The First Of The 3 Sister Ships-The Olympic, Which Is Pictured Above. The Only One Of The 3 Sisters That Didn't Sink
the third and final Olympic-class ship. Work had only just been started on keel 433, the last and largest of the three Olympic class ships Britannic when construction was stopped because of the sinking of Titanic. When work was restarted many changes to the design were made to the plans. These included a double skin which increased her beam by two feet, the double bottom, it was normally five feet thick but was increased to six feet. The space between the inner and outer bottoms was separated into compartments by six huge longitudinal steel girders to minimize flooding in case of damage. Water tight bulkheads had been extended as high as the bottom of E deck in the forward part of the ship and D deck in the back. Britannic had five extended to B deck and the other eleven to E deck. Four rows of rivets on plating where stress would be greatest, giant sized lifeboat davits, and a name change from Gigantic to Britannic. These modifications made her the largest of her sisters at 48,158 tons. Most of this was due to increased compartmentalization, the giant sized lifeboat davits, somewhat heavier construction throughout and a whole list of safety systems. The White Star Line became obsessed with safety following the disaster of her sister ship.
She was launched on February 26th 1914 and White Star announced she would begin service between Southampton and New York City in the spring of 1915. Outbreak of World War One was to change this. On November 13th 1915 she was equisitioned by the admiralty and officially completed as a hospital ship for the war. Her nearly completed interiors were converted into dormitories and operating rooms. On December 12th 1915 she was ready for war service. She arrived in Liverpool on December 12th, 1915 under heavy armed escort. She was outfitted for her duties as a hospital ship with 2034 berths and 1035 cots for casualties. A medical staff of 52 officers, 101 nurses, 336 orderlies, and a crew of 675 men and women. The ship was under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.
He started his career with the White Star Line in 1874 and rose through various positions serving on such ships as Celtic, Teutonic, Oceanic and Georgic. He earned his Masters Certificate in 1903. As a Master, he commanded such ships as the Germanic, Cedric, and for a brief period the ill fated Republic. His daughter recalls that he was well liked by his assengers but not always by the White Star Management, mainly because of his excessive concern for safety over speed.
The Britannic was commissioned "His Majesty's Hospital Ship" on December 12, 1915 and departed Liverpool for her maiden voyage on December 23, 1915. She was bound for Mudros on the Isle of Lemnos. She was joining the Mauritania, Aquitania, and her sister, Olympic, in the Dardanelles (part of Turkey) Service. Joined later by the Statendam the five ships together were capable of carrying 17,000 sick and wounded or 33,000 troops.
Because of their size, the five ships including Britannic would have to anchor in very deep water and rely on as many as eight smaller ships to ferry the wounded and ill from the battlefront docks to the ships.
Christmas was celebrated on the Britannic as she sailed for her coaling port of Naples, arriving on 28th December, 1915. Once coaled, she departed on 29th December bound for Mudros in the Aegean Sea. She spent four days at Mudros seeing the start of 1916 and taking on 3,300 wounded and sick military personnel. The Britannic returned to Southampton on January 9th, 1916 where her patients were transferred to waiting trains for transportation to hospitals in London. The second voyage was shorter as she only sailed as far as Naples where she took on wounded and returned to Southampton on February 9, 1916.
The third voyage was just as uneventful. She spent four weeks as a floating hospital off the Isle of Wright. Following this service, the Britannic returned to Belfast on June 6th, 1916 and was released from war service. Harland and Wolff started refitting her for commercial service once again, but work was halted when the Admiralty recalled her to war service and she once again returned to Southampton on August 28th, 1916.
Britannic began her fourth voyage on September 24th, 1916 with members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment on board. These members of VAD were to be trans-shipped at Mudros, bound for Malta. Following her coaling stop at Naples, the ship arrived at Mudros on October 3rd, 1916 where VAD members were transferred to His Majesty's Hospital Ship Galeka. Britannic was detained at Mudros while officials investigated the possible cause of food poisoning which had gotten to some of the staff. The ship returned to Southampton on October 11, 1916.
Voyage number five was the Southampton, Naples, Mudros trip. On the last day of the fifth voyage she encountered heavy seas and storms. She finally made it to Southampton and over 3000 wounded were transferred to waiting trains. The Aquitania had suffered damage in the same storms and was laid up for repairs. Because of this Britannic was ordered to start her sixth voyage after only four days in port.
The Britannic departed Southampton on Sunday 12th November 1916. On Friday November 17th 1916 she arrived at Naples, for coaling and was to depart on Saturday but a fierce storm set in a delayed the departure. A perfect day, Tuesday November 21, 1916 she was steaming through the Kea Channel in the Aegean.
It was shortly after 8:00 am when Sheila Macbeth, a nurse onboard, was taking her first sip of tea when suddenly, BANG! It's sure but Britanni either struck a mine (laid by either a German U-boat or the Turkish mine boat "Nusret") or was torpedoed (by the German sub U-73 which was in the area). Historians still aren't sure.
At the same time, Violet Jessup (a VAD nurse onboard) was fixing a breakfast tray for a friend who was too sick to eat in the dinning room. Although she knew that the ship was in danger, she calmly helped her friend eat breakfast, the helped her into an elevator and onto the deck where she again helped her into a boat. At that time, she dashed to her cabin to gather a few things. Most importantly, a toothbrush, an item she had forgotten to save during the Titanic disaster (more on that in a moment). She got into a lifeboat but a few minutes after it was on the water, she had to jump out of it (you'll learn more about this later). She was then picked up by another boat. This was not the first emergency Violet Jessup had been in She began as a crew member onboard the RMS Olympic when the Olympic and Hawke collision occured. She was also a sewartess on the Titanic when it sank. She there for survived all three Olympic-class emergencies.
Anyway, Britannic began sinking at the bow. Captain Bartlett tried unsuccessfully to beach her on Kea Island. In 55 minutes, the largest moving object in the world at that time had gone. The explosion apparently occurred at the watertight bulkhead between holds 2 and 3. At the same time, boiler rooms 5 and 6 began taking water. This was roughly the same damage as that sustained by her sister the Titanic four years earlier. She lies on her side now in only 350 feet of water. So shallow, that the bow hit bottom before she totally sank (because she was 885 ft long) and with the weight, the entire bow is now cracked. She was discovered in 1976 on an Underwater Exploration by Jacques Cousteau.
She is largely intact except for the crack in her forward bow. Captain Charles Bartlett was the last to leave the ship and only 30 people died from over 1100 on board at the time. Had she been carrying her full quota of 3000 injured soldiers, her deaths would have rivaled Titanic's. All of the deaths in the Britannic disaster occurred as the ship remained moving and two lifeboats were launched. Once they were detached from the ship, they were sucked into the still turning propellers. Violet Jessup was a survivor of the propellor inccident.
Even with all her modifications Britannic sank in only fifty five minutes, with similar damage to her sister. This is probably due to the open watertight doors that couldn't be closed from the bridge because power went out on the bottom deck, that let water in at a much faster rate. Also, most of the windows were open because the nurses where airing out the ship for the soldiers that were going to board her.
The easiest way to distinguish her from her two sisters are by the out-sized lifeboat davits, and most photos of her show a white hull with three red crosses and a green hull band on her side, designating her as a hospital ship. HMHS Britannic was never to carry a fare paying passenger. Britannic is unknown to many because her story was drowned out by stories of big war ships being sunk. She is the largest piece of wreckage on the ocean floor.
Source: "Titanic; An Illistrated History" by Don Lynch
"Lost Liners" by Robert Ballard and Rick Archbold