In the centenary of the First World War, only a handful of warships from that conflict survive. Even fewer are open to the public. One vessel that can be visited, and later this year will be opened fully, is the Monitor M33. This small vessel is a veteran of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and served in the Mediterranean for much of the war. Later she took part in the British support for the White forces in the Russian civil war. She was converted to a coastal minelayer in the 1920s, then served as a tender to the torpedo and mining school Vernon, and later as a floating workshop. She was sold for preservation in 1987, and work has taken place on and off, since then to restore her fully at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy is currently running a crowdfunding scheme to raise the resources needed to complete M33’s restoration and allow this fascinating vessel to be opened to the public for the first time. Click here for details.
M33 may not be one of the fleet of dreadnoughts that characterised Britain’s naval power in the First World War, but she is no less historically significant for that. M33 was conceived shortly after the outbreak of WW1, after three river gunboats built for Brazil but pressed into RN service showed their value as shore bombardment vessels off the Belgian coast in late 1914. These craft, known collectively as monitors after the US Civil War ironclad, were designed for shallow waters and proved highly useful for supporting amphibious operations. At the same time, they were much cheaper and, to put it bluntly, more dispensible than seagoing vessels. M33 was ordered in March 1915 as part of a series of craft to make use of a number of 6 in guns that had just become available. The new super-dreadnought Queen Elizabeth-class were to be fitted with four fewer guns than designed as some of the mountings were too close to the waterline to use in any sort of sea. Therefore, a new class of monitor was hurriedly designed by young Admiralty constructor Charles Lillicrap to make use of the supply of 45-calibre Mk.XII guns and their Mk IX pedestal mounting. M33 was to be built at Harland and Wolff, but the work was passed to the nearby Workman Clark shipyard.
So rapidly did the design process take place that some serious errors in the weight and displacement calculations were evidently made which, with the typical RN tendency to add ever-greater equipment and stores after the design process has finished, meant that the new monitors drew nearly two feet more than the planned 4 feet. This gave M33 steering problems, poor speed, and a tendency to be extremely wet in any kind of sea. M33 commissioned in June, a mere three months after being ordered, and soon left Belfast for the Dardanelles, where for two months, Allied forces had been trying to force a passage to the Black Sea to knock Turkey out of the war.
M33 fired her first shots in anger on 2 August 1915, at the village of Yeni Shehr, described as ‘extraordinary indifferent shooting’ by the commander of the East Mediterranean Squadron, Vice Admiral de Robeck. Subsequently, M33 was stationed off the territory held by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and named simnply ‘Anzac’. M33’s post was generally on the right flank of Anzac, her role being to engage any Turkish artillery that began firing on the troops. M33’s shooting generally caused the Turkish batteries to cease firing as their crews were forced to take cover. When the Dardanelles campaign ended, M33 was redeployed to support the campaign against Bulgaria. At Stavros on 8 February she came under heavy attack by enemy aircraft, but, despite bombs falling all around, no hits were received. In April, the crew were to have revenge of sorts, joining the firing against a Zeppelin that was attempting to bomb Salonika, which was brought down and destroyed by the ships’ gunfire.
It was M33’s turn to be supported by aircraft next, when she was dispatched to aid the blockade of Port Iero at the entrance to the Gulf of Smyrna. M33 bombarded enemy artillery batteries, acting on observation performed by Royal Naval Air Service aircraft. Later, she managed to drive off an enemy aircraft that had attacked the Henri Farman biplane spotting for her guns. M33 had a lucky escape in July 1916 when a new battery opened up when she was just 6,000 yards from the shore. She was able to withdraw without a single hit being scored, returning fire all the while with her aft 6 in gun, and possibly taking out some of the enemy guns for good measure. Later in the campaign, the Turks began to bring longer-range artillery closer to the shore meaning that M33 could not get close enough to perform useful bombardment. In August 1918 she enjoyed something of a ‘last hurrah’ at Stavros, firing 50 rounds at enemy positions in company with the larger 14 in monitor HMS Abercrombie.
After WW1 ended, there was still a use for monitors such as the M33, which recommissioned in May 1919 at Chatham before departing for Murmansk. During the Russian Civil War M33 fired on shore batteries and Bolshevik gunboats up the River Dvina. In Russia, the charmed life that had marked her earlier service ran out, and she sustained several hits from enemy artillery including one large shell which wrecked the wardroom. However, no-one was hurt and the only casualty was the ship’s cat which received burned tail. M33’s reputation as a lucky ship therefore held, but the White cause appeared to be lost early on, and much of M33’s work was in supporting withdrawals, including the final withdrawal of British forces from Russia in September.
Given that M33 was built as an almost ‘throwaway’ vessel, her survival is remarkable. As with so many former warships that survive to this day, she owes her luck to unglamorous second-line duties. She performed useful duties training crews in mine warfare until the rearmament programme of the late 1930s rendered her surplus to requirements. She was offered for sale in 1939, but mercifully remained in RN ownership until new duties were found in WW2, as an office for Wrens, and then as a floating boom-defence workshop. She was finally laid up in 1984, and came to her current home, No.1 Dry Dock, Portsmouth Dockyard, in 1997.
Source: Buxton, Ian, ‘His Majesty’s Monitor M33, 1915-2001’, Hampshire County Council 2001