HMHS Britannic - Titanic's Unlucky Sister
A Roll of the Dice
The RMS Britannic was the younger sister of the Titanic, and was the third Olympic class liner built by the White Star Line. She shares something in common with her older sister, Titanic: She did not carry one paying passenger to their final destination.
There were three Olympic class ships. The first was called, naturally enough, the RMS Olympic, and she would eventually be known as 'Old Reliable'. She was the only one of the three to carry paying passengers all the way across the Atlantic, and did so for over two decades. Titanic, as most people know, sunk on her maiden voyage after sideswiping an iceberg, sending 1,500 people to an early grave.
Britannic did not even get into passenger service. World events got in the way, and when she finally made her maiden voyage it was as His Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic.
She made six voyages before her untimely demise in the Aegean Sea.
The Big Three: Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic
The original name of Britannic was to be Gigantic. Later the White Star Line would deny this, saying that the ship was going to always be called Britannic. This was a knee-jerk reaction on their part, but there is paperwork from several of the suppliers of the ship during its construction to back up the fact that its original name was meant to be Gigantic.
The reason for the name change was probably so the public would not associate the Britannic with the Titanic. Maybe they did not wish to anger the Greek Gods whom they named their first two ships after.
The Britannic was planned at the same time as Olympic and Titanic. She would be needed if White Star were to maintain a weekly service to New York. In doing so they were keeping abreast of Cunard, who also had a third ship in construction, the Aquitania, for the same run.
The keel was laid for Britannic on November 30, 1911 at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast. Construction started at a slow pace while the Titanic was being fitted out, ready for her maiden cruise. After the sinking of the Titanic work ceased while the ship was redesigned to take into account the Mersey Inquiry findings into the sinking. Again, construction was slower because her sister-ship, the Olympic was brought in for modifications which would require additional manpower and take six months to complete.
Britannic was finally launched on February 26, 1914, and fitting out commenced. (see video above showing the launch of Britannic). In August 1914 war was declared, and with it priority given to Navy projects in all shipyards. This slowed the fitting out of Britannic to a crawl.
By May 1915 she was ready for service and had already been requisitioned by the Navy for Troopship or Hospital ship service, and Harland & Wolff were contracted to ensure that she could be made ready in as little as a month. She was finally requisitioned for war service in November 1915.
After sea trials, and then painted white with a green cross, the HMHS Britannic made her maiden voyage without fanfare on December 16, 1915. Her destination: The Dardanelles, and the Gallipoli campaign.
The Gallipoli Campaign and Beyond
The Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship because the campaign in the Dardanelles was going so badly. The wounded were mounting up, and ships were required to transport them back to England. Cunard's Mauretania and Aquitania were already serving in the Mediterranean, but they needed more ships to transport the wounded..
These large liners did not see the action close to the coast. The wounded were transported to smaller hospital ships from the front where they received treatment for their wounds. After the smaller ships were full they pulled away from the coast and docked with the larger liners, transferring the patients yet again. When the ship was full the patients were transported back to England in a continuous journey. Hospital ships re-coaled on the way over so that this could be done, whereas Troopships re-coaled on the return journey (since getting troops to the front was of paramount importance).
The Britannic sailed into the Mediterranean for the first time in December 1915. and she was capable of carrying just over 3,000 wounded in any one voyage. Between December 1915 and April 1916, she made 3 voyages, taking wounded soldiers home from the Gallipoli campaign. By then the British had realised they had lost the campaign and troops were withdrawn.
The Admiralty had no need for Britannic as a hospital ship and she was handed back to her owners. The White Star Line sent her back to Harland & Wolff so that she her original fittings could be replaced for passenger service.
In September 1916 the Allied troops started a new offensive in the northern Balkans combined with two new British attacks against Turkey in Mesopotamia and Palestine. With these offensives the island of Mudros' hospitals were full of wounded and the large hospital ships were once more required. On August 28th the Britannic was called back into service, Harland & Wolff had already converted the liner to a hospital ship again. She left Southampton on September 6, 1916 bound for Mudros, and made her second voyage on October 20, 1916.
Her third voyage began on November 12, 1916. She would not return to Southampton...
November 21, 1916 off the Island of Kea
"Suddenly, there was a dull deafening roar. Britannic gave a shiver, a long drawn out shudder from stem to stern, shaking the crockery on the tables, breaking things till it subsided as she slowly continued on her way. We all knew she had been struck..." - Violet Jessop, Nurse.
On the morning of November 21, 1916, the U-73 had been busy. The Kea Channel was the perfect place to mine and harass enemy shipping. That morning was spent laying a mine barrier. Captain Gustav Siess had no idea that the ship he would catch with his mines would no be an enemy troop transport.
An hour after the U-73 had moved on, breakfast was being served aboard the Britannic. She was nearing her destination and would soon be taking on more wounded.
At approximately 8:15am the Britannic struck one of the mines laid out that morning. The ship began filling with water, and the mine struck in an area which allowed 5 of the watertight compartments to be filled. The ship began listing, and Captain Bartlett decided to attempt getting her into shallower water, or beaching her. This turned out to be a mistake, and water was pushed at an accelerated rate into the ship. The consequences were disastrous for those abandoning ship.
The first boats off were able to get clear of the ship, but those later, including the one Violet Jessop found herself in, were not so lucky. With the engines still running, and the propeller was still churning and was now out of the water completely. The boats attempting to leave Britannic found themselves unable to get clear, and one boat was destroyed when it went underneath the propellers. It was only after this the captain realised his error and stopped the engines, giving the final order for the engine room staff that had stayed on to abandon ship as well.
Violet Jessop was thrown from her boat and into the sea, and struck her head. She was so close to the ship as it was going down that her clothes were ripped from her. She was pulled into a lifeboat just in time to witness the last moments.
"She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding though the water with undreamt-of violence..."
It was just after 9am, and 55 minutes after the ship had struck the mine
A flotilla of fishing boats were eventually joined by two British war ships who picked up the survivors and took them to Korissia, on a nearby island. From there the survivors were picked up by the British fleet.
30 people were killed in the sinking, and 1,036 saved.
Were the Olympic Class Ships Just Unlucky?
The Britannic never carried a paying passenger. She never once sailed the Atlantic route to New York, and is now the largest passenger liner wreck on the ocean floor. But was she, and her sister-ships unlucky?
The Titanic certainly was unlucky, but that was coupled with reckless navigation and a captain who ignored ice warnings. The Olympic went on and on and on, but her early career was also not accident-free. In fact the Olympic had to return to Harland & Wolff on two occasions for repairs before the Titanic's maiden voyage. One of those time because of a collision with another ship, the HMS Hawke. The repairs to the Olympic delayed the Titanic's maiden voyage by 3 weeks. She wouldn't have been in the path of the iceberg if her maiden voyage had been three weeks earlier. After the Titanic's loss construction of the Britannic was slowed down because of the need for modifications to the Olympic.
Compared to the first two ships in her class the Britannic's career was relatively sedate. She sailed her voyages without drama, doing what needed to be done. It wasn't until the last one, where her captain was unaware that the area around the Kea Channel had been mined, that she met her fate. She was unlucky, and it would have been much worse had she had a full compliment of wounded on board.
The practise of mining the oceans during a war campaign catches both the combatants and non-combatants alike. This was a case where an exempt ship turned out to be not exempt at all. The captain of the Britannic wouldn't have known about the mines in the area in the Kea Channel. They had been laid that morning. The Britannic was so much unlucky as a victim.
Her sister-ship, the Olympic, distinguished herself in the war as a troopship. On one occasion she even rammed a U-Boat and then just kept on going. After the sinking of the Britannic the Olympic was on her own as the first and last of her class of ships. She was broken up in 1934, along with her rival the Mauritania, when she was deemed uneconomic due to her age and the Great Depression.
Links to sites about the HMHS Britannic
Other Sites of Interest
- Titanic Memorabilia
You can buy all kinds of Titanic Memorabilia at this site. Things you'd never even think of, such as fine china and newspapers.