RMS Olympic was born when J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line chairman, and his wife, Julia, attended a dinner party hosted by Lord Pirrie, a partner of Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipbuilding company. Over dinner, the two powerful businessmen came up with an idea to build three luxurious Olympic class cruise liners: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic.
The new vessels would be created to compete with Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania, which were two of the fastest and biggest ships in the world at the time. With speed not being a primary concern, Ismay and Pirrie came to the conclusion that comfort and style would be the ships’ main attraction.
RMS Olympic was the first of the sister ships to be built in 1908, three months before construction began on RMS Titanic. During this time, Lord Pirrie supervised the ship’s construction. The ship was initially named ‘Number 400’ as the White Star Line Executives had failed to select a name. It was later named RMS Olympic as J. Bruce Ismay’s father, Thomas Ismay, who was the founder of the White Star Line, had planned to build a ship named Olympic as a sister ship for Oceanic, but the ship was cancelled following Thomas’s death.
The ship launched at Southampton, England on 20th October, 1910. The liner’s hull was painted a light grey colour for photographic reasons, which was a common method at the time to improve the image’s clarity on black and white film. However, it was painted back to black for the maiden voyage.
The White Star Line purposely timed RMS Olympic’s maiden voyage with RMS Titanic’s launch for publicity reasons, Before undertaking her maiden voyage, RMS Olympic docked at Liverpool and was open to the public, and arrived at Southampton on 3rd June 1911. She commenced her maiden voyage at Southampton on 14th June 1911, and would call at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before arriving at her destination of New York on 21st June, This is the same route RMS Titanic would plan to take just 10 months later.
RMS Olympic was captained by Captain Edward John Smith, who would later command RMS Titanic. Known as the largest ship in the world at the time, it garnered much attention from both the public and the press, and was therefore opened to the New York public during its first trip. 8,000 people attended the open day, whilst 10,000 people turned out to see the vessel depart the New York harbour.
RMS Olympic would become involved in its first maritime disaster on 20th September 1911, as the vessel collided into HMS Hawke, a British warship, as both ships were running parallel to each other through the Solent. However, disaster struck when RMS Olympyc turned starboard. HMS Hawke was unaware of the wide radius of the ship and both vessels impacted each other as a result, with HMS Hawke’s bow tearing two large holes in Olympic’s hull above and below the waterline.
The damage resulted in water filling into two of the ship’s watertight compartments, whilst there was also significant damage caused to the propeller shaft. While HMS Hawke nearly capsized, Olympic sailed safely back to Southampton.
The HMS Hawke collision later became a financial disaster for the White Star Line, as the Royal Navy held RMS Olympic responsible for the damage to both ships, resulting in large legal bills for the company and a hefty repair bill.
RMS Olympic quickly recovered from the incident, as the ship was patched up within two weeks at Belfast and was permanently repaired within 6 weeks. As a result of the maritime collision, Harland & Wolff were forced to delay RMS Titanic’s completion date, and used her propeller shaft for RMS Olympic, which allowed the ship to return to regular service on 29th November 1911.
However, just three months later, RMS Olympic lost a propeller blade on a voyage to New York and was forced to return to Belfast for further repairs, leading to more delays to RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage.
14th April 1912
RMS Olympic was travelling back to Southampton from New York when she received a distress call from her sister ship, RMS Titanic. Captain Herbert James Haddock ordered for the ship’s power to be set to full power to assist in the rescue, despite the fact they were 500 nautical miles away from the sinking vessel’s location.
The ship received a message from RMS Carpathia when she was just 100 nautical miles away from Titanic’s last known location. Captain Rostron of the Cunard liner explained that the ship’s course would be of no use, as all the Titanic survivors had been rescued and that the ship foundered at 2.20am.
RMS Olympic offered to pick up survivors to help in the rescue; however, Captain Rostron expressed concern that it may upset the survivors to step aboard the liner, which was identical to RMS Titanic. As a result, RMS Olympic set sail to Southampton, and cancelled all concerts as a mark of respect for the lives lost.
The White Star Line withdrew RMS Olympic from service on 9th October 1912 in order to improve safety on the ship. The number of ship’s lifeboats was increased from 20 to 64, and an inner watertight skin was installed in the boiler and engine rooms to create a double hull. In addition, fiver watertight bulkheads were added to B-Deck, and an extra bulkhead was added to subdivide the electrical dynamo room.
In 1915, RMS Olympic was commissioned as a troopship, and was painted grey, had her portholes blocked and deck lights turned off to make the ship less visible to the enemy. However, she was attacked by U-103, a German submarine. The Olympic’s captain swung the ship hard into starboard to avoid the incoming torpedo; however, this resulted in the ship being placed on course with the attacking submarine. While the U-103 sank as a result of the collision, RMS Olympic remained intact.
RMS Olympic received an interior refit after the war, while the ship’s boiler were converted to oil burning boilers. She then embarked on regular transatlantic crossing on 25th June 1920, under the command of Captain Bertram Hates.
The White Star Line, struggling to make a profit from their vessels, merged with the Cunard Line. However, RMS Olympic collided with a nantucket lightship on her first voyage for the company on 10th May 1935, resulting in the death of 7 people.
As RMS Olympic and Mauretania were two of the oldest ships in the company, Cunard laid them both up at Southampton in April 1935. As a result, all of the ships’ fittings and fixtures were auctioned – with many being sold to the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick.
The RMS Olympic was the last of the Olympic class liners founded by Ismay and Pirrie, and served the seas for 25 years.