HMHS Britannic . The hospital ship Britannic, Titanic's sister . HMHS Britannic was the third and largest Olympic-class ocean liner of the White Star Line. It was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and was intended to enter service as a transatlantic passenger liner. However, it was launched on the eve on the First World War and was quickly put to use as a hospital ship. In that role it struck a mine off the Greek island of Kea on 21 November, 1916, and sank with the loss of 30 lives.
Following the loss of the Titanic and the subsequent inquiries, several design changes were made to the remaining Olympic-class liners. With Britannic, these changes were made before launching (Olympic was refitted on her return to Harland and Wolff). The main changes included the introduction of a double hull along the engine and boiler rooms and raising six out of the 15 watertight bulkheads up to 'B' Deck. A more obvious external change was the fitting of large crane-like davits, each capable of holding six lifeboats. Additional lifeboats could be stored within reach of the davits on the deckhouse roof, and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. The aim of this design was to enable all the lifeboats to be launched, even if the ship developed a list that would normally prevent lifeboats being launched on the side opposite to the list. These davits were not fitted to Olympic.
Britannic's hull was also 2 feet (0.61 m) wider than her predecessors due to the redesign after the loss of Titanic. To keep to a 21 knots (39 km/h) service speed, the shipyard installed a larger turbine rated for 18,000 horsepower (13,000 kW)—versus Olympic's and Titanic's 16,000 horsepower (12,000 kW)—to compensate for the vessel's extra width.
Although the White Star Line always denied it most sources say that the ship was supposed to be named Gigantic, a vessel over 1,000 feet.
Britannic was launched on 26 February, 1914 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and fitting out began. In August 1914, before Britannic could commence transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, World War I began. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including the Britannic) were slowed down. The military authorities requisitioned a large number of ships as armed merchant cruisers or for troop transport. The Admiralty was paying the companies for the use of their vessels but the risk of losing a ship during military operations was high. However, the big ocean liners were not taken for military use, as smaller vessels were much easier to operate. The White Star decided to withdraw RMS Olympic from service until the danger had passed. RMS Olympic returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly. All this would change in 1915.
The need for increased tonnage grew critical as military operations extended to the Eastern Mediterranean. In May 1915, Britannic completed mooring trials of her engines, and was prepared for emergency entrance into service with as little as four weeks notice. The same month also saw the first major loss of a civilian ocean vessel when the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed near the Irish coast by SM U-20.
The following month, the British Admiralty decided to use recently requisitioned passenger liners as troop transports during the Gallipoli campaign (also called the Dardanelles service). The first to sail were Cunard's RMS Mauretania and RMS Aquitania. As the Gallipoli landings proved to be disastrous and the casualties mounted, the need for large hospital ships for treatment and evacuation of wounded became evident. RMS Aquitania was diverted to hospital ship duties in August (her place as a troop transport would be taken by the RMS Olympic in September) and on 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship from her storage location at Belfast. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was renamed HMHS (His Majesty's Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett (1868 - 1945).
After completing five successful voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre and back to the United Kingdom transporting the sick and wounded, Britannic departed Southampton for Lemnos at 14:23 on 12 November 1916, her sixth voyage to the Mediterranean Sea. The Britannic passed Gibraltar around midnight on 15 November and arrived at Naples on the morning of 17 November for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.
A storm kept the ship at Naples until Sunday afternoon, when Captain Bartlett decided to take advantage of a brief break in the weather and continue on. The seas rose once again just as Britannic left the port but by next morning the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan was rounded during the first hours of Tuesday, 21 November. By the morning Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion (the southernmost point of Attica, the prefecture that includes Athens) and the island of Kea.
At 08:12 on Tuesday, 21 November 1916, a loud explosion shook the ship. The cause, whether it was a torpedo from an enemy submarine or a mine, was not apparent. The reaction in the dining room was immediate; doctors and nurses left instantly for their posts. Not everybody reacted the same way, as further aft the power of the explosion was less felt and many thought the ship had hit a smaller boat. Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time, and the gravity of the situation was soon evident. The first reports were frightening. The explosion had taken place on the starboard side between holds two and three, but the force of the explosion had damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. That meant that the first four watertight compartments were filling rapidly with water. To make things worse, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room six had also been seriously damaged and water was flowing into that boiler room.
Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Unfortunately, another surprise was waiting. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five also failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Now water was flowing further aft into boiler room five. The Britannic had reached her flooding limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with her first six watertight compartments flooded and had five watertight bulkheads rising all the way up to B-deck. Those measures were taken after the Titanic disaster (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded but the bulkheads only rose as high as E-deck). Luckily, the next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have guaranteed the survival of the ship. However, there was something else that probably sealed Britannic's fate: the open portholes of the lower decks. The nurses had opened most of those portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship's list increased, water reached this level and began to enter aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, the Britannic could not stay afloat.
On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was trying to save his vessel. Only two minutes after the blast, boiler rooms five and six had to be evacuated. In other words, in about ten minutes the Britannic was roughly in the same condition the Titanic was one hour after the collision with the iceberg. Fifteen minutes after the ship was struck the open portholes on E-deck were underwater. Water also entered the ship's aft section from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. The Britannic quickly developed a serious list to starboard. To his right Bartlett saw the shores of Kea, about three miles away. He decided to make a last desperate effort to beach the ship. This was not an easy task because of the combined effect of the list and the weight of the rudder. The steering gear was unable to respond properly but by using the propeller (giving more power to the port shaft) Britannic slowly started to turn right.
Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crewmembers were preparing the lifeboats. Some of the boats were immediately rushed by a group of stewards and some sailors, who had started to panic. An unknown officer kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to get out and stand by their positions near the boat stations. He decided to leave the stewards on the lifeboats as they were responsible for starting the panic and he did not want them in his way during the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them in order to take charge of the lifeboat after leaving the ship. After this episode, all the sailors under his command remained at their posts until the last moment. As no RAMC personnel were near this boat station at that time, the Officer started to lower the boats, but when he saw that the ship's engines were still running, he stopped them within six feet (2 m) of the water and waited for orders from the bridge. The occupants of the lifeboats did not take this decision very well and started cursing. Shortly after this, orders finally arrived: no lifeboats should be launched, as the Captain had decided to beach the Britannic.
Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke was making the arrangements for the lowering of the lifeboats from the aft davits of the starboard boat deck when he spotted a group of firemen who had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authorisation and had not filled it to maximum capacity. Dyke ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.
At 08:30, two lifeboats from the boat station assigned to Third Officer David Laws were lowered without his knowledge through the use of the automatic release gear. Those two lifeboats dropped some 6 feet into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats soon drifted into the still-turning propellers, which were almost out of the water by now. As the first one reached the turning blades, both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were torn to pieces. By then the word of the massacre arrived on the bridge. Captain Bartlett, seeing that water was entering more rapidly as Britannic was moving and that there was a risk of more victims, gave the order to stop the engines. The propellers stopped turning the moment a third lifeboat was about to be reduced to splinters. RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely.
The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 08:35, he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. The unknown officer had already launched his two lifeboats and managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the after set of portside davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First Officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use its speed to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the sinking Britannic. After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown officer filled another lifeboat with seventy-five men and launched it with great difficulty because the port side was now very high from the surface due to the list to starboard. By 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. The unknown officer with six sailors decided to move to mid-ship on the boat deck to throw overboard-collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. About thirty RAMC personnel who were still left on the ship followed them. As he was about to order these men to jump then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown officer spotted Sixth officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat but they had not enough men. Quickly, the unknown officer ordered his group of forty men to assist the Sixth officer. Together they managed to lift it, load it with men, then launch it safely.
At 09:00, Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle then just walked into the water, which had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to co-ordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blow was the final signal for the ship's engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their heroic colleagues on the Titanic, had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via the staircase into funnel #4, which ventilated the engine room.
The Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop (remarkable in that she was also one of the survivors of Britannic's sister-ship Titanic, as well as the third sister, Olympic, when she collided with the HMS Hawke), described the last seconds: "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 09:07, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion. The Britannic was the largest ship lost during World War I.
The Lego version of the Britannic is modelled on the other White Star Line ship I built in 2004, the Olympic. Both contain LED's for nighttime viewing and have virtually identical hull designs.
The Britannic from the rear
Looking onto the forecastle, just behind the first funnel
A close up view of the red cross. Britannic had six, three on each side
A close view of the Britannic's prow. Today this is the most damaged part of the Britannic, having broken free when the ship sank. The rest of the ship is in remarkable condition, having spent 93 years underwater.
The curved stern. A rudder has not been installed yet.
The Britannic illuminated at night. To the right is Olympic
A distance view of Britannic at night. The four funnels can be seen, along with a red cross in the centre of the hull