The HMHS Britannic:

Titanic's Little "Big" Sister


A Brief History

Everyone is familiar with the story of April 15, 1912. That was the day when over 1,700 souls pershised when the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and plunged two miles to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Most people know that the Titanic had an older sister, the RMS Olympic, but, what most people do not know was that the Titanic also had a younger sister - the RMS Britannic.

On November 30, 1911 the keel of the last of three ships was laid out in the Harland and Wolfe shipyards in Belfast, Ireland. She was to be the largest and the fastest of the three. Her name was the RMS Gigantic. She would be a record 852 foot long, only a few feet longer than the Titanic. The Gigantic was to be filled with decorations that would compare to the finest mansions in England. However, she would never live up to the reputation of her two sisters for a tragedy would change all of these plans.

After the sinking of the Titanic the White Star Line had to change the design of the Gigantic. The first thing to be changed was the name of the ship herself. Since the name Gigantic was similar to Titanic, White Star felt that to be a bad omen, so the name was changed to the RMS Britannic. The engineers had to completely redesign the hull of the ship. The bulkheads, that only went to the E-Deck on the Titanic would go all the way to the top on the Britannic. The hull was reinforced along the bottom and sides of the ship so that things like icebergs could not damage the ship. The last, and most important, were the lifeboats. The Britannic would carry enough lifeboats to carry all of the passengers on board. (Some of the lifeboats on the Britannic were ones that had been carried on the Titanic).

The Britannic was launched on April 26, 1914, just over two years after the Titanic disaster. Three months later World War One broke out in Europe. The British government began to commission passenger liners to serve as military vessels. The Olympic, the oldest of the three sisters became a troop ship. The Britannic was converted into a hospital ship in November of 1915. The ship was repainted white with red crosses on the sides of her hull. Her interior was refitted to carry over 3,000 patients. She was commandes by Captain Charles "Iceberg Charlie" Bartlett. There was also a compliment of 100 doctors and 675 crew members. On December 12, 1915 His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Britannic was ready for service.

The Britannic left England in December 1915 on her way to Naples, Italy for coal and then to the island of Lemnos. The British military had chosen Lemnos, a Greek island, as a staging point for all military action in the Mediterranean Sea. It also made an excellent depot for hospital ships to pick up wounded soldiers and return them home to England. The Britannic joined several converted passenger liners including the Mauretania and the Aquatania. The ships, carrying over 10,000 wounded, would travel together to make them a less desireable target for German U-Boats. She returned to England in January 1916. Her second voyage was only to Naples to pick up wounded and returned to England in February 1916.

After her third voyage in April 1916, the Britannic was released from war service as was sent to Ireland to be refitted for commercial service. The shipyard was not able to accomplish their goals because the Britannic was called back into war service in August of 1916. She was sent to the Isle of Wight to serve as a temporary floating hospital. Her fourth and fifth voyages began in September 1916 and October 1916, respectively. Her sixth voyage would result in the Britannic arriving at her final destination - the bottom of the Agean Sea.

Britannic left Naples and arrived in the Kea Channel on November 21, 1916. The crew had settled down to routine duties aboard ship. The nurses were preparing the hospital wards before they were to take on the next group of wounded soldiers for the return home. They had opened the portholes to air the rooms out. Engineers, down below, were preparing to change shifts. To make the job go smoother they decided to leave the water-tight doors open. It was about 8:00am when the crew was sitting down for breakfast when something went terribly wrong.

The Britannic was rocked by a major explosion to the port side of the ship. The ship had either come into contact with an underwater mine or was torpeoded by a German U-Boat. Water began to rush into the bow causing the ship to go down by the head. The captain gave to order to abandon the ship. Due do the fact that a majority of the portholes were opened as well as the watertight doors not being closed due to the shift change allowed the water to flood the ship at an acclerated rate. This meant that all of the saftey measures added to the Britannic, as a result of the Titanic, were of no use.

The Britannic began to go under at an alarming rate. She also began to list heavily to the starboard side. Meanwhile, as the crew were getting inot the lifeboats, the Captian tried one, las, desperate act. He thought if he restarted the Britannic's engines that it might be possible to beach her on Kea Island. What Bartlett did not know was that the propellers were already breaking the surface of the water when they began to turn. This meant disaster for the first lifeboats lowered toward the stern of the ship. The propellers began to create a suction pulling the lifeboats into them. The first couple boats stood no chance. The were drawn in and shredded along with the crew members in them. Upon realizing this, Captain Bartlett shut the engines off for the last time. The starting of the engines would not have helped anyway because the front of the Britannic and already touched down into the mud below. Out of the 1066 poeple on the Britannic, only 30 died due to the propellers. Captain Bartlett swam away from the ship just in time to see it plunge beneath the waves. The whole incident took place in less than an hour and a half.

The Britannic now lies in 360 feet of water in the Agean Sea, a body of water she was never meant to travel on. She lies on her starboard side. The bow of the ship has smashed forward due to the fact the ship hit the bottom while the stern was still exposed above the water. She rested there, her exact location never truly known until Jaques Cousteau discovered her in 1976. It would not be until the 1990's that Robert Ballard, the same man who found the Titanic, would rediscover the Britannic. Dr. Ballard's goal is to make the Britannic and underwater museum that can be visited on the World Wide Web. In 1998 and 1999 Project Britannic , British organization, funded several diving expeditions to the wreck for an up close examination. Today the Britannic, Titanic's Little "Big" Sister, is the largest ocean liner on the ocean floor.


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These pages were developed through GirlTECH, a teacher training sponsored by the Center for Research on Parallel Computation (CRPC), a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center.
Thanks to the RGK Foundation and EOT-PACI for its generous support of GirlTECH.