From Jutland to Belfast - HMS Caroline

Belfast’s Floating Museum, Once the Royal Navy's Second-Oldest Ship

HMS Caroline in Belfast, Jutland survivor, Royal Navy headquarters, training ship, now museum
Bernd Biege

HMS Caroline is Ireland’s newest maritime attraction and an exciting addition to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter – just down the road from the stunning multi-media experience that is Titanic Belfast, the venerable C-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland. And now a floating museum. But can HMS Caroline hold her own against the gigantic competition of the much more famous RMS Titanic?

It can, and is well worth a visit.

Introduction to HMS Caroline 

Let us have a sort look at HMS Caroline’s history in the Royal Navy first – which will also help to understand why large parts of the ship today look much different than in her heyday of 1916.

HMS Caroline was built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead and commissioned on December 4th, 1914, serving in the North Sea all through the First World War, first joining the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow as leader of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla. As part of the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron HMS Caroline fought in the Battle of Jutland (see below), commanded by Captain Henry R. Crooke. During her active service, she saw many conversions, even gaining a platform for the launch of fighter planes to attack enemy airships.

After a spell at the East Indies Station from 1919 to 1922 HMS Caroline was placed in reserve, then reactivated in early 1924 as headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve's Ulster Division at ​Belfast – losing weapons and some boilers in the process.

In the Second World War, HMS Caroline became the Royal Navy HQ in Belfast – quickly outgrowing the ship itself and amassing on-shore facilities, including Belfast Castle. After the war, the ship was again transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a floating training establishment.

HMS Caroline was only decommissioned in December 2009 – at that time she was the second-oldest commissioned ship of the Royal Navy, with only HMS Victory outranking her.

She is also one of only three surviving Royal Navy ships that saw service in the Great War.

The Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland (in German the Skagerrakschlacht) was the largest naval battle of the First World War, and the only battle pitting battleships against battleships on a massive scale – it was fought by the British Royal Navy's Grand Fleet against the Imperial German Navy's High Seas Fleet on May 31st and June 1st, 1916, in the North Sea, off the Danish Jutland Peninsula.

The German plan was to lure parts of the Grand Fleet into open battle, destroying them in battle, mainly to break the British blockade of Germany and regain access to the Atlantic. On May 31st, British and German fleets ran into each other well before the German plan had estimated, leading to a running battle in which 14 British and 11 German ships were sunk.

Basically, the Battle of Jutland ended in a draw, with both adversaries returning to port to lick their wounds, but with also both sides claiming victory. But while the Royal Navy lost more ships and had double the human casualties, the German fleet did not manage to break the blockade. For Imperial Germany, the days of major engagements by surface forces were over – and the admirals concentrated on submarine warfare.

HMS Caroline Today

HMS Caroline as you can see her now is definitely not the HMS Caroline that entered service in 1916 – too many changes were made over time, some during the First World War, many during her career in later years. In 2011 the discussion raged about what to do with the ship. While one school of thought advocated a partial reconstruction and a Belfast mooring as a museum, another called for a full reconstruction (without specifying to which actual state) and a transfer to Portsmouth, to the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The former won and the NMRN now has an active presence in Belfast.

Which resulted in a slightly strange hybrid. HMS Caroline’s front is very much of a Great War vintage, with the elegant bow sweeping dramatically, guns pointing ahead, and the crow’s nest (which was not there in 1914) giving a good vantage point.

The back, however, is dominated by the massive deckhouse that almost looks like a modern helicopter hangar. And while replica weapons have been added, there are some more-or-less glaring omissions. Most noticeable are the missing anchors, lifeboats, and torpedo tubes (of which much is made in the exhibition … making their absence more noticeable).

The outward appearance of HMS Caroline thus is not very convincing to the expert, but I guess “near enough” for the casual visitor.

Having said that: the deckhouse was put to good use as a cinema, which shows a short but comprehensive film on the Battle of Jutland, which highlights the human cost and the command decisions, sacrificing minute details to make for eight quite exciting (and historically correct) minutes. With sound effects that really tend to deafen.

The lower decks of HMS Caroline are then exhibition areas, with some faithfully reconstructed (down to the spotted dick with custard served in the officer's mess), others hosting multi-media and interactive displays. With lots of opportunities for hands-on experiences. From decoding messages to firing torpedoes, from signaling to actually steering the ship (which was such a good simulation that I managed not only to cross between two other ships, ignoring all alarms but also to collide with one … fun).

Is HMS Caroline Worth a Visit?

If you want to see a fully preserved ship of the Great War, be warned – HMS Caroline isn’t it, too many alterations have been made, and not reversed. Then again the ship had a far longer career than her first four years, and this is reflected by the state she is preserved in, deckhouse and all.

If you want to explore a real fighting ship and learn about all things Navy, you are right on the spot. With the help of headsets, you can listen to very good explanations of the historic areas (several languages are available), and the non-historic areas are full of fun and activities for all ages.

One of the strengths of HMS Caroline is accessibility: most decks can be reached by a lift, and the more difficult areas can be virtually explored in the exhibition. Mobility-impaired visitors should never attempt the many steep stairs, but they are well catered for. Full marks on this!

So, at the end of the day, I would wholeheartedly recommend HMS Caroline for anybody interested in maritime or naval history. 

Essential Information on HMS Caroline

  • Location: Alexandra Dock, Queen’s Road, Queen’s Island, Belfast, BT3 9DT – if driving, follow the signs for Titanic Quarter, then carry on past Titanic Belfast, the entrance to HMS Caroline will be on the left behind the Titanic Studios.
  • Public Transport: Titanic Quarter Station is the nearest rail station, connecting via a pedestrian footbridge to Titanic Quarter. Buses allocated to Metro Services 26, 26B, 26C and Airport Express 600A/ 600B from Belfast city center connect to the Titanic Quarter.
  • Parking: available right next to the ship, though in limited numbers.
  • Opening Times: daily 10 AM to 6 PM, last admission 5 PM.
  • Admission Fees: adults £ 12, children (5-15) £ 5, concessions available – admission fee includes headsets and receivers for a self-guided tour (available in English, Italian, Spanish, German, French and Chinese).
  • Admission Restrictions: high heels with a diameter of less than an inch are not allowed (this seemed not to be enforced during my visit, though ... but self-preservation should kick in), and access at high tide can be problematic for mobility-impaired visitors (phone ahead for tide times).
  • Estimated Time Needed: HMS Caroline’s website recommends 90 minutes, but I would tend to say two hours or more if you want to see everything at a moderate pace and enjoy some of the activities.
  • Food & Drink: there is a café on board, which serves cakes and light snacks and reasonable prices … we heartily recommend the Irish stew!
  • Souvenir Shop: located on the main deck, with a decent selection of historical books and other souvenirs … including fridge magnets featuring the ship’s cats.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary entry for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.