Sunday, 16 April 2017

Portsmouth 2017 The Historic Dockyard

The White Ensign flies high and proud from the stern of HMS Victory
This series of posts from our trip to Portsmouth this year follows on from last year's visit and includes the post about the Mary Rose.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 2016
Portsmouth 2017 - Mary Rose

It really isn't an understatement to say that there is an incredible amount to see when visiting Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and I would defy anybody to do it justice within one day, that's how much stuff there is to see.

The fact that there is so much history on display truly reflects the long history of the Royal Navy and Britain's heritage as a major sea power throughout the centuries.

When sitting down to think about how to theme my various posts about our visit I ended up with a collection of pictures that not only reflected my trigger happy finger as I flitted from one eye-catching exhibit to another, but the extraordinary range of exhibits across the historical record of naval warfare.

So this post will attempt to give you an impression of all the other stuff that I couldn't include in a theme of their own.

HMS Victory's carronades - now that's what you call a 'big gun'
On stepping out from the Mary Rose exhibition we headed for HMS Victory still in a state of major repair work following the discovery of a major warping and bulging of her very old timbers that has required work to brace the old girl and relieve her of as much top heavy structures as possible.

Thus many of the guns on board are now light weight replicas, together with new light weight masts still awaiting new rigging to complete her look. This explains why I have not shown any external shots of this proud old lady as I think they do not do her justice in her present state of repair work.

I took some time presenting Victory in my post from last year, but Tom was away on his travels at the time and so we paid a second visit for his benefit and I decided to take some close ups of those parts of the ship that as a modeller and naval history fan am inclined to pay special attention to.

Thus the layout and rigging of the forecastle 68lbr carronades or 'ship smashers' drew my attention when touring the upper deck. True size replicas, they really capture the awesome power that these stubby short barrelled mega-guns could deliver especially when turned on enemy decks to clear them of potential boarding parties and sniping marines.


As a modeller of wargame ships I am always interested in seeing how standing rigging is positioned and anchored on these big old ships and I took these pictures of Victory's standing rigging for her main mast as much as for reference as for the appeal of the neat lines they create.

The nets for stowing hammocks when the ship was cleared for action shows how well they would have added to the protection to those on deck and should anyone make it beyond the anti-boarding nets, those belaying pins come in very handy as ready made truncheons.

At some stage I rather fancy a 'Brown Bess' to grace the wall of the game room and it was a good job these crates of muskets and bayonets were securely fixed, although I am not sure if you could easily get one under your jacket.

Not all the guns on Victory are replicas and it is easy to spot the real thing, confirmed with an unforgiving solid feel when gently tapped. One or two of them are Trafalgar veterans although the decks they rest on were replaced in 1812.

The footing for the bowsprit and the curve of the timbers of the bow are captured in the pictures below, with ports close by to accommodate bow chasing guns should the need occur.

And finally an area of the ship that always reminds me of my early school days when studying the Trafalgar battle for the first time and getting over the shock of hearing that the hero of the hour fell in the moment of his and the nations greatest victory at sea.

The plaque in the cockpit of HMS Victory marks where Lord Nelson was laid and subsequently died and is recognisable to most Brits over the age of forty, but I wonder whether foreign tourists and younger generations not benefiting from a traditional education are aware of its significance given there were no signs around to alert the uninitiated visitor.

My favourite quote relating the long period of Nelson's dying moments and Captain Hardy's reports to his Admiral on the progress of the battle describes one of the last exchanges between the two men:

" Almost an hour after his previous visit Captain Hardy was again able to come down to the now crowded cockpit for a second time. Clasping Nelson's hand, he congratulated him 'even in the arms of death on his brilliant victory which was complete, though he did not know how many of the enemy were captured, as it was impossible to see every ship distinctly'. 'However,' he added, 'I am certain of fourteen or fifteen surrendered'.
'That is well,' answered Nelson, 'but I had bargained for twenty.'

HMS M33 - M29 Class Monitor


Right next door to HMS Victory lies an example of the kind of ships needed to help project a naval power's influence on to the shore or as what is known as 'gun-boat diplomacy'

From the age of sail period the Royal Navy in support of land forces developed specialised ships with shallow draughts and large mortars, known as 'bomb ships'. Usually small vessels mounting a large mortar centrally amid ships with spaced masts to allow the gun to be swivelled in a 360' arc these ships could get in close to shore and lob large explosive shells into defended built up areas.

Nicholas Pococks fine picture of the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801 illustrates the bomb ships close to the front of the picture at anchor with smoke rising from amidships as their mortars fire over the ships of the line into the city beyond.

Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - Nicholas Pocock
HMS M33 was built in 1915 to meet the demands for close in shore bombardment vessels in WWI and was the 20th century evolution of the old bomb ship.

HMS M33 pictured in 1916 during the Dardanelles Campaign - IWM
Like her predecessors this ship was built around a flat bottom shallow draught hull which meant her sea keeping abilities were not what any self respecting land-lubber like me would want to set out across the briny on.

So in a large swell this thing would tend to bob about and indeed when on passage to where ever her peculiar skills were required she was usually towed into theatre.

Also like the old bomb ships, monitors like M33 were designed to facilitate the firing of a big gun, which in 1915 meant a 6 inch (152mm) Mk XII main gun mounted forward.

HMS Roberts

A 6 inch doesn't sound like much of a shore bombardment gun when you consider the capabilities of monitors like HMS Roberts with her twin 15 inch guns used in WWII, but a 6 inch gun used close in for pin-point accuracy could really mess up your day.

I remember touring the German D-Day gun battery at Longues sur Mer battery where the emplaced guns got into a duel with the cruisers Ajax and Argonaut who, close in, managed to place their 6 inch shells straight through the gun armour and front embrasures.

Similarly I toured a German gun bunker complex near to Utah beach where the USS Texas performed a similar feat and you could see the passage of the 14 inch shell as it ripped up the gun mount and passed through hitting the rear reinforced concrete wall before exploding among the gun crew - nasty.

Longues sur Mer battery

The magazine for the 6 inch up top
M33 didn't have to wait long before her first taste of action as she was ordered to join the naval task force sent to force the passage of the Dardanelles and later to support the allied troops ashore as Turkish resistance proved more capable than anticipated.

The one thing that strikes the modern observer of this ship is that for a vessel designed to get 'up close and personal' with the enemy she has very little in the way of armour protection. In fact I have seen cross-channel car ferries with more armour than this little ship. The passage ports through the hull and upper works reveal paper thin steel sides and upper works which must have given her crew a few sleepless nights.

The upper-works, deck and hull are not heavily armoured
Fortunately for the crew of the M33 it turned out that this little ship was a lucky one and none of her human cargo suffered any mishap during her tour of action in 1916.

The 'business end' of HMS M33 with her single 6 inch gun and a modicum of protection for her crew with an open backed armoured shield

A range of 6 inch ordnance on display behind the gun

Tom and Will check out the firing mechanism - 'what do you think happens if I pull this?'

You wake up, peer out the port hole and see a Turkish gun emplacement pointing straight at your bunk!

The bridge on a modern warship in 1915 was full of the gadgets any 20th century man of war would need, nothing like HMS Victory!

Like I said a bridge full of high tech. gadgets - Pass me the sexton

Ah a slight concession to modern naval warfare, a wireless.
This site gave me a warm feeling as my old Grandpa used to work for Marconi
It was great to see another old lady from WWI has been preserved for the nation. My only wish would be to see her in the colour scheme she wore in 1916 rather than the dazzle look.

On our visit last year I pictured the fast boats tied up close to the big boat house where restoration work on some of the smaller historical vessels is carried out. We were busy last year checking out HMS Warrior seen in the background of Motor Gunboat 81 pictured below.

A beautifully restored MGB 81 with HMS Warrior in the background
MGB 81 was commissioned and accepted into service in 1942 with her primary task to intercept and attack enemy torpedo craft in the English Channel.

She was based down in Devon at Dartmouth, attacking five German E-boats on the 21st/22nd April 1944 in Lyme Bay, engaging two at close range and suffering damage herself.

She took part in the D-Day operations between the 6th to the 30th of June 1944, later transferring to Gosport with her flotilla.

Overnight on the 23rd/24th June 1944 she attacked a German convoy leaving Cherbourg.

Known as the 'Spitfires of the Sea', these small fast vessels were originally equipped with three Hewlett-Packard built Rolls Royce Merlin engines giving a maximum speed of 45 knots, but with just a mahogany hull and 3,000 gallons of aviation fuel aboard had to rely on that speed and the cover of darkness for protection.

Saved from scrapping in late 1945 and later taking part in an illegal smuggling operation in the 1950's, MGB 81 was restored and saved for the nation in 1988 and thanks to funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to Portsmouth Naval Base Property is on permanent display and available for charter.

World War One has been very much in the nations consciousness over the last three years with the centenary commemorations happening since 1914 through to the present.

The British tend to remember WWI for the carnage experienced in the trenches in Flanders with every village, town and city having a memorial recording the names of local people who served and didn't come home.

Curiously, for a great naval power it is not the fact that WWI was effectively won on the 31st May/1st June 1916 at Jutland where, in spite of a tactical defeat, at best draw, the nation won a strategic victory that condemned the German nation to starvation through blockade and revolution from within, that destroyed their will to wage war.

No we, the nation, prefer to focus on our greatest tragedy and the fact that over 57,000 men were made casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916.

So it was great to see the Naval aspect of WWI commemorated at the spiritual home of the Royal Navy with some great exhibits capturing the events of 1916 and the climax of Jutland.

The display is dominated by an imposing portrait of Admiral Reinhard Scheer commander of the German High Seas Fleet, the man who managed to salvage his ships from disaster when he got his 'T' crossed at Jutland by Admiral John Jellicoe leading the Home Fleet.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer commander of the German High Seas Fleet in WWI
I am always wary of adopting the position of an armchair admiral/general when it is so easy to judge the efforts of men placed in supreme command, with the fates of nations and history hanging on judgements often having to be made in seconds and at best minutes, not to mention the thousands of lives placed in their hands.

That said I can't help thinking that it was German ship-building, training and tremendous courage displayed by the common sailor that salvaged the German navy in 1916 rather than any inspired leadership from the top. In fact for me WWI is the classic period of uninspired leadership from the top across all nations and it was in general the poor bloody infantry or in this case sailors who had to make up, often at the cost of their lives, for their commanders inadequacies.

This feeling about the period in general probably explains why I have only wargamed it slightly, having had collections of WWI naval ships and aircraft, but only played land scenarios with other peoples collections and rule sets.

The ensign from the British battleship - HMS Bellerophon
There are very few warships that survive from the Jutland period, with HMS Caroline, a British light cruiser that fought in the battle, thankfully now under full restoration.

British naval power reached its zenith at this time and I, as someone who will never see the splendour of a British battleship, can only get an impression of these great ships from pictures and items such as the ensign from HMS Bellerophon

HMS Bellerophon, with her huge ensign displayed astern
HMS Bellerophon (1907)

Likewise the many smaller ships in the destroyer flotillas that escorted the great battleships are captured with the ensign of HMS Obedient an M Class destroyer which was with the 12th Destroyer Flotilla at Jutland

HMCS Patriot was an M Class Destroyer similar to HMS Obedient

The ensign of another Jutland veteran - HMS Obedient
HMS Queen Mary was one of three British battlecruisers lost at Jutland, the others being HMS Invincible and HMS Indefatigable, prompting the commander of the Battlecruiser squadron, Vice Admiral David Beatty aboard his flagship HMS Lion to remark to his Flag Captain,
"there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today".

The superb model below shows a Lion Class Battlecruiser, nicknamed "the splendid cats", to describe the marked improvement in speed and armour over the previous Indefatigable class; the three 'cats' being HMS Lion, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Princess Royal.

A model of  one of the  'Splendid Cats' or Lion Class Battlecruisers
Both Lion and Queen Mary were at Jutland and the Lion herself narrowly missed sharing the fate of her sister ship when the roof of Q Turret, positioned amidships between the funnels, was blown off by a 12"shell from SMS Lutzow, killing or wounding the entire gun crew and causing a huge turret fire that buckled the doors to the magazine. The ship was saved by the prompt action of Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey who ordered the turret magazine flooded, an act that prevented a catastrophic explosion and saw Major Harvey awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Damage to HMS Lion's 'Q' Turret with its armoured roof blown off after the Battle of Jutland
HMS Queen Mary was less fortunate when, later, the Lutzow adjusted her fire on to the British ship, having lost sight of the Lion in the smoke and haze and, hitting her several times at a range of about 14,400 yards, caused the forward magazine to explode. The ship broke in two taking 1,266 crew with her, leaving just eighteen survivors to be picked up by British destroyers and German warships.

British battleships used letters to identify the turrets, with A and B forward and X and Y to the rear and Q in the centre

HMS Lion left surrounded by shell splashes as her sister ship HMS Queen Mary explodes
Below is a fine model of HMS Queen Mary's nemesis at Jutland, SMS Lutzow, the flagship of Beatty's German opposite, Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper.


The Lutzow would herself pay a heavy price for her gun duel with the British battlecruisers suffering eight hits forward from HMS Invincible causing the German battlecruiser to flood forward from two hits below the waterline.

Battlecruiser SMS Lutzow, Vice Admiral Hipper's flagship at the Battle of Jutland 
The German ship was subsequently hit twice by HMS Lion causing a serious fire. The damage was serious enough to cause Hipper to abandon his flagship as it attempted to disengage not before suffering yet more large calibre hits from British gunfire.

The run back to port proved unsuccessful as the ship's bow settled lower and lower in the water and the pumps failed to cope with the flooding causing the ship to be abandoned and later torpedoed by accompanying destroyers. Lutzow had been hit by 24 British heavy calibre shells and lost 115 men killed and 50 wounded from her compliment of 1100 men.

The bow of the German ship took the brunt of British hits leading to its eventual sinking
Next up is a 'builders model' of the only surviving ship from Jutland, the light cruiser HMS Caroline moored at Belfast and part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy since 2014. This ship is definitely on my 'must visit' list and I am really looking forward to seeing her some time.

Builders Model of the only surviving ship from Jutland - HMS Caroline
"Guns were hurling 15" shells into the opposing fleets with roars and flashes, as if scores of thunderstorms had met and got angry. The sea, which before had been calm, became churned into waves and foam, this being caused by the speed and movements of scores of ships of all sizes."
Officers' Steward 2nd Class Albion Smith, HMS Caroline

And finally, perhaps the most poignant display in the whole dockyard is the bell of the last great British Battlecruiser HMS Hood, lost on the 24th May 1941 at the Battle of the Denmark Strait when, in company with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the two ships met and engaged the German battleship KMS Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen as they attempted to break out into the Atlantic to attack allied shipping.

The last moments of HMS Hood photographed from the deck of the German Bismarck
The Hood achieved immortality through her dramatic loss and fired a Royal Navy at the time for a thirsting revenge that would see the Bismarck 'put down' three days later following a famous hunt and destroy mission.

Of her 1,418 man crew, there were only three survivors and my personal memories of this great ship were as a young boy in my home town having just bought an Airfix model of the Hood which I was clutching as I walked into a nearby sweet shop to buy something to accompany my new model. The lady who served me saw my prize, remarking to my parents that she had lost her son aboard the Hood some twenty five years previously, a memory I find quite moving today.

The Battlecruiser experiment proved a false one in imagining the combination of speed at the expense of armour, particularly on the upper decks to act as proof against plunging high explosive large calibre shells, would allow these ships to tackle bigger better protected battleships. The losses of HMS Indefatigable, Invincible, Queen Mary and the Hood were a terrible price in young mens lives to discover this truth.

The majestic HMS Hood seen in 1924 and described at the time as the most beautiful ship in the Royal Navy
That said I think the quote that accompanied the Hood's bell is a worthy testament to the bravery and sacrifice of the crews lost

"There is no headstone among the flowers for those who perish at sea. For the 1,415 officers and men who lost their lives in HMS Hood on 24 May 1941, the recovery of her bell and its subsequent place of honour in the National Museum of the Royal Navy will mean that future generations will be able to gaze upon her bell and remember with gratitude and thanks the heroism, courage and personal sacrifice of Hood's ships company who died in the service of their country.
Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, Former president of the HMS Hood Association, whose uncle died on the ship.

One of two ships bells, this one recovered from the wreck of HMS Hood
Finally we ended our first day at Portsmouth with a look around the the boat repair and restoration shed that had some remarkable small boats on display.

The first "wreck" that drew my eye was what looked like the remains of an LCM 3 landing craft in desperate need of some TLC.

Is that an LCM 3?

The next two small boats are what young boys brought up in the 1970's on a diet of 'Commando' paperback WWII story books will be very familiar with.

These Mark 7 and Mark 2 Canoes are the same type of boats used in the famous 'Cockleshell' raids against German merchant runners docked in Bordeaux, Operation Frankton, which saw Commandos using their boats to move among the enemy ships at night placing limpet mines against the ships hulls; and later Operation Jaywick an equally daring attack at Singapore performing a similar exercise against Japanese naval forces.

Operation Frankton

Operation Jaywick

So there we are a 'melange' of fascinating displays and exhibits that can be seen at Portsmouth that, when added to those covered in my two previous posts, shows what an extraordinary place to visit, the historic dockyard is and we thoroughly enjoyed our day, finished off by relaxing our tired feet with a well earned curry.

The next day we were off to explore a very famous castle and Roman fortress, before catching a boat from Portsmouth to Gosport, home of the Royal Navy's Submarine Museum, to be covered in a future post.


  1. Nice post, you can't cover the whole museum in one day it's a good thing your ticket is valid for a year! I was working within sight of HMS Caroline but never had free time to visit, she's up and running now .
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain, yes we soon realised that we would need to come back when we set out around the place last year and the fact that the Mary Rose was closed while it was being made ready in its new display hall.

      Shame you missed visiting HMS C. I think she has had a lot of TLC applied to her since they realised what an important ship she was.

  2. I think that you will find that the M33 had a 6 inch gun as well as a 6 pounder. One is 152mm and the other 57mm.

    1. I think you will find you are right - good spot. You type away glancing at your notes happily looking at six inch and fifteen inch references and then you drop in the odd 'pounder'!

      Thanks for the proof read and HMS M33 has been amended.

  3. The landing craft is "Foxtrot 8", an LCVP Mk.2 from HMS Fearless.

    1. Thanks Martin, it didn't quite look right for the old LCM

    2. No problems, I worked on her (or one of her sisters) back in 1983-84 when I was an Electrical Fitter Apprentice in Pompey Dockyard.
      Me and the missus went there last summer and I was appalled by the quality of wiring on boats and small craft nowadays!!