November 21st of this year marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, the younger sister ship of the more famous Titanic. I may be a bit late for the anniversary, but I still wanted to write something about this less well known ship.
The Olympic-class of liners, built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and operated by the White Star Line, was intended to comprise three vessels which would surpass all other trans-Atlantic liners in terms of size and luxury. Following Olympic and Titanic, the name Gigantic was floated for the third ship, before being dropped in favour of Britannic. The keel was laid in November 1911, on the same slipway where Olympic had been built – but Britannic‘s construction would be a slow process.
In April 1912, while Britannic was still taking shape, the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage; with the claim that the Olympic-class liners were “practically unsinkable” having been proven disastrously wrong, Harland & Wolff had to make a number of modifications to Britannic‘s design to improve safety. These included a double hull over an expanded area, higher watertight bulkheads, and of course more lifeboats, some of which were attached to enlarged motor-driven davits which could handle up to six boats each. Britannic was also intended to have features for passengers that Olympic and Titanic did not, including a ladies’ salon, a children’s playroom, and even a pipe organ. Sadly, no paying passengers would actually get to enjoy these.
The hull was launched in February 1914 – and then, five months later, Britain declared war on Germany. Work on Britannic was slowed down, as Admiralty contracts in the shipyard now took priority. Then, in November 1915, the completed Britannic was requestioned for use as a hospital ship, serving the Allied campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean. Repainted, and with its interiors converted into wards, Britannic made its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Moudros, Greece, at the end of 1915.
After five round trips bringing wounded troops home from the Mediterranean, Britannic left Southampton on what would be its final voyage on 12th November 1916. On the morning of 21st November, the Britannic was passing between the islands of Kea and Makronisos, when at 8:12am, there came a huge explosion on the starboard bow. While it is not certain, it is most likely that the ship hit a mine: the area had been mined by a German U-Boat a few weeks previously, and hospital ships were supposed to be protected from deliberate attack by international law.
Despite her safety upgrades compared to Titanic, Britannic‘s first six watertight compartments were soon taking on water, as some bulkheads and watertight doors had been damaged by the explosion. Even then, Britannic might have stayed afloat; but many portholes had been opened to ventilate the wards, and as these sank below the waterline, the level of flooding became too great. The Britannic‘s captain, Charles Bartlett, decided to try and beach the ship on Kea – in the meantime, however, three lifeboats were launched without orders. Two of these were sucked into the Britannic‘s still-turning propellers as they rose above the surface; the boats, and many of their occupants, were torn to pieces.
Finally, the engines were stopped and the official call was given to abandon ship. Unlike Titanic, Britannic had more than enough lifeboats for everyone onboard; of the 1,065 people on the ship, only 30 were lost, most of them in the lifeboats that were destroyed by the propellers. 55 minutes after the explosion – nearly three times faster than Titanic – Britannic rolled to starboard and sank to a depth of about 400 feet. She remains the largest passenger ship on the sea floor.
A real-time recreation of the Britannic‘s sinking can be watched here.