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Titanic's Sister Ship - RMS Olympic

Olympic at SeaThe Olympic, Harland and Wolff yard number 400, was launched on October 20th 1910 and served for about 25 years before eventually scrapped. She was the first of three sisters, Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (later renamed Britannic) and gave the "class" name to them making them the "Olympic Class" liners.

There was much more interest in Olympic's maiden voyage than Titanic's as she was the first of a new breed of ship. Titanic didn't really come to the foreground till the day she sank. Olympic was also the only one of the three that was to complete her career.

The easiest way to tell the two apart is the enclosed promenade at the front of B deck. Olympic had a fully exposed deck where Titanic's was enclosed for the front third, the better to protect her passengers from spray, and the remainder of the windows on that deck are irregularly spaced. A period photograph shows both ships together when the Olympic was at Harland and Wolff's yard for repairs following her collision with HMS Hawke. At this stage the promenade windows had not yet been added as the idea was an afterthought.

The other, less visible way to tell the two apart was the yard number. Olympic was hull number 400, Titanic was 401. In one picture from the wreck site one of Titanic's propellers is clearly marked 401, remarkable after all these years.

Her maiden voyage was in 1911 and she was retired in 1936 soon after the collision with the Nantucket Lightship giving her a career of 25 years or close to it.

Following the Titanic disaster she was taken into Harland and Wolff and literally rebuilt from the keel up including a much higher double skin, raising the watertight bulkheads to the level of the well decks and, of course, many more lifeboats. The rebuild took the better part of six months and increased her tonnage to 46,359.

As a side note the black gang (boiler room crew) walked off the ship after Olympic reached Southampton following Titanic's loss and would not return till more boats were brought aboard.

Her first few voyages were unremarkable but on the fifth voyage, the morning of September 20th, 1911, as she departed Southampton with Captain E.J. Smith (who was in command of Titanic when she sunk) and Pilot George Bowyer on the bridge she had her first accident. Just after noon she was rounding the Bramble Bank at the normal harbor speed of 19 knots when she encountered the 7350-ton British Cruiser RMS Hawke. Both ships turned so as to proceed down the Spithead channel and in fact did, on parallel courses for quite a distance. Reports stated they were about 200 - 300 yards apart when suddenly Hawke seemed to veer toward the larger ship and collision was unavoidable. She slammed into the starboard side of Olympic about 85 feet from the stern. The bow of the Hawke took a modest amount of damage, and two gashes were left in the side of the Olympic, one above the water line and one below from the ram that was incorporated in Hawke's bow, an ancient device still in use from a much earlier age. Olympic's starboard propeller was badly damaged and required replacing. This, combine with the hull damage required the ship return to Harland and Wolff for repairs; the passengers were transferred to other ships. Fortunately there was no loss of life; Olympic's passengers being at lunch at the time. Both made port under their own power. In the following court cases and appeals it was decided that Olympic was responsible for the accident.

Even after the outbreak of World War One, she remained in commercial service and even rescued the crew of a British battleship Audacious that had struck a mine off the coast of Ireland. Olympic took the Audacious in tow but had to abandon it and the battleship sank.

In 1915 she was commissioned as a navel transport and spent the rest of the war ferrying soldiers to Great Britain. She was painted dazzle camouflage, a blue, grey and black combination of geometric shapes to confuse enemy submarines, the idea being that they would not be able to tell her direction. She survived four submarine attacks, and in March 1916 she was returned temporarily to the White Star Line. During this time she was fitted with six-inch guns for submarine defense.

In May 1918 during her 22nd troop-carrying voyage Olympic was attacked by German submarine U-103. The torpedo was avoided by evasive action and Olympic turned on her attacker and rammed it. Fortunately for the submarine the blow was glancing or the impact of a 46,000-ton ship on its fragile hull would have been devastating. U-103 began to sink and some of her crew escaped to be picked up by an American destroyer.

After the war ended she racked up an impressive record. She had transported 41,000 civilian passengers, 66,000 troops (American and Canadian), and 12,000 members of a Chinese labor battalion. She had steamed 184,000 miles, burned 347,000 tons of coal, and maintained her schedule so close that she earned the nickname "Old Reliable".

Returning her to passenger service required another refit which cost $2,430,000 and included conversion to oil burning, replacing the coal and reducing greatly the number of men in the engineering department, this alone made the refit well worth the money.

Olympic was back on the New York run by 1920 and over the next fifteen years made hundreds of successful crossings. She had one more major accident though. On May 15th, 1934 during heavy fog she rammed the Nantucket lightship sending it to the bottom and costing the lives of seven of the eleven crewmen. That was also the year that White Star merged with Cunard and in March 1935, after the Queen Mary went into service; she was considered redundant and made her final voyage to New York before being sent to the breakers in 1936.

For her time Olympic was largest liner afloat loosing the title for a short while to Titanic and then to the new German contender Imperator (later Cunard's Berengaria).

Her third sister Britannic never served as a commercial liner, which made Olympic the largest British ocean liner until the advent of the Queen Mary. Some claim that Cunard's Aquitania was the largest but this is in error. Aquitania was longer and carried more passengers and crew (3725 and 1200 respectively) but her gross tonnage was less and tonnage is based on enclosed space not weight.