Britannic was the third and largest Olympic class of the White Star Line. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and was intended to enter service as the transatlantic passenger liner, Britannic. The White Star Line used Britannic as the name of two other ships: SS Britannic (1874), holder of the Blue Riband and MV Britannic (1929), a motor liner, owned by White Star and then Cunard, scrapped in 1960.
She was launched just before the start of the First World War and was laid up at her builders in Belfast for many months before being put to use as a hospital ship in 1915. She was shaken by an explosion, caused by an underwater mine or torpedo, in the Kea Channel off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of 21 November 1916, and sank 55 minutes later, killing 30 people.
There were 1,066 people on board, with 1,036 survivors taken from the water and lifeboats; roughly an hour later, at 9:07 AM, the ship sank. In spite of Britannic being the biggest ship lost in the First World War, her sinking didn't kill as many people as the sinking of RMS Titanic or of Cunard's RMS Lusitania, or many other ships lost in the War.
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
deck house roof, and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the ship. 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. However, several of these davits were placed abreast of funnels, defeating that purpose. Similar davits were not fitted to Olympic.
The ship carried 48 lifeboats, capable of carrying at least 75 people
each. Thus, 3,600 people could be carried by the lifeboats, more than the maximum number of people the ship could carry. In the ship's sinking, only 37 of them were lowered (but two were lost in the propellers, along with their occupants), meaning that 11 of them were not used; this was not a problem at all because the ship carried only about a third of the people that could be carried, so that none of the used lifeboats were full.
Britannic 's hull was also 2 feet (0.6 m) wider than her predecessors, following the redesign after the loss of Titanic.
To keep to a 21-knot (39 km/h; 24 mph) service speed, the shipyard
installed a larger turbine rated for 18,000 horsepower (13,000 kW)—versus Olympic 's and Titanic 's 16,000 horsepower (12,000 kW) turbine—to compensate for the ship's extra width. Divers featured in a 2006 History Channel special about Titanic discovered that the expansion joints on Britannic were of an improved, pear-shaped design, unlike the v-shaped expansion joints of Titanic.
After completing five successful voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre and back to the United Kingdom transporting the sick and wounded, Britannic departed Southampton for Lemnos at 14:23 on 12 November 1916, her sixth voyage to the Mediterranean Sea. The Britannic passed Gibraltar around midnight on 15 November and arrived at Naples on the morning of 17 November, for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.
A storm kept the ship at Naples until Sunday afternoon, when Captain Bartlett decided to take advantage of a brief break in the weather and continue on. The seas rose once again just as Britannic left the port. However, by next morning, the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan was rounded in the first hours of Tuesday, 21 November. By the morning, Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion (the southernmost point of Attica, the prefecture that includes Athens) and the island of Kea.
There were a total of 1,066 people on board, mostly made up of the ship's crew, wounded soldiers, and medical staff.
At 8:12 AM 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 explosion was on the starboard side, between holds two and three. The force of the explosion damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. The first four watertight compartments were filling rapidly with water. Also, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room
six was 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. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Water was flowing further aft into boiler room five. The Britannic had reached her flooding limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with her first six watertight compartments flooded. There were five watertight bulkheads rising all the way up to B-deck. Those measures had been taken after the Titanic disaster. (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded.) 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 were open portholes along the lower decks, which tilted underwater within minutes of the explosion. 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, the Britannic could not stay afloat.
On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was already considering efforts to save the ship, despite its increasingly dire condition. Only two minutes after the blast, boiler rooms five and six had to be evacuated. In about ten minutes, the Britannic was roughly in the same condition the Titanic had been in one hour after the collision with the iceberg.
Fifteen minutes after the ship was struck, the open portholes on E-deck were underwater. With water also entering the ship's aft section from
the bulkhead between boiler rooms four and five, the Britannic quickly developed a serious list to starboard due to the weight of the water flooding into the starboard side. With the shores of the Greek island Kea
to the right, Bartlett gave the order to navigate the ship towards the
island in attempt to beach the ship. The effect of the ship's starboard list and the weight of the rudder
made attempts to navigate the ship under its own power difficult, and
the steering gear was knocked out by the explosion, which eliminated steering by the rudder. However, the captain ordered the port-side shaft
driven at a higher speed than the starboard side, which helped the ship move towards the island.
Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew members were preparing the lifeboats. Some of the boats were immediately rushed by a group of stewards and some sailors, who had started to panic. An unknown officer kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to get out and stand by their positions near the boat stations. He decided to leave the stewards on the lifeboats because they were responsible for starting the panic, and he did not want them in his way in the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them to take charge of the lifeboat after leaving the ship. After this episode, all the sailors under his command remained at their posts until the last moment. As no Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) personnel were near this boat station at that time, the officer started to lower the boats, but when he saw that the ship's engines were still turning, he stopped them within 2 metres (6 ft) of the water and waited for orders from the bridge. The occupants of the lifeboats did not take this decision very well and started cursing. Shortly after this, orders finally arrived; no lifeboats should be launched, as the Captain had decided to try to beach the Britannic at the nearby island.
Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke was making the arrangements for the lowering of the lifeboats from the aft davits of the starboard boat deck when he spotted a group of firemen who had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authorisation and had not filled it to maximum capacity. Dyke ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.
At 08:30, two lifeboats from the boat station assigned to Third Officer David Laws were lowered, without his knowledge, through the use of the automatic release gear. Those two lifeboats dropped some 2 metres (6 ft) into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats soon drifted back into the still-turning propellers, which were beginning to rise out of the water due to the water flooding into the front of the ship. As they reached the turning blades, both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were torn to pieces. Word of the carnage arrived on the bridge, and Captain Bartlett, seeing that water was entering more rapidly as Britannic was moving and that there was a
risk of more victims, gave the order to stop the engines. The
propellers stopped turning the moment a third lifeboat was about to be reduced to splinters. RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely.
- HMHS Britannic will be the main setting of Benny, Leo and Johnny's Adventures on the Britannic.
- Britannic was also rebuilt and given to life into a Unicorn Duchess.