Steamship Sunday – HMHS Britannic Sinks 21 November 1916

Steamship Sunday

britannic-launch-postcard

HMHS Britannic Sinks 21 November 1916

Britannic, the forgotten sister of White Star Line’s ill-fated trio: Titanic, Olympic and Britannic, sinks in the Aegean Sea on 21 November 1916

HMHS Britannic was the third Olympic-class ocean liner of the White Star Line. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and was intended to enter service as a transatlantic passenger liner. She was longer than Olympic with her 852 foot length but thirty feet shorter than Titanic.

Following the loss of Titanic and the subsequent inquiries, several design changes were made to the remaining Olympic-class liners. With Britannic, these changes were made before launching (Olympic was refitted on her return to Harland and Wolff). The main changes 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. A more obvious external change was the fitting of large crane-like davits, each capable of holding six lifeboats. Additional lifeboats could be stored within reach of the davits on the deckhouse roof, and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. The aim of this design 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. These davits were not fitted to Olympic.

britannic-construction

britannicconstruction

There is an error in this postcard showing the construction of Britannic. It shows her length to be 900 feet, but she was some 30′ shorter than her sister Titanic.

Britannic‘s hull was also 2 feet wider than her predecessors due to the redesign after the loss of Titanic. To keep to a 21 knots (26.25 mph) service speed, the shipyard installed a larger turbine rated at 18,000 horsepower – versus Olympic‘s and Titanic‘s 16,000 horsepower – to compensate for the vessel’s extra width.

Although the White Star Line sometimes denied it, most sources say that the ship was supposed to be named Gigantic.

britannic-gigantic

Britannic was launched on 26 February 1914 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and fitting out began. She had been constructed in the same gantry slip used to build RMS Olympic. So by reusing Olympic‘s space saved the shipyard time and money in clearing out a third like size slip as had been used for Olympic and Titanic.

In August 1914, before Britannic could commence transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, World War I began. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including the Britannic) were slowed down. The military authorities requisitioned a large number of ships as armed merchant cruisers or for troop transport. The Admiralty was paying the companies for the use of their vessels but the risk of losing a ship during military operations was high. However, the big ocean liners were not taken for military use, as smaller vessels were much easier to operate. The White Star decided to withdraw RMS Olympic from service until the danger had passed. RMS Olympic returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly. All this would change in 1915.

The need for increased tonnage grew critical as military operations extended to the Eastern Mediterranean. In May 1915, Britannic completed mooring trials of her engines, and was prepared for emergency entrance into service with as little as four weeks notice.

On 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship from her storage location at Belfast. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was renamed HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.

britannic_by_hmhs

At 08:12 on 21 November 1916, a loud explosion shook the ship. The cause, whether it was a torpedo from an enemy submarine or a mine, was not apparent. The reaction in the dining room was immediate; doctors and nurses left instantly for their posts. Not everybody reacted the same way, as further aft the power of the explosion was less felt and many thought the ship had hit a smaller boat. Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time, and the gravity of the situation was soon evident. The first reports were frightening. The explosion had taken place on the starboard side between holds two and three, but the force of the explosion had damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. That meant that the first four watertight compartments were filling rapidly with water. To make things worse, the firemen’s tunnel connecting the firemen’s quarters in the bow with boiler room six had also been seriously damaged and water was flowing into that boiler room.

Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Unfortunately, another surprise was waiting. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen’s tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five also failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Now water was flowing further aft into boiler room five. Britannic had reached her flooding 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). Luckily, the next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have guaranteed the survival of the ship. However, there was something else that probably sealed Britannic‘s fate: the open portholes of the lower decks. The nurses had opened most of those portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship’s list increased, water reached this level and began to enter aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, Britannic could not stay afloat.

britannic-sinking-ken-marschall

The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 08:35, he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. An unknown officer had already launched his two lifeboats and managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the after set of portside davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First Officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use its speed to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the sinking Britannic.

After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown officer filled another lifeboat with seventy-five men and launched it with great difficulty because the port side was now very high from the surface due to the list to starboard. By 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. The unknown officer with six sailors decided to move to mid-ship on the boat deck to throw overboard-collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. About thirty RAMC personnel who were still left on the ship followed them. As he was about to order these men to jump then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown officer spotted Sixth officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat but they had not enough men. Quickly, the unknown officer ordered his group of forty men to assist the Sixth officer. Together they managed to lift it, load it with men, then launch it safely.

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 blow 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 the staircase into funnel #4, which ventilated the engine room.

Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop (who was also one of the survivors of Britannic‘s sister-ship Titanic, as well as the third sister, Olympic, when she collided with the HMS Hawke), described the last seconds: “She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding though the water with undreamt-of violence…”

Violet Jessop had been one of the stewardesses on board. The fact that she was a White Star employee explains how it came to be that she had been aboard all three of White Star’s Olympic-class ships when disaster struck. Still it is remarkable that she had seen tragedy strike all three ships. She was a very fortunate lady who had the lives of a cat. In the sinking of Britannic, she was in one of the lifeboats that was pulled into the propellers (which had not been disengaged). As she had seen the effect of the giant propellers twice before, she jumped from the lifeboat before it was sucked into the propellers. The suction was still too great and she was pulled in. However, for some reason she was not chopped to pieces but was thrown clear of danger and when she rose to the surface she hit her head on a lifeboat but was dragged to safety by survivors in another boat.

Britannic was the largest ship lost during World War I.

While the exact cause of the explosion that sank Britannic remains unknown, it is likely that she hit a mine. There are several theories about the cause of the sinking, but the most likely cause is that she hit a mine that had been laid by the German U-boat U-73. U-73, under Commander Gustav Sieß, had been lurking in the deep waters of the Kea Channel on 28th October 1916. U-73 laid mines for future victims. The Captain of the German sub decided to plant mines along the Kea side of the channel because he noticed that all vessels used that stretch of waters to pass. He laid two mine barriers. Each consisted of six mines. Britannic had passed through these waters when she sank.

The official position of the Britannic wreck was recorded in 1947 as being 2.5 nautical miles west of Angalistros Point on the Island of Makronisos. In 1960, the British Admiralty confirmed the position within a fraction of a degree.

For years it was believed that the resting-place of wreck number 101502722 lay where thought.

In 1975 William Tankum of the Titanic Historical Society asked Jacques Cousteau to dive to the ship and explore it. He found the ship on the 3rd December 1975. Her actual position was nearly 6.75 miles east of the Admiralty position.

Because the wreck was so far from the official location, conspiracy theorists began asking if the British authorities had deliberately withheld the true position from divers so that some secret of her sinking would not be discovered. (Among the theories of the cause of her sinking was that she had been carrying ammunition and munitions, something hospital ships were not supposed to do.)

Cousteau returned to the wreck site in September 1976. He found that the ship lay 390 feet at the bottom of the Channel. In those days technology was not as developed as today. His dives reled on breathing apparatus not submersibles. Each dive was limited to fifteen minutes each followed by a three hour decompression for the divers.

Following Cousteau’s discovery of the ship, many questions were asked. Was she carrying munitions? Did a torpedo or mine sink her? Was there an interior explosion?

Cousteau did not find any evidence to suggest that she was carrying munitions. It is supposed that he means that he did not find any weapons on the sea bed. However, with a total dive time of six hours this is hardly surprising.

He did however, notice that there a section of hull plating missing. Could this have anything to do with an explosion? Cousteau could give no answers. Probably because the technologies available to him gave him no answers.

The wreck lay undisturbed for a further 20 years until Dr. Robert Ballard dove to the ship with state-of-the-art equipment. His mission was to pick up where Cousteau left off. The wreck would be photographed and filmed. Voyager, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was connected to a 3-D imaging system to bring the ship to life.

He found that the ship was actually in good condition. She lies on her starboard side at a list of about 85 degrees (except for the bow, which is more upright). There is a tear down the visible port side of the hull.

Ballard noticed that some of the plating is bent upward which could explain an interior expolsion forcing the plating to explode outward rather than a mine blasting the plates inward. However, Ballard is of the opinion that the bending was caused by the impact as the ship hit the bottom of the sea floor.

The rest of the ship is in remarkable condition. So much so that there is still glass over the first class staircase. Even the propellers are still in place.

However, Ballard’s six day exploration did not shed any light on what sank her. There was no evidence of a mine anchor. He explored a radius of 500 feet from the ship.

Ballard is convinced that the tear along the hull near the well deck was a result of structural failure not an internal explosion. If so it is still not known why the ship took only 55 minutes to sink.

Ballard hopes to return to the wreck someday to send a robot vehicle inside the bow section to learn more about what happened.

Since his visit in 1995, Britannic has been subjected to other expeditions who have stripped her of many of her artifacts. The desecration will probably continue because the wreck lies in international water.

There has been talk that she would become an interactive underwater museum fitted with underwater cameras which would broadcast live pictures of the ship to museums all over the world. The Greek authorities restrict the number of dives to the wreck but the damage may already have been done.

britannic_wreck

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