The Royal Navy wants HMS Caroline to stay in Belfast once she is decommissioned, her commanding officer has insisted.
The 95-year-old warship is likely to remain in commission until at least 2011 even though the Royal Naval Reserve Unit that has called her home since the 1920s is moving to Thiepval in Lisburn from today.
A glittering ceremony on the ship today marks the decommissioning of the Royal Naval Reserve Unit HMS Caroline, which will immediately reform as HMS Hibernia for its move to the city.
Among the 400 reservists and guests at today’s ceremony will be the Royal Navy’s most senior officer in Northern Ireland and Scotland, Rear Admiral Martin Alabaster, plus the Royal Marines Band Scotland and a guard of honour formed by unit members.
However, HMS Caroline herself, a light cruiser that fought in the Battle of Jutland, will stay in commission until the Royal Navy is satisfied her future has been secured, CO Martin Quinn told the Belfast Telegraph. It means she will be the Royal Navy’s second-oldest vessel in commission for some time to come.
CO Quinn said rumours that HMS Caroline will be taken to Portsmouth to form part of the Royal Navy’s museum collection are wide of the mark. “They have no desire to move the ship from Belfast — they never wanted to move her to Portsmouth, it is all speculation,” he said.
“I will remain in command of the ship until further notice — she will remain fully commissioned, cared for and maintained throughout the period of time it will take to broker a solution.
“The Royal Navy’s preference would be to leave her here in Belfast. What we see is the ship being part of a maritime heritage trail created with local government and local authorities.”
Final salute to a venerable old heroine
The clean lines and steel grey exterior look misleadingly modern — but under that facade is a grand old lady and World War One heroine.
Although the engineering on HMS Caroline is primitive by today’s standards, she was years ahead of her time when she was built in 1914 and could reach more than 30 knots — a fleet fox compared to modern warships that can only manage 26 or 27.
Today, the reservists of the Royal Naval Reserve Unit HMS Caroline set foot on her venerable decks for the final time before they decommission and reform as HMS Hibernia as part of their move to Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn.
They will be leaving one of the Royal Navy’s most historically important ships — the last floating survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and now a mainstay of the Historical Ships Register, the equivalent of being a listed building. She’s the second oldest commissioned vessel in Royal Naval service and the third oldest commissioned warship in the world.
Few members of the public have set foot on board as HMS Caroline has remained in commission for her entire 95-year history, since she was built at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead.
The elegant captain’s quarters, added in 1939, show the signs of a bygone era with the bell marked ‘Commodore’s Pantry’, as well as the adjoining dining room and bedroom.
In the dining room, which hosted a dinner party as recently as last weekend, there’s a drawing of the ship’s design signed by each of the commanding officers throughout her history, including the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava who served from 1924 to 1930 — an artefact that would form one of the most important documents if the ship became a museum.
The walls are dotted with drawings and poems harking back to the ship’s heyday, all now bearing an orange tag as they have been extensively catalogued and are due to go into temperature-controlled storage.
“She was the first of her class — the Caroline class light cruisers — and was just built before the outbreak of WWI,” Commanding Officer Martin Quinn said. “She was a very fast scouting ship, designed to stay ahead of the main fleet, attacking using torpedoes and then escaping as quickly as possible.”
Caroline later served on the East Indies Station before being placed in reserve and converted to a headquarters and training ship for the RNVR Ulster Division in 1924. In WWII she served as the Royal Navy’s HQ in Belfast Harbour which was used as a home base by many of the warships escorting Atlantic and Russian convoys.