Deep beneath the Aegean Sea lies the wreck of the largest ship sunk during the First World War – the HMHS Britannic. 100 years ago today, the hospital ship struck a German mine and sank within an hour. Although the ship’s loss was not as widely marked as that of other ships, such as the Lusitania in 1915, the sinking of the Britannic is particularly notable, as she was the sister-ship of the ill-fated Titanic, which sank four years earlier with the loss of 1,500 lives.
In this blog, I’ll take a look at what changes were made to Britannic in the wake of the Titanic disaster and why Britannic sank so much faster (in less than an hour) despite some a number of safety features following the Titanic’s sinking.
In 1907, competition was fierce between the United Kingdom and Germany to make the fastest and most luxurious ships to sail the North Atlantic route, an increasingly popular service among those migrating to America and the rich seeking holidays abroad. Three main companies, Norddeutscher Lloyd in Germany, Cunard in Britain and the White Star Line also in Britain, dominated the scene. Following the launch of Cunard’s new passenger liners, the Lusitania and the Mauretania, the White Star Line felt the need to create a new class of vessels to rival the ‘greyhounds of the sea’. They would be known as the ‘Olympic-class liners’.
Three ships were designed, the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (later renamed Britannic), and were meant to be the largest, most luxurious and safest vessels afloat. Construction of Olympic began in December 1908, with the Titanic following just a few months later. Building work for the then Gigantic only began after Olympic’s maiden voyage in 1911, with an expected launch date of 1914. Construction was well underway by the time the second sister-ship Titanic went on its maiden voyage in April 1912. However, tragedy would strike and cause emergency changes to the construction of Britannic.
LOSS OF TITANIC
Four days into its first crossing, Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk in two and a half hours, killing 1,500 people. However, the White Star Line decided not to radically deviate from the original plans for ‘Gigantic’ in the wake of the disaster, as construction was already well advanced and it was too late to change the design. However, a name change was made – the name Gigantic was quietly dropped, as it was considered too proud and boastful in the wake of the sinking, and it was changed to Britannic.
Following an inquiry into the Titanic’s sinking, both Olympic and the Britannic were equipped with more lifeboats, enough for all those on board. In addition, the Britannic was also given a double-skin hull along the ship’s boiler rooms to prevent the ship being torn open and water-tight bulkheads were extended all the way to the top decks, which was not the case for Titanic, in order to prevent water from spilling from one compartment to another.
WORLD WAR I
During its construction, the world was plunged into war and work on the ships ground to a slowed. By 1915, the British government demanded that the Britannic be converted into a hospital ship and she was launched in May 1915. At the time of its launch, Britannic was the largest ship afloat, but it would never function as a passenger liner.
Britannic was sent into the Middle Eastern theatre, completing five successful voyages in the Mediterranean transporting the sick and wounded from the front line back to the UK.
Britannic left the port at Naples on the 20th November bound for an allied naval base Lemnos, an island in the Aegean Sea, with a mission to collect 3,000 casualties of the war. 1,065 people were on board: 615 crew, 315 Royal Army Medical Corps and 77 nurses.
On the 21st November at 8:12am, a loud explosion rocked the ship, which was later found to have been the ship striking a mine, laid by a German submarine the previous month. Watertight doors were ordered shut immediately, but due to the hot weather (which the ship was not designed to deal with) some of the doors did not close properly, allowing water to rush in and flood the first six compartments of the ship. Although Britannic could have survived with this number flooded, a number of portholes were open at the time along lower decks for ventilation, which went underwater as the ship began to list. From this point, the ship was doomed.
The captain of the ship attempted to save the vessel by restarting the engines to run Britannic aground on a nearby island. However, this resulted in more water entering the ship and exacerbating its list to starboard.
The situation was made worse by the decision of some of the crew to launch lifeboats without permission. Two of the lifeboats that were sent away were sucked into one of the ship’s propellers which, at this point, was rising out of the sea. 30 people were killed.
By 9am, almost all people had been evacuated and water had reached the bridge of the ship. Minutes later, the ship’s bow hit the ocean floor, with the stern still jutting out of the water. She rolled to her side and slipped beneath the surface less than an hour after the explosion.
As help was closer by the ship and with the addition of more lifeboats, there were only 30 fatalities from the sinking.
Britannic’s sinking is a forgotten part of World War One, overshadowed by the sinking of the Lusitania the year before and the sinking of her sister Titanic in 1912, but her sinking is part of a tragic history of the Olympic-class liners and the White Star Line.