Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ship History 9

                                  HMHS BRITANNIC
                                               The forgotten sister.


                                                  Kevin Scott Bolinger

    Welcome aboard one and all to yet another look into Maritime history. Today, I will tackle the subject of the largest of the White Star Trio from the early 1900’s. A ship whose early design saw many vast changes due to the loss of her more famous sister. A ship who would sail proudly, yet never once carry a paying customer. A ship which would be ultimately sacrificed to the gods of war. So, join me now as I look at the last of the Olympic class ships, His Majesty’s Hospital Ship, Britannic.
Britannic nearing completion

    With the Olympic fast becoming a complete success in 1911, and with Titanic now launched and fast approaching her completion, it was time to lay the keel of the third and final ship. At the time, it was generally known that the ship would be named Gigantic, however, events in April of 1912 would see this name quickly changed to the more stately and patriotic, Britannic. White Star, to the bitter end, never would admit to the ships original name, although contemporary publications from the time, such as Shipbuilder magazine, had printed specification of the ship with the name Gigantic, as far back as just before her keel was laid. The connection with ancient mythology would give clues to the fates of the three sisters. The Olympians, after whom Olympic was named, were challenged by the Titans who enlisted the help of the Giants. The Olympians cast down both the Titans and the Giants, and remained triumphant. Even with her name changed, Britannic would not be able to escape this fate.

    The ship would share similar specifications to her two older sisters, however, minor changes would make her the largest. When completed, she would have a gross tonnage exceeding 48,000, though her original projected tonnage was 50,000. Her length was identical to the other ships, at 882ft 3/4in, but her width was greater, with her average width of 94ft 6in, and a maximum width of 96ft. Her engines were slightly more powerful that her sisters, owing to her greater size, and they would be the largest reciprocating marine engines ever produced. Her stern had numerous changes made to distinguish her from her sisters. The aft well deck was covered over to create a third class promenade, and on the poop deck, an extra deck house and deck had arisen. Her A deck promenade, like Titanic before her, was glass enclosed, the one feature the Olympic would forever lack.
Just prior to launch.

    Work on Britannic did not proceed as fast as her two sisters, owing to the fact that the shipyard was currently operating at full capacity, where as, when Olympic and Titanic were on the stocks, a far greater number of men could be put to work on them, since current ship orders were low. This ended up being fortuitous, for within days of the sinking of Titanic, all work on hull 433, her official number, was brought to a halt. Luckily, she was little more than a keel and double bottom at this point. Architects analyzed what design flaws had lead to Titanic's loss, and they tried to design the new ship to withstand the same sort of damage.

    One of the major flaws they needed to address was the fact that the watertight compartments on the previous two ships did not go higher than E deck in most places. The new design called for some to be brought as high as B deck, with the rest being brought to D deck. They also knew that water had spilled from full compartments in Titanic, into empty ones, like an ice tray. In the new ship, all bulkheads would be capped off by a watertight deck. The older ships only had a double bottom to protect them, mostly from groundings, yet the new ship would have a double hull that would extend above the waterline. So confident were the designers in these changes to make the ship more survivable in an accident, that the Olympic was brought in and had her bulkheads raised, and her double bottom extended up the sides as well.
Britannic's single turbine under construction.

    Another slight change to the design occurred in the area of the expansion joints. These joints, located on the boat deck, were designed to allow the ship to flex some during heavy weather, to keep the hull from cracking under stress. On the Olympic and Titanic, the joints were squared off, and it was thought Britannic's were identical. However, recent exploration of Britannic’s hull has shown that the expansion joints on her deck had a bulb shaped end, allowing for greater flexibility. The impotence of these joints in such long ships would be shown during the 1920’s, when ships such as Majestic and Aquitania suffered major cracks in their hulls. In the case of the Aquitania, her design, which was just a longer version of the Mauretania, only called for one expansion joint. The foresight of the Olympic class designers showed that the optimum number for hulls greater than 800ft, was two expansion joints. The Olympic never suffered cracking in her hull anywhere near as bad as her contemporaries, despite her hard life of service in both civilian and military service.

    As Britannic grew in the stocks, the world into which she would soon be born was changing rapidly. Tensions between Germany and Great Britain were coming to a boil. Also, new ships, far larger than the great trio White Star had created, would reach the waves long before she was finished. Yet still, work continued on here at a brisk pace. In a side note, in the slip next to her, the one that had at one time held Titanic, grew the hull of the SS Statendam,  which will feature briefly at the end of our tale in the name she was more famously known as, Justicia.

    It was not until February of 1914 that the ship was finally ready for launching. This was far behind the original estimates that would have had her in service by mid 1913. The morning of February 26th 1914 was bright. Huge crowds were on hand to watch the launching of yet another marvel from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. As was White Star tradition, no champagne was present, only signal flags spelling out success. One thing that was fairly new, however, was that perched near the bow was a man with a film camera, who would forever capture the launch of this giant. Soon the signal flare was launched, and with a push of a button, the hydraulic pressure holding the hull in place was released. Within seconds, she began her backwards slide into her natural element. Her hull, an empty shell, rode high and handsome. Tugs soon wrangled her to the fitting out basin, where more men would begin transforming her from an empty hull into an ocean liner, whose luxury would even surpass that of her sisters.
A rather unique angle of her launch.

    When Titanic sank, everyone finally woke up to the fact that all passenger ships of the day had one thing in common. They all lacked enough lifeboats to accommodate every living soul they could carry. The issue was becoming more and more noticeable as ships grew in size, and the number of people on board reach gargantuan proportions. Within days of the sinking, new laws went into effect, simply stating that all ships must carry enough lifeboats for its full capacity of crew and passengers. Why this was never the case to begin with just shows the pure arrogance of the age, for it was a time where men put so much faith that their technology would never fail them, that they did not, nor could they, conceive of a shipping accident that would claim so many, simply due to lack of life saving capacity. While Britannic was in the fitting out basin, another disaster resulting in large loss of life unfolded. The Empress of Ireland was sunk in the St. Lawrence seaway, due to a collision in fog, and despite having enough lifeboats, the list the ship took on meant that many of them could not be launched. This resulted in another change to Britannic. New lifeboat davits were devised, huge girder type, capable of offloading boat from either side of the ship in even a severe list. What they lacked in aesthetics, they made up for in ingenuity.
Fitting out, a boiler being loaded aboard.

    On June 28th, 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian student in Sarajevo. Within a month, Austria-Hungary would declare war on Serbia, followed shortly thereafter with the Russian Empire mobilizing its troops. Soon, Germany began to get involved, which caused France to take up arms against Germany. Finally, Great Britain became embroiled, and the Great War was soon upon the world. The United States remained neutral for the first few years of the conflict, but eventually, she too would join the fight. At the Harland and Wolff shipyard, men and equipment were quickly moved to provide service to warships. Passenger ships like Britannic were abandoned where they lay. The priorities of war superseded all else. Many of the liners of the day were soon pressed into military service. It was thought, at first, that they could be converted into auxiliary cruisers, but the high cost of fuel for this ships prohibited this. As casualties began to rise, many were pressed into service as Hospital ships. Still others, like Olympic, would become troop ships, ferrying large quantities of men and supplies to the war zone. Eventually, the Admiralty decided it needed a larger Hospital ship. White Star pointed out to them that the Britannic could be made ready for service fairly quickly if men could be moved onto her completion. Her engines and boilers were already in place, as was most of her navigating equipment. The ship was mainly lacking her luxurious appointments, and those would not be needed in the guise of a Hospital ship. The Admiralty agreed to move the men, and work on converting Britannic for service quickly began.

    By May of 1915, the ship had completed mooring trials of her engines. Sadly, that same month, the true horrors of the German war machine were shown to the world. On May 7th, 1915, the German submarine, U-20, sank the RMS Lusitania by firing a single torpedo into her hull. She was not being used for military service, and was still a civilian ship, carrying innocent men, women, and children, some of whom were Americans. Her sinking showed that no vessel, under any guise, was truly safe in this conflict. Work on Britannic was hurried, with a projection to have her service ready within four weeks of her mooring trials. As the work progressed, her hull was painted white, her funnels a uniform buff color. A great green stripe, broken by three huge red crosses, played its way along the length of her hull. On her boat deck, more red crosses, able to be lit at night, were erected. Her A deck promenade was strung with green lights, also for identification at night. From her foremast flew the white and red cross flag of a hospital ship. In the rush to get her ready, only five of the new girder davits were installed, and traditional davits were quickly loaded on board to meet with lifeboat requirements.
Nearing completion,Olympic's funnels can be seen behind her.

    Despite assurances to the contrary, the ship was not readied until December of 1915. This was mainly due to other, completed ships, such as Olympic, being given priority as they were converted to troop transports. When she was complete, she was put under the command of White Star’s Marine Superintendent, Captain Charles Bartlett. Bartlett had always prided himself on being a cautious captain with any vessel under his command, earning the nickname “Iceberg Charlie.” He would guide the Britannic for the rest of her days.

    Britannic was moved from Belfast to Liverpool, where she was briefly reunited with the Olympic. Sadly, the two sisters would only meet one more time, in February of 1916, in the port of Southampton. On December 23rd, 1915, Britannic left Liverpool for her maiden voyage, but unlike most ships of the day, it was not a gala event. Her destination would be Mudros, on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean sea. The island was the original base of operations for the Dardanelles campaign, but, it was soon realized that it made a better loading place for the massive numbers of wounded. Christmas was celebrated on board the ship, and she arrived at her destination on December 31st, 1915. The normal routine was soon set, with the ship picking up wounded in Mudros and transporting them back to Southampton, England. 
Coaling in Southampton.

    So went most of 1916. Voyage after voyage, the wounded and the dying were brought back to their homeland for treatment, or burial. The nursing staff had gotten into their own routine, part of which had them opening all the portholes on D and E decks to air out the wards as they approached Mudros, usually a day out. Drills were always held, to keep the crew at the readiness for anything, for the U-boats were always on the prowl, and Britannic would be one of the largest prizes a U-boat commander could claim.

    On November 12, 1916, Britannic left Southampton on her sixth voyage to Mudros. By the 17th she had reached Naples, and had her customary 48 hour layover for coaling and water allocation. When she headed back into the Mediterranean, she was met by heavy weather, yet, owing to her design, she rode through it well, just like her older sister Olympic. Unknown to those on board, the German U-boat, U-73, a mine laying vessel, had been busy in the Kea Channel , laying two barriers of mines close to the island of Kea where her commander had observed most ships traveling.
A nice view of her stern, showing the added decking.

    The morning of November 21st, 1916, was bright and clear. The Britannic found herself approaching the Kea Channel, and the island could be seen a few miles away. Breakfast was being served in the galley, the nurses had the portholes open as per usual when getting close to the end of this leg of the voyage, and down in the boiler rooms, the watertight doors had been opened to allow for the 8am shift change. Usually, in hostile waters, the doors were kept closed, shift change was the only exception. Some of the crew on deck had thought they had seen barrel like object floating near the surface.

    Suddenly, at 8:12am, the ship was rocked by a huge explosion to starboard.  Captain Bartlett immediately ordered the engines stopped, and sounded the muster alarm for everyone to get to the lifeboats. The one saving grace was that the explosion happened while inbound to pick up wounded, which meant the number of people on board was low, consisting of just the crew and the medical staff., yet still well over 1000 on board. The explosion had reached as high as G deck, and the double bottom between holds 2 and 3 had been demolished. The watertight doors were closed from the bridge, but a few near the explosion had been damaged, and they would not close properly. The ship was already beginning to list to starboard.

    Given her new design, the explosion should not have been enough to bring her down, yet, with the watertight doors open because of shift change, it added a new problem into the mix. However, all the damage, even with the malfunctioning doors, was not enough to sink her. She did settle some at the head, but within a few minutes, it seemed she had stabilized. Distress calls were sent, and numerous ships in the area responded, they would be arriving within the hour. 
An artist's conception of the sinking.

    Captain Bartlett had only ordered the lifeboats to be made ready for lowering, but some of the crew, in the panic caused by the list, began to lower them, unbeknownst to the bridge. This would come back to haunt them in a very short time. Captain Bartlett reckoned the ship was some four miles from Kea island. He decided the best course of action was to start the engines and try to beach the ship, keeping her from sinking. He ordered best speed forward, and slowly, Britannic began to limp towards land. Owing to the list, her rudder was not as effective as was hoped, and she would end up slowly moving away from the island after a short time.

    The forward movement of the ship is probably one of the major factors to play into her demise. All the portholes on D and E decks were open, and with the list, those on the starboard E deck had been brought to the waterline. As the ship began to surge forward, water began to pour into them, flooding once dry watertight compartments.  As her bow dug in deeper, the portholes acted like a sieve, allowing tons more water to enter the ship. If she did not reach land soon, she was doomed.

    On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was receiving additional reports of flooding below, he ordered the engines stopped, but did not reverse them, hoping the ships momentum would carry her towards land. He was also hoping to avoid issues with the lifeboats that had been launched without his authorization. All this was in vain, for the portholes had done their work, the ship was now doomed to sink. As the list grew worse, and her bow began to sink lower, her port propeller began to lift free from the sea, still spinning. Into this death trap, two lifeboats had been drawn, to be chopped to pieces. Most of those killed during the sinking had lost their lives at this point.
So close to land, yet so far away...

    The final evacuation order was given, as it was clear the ship could not be saved. The list would soon lead to the ship capsizing. Once everyone was clear, Captain Bartlett finally left his command, the last person to do so. Her bow was now underwater, her hull hanging at such a sharp angle that three of her four funnels collapsed into the sea and sank. Only her forward funnel remained. With a heavy sigh, the ship rolled over to her side, and quickly sank, the waters of the Aegean closing over her stern as 9:07 am. The ship built to survive the same trauma that claimed her sister, had been beaten by the weapons of war, and bad luck. 

    Thirty-five lifeboats bobbed in waters now strewn with debris. In total, 1,036 had survived, with only the loss of 30 men, mostly due to the two lifeboats destroyed by the port propeller. The rescue ships were soon at hand, and soon everyone was back on dry land. The disaster could have been so much worse if she had struck the mine on the return leg. There would have been thousands of wounded, many of whom would not be able to evacuate the ship on their own. Despite the ship sinking, at least some luck had been on their side. An inquiry was held, as is customary for all sinking, yet Captain Bartlett was exonerated from blame. It was determined that most likely the ship had struck a mine, though even to this day, it is hotly debated as to whether or not it was a torpedo. As for the crew, they were now out of a job, their pay ending as soon as the sea had claimed Britannic. However, the Admiralty had another ship that would soon be ready for them, the former Statendam. The ship had been renamed Justicia, using the IA suffix traditional to Cunard ships, in the hope the surviving crew from the Lusitania would be brought aboard her. That crew had already been dispersed, so, the ship was handed over to White Star, and Britannic’s crew would soon sail in her. She too met with disaster, when on July 19th, 1918, she was torpedoed some 23 miles off the coast of Scotland. U-boat UB-64 managed to fire four torpedoes into her hull, yet the ship still remained afloat. The next day, after the crew had been rescued, the UB-124 fired two more torpedoes into her, and she too was claimed by the sea.
Justicia, succumbing to her wounds.

    Britannic’s loss would have consequences for the future of White Star. Of the three giants they had built for the three ship express service, only one was still afloat. The Olympic would not have any running mates until the early 1920’s,  the Homeric and the Majestic, both former German liners given to White Star as war reparations. The Majestic was, at the time, the largest ship in the world, being 56,000 tons, and over 950ft in length.  In 1929, White Star would have another ship named Britannic built, the first diesel powered vessel built for them. That ship would be the very last White Star ship to remain in service, lasting until 1960. As for the largest of the Olympic trio, she slept peacefully 395ft below the Kea Channel.  She would be destined to be forgotten, unknown by most, due to her more famous sister and the disaster that befell her. 

    In 1975, famous explorer Jacques Cousteau was getting ready to head to the Kea Channel area to do some research into the lost city of Atlantis, aboard his famous ship, the Calypso. The head of the American Titanic Historical Society, William Tantum IV , asked Cousteau if, since he was in the area, he could verify the position of the wreck of the Britannic, to see if it was where Admiralty records said it was. Cousteau said he would be happy to take a look. When they arrived at the Admiralty position, the ship was not there. They deployed a new technology, side scanning sonar, and after three days, they located the wreck, on December 3rd, 1975. They quickly realized that the ship was some 8 nautical miles from where the official position put her. Normally, this would not out of the ordinary, in the days of early navigation, errors were easily made. The Titanic herself was found some 14 miles from her historically recorded position. The problem with Britannic was, she was within sight of land, with known landmarks and distances at the time. It seems almost as if the Admiralty was trying to keep the wrecks location a secret, for reasons unknown.
Divers exploring Britannic's wreck.

    Given that the Kea Channel was and still is a busy major shipping lane, Cousteau had to get permission from the Greek government to dive the wreck. It was not until September of 1976, that he and his team, with Bill Tantum in tow, were allowed to return to the site. Using the latest diving technology, his men were able to freely explore the wreck. He also brought a small submersible, and took Tantum down in it on the first dive. He gently landed on the ships side, and upon turning on the lights, said to Bill Tantum, “There is your Britannic.” Tantum was breathless. The wreck was almost in pristine condition, with only a light layer of coral coating much of the hull. The bow of the ship was a tangled mess, crushed and bent upwards, with a huge tear in the area of the forward well deck. Cousteau theorized that , given the ships near 900ft length, the bow had plowed into the bottom while the rest of the ship was still at the surface, moving forward by momentum. What this meant is that the damage that sank the ship was forever hidden from view.

    In 1995, oceanographer, Doctor Robert Ballard, the man who, in 1985, had discovered the wreck of the Titanic, lead his own expedition to the Britannic. He too was marveled at how well preserved she was, in sharp contrast to the rusticle covered Titanic. It seemed that the Titanic had sunk in an area of the North Atlantic with a higher than average salinity, which promoted the growth of iron eating bacteria, but more on that in April, when I discuss Titanic in full detail. Britannic had sunk in relatively warm waters, and so she has become one of the most preserved wrecks ever filmed. Ballard also spent time looking for evidence of whether a mine or torpedo had sunk the great ship. He was attempting to locate the anchor chains from the mines that had been laid in the channel a few days before Britannic had entered the area. Unfortunately, he did not find them, and the debate still rages to this day over whether it was a mine or torpedo.
The wreck, as seen by Maritime artist, Ken Marschall.

    Ballard was in the process of setting up a new learning center for children in Mystic, Connecticut. One of his ideas that he was hoping to bring to fruition, was setting up the Britannic as the world’s first underwater virtual museum. He was hoping to use the current state of underwater robotics technology to install a permanent presence at the wreck site, controlled by GPS satellites. The wrecks current owner, Simon Mills, was all for this plan. Sadly, to date, it has not come to pass.

    In 2000, there was a made for television movie adaptation of the sinking, starring John Rhys-Davies as Captain Bartlett, though the credits list him as Captain Barrett. The movie was extremely inaccurate from a historical standpoint, showing the explosion to have be caused by a German spy on board the vessel. The film also had the ship sinking at sunset, when in reality, she sank in the early morning. It seems that the producers were more interested in cashing in on the popularity of Titanic, rather than showing a good representation of the actual events as they played out. It should be avoided by any seeking factual information about the ship and her loss.

    There have been numerous theories as to why the explosion from the mine was so powerful, tearing apart the forward end of the starboard hull. One theory suggests a a coal bunker explosion, ignited by the initial blast. The problem with this is that the conditions were not right for a coal dust blast. The ship was in relatively warm waters, which would keep the humidity in the bunkers high, which keeps the dust from becoming airborne. Another theory suggest she was carrying contraband weapons supplies. This is of course untrue, and no evidence has ever been found at the wreck, considering her port side bow is gaping open at the exact place such items would be stored. Another theory,  yet one that also has little evidence, takes into account that, as a Hospital ship, she was carrying large quantities of ether, which was, at the time, used as an anesthetic. It is thought that the blast might have ignited the ether, given its highly flammable nature. Again, if this was the case, there would be evidence at the wreck site, and none is present. All this, of course leads to questions of how the ship sank so much faster than her sister, given that her hull was designed to withstand damage far exceeding that of her older sisters. As was stated above, however, it all came down to bad timing. If the blast had occurred ten minutes earlier or later, the flooding would have been contained to the forward three watertight compartments, and she would have had a slight list, and been down about three feet at the head, with no danger of foundering. Sometimes, it all comes down to luck, and hers had simply run out.

    The wreck itself was, for the longest time, the largest passenger liner to remain on the ocean floor. She has lost this title from time to time, most famously to the original Queen Elizabeth, which had caught fire and sunk in Honk Kong harbor, in 1972, however, she was scrapped where she sank, and so no longer remains on the sea floor. Recently, the sunken Costa Concordia, near Italy, hold the record for largest passenger ship on the sea floor, however, plans are that she is to be either raised, or scrapped in situ. Whatever her fate, eventually, the Britannic will once again be the largest sunken liner.  Even to this day, some 37 years after her wreck had been discovered, she still shows very little signs of collapse, despite laying on her starboard side for nearly 100 years. She is a testament to the men who constructed her to be one of the strongest vessels afloat. There are no plans to raise her, or even bring up artifacts from the wreck. Since her discovery, very little has been removed, though Cousteau’s team in 1976 did bring up the bell from the ships crows nest.

    I think it is fitting that she is less famous than Titanic, it allows her to rest far more peacefully than her sister. Dives to her wreck have been few, and she remains a great example of how the White Star trio was perceived. Time will tell how well known she becomes, as it seems interest in Titanic has lead many to research her two sisters. I hope that she continues to be treated with the dignity all lost ships should be treated with. If that is her final fate, I will be glad. I think this will do it for my look at this magnificent ship, the greatest of the Olympic class. Hopefully I have educated some, and entertained others. Next up, a ship who was launched under one name, but became infamous under another. A ship who seemed to be plagued with bad luck from the day her keel was laid. Till then, may the wind be at your backs, bon voyage!

HMHS Britannic 1914-1916


1 comment:

  1. So it never sailed as the Gigantic? For some reason, I thought it wasn't "Britannic" until WWII. :p