Racing Through The Night: Olympic's Attempt to Reach Titanic - Wade Sisson
As the first ship of a new class, indeed a new era of ocean liners in some ways, the Olympic’s creation was thoroughly documented. Originally conceived as a follow-on design of the Big Four built previously for the White Star Line, Olympic evolved from something like a scaled-up member of that quartet into a truly magnificent, yacht-like giant. Her four funnels, one more than she truly needed for her engines, were spaced evenly, as opposed to the more-crowded design Cunard had favored for their first four-stackers.
Outside, Olympic was sleek, with funnels and masts raked gently backward. Her decks were largely uncluttered by vents and cowlings, presenting marvelous open-air promenade spaces. Inside, she was a work of art, sporting rooms in a variety of period nods, from a lovely Jacobean dining saloon to her William and Mary grand staircases. Even her second- and third-class areas were a clear cut above the competition, positioning her to syphon away lucrative immigrant traffic and more discerning upper- and middle-class travellers who were willing to sacrifice a few knots of speed for the chance at more luxurious spaces.
Laid down in December of 1908, Olympic grew quickly under Harland & Wolff’s Arrol Gantry. She was launched on 20 October 1910, her light grey hull magnificent in the many photographs of the momentous occasion. Towed to her fitting out pier, Olympic would continue to grow quickly, her light grey replaced with a black hull, gold sheer stripe, and white superstructure underneath buff funnels with black boot-topping.
By late May of 1911, Olympic was ready for her trials and began her maiden voyage soon after her younger sister Titanic was launched on 31 May of that year. She would become the only of the trio of White Star sisters to serve a full career.
Pre-war passenger service
Olympic’s maiden voyage officially commenced on 14 June 1911 with her departure from Southampton, the new home port of White Star’s liners, although Liverpool would remain their port of registry. Under the command of White Star’s Commodore, Edward J. Smith, she called at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland before setting out into the Atlantic. She arrived in New York on the 21st and was feted as the newest, largest, and finest of the ocean greyhounds. The press fawned over her and the public eagerly toured her as she prepared for her return voyage to England.
Olympic’s pre-war career was not without incident. With commanders, officers, and other vessels still getting used to how these new Atlantic behemoths were to be handled, an accident of some sort was probably inevitable. In September of 1911, one happened. Olympic, while sailing in the Solent outbound from Southampton, collided with a British cruiser, HMS Hawke, whose ram bow buried itself in the liner’s stern quarter on her starboard side. Olympic’s safety equipment proved its worth as the liner was able to limp back to Southampton and then to Belfast for further repairs.
Olympic had resumed her schedule of regular sailings when, in April of 1912, her sister Titanic, delayed somewhat by the mishap to Olympic, finally came into service. On the fateful night of
14-15 April, Olympic was eastbound from New York when she heard her sister calling for help from over 500 miles away. While Captain H. J. Haddock put on all possible speed, Olympic was eventually called off by the Carpathia, which had arrived at the wreck site and had found only Titanic’s boats.
After a 1912 mutiny attempt over the poor quality of extra lifeboats added after Titanic’s sinking, Olympic was eventually returned to Belfast for a refit that would see her gain new davits along the balance of her boat deck and a larger complement of lifeboats under them. She also was upgraded for safety and luxury inside the ship.
Passengers, however, would only get to enjoy these new ammenities and a safer and, at 46.359 tons, larger Olympic for a brief time, however, before war interrupted her service.
With her second sister Britannic still building at the time of war’s declaration, Olympic still cut a solitary figure in White Star’s line-up. She remained in commercial service initially, but after bookings fell due to fears of German submarines, she was pulled from passenger service.
On her final commercial voyage before being laid up, however, Olympic was to feature for the first of several times in a wartime event. Sailing near Ireland on 27 October 1914, she picked up a distress call from the British battleship Audacious, which had struck a mine and was slowly sinking. Olympic would rescue 250 of the ship’s crew after she arrived on the scene and she even took the battleship in tow in an attempt to save her. After three attempts, however, the tow was given up and the battleship eventually sank after a massive internal explosion.
In May of 1915, Olympic began the next phase of her career when the Admiralty requisitioned her for use as a troopship. After being refitted for this purpose, with most of her luxurious appointments removed to storage ashore, Olympic carried her first 6,000 soldiers on a voyage to Mudros for service in the Gallipoli Campaign. She would go on to carry over 200,000 troops during the war and to steam over 184,000 miles in service to her nation. She would also earn a nickname: 'Old Reliable' that she would carry for the rest of her career.
Her service was not without excitement, however. In May of 1918, while sailing in the English Channel and bound for France, she sighted a German submarine, U-103. She opened fire at once with guns fitted to her decks, and the submarine immediately began to dive for cover. Olympic, however, would have none of it. She pushed forward and rammed the luckless U-Boat, sending it to the bottom and becoming the only ocean liner to ever sink a German submarine.
With the war coming to an end in November of 1918, Olympic was returned once again to her birthplace in Belfast, now to be restored to her
pre-war glory. Her interiors were re-installed, with some modernisation also taking place, and her power-plant was converted from coal to oil.
Having lost Titanic to an iceberg and Britannic to a mine in 1916, Olympic was now matched with the ex-German Bismarck, renamed Majestic, and the smaller but popular Homeric. Olympic, however, remained popular, having a peak year in 1921 with over 38,000 passengers sailing aboard her. The likes of Mary Pickford, Marie Curie, members of the Royal Family, and even a young Cary Grant graced her decks and cabins.
Always popular, Olympic continued to receive updates inside and out. A lower sheer stripe gave her hull a different look in the late 1920s. Her famous staircases were painted a light green to make them seem more modern. Updated cabins with private baths were added. Her steerage quarters, thanks to a change in US immigration laws, were converted into new tourist cabins for the fast set of ocean-going adventurers that had emerged in the latter part of the decade as a lucrative new block of passengers. After another solid year in 1929, Olympic then began to see the effects of both the Great Depression and her own age and outdated design.
Olympic, still a grand old lady of the Atlantic, had been continuously updated through the 1920s, but only so much could be done. She lacked the private baths that were now requisite among large swaths of passengers on the Western Ocean. She also was less economical to run than new ships were, and with White Star merging with Cunard in 1934, the writing was on the wall for her demise.
In a heavy fog that year, Olympic had one last brush with tragedy, striking the Nantucket lightship and sinking the much-smaller vessel with four of her crew lost. Olympic rescued the other seven,
but three more died aboard her as she made for New York.
On 5 April 1935, Olympic departed New York for the last time and returned to England. Here, she was laid up while her new owners decided what to do with her. She was considered for the same cruising service that Cunard’s Mauretania handled for a time, but this was dismissed. Mauretania was soon laid up astern of her, and the two former rivals awaited their fates.
Olympic was sold after five months of inactivity to Sir John Jarvis, an MP, who wanted to use the ship to provide work for the impoverished citizens of Jarrow. On 13 October, Olympic arrived in Jarrow and shut down her engines for the final time, bringing to a close over 24 years of service on
Olympic, however, was to have something of a second life. Her interiors and fittings were auctioned off, being dispersed all over the world. Today, many private collections and museums boast pieces of everything from her pitch pine decking to panels from her cabins and from lighting fixtures to the famous 'Honour & Glory' clock from her grand staircase. The entirety of her first-class lounge is now installed in the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, where guests can sit today and imagine themselves long ago on one of the most beautiful vessels ever built