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HMS Caroline is a decommissioned C-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy that saw combat service in the First World War and served as an administrative centre in the Second World War. Caroline was launched and commissioned in 1914. At the time of her decommissioning in 2011 she was the second-oldest ship in Royal Navy service, after HMS Victory.
She served as a static headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Reserve, based in Alexandra Dock, Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the later stages of her career. She was converted into a museum ship. From October 2016 she underwent inspection and repairs to her hull at Harland and Wolff and opened to the public on 1 July 2017 at Alexandra Dock in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Caroline was the last remaining British First World War light cruiser in service, and she is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland still afloat.
She is also one of only three surviving Royal Navy warships of the First World War, along with the 1915 monitor HMS M33 (in Portsmouth dockyard), and the Flower-class sloop HMS President, (formerly HMS Saxifrage) usually moored on the Thames at Blackfriars but as from February 2016, in Number 3 Basin, Chatham. From 1939 until 1945, during the Second World War, Caroline served as the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Belfast Harbour, which was used as a home base by many of the warships escorting Atlantic and Arctic convoys, including Captain-class frigates of the 3rd Escort Group.
As Belfast developed into a major naval base during the Second World War, its headquarters outgrew the confines of HMS Caroline herself and occupied different establishments in various parts of the city. Eventually several thousand ratings were wearing Caroline cap tallies. The first such establishment was set up in the Belfast Custom House. Later, Belfast Castle was taken over and included a radio station. There were depth charge pistol and Hedgehog repair workshops associated with HMS Caroline, some of which would have been on the quays beside her berth in Milewater Basin.
During the early part of the Second World War when RAF Belfast occupied Sydenham (Belfast harbour) airfield, Fleet Air Arm personnel based there were lodged under HMS Caroline. In 1943, the airfield was transferred to the Admiralty and commissioned as HMS Gadwall. After the Second World War, the Royal Navy returned Caroline to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and she served as its last afloat training establishment. She underwent a refit at Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1951. The Royal Naval Reserve Unit decommissioned from the ship in December 2009, moved ashore, and recommissioned as the “stone frigate” (i.e., shore establishment) HMS Hibernia.
Caroline herself was decommissioned on 31 March 2011 in a traditional ceremony. Her ensign was laid up in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Caroline is listed as part of the National Historic Fleet. On her decommissioning, she was placed into the care of the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, though remaining moored in her position in Alexandra Dock in Belfast. Although no longer capable of making way under her own power, Caroline remains afloat and in excellent condition. Buffeting from waves and high winds have caused the ship to almost come away from her moorings several times. In 2005, during a storm, she ripped several huge bollards out of the jetty concrete, but failed to break free entirely. She was not normally open to tourists, although entrance was gained during the annual RMS Titanic celebrations. Upon Caroline’s decommissioning in 2011, her future was uncertain.
Proposals were made to return the ship to her First World War appearance, which among other things would have involved sourcing and installing 6-inch (152.4 mm) and 4-inch (102 mm) guns of that era and removing the large deckhouse from her midships deck. One proposal considered was to remain in Belfast as a museum ship within the Titanic Quarter development alongside SS Nomadic. Another was a move to Portsmouth, with many of her original fittings restored to return her as much as possible to her First World War appearance. In June 2012 plans to move Caroline to Portsmouth were announced, subject to the availability of funding. However, in October 2012 the Northern Ireland government announced that the ship would remain in Belfast and that the National Heritage Memorial Fund had pledged £1,000,000 to help to restore her. In May 2013 the Heritage Lottery Fund announced an £845,600 grant to support conversion work as a museum.
In October 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced a £12 million lottery funding boost to enable the National Museum of the Royal Navy to turn Caroline into a visitor attraction in time for centenary commemorations of the 1916 Battle of Jutland. In June 2016, HMS Caroline was opened to the public as a museum ship and forms part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.