guns removed to lighten the load. These were taken over land and rendezvoused with the M.33 further up river. This allowed the ship not to drag along the bottom of the shallower part of the River Dvina. Our museum ship guide said it was a very dangerous thing to do, because it left the ship in a vulnerable situation until it could take the guns back aboard, further up river. It could have led to a court martial. I don’t think it did, but there must have been some sort of enquiry.

When the HMS M.33 returned to Britain it remained in dock. In 1925 it was renamed HMS Minerva and became a mine laying training ship.

As I walked about M.33 , the inside was dismal looking within the hull section. Some of the panels were cut away so we could see into quarters. Above deck structure the cramped rooms had more light. The ship reminded me of the vessel in the American Movie starring Steve McQueen (Sand Pebbles) This movie story was set in revolutionary China of 1925. If one has seen this film, you’ll get an idea of what HMS M.33 was like.

There were recordings of orderlies and sailors chatting, as I walked through the companionways. It allowed a feeling of being in the past and being among the ghosts of the ship’s former crew. There was also a nine minute news reel projected on the hull. In one dark part of the vessel’s hold.

As I went to the forward gun, the guide opened the breech and told me that the floor plates of the deck had to be strengthened because the guns buckled them when first firing in 1915. I had to laugh because the forward gun was in the small dry dock and it was pointing straight at HMS Victory’s top deck. I’m sure it would have blown a sizable hull in the old man o war if it was loaded.


Aboard ship, there would have been various sailors, marines, engineers, officers etc. Also among the 70 plus crew was a cat and dog.










I've always had a feeling for these smaller coastal vessels. They could go up river too.




As I approached the stern of the ship, two guides greeted me and told me about the M33 adventure during WWI.  


Forward gun pointing at HMS Victory - oops!


Guide showing us the breech and telling us about how the managed to salvage two guns for renovation.

Aft gun was brought in from a simular ship sold to Chile in 1918. Long since scrapped the monitor's gun was mounted on shore defence in Chile. 

There were two smaller guns mounted fore and aft upon the open stucture of the M33.  The guide said there were also Maxim machine guns along the port and starboard sections of the bulwark.


Upper decking where officers of watch were
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