A plucky little ship that defended Anzac troops 100 years ago is dazzling visitors at the Royal Navy Museum, says Geoff Cumming.

For New Zealand and Australian troops pinned down at Anzac Cove 100 years ago, the arrival of M33, a new type of Royal Navy gunboat, must have seemed a godsend.

Equipped with two powerful six-inch guns, HMS M33 was one of the first "Monitor" class vessels the British hurriedly built for the ill-starred Gallipoli campaign. The small, shallow-draft Monitors could get in closer than traditional warships to blast Turkish positions, providing some relief for the hemmed-in British and Anzac troops. M33 (literally) rolled into Anzac Cove in early August, 1915.

Rescued from the scrapheap, it has been painstakingly restored at the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth and was opened to the public last year as part of Britain's World War I commemorations. It is the only surviving Gallipoli ship, one of only two Royal Navy survivors of the war - and the only one on public display.

The little ship that could, resplendent in its original "dazzle" paint, now sits in a historic dry dock with its for'ard gun pointing straight at HMS Victory, long the star attraction at the quite brilliant Royal Navy Museum.

A lifering bouy on the restored HMS M33 Minerva in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard. Photo / Getty Images
A lifering bouy on the restored HMS M33 Minerva in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard. Photo / Getty Images

That the M33 is still around, let alone as an authentic attraction of special resonance to New Zealanders, is a remarkable story. The Monitors were built in a matter of weeks in Belfast and dispatched to Gallipoli after hurried commissioning (so quick, they weren't even given a name). They were seen as expendable - saving more expensive battleships from the perils of the Dardanelles - and design errors meant they would roll horribly when their oversize guns fired.

They were tin cans really. Some of the crew slept in berths mounted above the propellers, and the overwhelming impression is how uncomfortable life would have been for the 72 on board.

Records show that M33 was stationed off Anzac Cove from early August 1915, "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." But its first shots in anger, fired on August 2 before reaching Anzac Cove, were described as "extraordinary indifferent shooting" by the commander of the East Mediterranean Squadron, Vice-Admiral de Robeck.

With a top speed of 9 knots, M33 was known as a lucky ship, the Royal Navy Museum's Bryan Martin told me on a tour of inspection. It was hit - at Gallipoli and in post-war action against the Bolsheviks in north Russia - but there were never any fatalities on board. Martin points out a steel plate repair where a shell tore through the ship's side, near the main mess, but didn't explode.

In the 1920s, M33 was converted to a minelayer and given a name, Minerva. In World War II it was towed to the Clyde to serve as a workshop for vessels laying anti-submarine nets. It later became a tender for the Navy's submarine training school at Portsmouth.

By the time the Hampshire County Council bought it for preservation, it was starting to sink - stripped of its engines and just about everything else. "She was the biggest rustbucket in the world," Martin says.

When I visited more than a year ago, though the external hull restoration was complete, the prospect of M33 being ready to open as a visitor attraction in time for the centenary seemed extremely remote.

The insides were bare; there was little sense of the ship's original configuration and no money to finish the job. But a big fundraising push, including crowdfunding, has completed a remarkable transformation. Visitors use a lift to descend 6m into the drydock before entering the ship through its hull.

Inside, interpretive displays including an "immersive battle experience" await, including first-hand accounts of crew members and historic footage from Gallipoli.

It is not known if M33 was involved in the evacuation of Anzac troops - the museum would welcome any further information from descendants of Gallipoli veterans.

Portsmouth bound

Attractions including the spinnaker-shaped Millennium Tower and the old port area undergoing rejuvenation, make the harbour town a great day trip from London and the train drops you on the waterfront. It's a short walk to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where M33 sits in a drydock within the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. Key attractions include:

HMS Victory

The magnificently preserved flagship of Lord Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar is open for inspection. Walk the upper deck and several other levels, including the spot where Nelson was killed early in the battle, and it's easy to imagine what life was like in action.

Mary Rose

A space-age, atmospherically sealed dome houses the remnants of the Mary Rose, retrieved from Portsmouth Harbour after 437 years underwater.

Built in 1510 for King Henry VIII, the Mary Rose sank during the Battle of the Solent in 1545. The wreck was discovered in 1836 and guns and artefacts salvaged, but the vessel was left on the seafloor until the effort to raise her began in 1971. It took 11 years to life the remains and another four to dry them out. What is left is a longitudinal cross-section of the hull. Each viewing level is in line with the warped decks of the hull and, on the viewing decks, restorers have replicated each level and added artefacts to give an impression of life on board.

Royal Navy Museum

The museum houses an extensive collection of memorabilia and uses audio-visual and interactive displays to tell first-hand stories of naval life in wartime. The current exhibition, Gallipoli: Myth and Memory, tells the maritime side of the campaign, which resulted in more than 200,000 Allied casualties.

Submarine Museum

A short boat ride across Portsmouth Harbour is the Royal Navy Submarine Museum where the star attraction is HMS Alliance, a World War II-era submarine opened as an attraction last year after a 7 million ($15.8 million) restoration. The guided tour is a hoot, with mock-ups in the galley showcasing the awful food, sounds of snoring emanating from bunk rooms and engine room vibrations to simulate the pistons.



Cathay Pacific flies twice daily from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong. They presently have a special deal for Economy Class return fares to Heathrow from $2139 and Gatwick from $2069. cathaypacific.co.nz