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HMHS "Britannic": The Brief Life of "Titanic's" Gigantic Sister

SSM Roundel

Steamship Mutual

Published: March 22, 2017


21 November 2016 was the centenary of the sinking of His Majesty's Hospital Ship "Britannic", the largest British Mercantile Marine loss of the First World War. "Britannic" was the last of the trio of huge Atlantic express liners built for the White Star Line, the first two ships being "Olympic" and "Titanic". They were conceived by J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, and Lord Pirrie, Partner of Belfast shipbuilders Harland & Wolff, during a fateful dinner party in 1907, in response to the Cunard Line's "Lusitania" and "Mauretania" which entered service that year. The "Olympic" class, at some 45,000 gt and 882 ft long, would be 50% larger and nearly 100 ft longer than their Cunard rivals though not as fast; a perfect example of the White Star Line's policy of great size and comfort combined with moderate speed. They were to be the last word in luxury and elegance and "Britannic" would incorporate all the lessons learned from the construction and operation of her older sisters, making her the finest vessel ever built for the White Star Line. Tragically, this magnificent three-ship service never came about; "Olympic" was the only one of the trio ever to see New York, and by the end of 1916 the only surviving ship, as "Britannic" had joined "Titanic" on the seabed, in a sea she was never intended to sail, without ever carrying a fare-paying passenger. Harland & Wolff did their best to re-design "Britannic" to be capable of surviving the damage the iceberg had inflicted on her sister, yet "Britannic" went to the bottom in a third of the time it took "Titanic" to sink. This article considers what might have gone wrong.

Harland & Wolff yard no. 433 was not officially named "Britannic" until 1 September 1912 and a legend persists that she was originally intended to be named "Gigantic", and her name was changed after the "Titanic" disaster on 15 April 1912. "Olympic" and "Titanic" were named after the Greek immortal races, the Olympians and the Titans, with the addition of the White Star Line suffix -ic, so naming the third ship "Gigantic" after the mythical Greek Giants seems logical. However, Harland & Wolff's order book contains a reference to "Britannic" as early as 28 June 1911, indicating that if the third ship was ever going to be named "Gigantic", her name was changed long before "Titanic" sank. As well as being patriotic, White Star regarded "Britannic" (I) as a lucky name, the previous "Britannic" having served the line from 1874 to 1903.

"Titanic" foundered from uncontrolled flooding, two hours and 40 minutes after side-swiping an iceberg which popped-off the rivets’ heads of her starboard hull plating, opening seams in the forepeak, No. 1 hold, No. 2 hold, No. 3 hold, and No. 6 and No. 5 boiler rooms to the sea. If only the forward four or two other adjacent compartments had been breached, closing the watertight doors in her 15 transverse bulkheads should have allowed her to remain afloat; arrangements famously described by The Shipbuilder journal before the casualty as making her "practically unsinkable", since no one could imagine anything worse than a head-on collision or a collision at a juncture of two compartments. The watertight doors were closed electrically from the bridge, but with no longitudinal bulkheads and her middle seven transverse bulkheads extending no higher than E deck (11 ft above the load line), water filling her forward compartments eventually spilled over the top of the bulkhead into the adjoining compartment one after the other, working aft, until she sank (dubbed the 'ice-cube tray' effect). The world's then largest vessel, "Titanic" was at the cutting edge of marine engineering and naval architecture of the day, but the arrangement of her internal transverse bulkheads was shown to be woefully inadequate.

The "Titanic" disaster was a massive shock to Harland & Wolff, the maritime industry and to the world, and the White Star Line decided that drastic action was needed to restore confidence in its "Olympic" class liners. "Britannic's" construction had progressed only as far as the tank top and work was suspended while Harland & Wolff devised major hull revisions. These involved raising her transverse bulkheads to B deck (40 ft above the deepest load line) and fitting an inner skin along the length of the boiler room and engine room spaces. In theory, these improvements meant "Britannic" would be capable of remaining afloat with any six compartments completely flooded. The most conspicuous alterations were to her life-saving appliances. Both "Olympic" and "Titanic" were designed with state-of-the-art Welin quadrant davits which were capable of handling up to 64 lifeboats. However, since no one imagined a scenario where such 'watertight' ships would have to evacuate everyone on board before help could arrive, only 20 lifeboats were carried, exceeding outdated British Board of Trade Regulations. For "Britannic", Harland & Wolff designed enormous gantry davits, lattice-girder constructions with swan-necked tops, which could launch six lifeboats in quick succession. The largest davits ever constructed, their height gave them considerable horizontal clearance over the ship's side so that even a significant list would not prevent launching the ship's 48 lifeboats, which were stacked at four stations along the boat deck and on the poop deck. These novel arrangements were an efficient way of lowering the lifeboats though had the appearance of an overreaction, completely spoiling the fine lines of the ship, and the huge gantry davits were not copied in later vessels.

By the summer of 1914, "Britannic" was being fitted out at Belfast having been launched on 26 February that year. Work on the ship's wooden panelling and fixtures was well underway. One of the most prominent and admired features of "Olympic" and "Titanic" was the main first class companionway - the Grand Staircase - which extended seven decks from the Boat Deck to F Deck. "Britannic's" Grand Staircase would have been even more magnificent, as it was planned to incorporate a two-deck high pipe organ made by the Welte Company of Freiburg, which could be played either by an organist or using a roll mechanism for automated play. However, neither the organ nor the staircase's sumptuous wooden panelling had been installed by the outbreak of the Great War. Thereafter completing "Britannic" was not a priority and work slowed as shipyard workers rushed to enlist and raw materials were diverted to yards with Admiralty contracts. In wartime, the White Star Line had little need for a ship of her size anyway owing to the downturn in transatlantic passenger traffic, and "Olympic" was withdrawn from service at the end of October 1914 by which time Americans stranded in Europe had been repatriated.

Following the Allied invasion of Gallipoli in April 1915, the War Office required large transports for trooping duties to the Mediterranean. First to be called up were Cunard's "Mauretania" and "Aquitania"; "Olympic" was requisitioned as a troop ship on 1 September, and on 13 November the War Office enquired of Harland & Wolff how quickly "Britannic" could be made ready as a hospital ship. Work began frantically to complete the ship's electrics and plumbing, and to install 3,309 bunks for the patients. The public rooms on the upper decks were ideal for conversion into wards, as the sick and wounded would be as close as possible to the lifeboats in an emergency, while lower down, where the motion of the ship was less noticeable, the first class dining room was transformed into operating theatres. "Britannic's" four funnels were painted the traditional yellow of British hospital ships, and her hull was painted in line with 1907 Hague Convention's requirements for military hospital ships. The overall scheme was described by the ship's chaplain, the Reverend John Fleming:

"She was a perfect beauty, freshly painted from end to end, the graceful band of green relieving the monotony of white, and the great red crosses standing out vividly against their background. In addition to the red crosses which were painted on the sides for the protection of the ship by day, there were on both sides of the ship, high up on the level of the boat deck, two red crosses, each lit by no fewer than 125 electric lights, while from end to end of the vessel there stretched a chain of bright green lights, behind which the vessel sheltered when the darkness fell. I remember one night when looking down from the mountain side upon one of the loveliest bays in Europe, catching sight of the Britannic" lying at anchor. It seemed like a picture from fairyland, and the green lights and the giant red crosses stood out in bold relief against the dark background of the sea. It was not possible, whether by day or night, to mistake the character of the ship."

After sea trials lasting a single day, on 12 December 1915 His Majesty's Hospital Ship "Britannic" was officially commissioned at Liverpool with designation G618 under the command of Captain Charles Bartlett, who in his previous post as the White Star Line's Marine Superintendent had overseen the ship's construction. During the winter of 1915 she ran between Southampton and either Naples, where casualties were embarked from smaller hospital ships, or the Allied Headquarters for the Gallipoli campaign at Mudros on the Island of Lemnos (about 50 miles west of the Dardanelles). She mostly sailed without an escort, relying on her speed to avoid enemy submarines or surface ships that might not respect her status as a military hospital ship. Germany had been advised of her status via neutral channels in Holland. In case the sight of military uniforms led the enemy to conclude she was being used as a troopship, walking wounded were only permitted on deck in their hospital suits which consisted of blue trousers and jackets with brown facings. Notwithstanding such precautions, "Britannic's" personnel were only too aware that the voyage to the eastern Mediterranean was fraught with danger. One of the British Red Cross Society's Voluntary Aid Detachment ("VAD") nurses, who sailed in "Britannic" to her overseas posting in Malta was Miss Vera Brittain, who after the war would become an ardent pacifist and would write her famous autobiography Testament of Youth, in which she recollected her voyage:

"I remember the feelings of terror the dark hours used to bring us on the "Britannic" - feelings which, of course, we never mentioned to each other at the time but afterwards all admitted we had. I used to look over the steep side of that tremendous ship and think to myself: "Perhaps now - or now -or now!" It is being on the qui vive for something that may happen at any moment of any hour which makes the strain of a long voyage nowadays. "Betty" and I were not in a very good place for being torpedoed on the "Britannic" as having a cabin we were on a lower deck than most of the others, in fact we were only a yard or two from the place the torpedo ultimately went through. I used to wake up at night and listen to the thresh of the screws and the whistle of the wind above the mastheads and the rushing of the water against the side, and wonder if any among the strange occasional crashes and bangs that went on all night was a torpedo or mine striking the ship."

"Britannic's" use was discontinued after the evacuation of Gallipoli but in September 1916 a new offensive at Salonika, where an Allied army had been sent to block German supplies to Turkey, along with British offensives against the Turkish army in Palestine and Mesopotamia, placed the smaller hospital ships in the Mediterranean under renewed pressure and "Britannic" was called up again. She sailed from Southampton for the last time on 12 November 1916 on her sixth voyage, bunkering at Naples before proceeding to Mudros. A fortnight earlier the Imperial German Navy's "U-73", a Type UE-I ocean-going submarine minelayer, had laid two barrages of six mines at right angles to the shipping lane in the Kea Channel, which separates mainland Greece from the island of Kea. The neutrally buoyant mines were held at a depth to match the draught of large warships and merchant vessels of between 18 and 21 ft below the surface using anchors and chains.

Shortly before 8:00 am on Tuesday 21 November, "Britannic" entered the Kea Channel. It was a clear, sunny day and the ship was making 20 knots in calm seas in the final stages of her voyage to Mudros where she was due to arrive late afternoon. The medical staff had just begun breakfast when at 8:12 am "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." On the bridge the Master immediately ordered the engines stopped, the watertight doors closed and a distress signal sent, while the damage was assessed and the lifeboats uncovered. The explosion had occurred on the starboard side between the No. 2 and No. 3 cargo holds, destroying the bulkhead between them, and damaging the bulkhead between the fore peak tank and the No. 1 cargo hold. The blast had also broken the watertight firemen's tunnel which led from their quarters in the bow through the cargo holds to No. 6 boiler room. The watertight doors would have been open at the time of the explosion as the watch was changing, and apparently failed to close properly, as No. 6 and No. 5 boiler rooms were flooding uncontrollably. Although the external damage to "Britannic" was more localised, the extent of the internal damage meant that in about 10 minutes, she was in the same condition "Titanic" had been in one hour after the collision with the iceberg. The loss of these first six compartments left "Britannic" dangerously close to her theoretical safety threshold.

The Master decided to try to beach the ship on the nearby Island of Kea and the engines were re-started. Unfortunately, as "Britannic" moved ahead, lifeboats were already being lowered without awaiting orders. One of the occupants was Violet Jessop, a White Star Line stewardess who had enrolled as a VAD nurse and who had not only survived the "Titanic" disaster, but had also been on board "Olympic" when she collided with HMS "Hawke" in the Solent, whose bow tore a large hole in her side near the stern. Violet's memoirs describe how as her lifeboat descended, the list to starboard meant they scraped down "Britannic's" port side, splintering glass in their faces from the boxes which formed (when lit) the green band around the hospital ship's promenade deck. Once afloat, despite the boat crews' desperate attempts to get clear, two lifeboats were drawn astern towards the propellers which, at 23 ft nine in diameter, were said to be the largest ever fitted to an ocean liner. With the ship sinking by the head and listing to starboard, the still-revolving port propeller had risen above the water, and on seeing its thrashing blades everyone in the two boats jumped overboard, including non-swimmers like Violet. The resulting carnage killed 21.

The forward motion of the ship caused the damaged compartments to fill more rapidly and as the list to starboard increased, water entered through the E deck portholes which, contrary to regulations, had been opened by the medical staff earlier that morning to ventilate the lower decks, overwhelming Harland & Wolff's improved-bulkhead design. She quickly became unmanageable and the Master, who was unaware of the tragic events aft, decided to stop engines and evacuate the ship. Violet Jessop survived and, despite all her experiences in "Olympic" class liners, she rejoined the White Star Line in 1920 as a stewardess in "Olympic". Author John Maxtone-Graham interviewed Violet in 1970 and described "Britannic's" final moments based on Violet's memoirs, which he later published:

"As she listed over to starboard, the last engineers walked along the fourth dummy stack and jumped into the water. Her master, Captain Bartlett, was the last off. Just before he stepped from the bridge into the Aegean, he signalled the final call to abandon ship, one long despairing blast on the ship's whistle. Then the "Britannic" rolled over on her beam ends. The smoking funnels collapsed, the sea poured into the casings and blew up her boilers. Just like the "Titanic", her stern rose straight into the air at the last and then slid quickly out of sight."

By 9:07 am, 55 minutes after the explosion, all that was left of the largest four-funnelled liner ever built were 35 lifeboats and scores of swimmers on a wreckage-strewn sea. "Britannic's" distress call had been received and by 10:00 am, survivors were being picked up by the Beagle class destroyers HMS "Scourge" and HMS "Foxhound", and by the cruiser HMS "Heroic", among other vessels. 1035 personnel were saved (652 crew, 306 Royal Army Medical Corps and 77 nurses), 30 died and 21 were seriously wounded. Had "Britannic's" wards been fully occupied by patients the death-toll would have been catastrophic. Some of "Britannic's" crew insisted she had been torpedoed, but there were no reports of water being thrown up on impact, and no U-boat ever claimed credit for the kill. Two days after "Britannic" was sunk, HMHS "Braemar Castle" also hit a mine laid by "U-73" but her Master was able to beach the ship before she sank in deep water.

59 years later, in December 1975, the wreck was located by Jacques Cousteau and in 1995 ROV technology enabled Dr Robert Ballard to survey it. "Britannic" lies on her starboard side in remarkable condition, and in the warm waters of the Aegean she has transformed into an artificial reef with corals and sea growths of every kind. The hull is virtually intact retaining its full 94 ft beam and most of the superstructure, including the deckhouses, ventilators, lifeboat davits and railings. As the 852 ft long ship sank in only 395 ft of water, the ship's bow came into contact with the seabed while the stern was still in the air and was almost wrenched off, causing a gaping tear beneath the well deck on the visible port side. At this depth, the wreck site can be visited by free-swimming Scuba divers. During an expedition in 2009, via this tear in the hull, divers Kohler and Stevenson were able to access the spiral staircase down to the firemen's tunnel and follow it to No. 6 boiler room, where: "glass-faced gauges and brass plaques were mounted on the bulkhead, light fixtures contained the bulbs still inside, shovels and wheelbarrows had their wood handles intact, and everything was blanketed in silt, mummified in the still water. Not only had the watertight door into No. 6 boiler room been open, at the far side of the compartment they saw the door into No. 5 boiler room was also wide open.

This should not have been the case. All such doors were fitted with floats under the floor plates which would rise as water entered the compartment, closing the doors automatically if they had not already been closed. "Olympic's" collision with HMS "Hawke" had proved that the system could cope with a sudden inrush. A stoker standing in the doorway of the liner's shaft tunnel witnessed the cruiser's ram bow smash through "Olympic's" side and, as the cruiser drifted away, water rushed in through the 7 ft hole. The automatic release from the bridge had not been activated and as the stoker released the nearest door manually, 3 ft of water entered the tunnel. The door at the other end closed automatically against the rush of water. "Titanic" expert Parks Stephenson considered what may have gone wrong in "Britannic's" case:

"I believe that the mine detonated just underneath and close to the starboard side of the hull. The resultant bubble pulses lifted the bow of the ship (but not the stern), causing hull deformation that extended hundreds of feet aft of the original explosion location. The hull deformation caused the bulkheads to also deform, throwing the watertight door tracks out of true and jamming the door in place (full open position) before they could be dropped. When the clutches holding the doors released (either by normal or emergency method), the doors refused to fall. Water rushing in virtually unrestricted caused everyone in the area to flee shortly after. And...if you lose Boiler Room 5 you lose the ship".

"Britannic's" six boiler rooms housed 24 double-ended and five single-ended coal-fired scotch boilers, making a total of 159 furnaces. Each four hour watch required 53 firemen, 24 trimmers and four leading fireman. All large passenger vessels struggled to find enough physically fit men willing to do such back-breaking work, especially in wartime as demand for men in the military increased. No. 6 and No. 5 boiler rooms were evacuated two minutes after the explosion. Could a more experienced 'black gang' have done more in terms of damage control? White Star Line historian Paul Louden-Brown expressed his view: "Imagine the conditions in the Mediterranean, the heat, the toll on the men, then the explosion. Panic from inexperienced men might also be part of the reason those doors were not closed...I think these are factors to consider. After all, it's easy for you or I to sit talking about why this or that was not done, but deep inside a metal box, below the waterline, and you hear an explosion, the lights go out, bells ringing, escaping steam, screaming, this is a nightmare situation that only the strongest could endure."

"Olympic" survived the war and was tremendously popular on the Southampton - New York service in the 1920s. Her consorts were the 34,351 gt "Homeric", laid down as Norddeutscher Lloyd's "Columbus", and the 56,551 gt "Majestic", laid down as Hamburg-Amerika Line's "Bismarck". The White Star Line did not feel able to order a vessel of the same mammoth size as the "Olympic" class again, and "Britannic" (II) was the largest British built liner until the advent of the Cunard Line's "Queen Mary". The name "Britannic" lived on in the form of a 26,943 gt motorship which served the company on the Liverpool - New York route from 1930 until 1960, and was the last liner of the White Star Line to bear its livery. In 2007 the Museum of Music Automatons in Seewen, Switzerland, was restoring its Welte Philharmonic organ. While cleaning normally hidden beams, the word "BRITANIK" was found stamped on six locations inside the organ, pointing to its intended original purpose. The instrument is used to play the museum's inventory of 1,230 original Welte company rolls, allowing visitors to hear the music that, had the war not intervened, would have filled "Britannic's" Grand Staircase as she steamed across the North Atlantic.

Article by Patrick Britton, Syndicate Associate, Claims 

Footnotes & Citations

1. Even if "Titanic" had carried more lifeboats it is unlikely that everyone would have been saved without more deck crew. Only about 50 of "Titanic's" 862 crew were Able Seaman, including the Officers, Quartermasters and Lookouts, and at least two were dispatched with each lifeboat, quickly depleting those available to launch the remaining boats. 18 lifeboats were launched in one hour 20 minutes, and the other two lifeboats floated off (one capsized). In 1914 maritime nations adopted the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention). SOLAS 1974 is still in force today (amended and updated many times) and requires passenger ships to carry enough lifeboats (some of which can be substituted by liferafts) for all passengers, plus liferafts for 25% and every crew member to participate in regular practice drills.
2. Only five of the planned eight sets of gantry davits had been installed at the time "Britannic" was requisitioned and as the remaining sets were not available in time, conventional Welin davits were fitted, making her total lifeboat complement 58.
3. Fleming, Rev. J, The Last Voyage of His Majesty's Hospital Ship "Britannic" (Wordsmith Publications, 1998) p.14.
4. Brittain V, Testament of Youth (Victor Gollancz 1933) p.269. Vera was on board during "Britannic's" 4th voyage to the Mediterranean. Her belief that the ship was deliberately torpedoed was probably based on the rumours and speculation which abounded after the sinking.
5. Jessop V and Maxtone-Graham J, Titanic Survivor - The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess (Sutton Publishing, 1998) p.172.
6. See Owners of the SS Olympic v Blunt [1913] P. 214. Fellow "Titanic" survivors who also survived "Britannic's" sinking included fireman John Priest and lookout Archie Jewel.
7.Maxtone-Graham J, The Only Way to Cross (Patrick Stephens, 1983), p.134.
8.Kohler R and Hudson C, Mystery of the Last Olympian (Best Publishing Co, 2016) p.107.
9. Ibid, p.163.
10. Ibid, p.162.
11."Olympic" was scrapped in 1935 during the Great Depression, following the merger of the Cunard Line and White Star Line in 1934.
12. In 1928 the keel of a 60,000 gt liner, "Oceanic" (III), was laid at Belfast for the White Star Line, two and a half years ahead of "Queen Mary", but her construction never progressed very far and was eventually abandoned.
13. Other sources not previously cited:
Ballard R and Archbald R, Lost Liners (Madison Publishing Inc, 1997);
Maltin T and Aston E, 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic...But Didn't! (Malt House Books, 2011);
Mills S, HMHS "Britannic": The Last Titan (Shipping Books Press, 1992);
Mills S, Hostage to Fortune - The Dramatic Story of the Last Olympian HMHS "Britannic" (Wordsmith Publications, 2002);
Mills S, The Unseen Britannic (The History Press, 2014).

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