Work had only just been started on keel 433, the last and largest of the three Olympic class ships, RMS Britannic when construction was halted to await the outcome of the inquiry into the loss of the RMS Titanic disaster.
When work was restarted many changes to the design were incorporated in the final plans. These included a double skin which increased her beam by two feet, the double bottom, itself normally five feet deep was increased to six feet. the space between the inner and outer bottoms was seperated into compartments by six huge longitudinal steel girders to minimise flooding in case of rupture. Water tight bulkheads for the most part had extended only as high as the bottom of E deck in the forward part of the ship and D deck in the rear, The Britannic had five extended to B deck and the other eleven to E deck. It no longer seemed to matter if the bulkheads and thier heavy doors bisected first class compartments. Four rows of rivets on plating where stress would be greatest, giant sized lifeboat davits, and a name change from RMS Gigantic to RMS Britannic. These modifications made her the largest in gross tonnage of the three at 48,158 tonnes.
As a hospital ship she was about 5% larger and probably would have been about 50,000 tonnes (about 10% larger) when fitted as a commercial liner. Most of this was due to increased compartmentalisation, the giant sized lifeboat davits, somewhat heavier construction throughout and a whole list of safety gear and redundant systems. The White Star Line became obsessed with safety following the disaster of her sister ship. Tonnage is based on enclosed space not weight per section, as the term implies.
She was launched on February 26th 1914 and White Star announced she would commence service between Southampton and New York in the spring of 1915. Outbreak of the First World War was to change this. On November 13th 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and officially completed as a hospital ship. Instead of being RMS, She was now HMHS Britannic. 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 Andrew Bartlett, RD, TM.
He started his career with the White Star Line in 1874 and rose through various positions serving on such ships as RMS Celtic, RMS Teutonic, RMS Oceanic and RMS Georgic. He earned his Masters Certificate in 1903. As a Master, he commanded such ships as the RMS Germanic, RMS Cedric, and for a brief period the ill fated RMS Republic. His daughter recalls that he was well liked by his passengers 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 RMS Mauretania, RMS Aquitania, and her sister, RMS Olympic, in the "Dardanelles 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 HMHS 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 Agean 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 Wight, Cowes. 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 Royal Mail and Passenger 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.
HMHS Britannic began her fourth voyage on September 24th, 1916 with members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment on board. These members of the 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 the VAD members were transferred to His Majesty's Hospital Ship Galeka. The Britannic was detained at Mudros while officials investigated the possible cause of food poisoning which had stricken 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 RMS Aquitania had suffered damage in the same storms and was laid up for repairs, and 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. She was due to leave at 10:00 am but actually left the docks at noon. The weather was calm. She carried no passengers. 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. Shortly after 8:00am she was struck by a tremendous explosion and quickly began to sink by the bow. Captain Bartlett tried unsuccessfully to beach her on Kea Island but in 55 minutes, Britain's largest liner had gone, and not quite a year from trials to sinking of only 351 days. The explosion apparently occurred at the watertight bulkhead between holds 2 and 3, and the bulkhead separating holds 2 and 1 were also damaged. 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 RMS Titanic four and a half years earlier.
She lies on her starboard side in only 350 feet of water. So shallow, that the bow hit bottom before she totally sank and with the weight, the entire bow is now bent. She was discovered in 1976 on an Underwater Exploration by Jacques Cousteau. She is largely intact except for the massive hole in her forward bow. The hull below the Shelter Deck is completely blown away between holds 2 and 3. The hull sections of the keel are simply missing for a distance of about 60 to 70 feet. The port side hull plates are bent outward, indicating a large explosion from within, probably from ignition of coal dust in the reserve bunker.
Captain Charles Bartlett was the last to leave the ship and only 30 people died from over 1100 on board at the time. Most of these deaths occurred as the ship remained under way when two lifeboats were launched prematurely and were sucked into the still turning propellers. As a strange footnote to the tragedy, one of the crew members, Violet Jessup, had been a member of the Titanic crew and she survived both sinking's and was abord the Olympic when it had the collision with HMS Hawke.
The easiest way to distinguish her from her two sisters are by the out-sized lifeboat davits, and most 1photos 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.
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