Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Britannic Comparison - By Jake Billingham & Joanna Dolan

In the second instalment in a series of guest blogs, Jake and Joanna here take us through the differences that the hospital ship Britannic had compared to her sister ships Titanic and Olympic.


The Britannic is best known as the sister ship of the RMS Olympic and the RMS Titanic along with being the third and final luxury liner of the White Star Line’s Olympic class.  Construction began on the Britannic on November 30, 1911, with her launch on February 26, 1914. At 883 feet in length, she was intended to be the largest and grandest of the three ocean liners.  That all changed with the start of World War I, when she was recommissioned as a hospital ship in 1915.  The HMHS Britannic departed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage on December 23, 1915.

Following the Titanic tragedy, several notable modifications were made during the construction of Britannic to increase safety measures.  Most notably, Britannic had a bulb shaped expansion joint design which differed from the straight cut expansion joints on the Titanic and Olympic.  The Britannic also had four expansion joints in comparison to 2 expansion joints for each of her sister ships.  More lifeboats were also added, including one open and one collapsible lifeboat, making the total number of lifeboats equal to 55 in comparison to Titanic’s 20 lifeboats.  Five gantry Davits were added to the Britannic along with six Wellin type davits to both sides of the ship, two on each side of the poop deck, which could handle two boats, just like on the Titanic and Olympic. Another safety revision included Britannic having an increased number of watertight compartments totalling 16. Also, a new bulkhead was added in the electric engine room, and five bulkheads were extended up from E deck to B deck with some extended right up to the bridge.  Britannic’s watertight double skin ran the length of the boiler room to the engine room, and the length of the  ship’s beam was increased to 94 feet in order to allow room for the double hull.  The width of the ship was also increased to allow for the double hull. Another significant difference included a higher rated horsepower which was 18,000 horsepower 3.000kw, in comparison to the two sister ships which had 16.000 horsepower 12.000kw.

In addition to the design changes to improve safety, there were several structural changes intended to be made to the Britannic with the intention of her being even more opulent than her sister ships. First Class would have been given a larger À La Carte Restaurant and a new reception room on B deck, where the utmost elite in society could dine. A play room was to be added to First Class where children could play.  Unlike on the Titanic or the Olympic, children could use one of the Palm Courts.  On the Britannic, there would also have been a lady’s hair salon in addition the barber shop.  New sitting rooms were to have been added on C deck  as a result of the parlour suits on Titanic.  First Class would also have seen the addition of many more private bathrooms and washrooms.  The swimming baths would have seen more of an Art Deco design in order to keep up with the luxurious German liners, unlike the basic decor of the Titanic and Olympic (left) swimming baths. Britannic was going to have a self playing Welte-Mignon organ added to her grand staircase as well. The organ was made but was never installed on the Britannic. It can still be seen today on exhibit at the Museum für Musikautomaten Seewen, Solothurn Switzerland. The Britannic also had a shelter deck added to her stern. In addition, Second Class, like First Class, would have been given their own gymnasium. Third Class passengers would also have been given new entrances.

Sadly, the Britannic, never saw any of the luxurious design upgrades and never saw a day of service as a passenger liner.  Instead, she was transformed into a hospital ship.  Many modifications were required including the public rooms on the upper decks being converted into wards for the wounded.  Lower on the ship, the large First Class dining room and the reception rooms became operating theatres and main wards.  The medical personnel would occupy the B-deck cabins, while the medical orderlies and the less critically wounded patients would be accommodated on the lower decks.  From the evidence shown by some surviving photos, we know that the partially enclosed First Class promenade was used as patient wards as well. In order to be recognised as a hospital ship, the Britannic was painted white with a green stripe down the side of the ship broken by three red crosses.  Green lights were also fitted to the side so she could be easily determined as a hospital ship at night, and she was also fitted with two big red crosses on both sides of her boat deck that light up at night. The Britannic could carry 3,309 casualties.

On November 21, 1916, the Britannic was in the middle of her sixth voyage when an explosion disrupted a beautiful Sunday morning in the Kea Channel just off of the coast of Greece.  The Britannic had struck a mine, and the explosion warped her steel and jammed the bulkhead doors in full open position.  Despite all of the additional safety modifications, the Britannic sank in about 55 minutes in comparison to the 2 hours and 40 minutes that it took her sister ship Titanic to sink.  Only 30 lives were lost that day with more than 1,030 lives saved, while Titanic’s casualties were much higher with the loss of 1,496 lives and only 712 lives saved. 

The wreck of the Britannic was discovered by French explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975, over ten years before Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic.  The Britannic lies on her starboard side in just under 400 feet of water while Titanic  rests on the ocean floor about 2 ½ miles below the ocean’s surface.  The Titanic rests in darkness, while the waters surrounding the wreck of the Britannic are clear blue.  Submersibles and ROVs must be used to explore what is left of the Titanic, while submarines and divers can access Britannic’s former glory.  The wreck of the Britannic is owned by explorer, Simon Mills, and his highly regulated by the Greek government, while Titanic is regulated by the NOAA and salvage rights belong to the management company of the former RMST and Premier Exhibitions.  Both the wrecks of the Britannic and Titanic still fascinate many to this day and hold many more mysteries yet to be discovered.

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