HMHS Britannic (1914), the third and largest of the White Star Line, sister ship of and , sank in 1916 after hitting a mine with the loss of 30 lives. Although the White Star Line always denied what it called a "legend", most sources say that the ship was originally intended to be named Gigantic (this is supported by a White Star pamphlet that advertised "The Gigantic"). In the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, the name was changed to Britannic, making it the second of three ships to be so named (see and ).
Following the loss of the Titanic and the subsequent enquiries, 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 6 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 deckhouse roof, and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. 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. These davits were not fitted to Olympic.
Britannic was launched on 26 February 1914 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and fitting out began. In August 1914, before Britannic could commence transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, World War I began. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including the Britannic) were slowed down. The military authorities requisitioned a large number of ships as armed merchant cruisers or for troop transport. The Admiralty was paying the companies for the use of their vessels but the risk of losing a ship during military operations was high. However, the big ocean liners were not taken for military use, as smaller vessels were much easier to operate. The White Star decided to withdraw RMS Olympic from service until the danger had passed. RMS Olympic returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly. All this would change in 1915.
The need for increased tonnage grew critical as military operations extended to the eastern Mediterranean. In May 1915, Britannic completed mooring trials of her engines, and was prepared for emergency entrance into service with as little as four weeks notice. The same month also saw the first major loss of a civilian ocean vessel when the Cunard liner was torpedoed near the Irish coast by a German submarine.
The following month, the British Admiralty decided to use recently requisitioned passenger liners as troop transports during the Gallipoli campaign (also called the Dardanelles service). The first to sail were Cunard's and . As the Gallipoli landings proved to be disastrous and the casualties mounted, the need for large hospital ships for treatment and evacuation of wounded became evident. RMS Aquitania was diverted to hospital ship duties in August (her place as a troop transport would be taken by the RMS Olympic in September) and on 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship from her storage location at Belfast. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was renamed HMHS (His Majesty's Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett (1868 - 1945).
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 but by next morning the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan was rounded during the first hours of Tuesday, 21 November. By the morning Britannic was steaming at full speed (around 21 knots) into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion (the southernmost point of Attica, the prefecture that includes Athens) and the island of Kea.
Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Unfortunately, another surprise was waiting. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five also failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Now 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 and had five watertight bulkheads rise all the way up to the B-deck. Those measures were taken after the Titanic disaster (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded and the bulkheads only went as high as E-deck). Luckily, 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 was something else that probably sealed Britannic's fate: the open portholes of the lower decks. The nurses had opened most of those portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship's list increased, water reached this level and water 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.
Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crewmembers 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 as they were responsible for starting the panic and he did not want them in his way during the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them in order 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 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 running, he stopped them within six feet (2 m) 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 beach the Britannic.
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 authority 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 6 feet into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats soon drifted into the giant running propellers, which were almost out of the water by now. As the first one reached the turning blades, both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were torn to pieces. By then the word of the massacre arrived on the bridge. 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 pieces. RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely.
The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 08:35, he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. The unknown officer had already launched his two lifeboats and managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the after set of portside davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use its speed to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the dying Britannic. After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown officer filled another lifeboat with seventy-five men and launched it with great difficulty because the port side was now very high from the surface due to the list to starboard. At 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. The unknown officer with six sailors decided to move to mid-ship on the boat deck to throw overboard-collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. About thirty RAMC personnel who were still left on the ship followed them. As he was about to order these men to jump then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown officer spotted Sixth officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat but they had not enough men. Quickly, the unknown officer ordered his group of forty men to assist the Sixth officer. Together they managed to lift it, load it with men, then launch it safely.
At 09:00, Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle then just walked into the water, which had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to co-ordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blow was the final signal for the ship's engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their heroic colleagues on the Titanic, had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via the staircase into funnel #4, which ventilated the engine room.
The Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop saw the last seconds: "She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding though the water with undreamt-of violence....” It was 09:07, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion. The Britannic then became a time capsule on the bottom of the Aegean.
The inhabitants of Korissia were deeply moved by the suffering of the wounded. They offered all possible assistance to the survivors and hosted many of them in their houses while waiting for the rescue ships. Violet Jessop approached one of the wounded. "An elderly man, in an RAMC uniform with a row of ribbons on his breast, lay motionless on the ground. Part of his thigh was gone and one foot missing; the grey-green hue of his face contrasted with his fine physique. I took his hand and looked at him. After a long time, he opened his eyes and said: 'I'm dying'. There seemed nothing to disprove him yet I involuntarily replied: 'No, you are not going to die, because I've just been praying for you to live'. He gave me a beautiful smile . . . That man lived and sang jolly songs for us on Christmas Day.”
The Scourge and Heroic had no deck space for more survivors and they left for Pireaus signalling the presence of those left at Korissia. Luckily, HMS Foxhound arrived at 11:45 and, after sweeping the area, anchored in the small port at 13:00 to offer medical assistance and take onboard the remaining survivors. At 14:00 arrived the light cruiser . The Foxhound departed for Pireaus at 14:15 while the Foresight remained to arrange the burial on Kea of Sergeant W. Sharpe, who had died of his injuries. Another two men died on the Heroic and one on the French tug Goliath. The three were buried with military honours in the British cemetery at Pireaus. The last fatality was G. Honeycott, who died at the Russian Hospital at Pireaus shortly after the funerals.
1,036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried. The others were left in the water and their memory is honoured in memorials in Thessaloniki and London. Another twenty-four men were injured. The ship carried no patients. The survivors were hosted in the warships that were anchored at the port of Pireaus. However, the nurses and the officers were hosted in separate hotels at Phaleron. Many Greek citizens and officials attended the funerals. One survivor, nurse Violet Jessop was notable as having also survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, and had also been on board RMS Olympic, when it collided with the HMS Hawke in 1911.
The wreck of HMHS Britannic is at in about 400 ft (120 m) of water. It was first discovered and explored by Jacques Cousteau in 1975. The giant liner lies on her starboard side hiding the zone of impact with the mine. There is a huge hole just beneath the forward well deck. The bow is attached to the rest of the hull only by some pieces of the B-deck. This is the result of the massive explosion that destroyed the entire part of the keel between bulkheads two and three and of the force of impact with the seabed. The bow is bent and deformed in the front part because it reached the seabed before the 882 feet 9 inches (269 m) long liner was completely sunk. Despite this, the crew's quarters in the forecastle were found to be in good shape with many details still visible. The holds were found empty. The forecastle machinery and the two cargo cranes in the forward well deck are still there and are well preserved. The foremast is bent and lies on the sea floor near the wreck with the crow's nest still attached on it. The bell was not found. Funnel #1 was found a few metres from the Boat Deck. The wreck lies in shallow enough water that scuba divers can explore it, but it is a British war grave and any expedition must be approved by both the British and Greek governments.
In the summer of 1995, during an expedition filmed by NOVA, Dr. Robert Ballard relocated the wreck, using advanced side-scan sonar. Images were obtained from remotely controlled vehicles, but the wreck was not penetrated. Ballard succeeded in locating all the ship's funnels, which proved to be in surprisingly good condition. Attempts to find mine anchors failed.
In August 1996, the wreck of the HMHS Britannic became available for sale and was bought by Mr. Simon Mills, a maritime historian who has written two books about the ship: Britannic-The Last Titan, and Hostage To Fortune. When Simon Mills was asked if he had all the money and support needed, what would his ideal vision be for the wreck of Britannic be, he replied: "That's simple—to leave it as it is!"
In 1999, GUE, divers typically acclimated to cave diving, and Ocean Discovery led the first dive expedition to include extensive penetration into the Britannic. Video of the expedition was broadcast by National Geographic, BBC, History Channel, and the Discovery Channel . Unlike the 2006 expedition with the "world's best wreck divers", the GUE divers did not create a massive siltout preventing them from finishing their dives.
In 2003, an expedition led by Carl Spencer used advanced diving technology to send scuba divers into the wreck. Their most significant finding was that several watertight doors were open. It has been suggested that this was because the mine strike coincided with the change of watches. Alternatively, the explosion may have distorted the doorframes. A number of mine anchors were located, confirming the German records of U-73 that Britannic was sunk by a single mine and the damage was compounded by open portholes and watertight doors.
In 2006, an expedition, funded and filmed by the History Channel, brought together thirteen of the world's best wreck divers to help determine what caused the quick sinking of the Britannic. Setting sail on 17 September in a diving boat, converted from a fishing boat for this mission, the crew dived and explored the sunken ship. After days of preparation, the wreck was explored by divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. However, time was cut short when silt was kicked-up, causing zero visibility conditions, and the two divers narrowly escaped with their lives. One last dive was to be attempted on Britannic's boiler room, but it was discovered that photographing this far inside the wreck would lead to breaking the rules of a permit issued by the Euphorate of Underwater Antiquities, a department within the Greek Ministry of Culture. Due partly to a barrier in languages, a last minute plea was turned down by the department. The expedition was unable to determine the cause of the rapid sinking, but hours of footage were filmed and important data was documented. Underwater Antiquities later recognized the importance of this mission and has since extended an invitation to revisit the wreck under less stringent rules.
During this expedition, Chatterton and Kohler found a bulb shape in her expansion joint. This proved that her design was changed following the loss of Titanic.
It was planned to install a Welte Philharmonic Organ onboard the Britannic. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, the instrument never made its way to Belfast.
During the restoration of the Welte-Organ now in the Swiss National Museum in Seewen, the restorers detected in April 2007 that the main parts of the instruments were signed by the German organ builders with "Britanik" . A photo of a drawing in a company prospectus, found in the Welte-legacy in the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg, proved that this was the organ for the Britannic.