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Whatever Happened to Britannic, Titanic's Forgotten Sister?

Updated on July 22, 2017

The Cursed Class

The indelible legacy of the Olympic Class of ocean liners, the ones meant to change the world, certainly did just not in the way the designers envisioned. Two out of the three vessels built would sink to the bottom, both with tragic results. Some would argue that the class was cursed.

Everybody knows one of those sunken ships, the RMS Titanic. Maiden voyage, women and children first, you know the story. Yet the second sunken sister seems to have largely been forgotten by history. Like a poor step child, the third ship of the class has only received a fraction of the world wide lexicon as the Titanic. No one disaster is greater than the other when lives are lost. Here is the story of Britannic, Titanic's forgotten sister.

The HMHS Britannic.
The HMHS Britannic.

Early Days

Barely a keel and some framework in 1912 when her older sister, RMS Titanic, sank to the bottom of the ocean taking 1,500 people with her. The disaster and subsequent government inquiries on both sides of the ocean lead to fundamental changes to the unfinished Britannic. The result was an appearance contrasting considerably from the other two.

The most noticeable changes, of course, her increased lifeboat capacity. Britannic boasted five enormous sets of motorized crane style lifeboat davits, capable of holding six boats each. Originally designed for eight, only five were installed. Her stern design boasted a new covered aft well deck, something neither Olympic or Titanic had. The third class smoking room now stood on the poop deck.

Under the hood, so to speak, the Britannic's power plant and superstructure were completely redesigned. Bigger engines, heightened watertight bulkheads and a new ship wide double hull not only increased the ship's length, size and speed but also her safety factor in a Titanic style collision.

Eager to regain some market confidence after the Titanic Disaster, White Star intended to pump even more luxuries into this third ship. The 3rd class was given a covered well deck. The 2nd class was given a gymnasium. They stuffed 1st class with new things ranging from a pipe organ in the grand staircase, to private restrooms in the most expensive rooms.

In February 1914, Britannic was launched to great fan fare at Harland & Wolff. Unfortunately she would never get a chance to enter transatlantic service as the outbreak of the First World War would change her destiny forever.

RMS Britannic under construction.
RMS Britannic under construction.

Requisitioned for War

With war declared, Britannic found herself in a state of unfinished limbo. Financial problems had already slowed Britannic's progress and White Star knew that it would only be a matter of time before the government would requisition the ship for military service. The unfinished Britannic along with RMS Olympic would remain in Belfast nearly a year until the requisitioning finally hit.

The government funded what was left of her initial construction and began converting her into a hospital ship. Repainted white and adored with a green stripe and bright red crosses, Britannic was given the designation of HMHS and the number 9618. She set sail on her maiden voyage on December 23,1915.

The Britannic as a hospital ship.
The Britannic as a hospital ship.

Explosion

November 12, 1916 started like any other day for the Britannic. Setting sail on her sixth voyage as a hospital ship from Southhampton to the Mediterranean Sea. Shortly after 8am, an explosion rattled the ship violently. Ground zero: cargo holds 2 and 3. Shockwaves damaged three of her watertight bulkheads. To make matters worse, the watertight doors in the fireman's passage malfunctioned, likely knocked off their rails in the explosion. Other watertight doors in the cargo holds also failed, either due to similar damage, a loss of power or other factors. It reason has never been determined. As such, water simply poured into the lower decks unimpeded.

Unlike her sister Titanic, which sank in the middle of the night hundreds of miles from shore, Britannic was sinking in broad daylight less than three miles from the nearest beach. Captain Charles Bartlett ordered the lifeboats prepared and distress signals sent. Britannic's SOS was heard by several ships in the area who were quick to respond. What those on board Britannic didn't know, the shockwave from the explosion had snapped her aerial communication antennas. So while she could transmit her SOS, she couldn't receive any replies acknowledging it.

Despite her damaged watertight doors, Britannic only had five compartments flooded. This was her superior revised design over Titanic and should have saved the ship. However, against regulations, nurses had opened nearly all of Britannic's lower portholes in an attempt to vent the ship's wards against the harsh Mediterranean climate. These open holes in the ship tilted underwater after the explosion and promptly sealed the ship's fate. A sixth compartment began to flood, game over.


Britannic strikes the mine.
Britannic strikes the mine.

Sinking

Just fifteen minutes after the explosion, Britannic was already listing noticeably to her starboard side. E Deck's open portholes were now underwater.

Unaware of the damage below decks, Captain Bartlett ordered the engines ahead full. Kea Island was less than three miles away and the captain thought he had time to beach the ship to prevent it from sinking. The explosion had damaged the steering gear rendering the rudder useless. Combined with the list to starboard, at best, Britannic only managed a few degrees to the right. The captain attempted to steer the ship by controlling her individual propellor speeds. This only caused the flooding to intensify.

Simultaneously, orders were given to prep the lifeboats for launching and swung out. In the increasing panic, two lifeboats filled with boiler men, launched without permission. Since the ships engines were still running at full speed, these boats were sucked into the spinning propellors. The wooden boats and their occupants were no match for the 20 foot bronze screws which simply ripped them to pieces, killing many. The engines were ordered shut down just moments before a third boat nearly met same fate.

Beaching the ship was futile and Captain Barlett finally gave the order to abandon ship. By now, the list of the ship was so bad, the liftboats on the smaller port side davits could not be launched. Only the aft giant crane davits were large enough to swing clear of the ship. Fifteen minutes later, none of the portside davits could be used. Crewmen proceeded to throw collapsable rafts and deck chairs overboard while the captain ordered the engines restarted one last time in a last ditch effort to save the ship.

The forward motion of the ship only drove more water into her and by 9:00am, the Captain finally ordered the engines stopped and sounded two long whistle blasts as the final abandon ship command. By the time the captain left the ship, water had reached the bridge and the vessel began to sink faster than ever. Ultimately only 35 of the ship's 55 lifeboats were launched.

Britannic's final plunge.
Britannic's final plunge.

As Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side, her funnels began to collapse and the lifeboats still on board began to side off the ship. Before the stern slipped beneath the waves, the bow of the ship actually struck the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. She was nearly four hundred feet longer than the water was deep. After a few moments, the stern slid sidewise below the surface. From the explosion until now, only 55 minutes had elapsed, nearly two hours faster than Titanic.

Rescue

Lifeboats and survivors were scattered across a vast distance. Since her trans-receiver was damaged, Britannic did not know that several fishing boats were responding to her SOS. The first of those arrived two hours after the ship disappeared. They began to pull men from the water. British destroyer HMS Scourge began to pull survivors from the first lifeboats, 339 in total. Armed merchant ship, HMS Heroic soon arrived and pulled 494 survivors from the water.

150 survivors had even made it to the shores of Kea Island, the same that Captain Barlett had tried in vain to beach Britannic. An outpouring of support came from the island village of Korissia. They offered anything they could to help the survivors including their own houses to treat the wounded.

Meanwhile the Scourge and Heroic were stuffed to overcapacity with survivors. They departed for Piraeus. An hour or so later, the HMS Foxhound arrived, followed by HMS Foresight who swept the area for any remaining people. Those who died from their injuries were either buried at sea or brought ashore to Piraeus where they were buried with full military honors.

Ultimately 1,035 survived the sinking out of 1,065 on board. Most of the casualties were from the two lifeboats destroyed by Britannic's propellors. Some died of injuries later. There were no patients on board when she sank or the death toll would have been far worse.

Why did she sink?

Did she hit a mine? Was she torpedoed? An internal explosion, perhaps? The prevailing and most likely theory is that Britannic struck a mine. Investigations during the government inquiries and by historians in the decades since revealed that German u-boat U-73 was in the area planting minefields. While exact minelaying voyages are unknown, it is believed that U-73 laid the fatal mine just one hour before the Britannic struck it. Other casualties in the Mediterranean Sea at the hand of U-73 were battleship HMS Russell and another hospital ship HMHS Braemaer Castle. Rules of war prohibit the deliberate attacking of hospital ships. However, mines don't discriminate targets.

Wrecksite

Ten years before Dr. Robert Ballard would discover her famous sister, the fabled explorer Jacques Cousteau would discover the wreck of HMHS Britannic in 1975. Laying on her starboard side, Britannic was largely in one piece except for her bow which was smashed and broken.

Laying in under 400 feet of water, the wreck site is reachable by SCUBA. She is in remarkably good shape given the temperature of the water. Even her broken funnels have survived the century underwater.

The wreck is privately owned by historian Simon Mills, purchased in 1996.

A sonar scan Britannic wreck.
A sonar scan Britannic wreck.

The Sinking of the Britannic in Real Time

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