Preserving our Great War heritage

Nic Hewitt and one of two restored guns on the ship.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (150377-6)
Nic Hewitt and one of two restored guns on the ship.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (150377-6)
  • Ship that served at Gallipoli is restored
  • M33 to be unveiled at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
  • Work completed in time for 100th anniversary of campaign
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She’s daubed in dazzle paint, bears a pair of brawny guns and if her iron walls could talk, what stories they would tell.

A century after firing many a shot in anger off the Gallipoli shores, HMS M33 will soon be unveiled, fully restored in all her glory.

‘The history of the ship is written on its steel,’ says Nick Hewitt, strategic development executive at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.

‘There are all different layers of paint and different areas where work has been done on the ship over the years. When you see archive footage of that it looks amazing.’

Nick, 47, (pictured above) is one of dozens of people involved in a painstaking labour of love to turn the Monitor-class ship into the dockyard’s newest centrepiece.

The M33 restoration is a long-held dream come true for many at the Historic Dockyard, who yearned for a ship that could tell something of the navy’s 20th century history.

She will fill a missing chapter in the story of the Royal Navy, which starts with Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, leads to Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory and continues with the Victorian HMS Warrior.

M33 is one of three surviving British ships from the First World War and the only vessel left to have taken part in the Gallipoli campaign.

And unlike many ships which escaped the conflict more-or-less away from danger, M33 was often called upon to bare her teeth.

‘We’re lucky enough to have a ship from the First World War, but to have one that actually went into battle and had such a distinguished service record is incredibly lucky,’ says Nick.

We’re lucky enough to have a ship from the First World War, but to have one that actually went into battle and had such a distinguished service record is incredibly lucky

Nick Hewitt

At 54m long and with a top speed of barely 10 knots, she was never intended to rule the waves.

M33 was, as Nick explains, a monitor-class gun ship and made with one purpose in mind.

‘When we think of the navy we think of magnificent, big battleships and fast destroyers, but this was a simple ship made to do a job,’ he says.

‘She’s not really capable of fighting a naval battle against another ship, but she’s got a very shallow draught and flat bottom so she can get close in to shore.

‘Her guns were there to provide the kind of artillery support that the army at Gallipoli wasn’t getting, because all the big guns were going to France and Flanders.’

The restoration started about six months ago thanks to a £1.8m Heritage Lottery Fund grant. It was up to the National Museum of the Royal Navy and its partners at Hampshire County Council to raise the rest of the cash needed for the £2.4m project.

Three teams soon set to work cleaning, scraping, painting and transforming M33 into a world-class attraction set to open to the public in August.

While one group is restoring the ship itself, another is working on the sunken dock where she sits.

A third team, made up of volunteers from the Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower in Gosport, is at work restoring M33’s raison d’être, her two six-inch deck guns.

Later another team will start work on fitting out the ship and and turning her into a museum.

Deciding just how to restore M33, says Nick, has proved a challenge in itself.

‘There were some interesting curatorial decisions to be made, because she’s a shell,’ he says.

‘She’s hugely intact externally but there’s nothing really inside her.

‘There are no engines or boilers in there and there haven’t been since before the Second World War.

‘If we were to put anything in those spaces we’d be making a pastiche.

‘After quite a lot of consideration we took the decision that that was not what we wanted to do because there are other places where you can go and see that.’

Instead, plans were made to turn the engine room into an audio-visual theatre, where visitors can learn the ship’s story through a film projected directly on to the fabric of the ship. Nick says other parts of M33 will be restored to their original condition to give people a feel for what life was like for her 87 crew members.

‘There are parts of the ship including the officers’ accommodation and the crew’s mess deck where there is rather more of the original fabric left.

‘Those are the areas that we’re going to restore so people will be able to see how the men lived and worked on board.

‘It’s been a case of looking at each individual bit of the ship and working out what the most appropriate thing to do is.’

After the First World War, M33 was sent to northern Russia to take part in an international attempt to defeat the Bolsheviks. But after a few scratches and scrapes, she made it home.

‘She was a lucky ship,’ Nick says.

At a glance

Where: M33 is at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, next to HMS Victory.

When: The ship will be opened to the public in August and be a focus for national commemorations of the centenary of Gallipoli campaign. A Gallipoli: Myth and Memory exhibition at the dockyard will open on March 28.

Web: Learn more about the conservation project at and the history of the ship at

Donate: The museum wants to raise £19,150 through a crowdfunding campaign as part of its pledge to put £250,000 towards the project. You can donate online at

The Gallipoli story revisited

Myth and emotion often cloud dispassionate history where war is concerned, and this is perhaps particularly true in the story of Gallipoli.

An upcoming exhibition to take place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at the Historic Dockyard will take a fresh look at the First World War campaign.

Gallipoli: Myth and Memory will throw a spotlight on the role the Royal Navy played in the campaign.

Nick says: ‘The popular image of Gallipoli is a land battle, perhaps fought by Australians, because that’s the way it is in the Peter Weir film.

‘We’re not trying to take that away but we think that the navy’s contribution has been hugely overlooked.’

As Nick explains, Gallipoli was originally a naval push to open up a second front in the war against Germany and its Ottoman ally.

‘What they initially try to do is capture the Dardanelles with a force of old battleships,’ he says.

‘They think they can rush them, suppress the forts, sweep the mines and get through

the threat.

‘This process kind of works all right in the beginning, but on March 18, 1915 they have a complete disaster with the Turks who had laid additional mines secretly. They push through the Dardanelles and three British ships are lost to mines.

‘That’s the point where they realise they are going to have to land an army on the peninsula as well to help to clear up the mine fields and the batteries of guns.

‘But it all bogs down on land and becomes a trench warfare campaign, very much like what was going on in Flanders, ironically, because Gallipoli was supposed to be a way around that.

‘Churchill described it as a way of stopping sending men over to chew barbed wire in France, but they actually ended up chewing barbed wire in Gallipoli.’

The exhibition will run from the end of March until January 31 next year. There will be a preview and lecture evening on Wednesday, March 25 from 6.15pm to 9.15pm featuring guest speaker Peter Hart. Tickets are £40, call (023) 92891 373 to book.