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HMHS Britannic

HMHS Britanic

Work had just begun started on hull number 433 which was to be the largest of the Olympic class when construction was halted to await the outcome of the inquiry into the loss of the Titanic.

When work was restarted many changes to the design were incorporated in the final plans and a new name had been decided upon, instead of Gigantic, as planned, the White Star Line felt that names with connotations of size were no longer fitting after Titanic was lost and could hurt the ship. She became Britannic, a name that had always been lucky for the line.

Changes to her structure were many including a double skin, which increased her beam by two feet, the double bottom, normally five feet deep, was deepened another foot, the space between the inner and outer bottoms was separated into compartments by six huge longitudinal steel girders to minimize flooding in case of a hull breach. The water tight bulkheads in Titanic and Olympic had, for the most part, extended only up to the bottom of E deck in the forward part of the ship and D deck aft, Britannic had five extended to B deck and the other eleven to E deck. It no longer seemed to matter if the bulkheads and their heavy doors bisected first class compartments. Four rows of rivets on plating where stress would be greatest and new giant lifeboat davits called "gantry davits, these modifications made her the largest in gross tonnage of the three at 48,158 tons.

As a hospital ship she was 5% larger and probably would have been about 50,000 tons (about 10%) then outfitted as a commercial liner. Most of this was due to increased compartmentalization. Somewhat heavier construction throughout and a new list of safety gear and redundant systems showed that the White Star Line had become obsessed with safety.

She was launched on February 26th 1914 and White Star announced she would commence service between Southampton and New York in the spring of 1915. World War One was to change this and on November 13th, 1915 she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and completed as a hospital ship. Her interiors were converted into dormitories and operating rooms. On December 12th 1915 she was ready for war service.

Britannic arrived in Liverpool on December 12th, 1915 under heavy-armed escort.

She was supplied for her duties as a hospital ship with 2034 berths and 1035 cots for casualties and a medical staff of 52 officers, 101 nurses, 336 orderlies, and a crew of 675 men and women. The ship was under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.

Captain Bartlett started his career with the White Star Line in 1874 and rose through various positions serving on such ships as Celtic, Teutonic, Oceanic and Georgic. He earned his Masters Certificate in 1903. As Master he commanded the Germanic, Cedric, and for a brief period the ill-fated Republic (sunk off Nantucket Light in 1909). His daughter recalled that he was well liked by his passengers but not always by the White Star management because of his excessive concern for safety over speed.

The Britannic was commissioned "His Majesty's Hospital Ship" (HMHS) on December 12, 1915 and left Liverpool in her maiden voyage on December 23, 1915, bound for Mudros Greece on the island of Lemnos. She was joining the Mauritania, Aquitania, and her sister, Olympic, in the Dardanelles Campaign. Joined later by the Statendam the five ships together were capable of carrying 17,000 sick and wounded or 33,000 troops.

Because of their size, the five ships including Britannic would have to anchor in very deep water and rely on as many as eight smaller ships to ferry the wounded and ill from the docks to the ships, not unlike the tenders at Cherbourg and Queenstown.

Christmas was celebrated on the Britannic as she sailed for coaling at the port of Naples She arrived on 28th December 1915, coaled, and departed on 29th December bound again for Mudros in the Aegean Sea. She spent four days there seeing the start of 1916 and taking on 3,300 sick and wounded.

The Britannic returned to Southampton on January 9th, 1916 where her patients were transferred to waiting trains for transportation to London hospitals. The second voyage was shorter as she only sailed as far as Naples where she took on wounded and returned to Southampton on February 9, 1916. The third voyage was just as uneventful. She spent four weeks as a floating hospital off the Isle of Wight, Cowes and following this service, she returned to Belfast on June 6th, 1916 and was released from war service.

Harland and Wolff started fitting her for passenger service again but work was stopped when the Admiralty recalled her, she once again returned to Southampton on August 28th, 1916.

Britannic began her fourth voyage on September 24th, 1916 with members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment aboard. These members of VAD were to be transshipped at Mudros, bound for Malta. Following her coaling stop at Naples, the ship arrived at Mudros on October 3rd, 1916 where VAD members were transferred to His Majesty's Hospital Ship Galeka. Britannic was detained at Mudros while officials investigated the possible cause of food poisoning, which had stricken some of the staff. The ship returned to Southampton on October 11, 1916.

Voyage number five was the Southampton, Naples, Mudros trip. On the last day of the fifth voyage she encountered heavy seas and storms but finally made it to Southampton and over 3000 wounded were transferred to the waiting trains. The Aquitania had suffered damage in the same storms and was laid up for repairs, and because of this Britannic was ordered to start her sixth voyage after a short four days in port.

Departing Southampton on Sunday November 12th, 1916 she was due to leave at 10:00 am but actually left the docks at noon. The weather was calm, she carried no passengers. Friday November 17th, 1916 she arrived at Naples for coaling and was to depart on Saturday but a fierce storm set in a delayed the departure.

Tuesday November 21, 1916 was a perfect day and she was steaming through the Kea Channel in the Aegean. Shortly after 8:00am there was a tremendous explosion and she started sinking fast by the bow. Captain Bartlett tried unsuccessfully to beach her on Kea Island but in 55 minutes, Britain's largest liner had gone and not quite a year from trials to her sinking, only 351 days. The explosion occurred at the watertight bulkhead between holds 2 and 3 and the bulkhead separating holds 1 and 2 was also damaged. At the same time, boiler rooms 5 and 6 began taking water. This was roughly the same damage as that sustained by her sister the Titanic four and a half years earlier.

Today she lies on her side in 350 feet of water. So shallow, that the bow hit bottom before she sank and owing to the weight is bent. Jacques Cousteau discovered her in 1976 during an underwater exploration. She is largely intact except for the massive hole in her forward bow and her funnels being missing. The hull below the Shelter Deck is completely blown away between holds 2 and 3. Sections of the keel are simply for 60 to 70 feet. The port side hull plates are bent outward, indicating a large explosion from within, probably from ignition of coal dust in the reserve bunker.

Her captain was the last to leave the ship after sounding the whistles for one long blast (abandon ship) and stepping into the water from the bridge. Only 30 people died this time due to a lifeboat being launched by panicked soldiers and being caught in the still turning screws. As a strange footnote to the tragedy, one of the nurses, Violet Jessup, had also been a stewardess aboard Titanic and prior to that had served in the same capacity on Olympic at the time of the collision with HMS Hawke.

With all her modifications she sank in only fifty-five minutes, Titanic, without the modifications, had managed to stay afloat three times longer.

There are two possibilities for the rate of her demise. First, the portholes had all been opened by the nurses to air the ship before taking on her wounded and second, the watertight doors were open making it easier for the crew to go about their duties. Given Captain Bartlett's desire for safety I am sure he was not aware of these.
For ship sailing in a combat zone these two things were a violation of Admiralty orders and are difficult to believe. The explosion was a mine laid by a German U-boat the day before seems to get the credit. It was, of course, rumored that she was hit by a torpedo but there is no evidence to substantiate this and no U-boat skipper ever claimed the "kill".

The easiest way to distinguish her from her two sisters are by the gantry lifeboat davits, and most photos of her show a white hull with three red crosses and a green band midway up her hull designating her as a hospital ship.

HMHS Britannic never carried a fare-paying passenger.