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Monitor Reborn

AN-MarsMonitorWhen the Defense Command Fleet moved against Mercury, Wolf, Lion and Cyclops were tasked with a special job. Depending on whether you asked Wes Pellew, Mik Mikaelsen, or Ken Barron himself, you’d get different historical comparisons for their task: it was either sinking the Belgrano, or challenging the Graf Spee. The latter was my favorite analogy, but either way, the problem was simple: the Martians had built monitors –– warships that weren’t terribly mobile, but were heavily-gunned for their size –– which needed to be isolated and destroyed, so that they couldn’t attack the landing fleet.

Now, I don’t think any Defense Command readers have been under the mistaken impression that I created the ‘monitor’ concept. I didn’t –– I’m not nearly smart enough. The history of the heavily-gunned small-warship platform is long, with the most familiar example probably coming during the American Civil War, when turreted, armor-clad ships defined the class. But the concept didn’t stop with the United States Navy; when the First World War arrived, the British had to begin a crash shipbuilding program –– to get as many hulls in the water as possible, as quickly as possible. The concept of strapping heavy guns to smaller hulls, to create shorter-range, shallow-water combatants just seemed to make sense.

Enter the M29-class; five of these ships were commissioned in 1915, all of them armed with 6-inch casemate turrets that were leftover from the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships. Now, 6-inch guns are not by themselves too dramatic (the Royal Navy also launched four Abercrombie-class monitors, each armed with 15-inch guns from decommissioned pre-Dreadnoughts), but as with most things, it’s a matter of perspective.

The M29 class.

At 170 feet long and just 31 feet wide, the M29s were smaller than a type of ship I’m frankly much more familiar with: the Flower-class corvettes of World War Two. Though the latter class went through several design revisions and upgrades, none were less than 200 feet long, and 33 feet wide, and they all displaced just about twice as much as an M29… while carrying only a 4-inch gun. Big difference.

Well, perhaps the difference between a 4-inch and 6-inch gun doesn’t sound that great, but trust me: having dined aboard a wonderful Flower-class corvette, I can say that weighing her down with a bigger gun would be… ambitious. But then, the M29s weren’t meant to do the same job. Coastal defense, bombardment… basically, the monitors were designed for what the modern strategists call littoral combat –– fighting in ‘brown water’ off the coast, not crossing the Atlantic –– so they could afford to be more top-heavy.

Indeed, it probably isn’t even fair to compare an M29 to a Flower… but there are similarities in their stories. Both classes were built as wartime expedients –– ships that would free up frigates, destroyers, and perhaps even cruisers for fleet work. Both classes were, as I understand it, designed to be built in civilian yards, so that naval yards could focus on the construction of mightier warships. And, being smaller, both classes saw plenty of close-in fighting in their time.

Drydocked and wearing Great War dazzle camouflage, M33 is about to get a major infusion of restoration capital.

But one similarity is more important than the rest: today, both classes still have living representatives, which we can go and see. Or at least, they will soon.

Last week, Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund announced that it would contribute £1.8 million to the restoration of HMS M33, the last survivor of the M29 class. Currently looked after by the Hampshire County Council, she is berthed near the Mary Rose and HMS Victory, and thanks to the investment by the Fund (as well as some other donors), she’ll be open to the public in time for 2015′s centennial ceremonies marking the Gallipoli campaign, of which she (like our own Newfoundland Regiment) was a part.

That’s exciting news, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never seen M33 in person –– indeed, I’ve never been aboard a Royal Navy ship of any vintage –– but I’m obviously a strong proponent of caring for these long-serving vessels. My attention just tends to land closer to home.

You see, the Belt Squadron’s beloved ancestor HMCS Sackville doesn’t need funding for a full restoration –– she is in fine form, open to the public and ready to share her stories with all who visit her –– but Canada’s Naval Memorial trust does have plans to build a museum around her in Halifax. She deserves such fantastic treatment, just as M33 does, so I do rather hope that the right backers –– government and private –– come forward to support the project.

For now, congratulations to all of those who have put in countless hours to keep M33 alive for nearly a century; such efforts are hugely valuable, and I look forward to the day I get to visit your mighty monitor, and learn her stories.

But –– and please forgive me my nationalistic prejudice –– if I had to chose only one favorite ship that was technically too small for her job, but who did it anyway… I’d have to stay closer to home.

HMCS Sackville
By God that’s a well-dressed lady. She also seems to wear the same colors as Lady Alex.

Damn, now I’m wishing for another trip to Halifax…