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400px-WST-6-FP.jpg HMHS Britannic


  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Britannic
  • 3 Changes to the Olympic Class design
  • 4 HMHS Britannic
  • 5 Bibliography
  • 6 Photographs

To the general public Titanic is possibly the most famous passenger liner ever built; largely because of the considerable loss of life that arose when she sank on her maiden voyage and the resultant media hype; then and ever since. If that tragedy had not happened, she would only have had fleeting fame and her name would be generally unknown today. Interestingly there have been other peacetime passenger ship disasters with greater loss of life that are unknown to the general public. The centenary of the tragedy has generated considerable interest in the Titanic story. Perhaps it is inevitable that there has also been a great deal of romance and fantasy surrounding the disaster. The aim of these Articles is to provide a factual account of why she was built; what she was; what happened on her maiden voyage, the aftermath of the tragedy and what happened to her two sister ships. This Part covers the short life of the third Olympic class liner Britannic. Parts 7 and 8 continue the history through to the final collapse of White Star.

For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -

  • Part 1. The establishment of White Star and Harland & Wolff
  • Part 2. International Mercantile Marine Company
  • Part 3. Olympic
  • Part 4. Titanic
  • Part 5. The immediate aftermath of the Titanic disaster
  • Part 6: Britannic
  • Part 7. The turmoil of war
  • Part 8. The lingering demise of White Star


  1. In these Articles the term Gross Registered Tonnage - usually abbreviated to GRT, or merely tons - is used to define the size of a ship. This term had no connection with weight. It was a measurement based upon a survey of the total internal watertight volume of a vessel, with 1 gross registered ton being equal to 100 cubic feet. The calculation was complex and subject to manipulation, with increases sometimes being engineered for prestige reasons and (more frequently) decreases being made to reduce harbour dues, pilotage charges, etc.
  2. White Star: For the greater part of the existence of the Line, White Star was merely the trading name of Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. To avoid confusion White Star is used in all respects in this Article.


Changes to the Olympic Class design[edit]

Britannic was the third and largest of the Olympic Class of transatlantic liners. Following the loss of the Titanic and the subsequent inquiries, several design changes were made during the building of Britannic. The main alterations 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.


Photo 1: A postcard showing Britannic under construction at Belfast

A more obvious external change was the fitting of large crane-like davits, each capable of holding six lifeboats. Additional lifeboats could be stored on the deckhouse roof, within reach of the davits and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. The aim of this feature 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.


Photo 2: The massive davits fitted to Britannic

To accommodate the double hull, Britannic was 2 feet (0.61 m) wider than her predecessors, which raised her tonnage to 48,158 GRT and improvements were made to the Third Class accommodation. To maintain a 21 knot service speed a more powerful exhaust turbine was provided.


Photo 3: Fitting blades to Britannic's low pressure turbine


Photo 4: Britannic's forward launch poppet. At launch the entire weight of a ship is supported on its forward and aft poppets, which sit on the specially greased wooden launch ways. The standing ways are diagonally braced in this photograph. The running ways are above. Excess white coloured grease is visable between the two. The poppet is held in place by triggers that are released during the launch ceremony as the ship is named.

Britannic was launched by H&W, Belfast on 26 February 1914 and was still fitting out when World War I began. Those shipyards with Admiralty contracts were immediately given top priority for available shipbuilding materials.

Photo 5: The launch of Britannic

All civil contracts were slowed down. White Star withdrew Olympic from service and she returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly.


Photo 6: Britannic fitting out at Belfast. Olympic's funnels are visible in the background. The two vessels tied alongside Britannic are cargo ships being disguised as battleships to act as decoys to confuse German U-Boats

In May 1915, Britannic completed moored engine trials and was then laid-up at Belfast; the same month as the Cunard super-liner Lusitania was torpedoed. The following month, the British Admiralty began to requisition passenger liners as troop transports for the Gallipoli campaign and Olympic began trooping duties in September.

HMHS Britannic[edit]

As the casualties mounted during the disastrous Gallipoli landings, the need for large hospital ships for treatment and evacuation of wounded became evident. On 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned from lay-up as a hospital ship. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was became HMHS (His Majesty's Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.


Photo 7: HMHS Britannic

Britannic had completed five successful round voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre, transporting the sick and wounded back to the United Kingdom on the return leg, when she departed Southampton again on 12 November 1916 bound for Limnos. She arrived at Naples on the morning of 17 November for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.


Photo 8: HMHS Britannic. The black marks on her hull are coal dust deposited during bunkering

After being delayed by a storm Britannic, left Naples and by next morning the storms died, allowing the ship to pass through the Strait of Messina without problems and Cape Mattapan was rounded during the early hours of 21 November. By morning Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion and the island of Kea. At 08:12 a loud explosion shook the ship; Britannic had struck a mine laid by U-73. The mine exploded on the starboard side of the vessel between holds two and three, but its force also damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. As a result the first four watertight compartments were rapidly filling with water. To make things worse, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room six and its protecting watertight doors had both been seriously damaged allowing water unrestricted access to that boiler room.


Photo 9: An Olympic Class mechanically operated watertight door in H&W workshops. The horizontal bar is a stiffener that will be removed when the door is fitted in the ship

Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time of the explosion and Bartlett ordered the closure of the watertight doors, the sending of a distress signal and the preparation of the lifeboats. Unfortunately in addition to the damaged watertight doors of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five also failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Water was now flowing further aft into boiler room five. Britannic had reached her damage stability 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). The next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have ensured the survival of the ship, were it not for the fact that the nurses had opened most of the lower deck portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship settled by the head and its list increased, water reached the level of the open portholes and began to enter the ship aft of the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, Britannic could not stay afloat.


Photo 10: A Britannic nursing ward

Captain Bartlett tried to save his vessel by running her ashore on Kea, about three miles away. The ship was only sluggishly responding to the helm, but by steering with the propellers Britannic slowly started to turn. Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew were preparing the lifeboats. While most of the sailors remained at their posts until the last moment, some crew members, mostly stewards and stokers, behaved badly. A number of boats were seized by these panic stricken men and lowered without authority while the ship was moving. Two of these lifeboats were released too soon, dropped some 6 feet into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats then drifted into the ship's still-turning propellers, which were now only partially submerged. Both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were smashed to pieces by the inward-rotating propeller blades. When Captain Bartlett received word of the carnage he gave the order to stop the engines, realising that water was entering the ship more rapidly because Britannic was moving and knowing that there was a risk of more panic stricken victims.

The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 08:35 he gave the order to abandon ship. Working rapidly, with great skill and determination, the officers and men of Britannic succeeded in launching sufficient lifeboats, plus a motor launch to rescue almost all of those that were still on board.


Photo 11: An artist's impression of Britannic sinking

The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. By 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. Nevertheless the crew still managed to throw collapsible boats into the water and even manhandled a final lifeboat off the deck at the very last moment. 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 blast 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 a staircase into the ship's fourth funnel, which was a dummy that ventilated the engine room. Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side and sank at 09:07, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion. She was the largest ship lost during World War I.

Compared to Titanic, the rescue of Britannic was facilitated by four factors: the temperature was higher (21 °C compared to 0 °C) for Titanic); more lifeboats were available (48 out of which 37 were launched and 35 stayed afloat, compared to Titanic's 18 launched plus 2 that floated off); help was closer at hand and arrived less than 2 hours after first distress call compared to 3½ hours for the Titanic; and it was a much more efficient evacuation. Even so some stokers and stewards behaved badly and it was only through the actions of an unknown officer who kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to stand by their positions near the boat stations that an orderly evacuation was achieved.

Greek fishermen were first on the scene and began rescuing people from the water. At 10:00, HMS Scourge sighted the first lifeboats and ten minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. HMS Heroic had arrived in the area some minutes earlier and picked up 494. Many survivors arrived at the small port of Korissia on Kea. The destroyer HMS Foxhound, the light cruiser HMS Foresight and the French tug Goliath all joined the rescue effort and as a result of their combined efforts 1,036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried, the remainder were never found; most having died when their panic driven, blind rush to escape led them into the path of Britannic's turning propeller.


Photo 12: HMS Foresight


A complete Bibliography for this Article is given at the end of Part 8.


Some of the photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. Many others are from Wikimedia Commons and the Danish website and are in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 6 have been provided as follows: -

  1. Wikimedia Commons
  3. Wikimedia Commons
  5. Ships Nostalgia - awatean
  7. Ships Nostalgia - threebs
  8. Ships Nostalgia - cunard61
  9. Ships Nostalgia - Tmac1720
  12. Wikimedia Commons

Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson

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