Over a dinner party, Lord Pirrie, a Harland & Wolff partner, and J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, came up with an idea to create three Olympic class liners to compete with Cunard’s high speed vessels. It was here that RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic was born.
RMS Britannic was the last of the sister ships to be constructed on 30th November 1911 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and was launched on 26th February 1914. Following the sinking of RMS Titanic on 15th April 1912 after the ship hit an iceberg, the vessel’s name was changed from RMS Gigantic to RMS Britannic. The design of the ship was also altered following the disaster, with the ship being fitted with a double hull and 6 out of 15 watertight bulkheads were raised to the B Deck. However, the biggest alteration was the fitting of crane-line davits that could hold six lifeboats each.
World War I, however, forced all civil contracts on large ocean liners to slow down in August 1914, as shipyards with Admiralty contracts had top priority for the use of raw materials. However, RMS Olympic and RMS Britannic were not requisitioned, as it was easier to operate much smaller ships. However, in May 1915, RMS Britannic was requisitioned with just four weeks’ notice. On 13th November 1915, following the loss of many large ocean liners, RMS Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital shop due to an increasing number of casualties. As a result, she was repainted with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, as well as receiving a new name: HMHS Britannic.
The Final Voyage
Following five successful voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre to Britain transporting sick and wounded troops, Britannic made her last voyage from Southampton to Lemnos on 12th November 1916. After successfully passing through Gibraltar and arriving at Naples on 17th November, she would take a break due to a storm, before sailing through Strait of Messina without incident.
It was on 21st November 1916 at 8:12am that the ship was hit on the starboard side by a torpedo from an enemy or mine. Nurses and doctors quickly sprang into action, whilst many others on the ship were unaware the shit had been struck. The explosion damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak, resulting in four compartments quickly filling with water, as well as the boiler room.
A distress signal was sent to nearby ships, whilst Captain Bartlett ordered for the watertight doors to be closed and for the crew to prepare the lifeboats. For a reason unknown, the watertight doors between boiler rooms six and five failed to close, resulting in more water filling the ship. However, the Britannic had reached her flood limit but could fortunately stay afloat whilst motionless – an improvement that had been made following the RMS Titanic tragedy. However, with water began to enter aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms four and 4 – meaning the vessel could no longer stay afloat.
With HMHS Britannic starting to sink, Captain Bartlett ordered for the ship to be navigated towards the island, with the hoping of beaching the vessel. However, the weight of the rudder made navigation difficult, whilst the steering gear was damaged in the explosion. He then gave the order for the port side of the shaft to be driven at a faster speed on the starboard size, which moved HMHS Britannic towards the island.
As the ship began to move, the crew began preparing. With many stewards and crew creating a panic, an unknown officer took control of the situation and ordered for the sailors to remain at their stations, whilst leaving the stewards on the lifeboats. The officer then started to lower the boats, but stopped them 2 metres above the water when he realised the ship’s engines were turning. However, the stewards in the lifeboats began cursing the officer. Orders later arrived that no lifeboats should be launched whilst the captain attempted to reach the nearby island.
A group of firemen, however, had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authorisation and filled it to maximum capacity. Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke ordered therefore ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.
It was at 8.30am when two lifeboats were taken from the boat station without authorisation. The lifeboat violently dropped two metres into the water, with the boat drifting back into the turning propellers. Both the lifeboats and its occupants were unfortunately killed by power and speed of the propellers. News of the carnage quickly reached Captain Bartlett, who quickly ordered for the engines to be stopped to avoid risking the lives of other passengers and crew. Luckily, the propellers were stopped just as a third lifeboat entered the water, with the boat’s occupants quickly pushing the boat against the blades to safety.
At 8.35am, the captain gave the order to abandon shop and ordered the crew to lower the lifeboats into the water. However, by 8.45am, the boat’s list was so great that the davits became inoperable. The quick thinking unknown officer decided that he, along with six sailors, should move to mid-ship on the boat deck and throw overboard collapsible rafts and deck chairs on the starboard side.
At 9.00am, Captain Bartlett sounded his final whistles when he was soon washed overboard, as the water had reached the bridge. He was able to swim to a collapsible boat and then continued to co-ordinate the rescue mission. Following the final whistle, the brave engineers finally left their posts until the last moment – just like the RMS Titanic crew. HMHS Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side soon after, as her funnels began to collapse and she began to sink.
Survivors in the water were quickly rescued by Greek fishermen from Kea on their caique. At 10am, HMS Scourge arrived at the scene and picked up 339 survivors, only to be quickly followed a few minutes later by HMS Heroic who saved 494 people. Another 150 people were rescued by Korissia, and housed surviving doctors and nurses who attempted to save some of the injured men, using lifebelts and aprons to make dressings.
The heroic actions of the ships’ crew and the HMHS Britannic’s Captain resulted in 1,036 lives being saved. Thirty men unfortunately lost their lives in the disaster.