This Minelayer Was Converted Into A Floating Brewery During World War II

In 1944, the British converted HMS Menestheus into an amenities ship for Allied forces in the Pacific, complete with a brewery.

byOliver Parken|
Auxiliary minelayer HMS Menestheus
Copyright: © IWM.

Combatant morale is crucial to how militaries perform. Indeed, the importance of alcohol to wider military morale was such that, during World War II, the British converted one of the Royal Navy's auxiliary minelayers into a floating brewery. The vessel, HMS Menestheus, was altered in 1944 to supply beer to British and Allied forces stationed in the Pacific, which it did from the fall of 1945 into 1946.

Auxiliary minelayer HMS Menestheus moored at a minelaying base on the Kyle of Lochalsh, unknown date. Copyright: © IWM

Prior to its beer-producing days with the Royal Navy, however, Menestheus lived a very different existence. MV Menestheus was originally a cargo-passenger ship of the British Blue Funnel Line shipping company. Managed from Liverpool, England, by Alfred Holt and Company, the Blue Funnel Line was founded in the 1860s and was a pioneer of cargo liners between the English East Coast and the Pacific. Like its sister ship MV Agamemnon, Menestheus was built in Belfast and launched there in 1929. Both ships were primarily used to ship goods between Liverpool and destinations in the Pacific.

The Royal Navy requisitioned both Menestheus and Agamemnon for use as auxiliary minelayers early on in the war, at a time when the British were facing both aerial threats from the German-occupied continent as well as the prospect of invasion by sea via the English Channel and the Straight of Dover.

MV Menestheus moored at King George V Dock, East London, prior to its conversion to an auxiliary minelayer, circa. 1940. National Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Conversion of the ships took place in the spring and early summer of 1940. By October 1940, both vessels, along with the other auxiliary minelayers HMS Port Napier, HMS Port Quebec, and HMS Southern France, began laying mines in the Faroe Islands-Iceland gap as part of the 1st Minelaying Squadron. HMS Menestheus and HMS Agamemnon spent the majority of the war performing mine-laying duties. However, with the disbanding of the 1st Minelaying Squadron in late 1943, a change of course was on the horizon for the vessels.

HMS Menestheus pictured during its minelaying days, unknown date. © IWM

While the potential futures of HMS Menestheus and HMS Agamemnon were being considered into 1944, the situation in the Pacific was stretching British resources thin, particularly in terms of key supplies. Sustaining troop morale was vital there – it was decided that providing freshly brewed beer to the British and Allied forces, unspoiled by long over-seas deliveries from the U.K. or Australia owing to brewing equipment being installed on one or more amenities ships, was an achievable way of aiding this.

Indeed, providing sailors with weak beer as part of their rations dates back to the Age of Sail, and even predates the introduction of the rum ration within the Royal Navy which began in the 17th century. Issuing rum to Royal Navy sailors lasted all the way to 1970 – a vote in Parliament did away with the tradition in July of that year, owing to the increasingly complex and sophisticated technologies onboard Royal Navy vessels which required operation by human hands.

Weak beer was also more commonly drank than 'grog' (a mix of rum, water and lemon juice) in the Royal Navy during the 17th and 18th centuries, contrary to popular myth, as the video below explains.

At the behest of Churchill himself, the Board of Admiralty ordered the conversion of both HMS Menestheus and HMS Agamemnon into amenities ships to support the newly-formed British Pacific Fleet, which was established in late 1944. The vessels sailed to Vancouver, British Columbia, where, in late 1944, their conversion to amenity ships began.

While the conversion of Agamemnon was abandoned around August 1945, HMS Menestheus’s conversion was successfully finished – complete with brewery – and the vessel was subsequently deployed to the Pacific, presumably in September. Alongside the brewery, HMS Menestheus was also equipt with a 350-seat theatre, a dance hall, and ample catering space for large parties.

HMS Menestheus being towed out of False Creek toward English Bay by two tugboats on September 1, 1945. Photo likely taken from the south side of Burrard Street Bridge while facing south-east, Vancouver, British Columbia. James Crookall via Wikimedia Commons
James Crookall via Wikimedia Commons

Although HMS Menestheus arrived in the Pacific too late to supply beer before Japan's formal surrender on September 2, 1945, it was still of use to forces stationed there, as David Hobbs notes in his book, The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy's Most Powerful Strike Force. For British troops in the Pacific theater, the fighting didn't end after September 1945. From September 1945 into 1946, for example, British forces were involved in Indonesia's fierce post-war colonial conflict. Moreover, for many servicemen broadly, it took months or even years to be demobilized and return home after the war ended.

A rear view of HMS Menestheus being towed out of False Creek toward English Bay. James Crookall via Wikimedia Commons

As such, HMS Menestheus's ability to brew beer didn't go to waste. Distilled seawater was used for the beer, while hop concentrate and malt extract was shipped from the United Kingdom to locations in the Pacific where HMS Menestheus would call at. A 55-barrel capacity copper brewing pot was installed in the forward hold of the vessel, heated by its boilers, while six fermenting vessels were also installed. HMS Menestheus could supposedly brew in the region of 350 barrels (or 250 English-sized) barrels of English mild ale per week (around 3.7% ABV). The beer was also made available in five-gallon steel kegs for shipment to troops.

According to War History Online, George Brown of London’s Truman’s Brewery was made head brewer of “Davy Jones’ Brewery,” as HMS Menestheus’s brewery was called. He produced the ship’s first batch of beer on New Year’s Eve 1945, while the second batch was in the works by January 1946.

Few images of HMS Menestheus’s brewery exist. A silent production film made in 1946, however – which is available to watch online through the Imperial War Museum’s website – shows the distillation plant and malt dissolving vessels in use. Toward the end of the film, an advert for HMS Menestheus’s brewery – dubbed the “world’s only floating brewery” – shows that a pint of ale would have set you back 9d (nine pennies) in late 1945 or early 1946. The film also reveals the brewing equipment was installed on HMS Menestheus by "brewing engineers" Messrs. Geo. Adlam and Sons Ltd. of Bristol, England. Established around 1800, the company went on to become one of the best known firms of brewers’ engineers in the country during the latter part of the 19th century.

Screen cap from the 1946 film, showing an advertisement for HMS Menestheus’s brewery. Copyright: © IWM
Part of HMS Menestheus’s brewery seen in the film. Copyright: © IWM
HMS Menestheus’s copper pot in use. Copyright: © IWM

Ultimately, the time HMS Menestheus spent as a floating brewery for the Royal Navy was limited. The vessel was given back to Blue Funnel Line by the Royal Navy in 1946, although the exact month that this occurred remains unclear. Before this happened, the U.S. supposedly offered the U.K. 1 million British pounds for the vessel, owing to the fact that nothing like the ship existed in the U.S. Navy fleet. Although little information exists on Menestheus's time with Blue Funnel Line in the immediate postwar period, it's been suggested that the vessel met an unfortunate end – having been abandoned on fire off California in 1953 before being scrapped.

Unlike the U.S. Navy, which is famously dry, the tradition of bars on board Royal Navy vessels has since continued after HMS Menestheus's service. Royal Navy vessels are permitted to sell alcohol in bars, messes, and canteens – although this is a privilege at the discretion of the commanding officer. More recently, in 2018 the 65,000-ton aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth went a step further by opening its very own on-board pub, dubbed the Queen’s Head.

That said, HMS Menestheus ended up playing an extraordinary role during the immediate postwar period, supplying a commodity we more-or-less take for granted today.

Cheers to its amazing story!

Officers enjoying HMS Menestheus’s brew at one of the ship's bars in the film. Copyright: © IWM

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