Friday, February 3, 2017

The Forgotten Sister

She was the third of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels. Her fate might not have been so famous as that of the Titanic but it is still a story steeped in tragedy.  


The HMHS Britannic was launched at the start of the first World War. Her build had been held up due to the lessons learned by the Titanic disaster which resulted in higher safer standards than on her original blue print.  So she was wider than her sister,  doubled hulled in her vulnerable parts over the boilers and the main engines. Her water tight compartments were reinforced to be ‘water tight' and she was built with extra engine power so that she could steam out of any trouble and remain afloat – which was the original idea for the Titanic. Her main difference though, was that the lifeboats could be electronically lowered (they were all manual on the Titanic). And they could be lowered from either side of the ship even if the ship was listing badly ( so the theory went). There was an electronic crane device that lifted the lifeboat up and away from the hull. I do remember that surreal film of the passengers making their way down the hull of the Costa Concordia filmed with a night vision camera, little glow worms in distinct formal lines, a snaking descent on the hull of the ship as they clambered down a rope to the lifeboats.
So when launched, the Britannic had 48 lifeboats each carrying over 70 people -  more than enough for her full capacity of crew and passengers.

Her keel was laid in the same dock as the Titanic in November 1911, 13 months after the launch of the Olympic. Then history took a turn in 1915. The Cunard liner – the Lusitania was torpedoed over the Irish coast and the Britannic was called into national service with 4 weeks notice. The navy had requisitioned many British ships and paid handsomely for their use. But it was very risky work with a high probability of loss. The big ocean liners were not considered fit for that purpose – too big, too slow, too unwieldy. “Runs like a horse steers like a cow” was a common phrase. Then the Gallipoli campaign started and caused a huge number of casualties, and on the 13th of November 1915 the Britannic set sail as a hospital ship, repainted white with a red cross and a green line. She carried out 5 successful crossings to the Dardanelles. On the 21st of November 1916, she was steaming full speed ahead, making up for lost time due to an earlier storm. She  entered the strait of Messina and then in to the Kea Channel with 673 crews, 350 army medics and 77 nurses on board.

At 8.12AM there was a load explosion.

With the lessons learned from the Titanic she should have been OK but bad luck and human nature played their part. Those breakfasting in the dining room knew they had been hit by a torpedo or a mine and immediately went to their emergency posts. Those near the stern heard little and presumed they had just hit a smaller ship. Some of those working in the engine room knew exactly what had happened to their colleagues on the Titanic and rushed on deck, using the electronic system to lower the rear lifeboats to make their own escape ASAP.

Captain Bartlett was an experienced sailor and he knew the ship was listing but she had her water tight compartments so he ordered the water doors closed. She had enough engine power so he turned her towards her listing and headed to shore, totally unware that some life boats had already been launched from the stern. The Britannic was sending distress call after distress call but nobody answered. Unknown to those onboard, the explosion had broken the radio mast so she was transmitting but not receiving. Captain Bartlett had no idea that help was on its way. As far as he knew, he had closed the doors, she was watertight and would make it to shore.

He had no idea that port holes had been left open, causing huge water ingress. Her sixth compartment flooded and she was doomed. In only 10 minutes the Britannic had reached the stage the Titanic had reached after an hour.

Horror was occurring at the back of the boat. Stewards on board, those in charge of the lifeboats,  held their nerve and stopped the decent of the lifeboats 2 metres above the water. The captain had not yet ordered the lifeboats to be launched as he was well aware of the power of the huge, churning propellers -  one of which was coming closer to the surface as she listed. Unrest broke out, fighting started and some lifeboats unwisely entered the water. The assistant commander then spotted the lifeboat that had been taken by those from the engine room.

And he watched, as those aboard were sucked into the blades of the propeller.

News very quickly got back to the Captain and he immediately ordered the engines be turned off – a brave decision. But one supposes he was considering the remainder of the passengers, the lifeboat availability, the temperate climate, the relatively calm water although he had no idea that anyone had heard her distress calls. Once the engines had been stopped, he ordered abandon ship as he considered it now safe to do so. By 8.45am the lifeboats on the high side of the ship were inoperable as the list was so great. There were heroic efforts to launch the smaller lifeboats then the crew  threw collapsible rafts and deckchairs into the water to assist those already overboard and trying to swim for it. At this point, the fact that the remaining personnel were army maybe afforded them some order amongst the chaos. At 9 o’clock Bartlett gave 2 long blasts of the whistle and as the water was already in the bridge he swam from there into a collapsible lifeboat. Then there was a final whistle which formally released all remaining crew from their posts. The captain was still in his pyjamas.

From the 1065 people on board, 30 lost their lives. Most of them hacked to death by the propeller. At 9.07 she sank completely.

She was the largest ship lost in the first world war and to this day she remains the biggest wreck on the sea floor.

And then I found this, not historically accurate but chilling all the same.
Caro Ramsay 03 02 2017


  1. What a riveting story, Caro, splendidly told. I just can't stop thinking about the mind of the person who orders the torpedoing of a hospital ship. Is the person who would do such a thing really a member of the same species as the rest of us?

  2. Fascinating, Caro. Thanks. Despite the confusion and people doing their own thing, it certainly seems as if the captain did a terrific job and saved (almost) all the lives.

  3. I do find the stories of these great ships hugely compelling- they are so huge yet so vulnerable.
    The Britannic was definitely taken down by a mine rather than a torpedo.... maybe more about that next week!!

  4. I try to imagine the calm courage it took on the part of the captain to act as he did in the face of such obvious chaos, keeping the fatalities as low as they were. I wonder what happened to him.

  5. Cpt Bartlett was known as "Iceberg Charlie" to his crew due to his ability to detect icebergs miles away. I think he retired in 1931 and died in a nursing home in Waterloo near Liverpool on 15 February 1945. So now you know!!! A brave and well respected man.