The Britannic: Were the White Star's Olympic Class Liners Cursed?

Britannic: Were White Star’s Olympic Liners Cursed?

Artist representation of Britannic Wreck

Out of the three luxury liners that were commissioned by White Star Line, only RMS Olympic lived a long and prosperous life on the sea. We all know what happened to White Star’s first-born dream ship, RMS Titanic, and now let us tell you all about the youngest of the three sisters; Britannic. The Olympic Class Liner that never made it past one-year-old or onto the Atlantic.

Learn more about the luxury liner that was to be the pinnacle of safety, the last of three “unsinkable ships” that proved White Star’s bold statement to be one of the biggest inaccuracies in marketing history.

Were these luxury cruise vessels always destined for doom or, was it just a sign of the tumultuous times they were born into?

Building the Big Little Sister

The third and youngest sister vessel of the Olympic fleet began life in Harland and Wolff construction yards, in the same birth as her big sister before her, the Olympic. Britannic was to be the ultimate luxury liner, her build taking point from those that went before her.

Britannic Harland and Wolff
Credit Wiki Commons – Maritime Quest

No one at White Star or Harland and Wolff could have possibly predicted the hard lessons that were learned about the Olympic class liners. Their lessons taught in the worst ways possible, nevertheless, it was clear safety improvements had to be made.

Firstly Britannic’s higher bulkheads were fitted, extending all the way up to B-Deck. On Titanic, the same safety features only reached 10ft above the waterline, a major component that ensured its swift and tragic sinking. These newly fashioned bulkheads on Britannic meant that if the vessel were to suffer a similar impact to Titanic, she would remain afloat but immobile with up to six compartments flooded.

Of course, another powerful and painful lesson learned from Titanic was that every ship should have enough lifeboats for those onboard.

Britannic had 46 lifeboats secured in eight stations along deck, all of which could accommodate more than one boat each meaning there was still plenty of space for passengers. A poor reason given for the lack of lifeboats on Titanic was that they would be an unnecessary waste of space on an unsinkable ship, taking up valuable promenading room for the upper classes.

Britannic Postcard
Credit: Creative Commons-  Frederic Logghe

Each of the lifeboat stations had extra components added to aid the safe and speedy evacuation of every passenger and crew member. These included lights for night evacuations and motor launches, instead of hand-operated ones, that allowed lifeboats to be loaded on deck then lowered into the sea safely.

Because of all the modifications, Britannic would be the big little sister to Titanic and Olympic, weighing in at nearly 50,000 tonnes and having a slightly wider gate.

Sadly, despite all these extra safety modifications and adaptions, Britannic would sink less than one year after being launched, three times faster than Titanic. The major difference being that all 1065 passengers made it off the ship alive, even if not all of them made it to shore.

More to come on that later.

War Gets in the Way

Sat in the fitting out dock of Harland and Wolff, Britannic was intended to sail with all the finery of her big sisters before her.

This was not to be, as war intervened in August 1914 causing, as expected, delays in the funding and facilities needed to build luxury cruise liners. Disastrous campaigns in the Mediterranean meant that in November 1915, the third Olympic class liner was requested by the British navy to serve as a much-needed hospital ship.

Britannic would be given a white paint job, with two red crosses and a green strip to begin collecting the many wounded from the near massacre of the Gallipoli landings.

The entire ship was overhauled, transforming what was to be a luxury liner into Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship. Nearly 3,500 hospital beds were added, upper deck social areas became restrooms for the wounded and B Deck cabins accommodated the medical staff, whilst the stunning first-class quarters became fully equipped operating rooms.

Credit: Wiki Commons – Allan Green, 1878 – 1954

From December 1915 till June 1916, Britannic joined other liners in the war effort. Serving her country as a fully functioning floating hospital, collecting wounded and treating them at sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

It seemed all was over and done by June 1916 and Britannic was given a much-needed makeover, to the tune of £75,000 paid by the government. She was restored to her peacetime finery, ready to take on the transatlantic travel trade alongside her big sister the Olympic.

War gets in the way, in August 1916, and Britannic is recalled into service, this time as a transport ship. For the next few months, Britannic completed 5 missions to and from war zones, faced heavy storms and a short period of quarantine when an outbreak of illness on board affected crew and army passengers.

Would Britannic ever make it to the other side of the Atlantic as intended, filled with first-class travellers and immigrants searching for a new and exciting life?

The Little Sister Sinks

Less than a year after being officially launched, Britannic, like Titanic before her, would be lying at the bottom of the Ocean. Sunk in the Kea Channel, by what would later be identified as a German naval mine on November 21st, 1916 at 08:12 am.

German mine
Credit: Wiki Commons – Pelman, L (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer

On the sixth and final mission of Britannic, there were 673 crew members, 77 nurses and 315 army medics onboard all on route to Greek island Lemos to collect more soldiers.

A bad omen perhaps, a violent storm kept the Britannic in Naples, where she’d stopped as usual for refuelling and water replenishment, for three days. On the third day, Britannic set out on what was to be the last leg of her sailing career.

Early in the morning, after captains’ inspections and breakfast, an explosion occurred that shook the ship to its core. It was initially thought by some that Britannic had struck an immobile object in the sea, or perhaps a smaller boat but those in command new something far worse had happened.

Crew in the main dining rooms felt the gravity of the impact and immediately reacted, initiating emergency procedures. Those on the bridge ordered the watertight doors to be sealed and immediate disaster was averted. Water couldn’t possibly spill along the entire length of the ship thanks to the huge bulkheads spanning the entire height of the lower decks.

Britannic Deck plans
Credit: Wiki Commons – titanicandco.com

Or so they thought.

After all, the improved safety procedures that were in place ensured that six of the watertight compartments could flood and still keep Britannic above water. Only four compartments were understood to be filling with water.

Another Unsinkable Ship Sinks

The curse of the Olympic liners had struck again,  and the impact of the blast caused one of the watertight doors to jam, unable to drop. Further damage to the connecting fireman tunnels and the boiler room was letting even more water in.

The final blow to the Britannic’s speedy demise to the depths was sadly one of human error.

On route to collect soldiers, the thoughtful nurses onboard had opened all the portholes on the lower decks to air them out ready for new occupants. The damage from the naval mine blast had caused Britannic to lean into the water heavily, therefore,  as the ship sank lower, water poured into the lower decks through these open portholes.

Britannic was going down and, despite the exhaustive safety modifications completed at construction, she would be down in less than an hour.

Unthinkable Tragedy

Captain’s orders were to hold lowering lifeboats so efforts could be made to beach the Britannic on the Island of Kea. The attempts didn’t work, and Britannic began to lean still further and deeper into the water, so deep in fact that several feet of the ships gigantic propellers were now above the water line, still spinning fast.

Giant propeller of Titanic
Credit: Wiki Commons – Harland & Wolff Shipyard – Titanic’s giant propellers in dry dock

The crew onboard began to panic fearing a complete capsize of the ship and against orders, they began dropping lifeboats into the sea carrying evacuees. In a matter of seconds, two of the three lifeboats lowered were sucked into the giant spinning propellers, destroyed on impact in a gruesome fashion, leaving 30 dead and many horribly injured.

A third prematurely launched and loaded lifeboat was gradually being pulled into the propeller’s wake. Just in time the captain stopped the engines and gave up trying to save his ship, giving the order to abandon the sinking Britannic at 08:35 am, those in the third lifeboat were narrowly saved from a gruesome fate.

The final moments of Britannic saw the stern of the mighty vessel rising into the air, similar to that of the Titanic, before plunging below the deep water. Of the 1065 passengers onboard Britannic, 1035 made it to shore with only 24 injured.

Lucky perhaps, that the ship was empty of its cargo. Had it been full of wounded soldiers the tragedy could have far outweighed that of the Titanic, doubling the horrendous loss of life due to the speed that the Britannic went down.

Artist representation of Britannic Wreck
Credit William Barney – williambarney.wixsite.com/williambarney/artwork

There Britannic shipwreck lies today, in 400 ft of warm Mediterranean water in the Kea Channel still entirely intact in all her wartime splendour. Britannic never once sailed as a luxury cruise liner, never took to the Atlantic like her sisters before her and only outlived Titanic by 11 months.

Preserving Pieces of Maritime Heritage

At 30 James Street, guests can experience the first-class quality of a White Star luxury liner on dry land.

From booking to stay in any of our stunning Titanic-themed suites to dining in the remarkable rooftop restaurant Carpathia, all of which is steeped in Liverpool’s long maritime heritage.

Titanic themed hotel room
Luxury hotel room on The Fortune Floor

By looking into the past, we at 30 James Street help preserve the important stories and records for future generations. The pioneering work of White Star Line provided the world with the earliest first-class trans-Atlantic travel, the curse of the Olympic liners perhaps only a tell of the tumultuous times in which they were born.

Book to stay in a luxury hotel, at the heart of Liverpool city centre and learn a lot more about how the city helped shape the world we know today.

Call 0151 236 0166 or email info@signatureliving.co.uk, and check out our amazing accommodation offers, perfect for short city breaks and exploring the city’s culture and top landmarks.