Built in 1915 at the request of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Lord Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, after the successful performances of large river monitors, or ‘gunboats’ off the Belgian coast during the early stages of the war. The M33 is one of only two British warships to have survived from the Great War of 1914-18.
As part of a major shipbuilding effort undertaken at the time, a fleet of shallow drafted coastal bombardment vessels, known as ‘monitors’, the M33 was ordered from Harland and Wolff in Belfast, who subsequently constructed it at the neighbouring shipyard of Workman Clark Limited.
With a total of 35 similar vessels ordered, and varying in size from the 8,000 ton Erebus armed with 15 inch guns, to the likes of the 580 ton M33 with six-inch guns, the speed at which these vessels were built was a considerable achievement. Ordered on March 15, 1915, the M33 was one of a group of five other monitors to be fitted with twin six-inch guns. She was launched in late May and accepted into service on the 24th June.
Returning to England for a refit, she was re-commissioned in May and placed under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mitchell, who was then ordered to steam to Northern Russia along with five other monitors to join the British Relief Force in Murmansk, and cover the withdraw of Allied and White Russian forces in what was to become known as the Dvina river campaign.
Arriving in Archangel in early June, she sailed upriver and engaged Bolshevic positions at Seltso and Selemengo Wood, these bombardments continued into August enabling the Allied forces to make an orderly retreat. Throughout the campaign the river depth was unusually low, and when the order to return to Archangel came at the end of August she had her guns loaded onto barges. Being one of the last to leave, she had dummy guns made from driftwood, pipes and biscuit tins to fool the enemy.
Fully re-stocked and re-armed with her six inch guns, she returned upriver on the 23rd September to Spaskoe to assist in the evacuation of the remaining 500 British Troops. Suitably regrouped, the Relief Force started for home with the M33 being one of the last of the monitors to leave. She safely reached Chatham on the 17th October, having received only minor damage during the entire campaign.
Of the six monitors that participated in the Dvina river campaign, only two were lost, the M25 and M27, after running aground because of their deeper draft, and having to be scuttled.
Following her successful return from Russia, the M33 became a tender. Five years passed before she became part of the reserve fleet at Chatham, and in 1925 she was converted into a mine-laying training ship and based at HMS Vernon, in Portsmouth. At this time she was renamed HMS Minerva.
In 1939 she was used in Portsmouth for a variety of purposes including being used as a fuelling hulk, she was finally hulked the following year.
Converted into a boom defence workshop in 1943, she was towed to the Clyde a year later to become part of the boom defences for the remainder of the war.
HMS Minerva was returned to the Royal Clarence Yard in Gosport in 1946. She became a floating workshop and office servicing local auxiliary craft, where she was once more renamed the RMAS Minerva – Hulk C23. Here she remained until 1984, when she was put up for sale.
In 1987 she was purchased by the Hartlepool Ship Preservation Trust, and was transported to Hartlepool for restoration. In the event, only the funnel was restored, and in 1990 she was sold to Hampshire County Council, who had her berthed in her present location in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, in the shadow of the Royal Navy Museum and next to Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory.
In 1995 the decision was made to transfer the restoration from the RN Museum to the Hampshire County Council Museums Service, to return the ship to its external appearance in 1915. New masts were constructed by Merseyside Maritime Museum in July.
On April 23, 1997, she was placed in dry dock for extensive works to stabilise hull corrosion. Many original features, removed during her long service, are now being replaced or faithfully reconstructed to restore her external appearance. She remains in the historic No.1 of H.M. Naval base at Portsmouth to this day, where the final design process is well under way.