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
30 November 1911, with her launch on 26 February 1914. At 883 feet
in length, she was intended to be the largest and grandest of the three ocean liners.
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 two 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 along with six Wellin-type davits and two Welin-type davits on her poop deck which could handle two boats were added to the Britannic, but was intended to have eight gantry davits which 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.
Requisitioned by the Admiralty
On 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship by the British Admiralty to serve between England and the Mediterranean, as a hospital ship to receive the sick and wounded from the Dardanelles campaign. Britannic was intended to be a luxurious ocean liner, meant to dominate the Transatlantic service, however due to her requisition, she had to go through many changes including most of her passenger accommodation turned into wards and operating theatres.
Almost all of the luxurious fittings that were intended for the vessel were replaced by basic hospital interiors. Britannic was also fitted with three less gantry davits than the planned eight due to the rush to get her into service. Her paint scheme would be changed to internationally recognised hospital colours: white with a green band around the hull broken up by crosses that illuminated at night. Green spot lights were added and her funnels were also painted yellow.
On 23 December 1915, Britannic left Liverpool, around 20 minutes after midnight, on her first trip out as a hospital ship. The ship presented a problem for one of the doctors onboard, Dr Goodman, who had been put in charge of 426 beds on wards F, L, M, and V. These wards were at the forward end of the vessel, on the starboard side, on F and G Decks. The good doctor reported that two of his wards were 'taking on water'. The water was coming from a leaking porthole, and a broken back pressure valve, in the ship's water tank. It is clear that these ships had very eventful maiden voyages.
Britannic would continue to serve as a hospital ship until June 1916, when she was released only to be requisitioned again on 28 August.
The Britannic stopped at Naples for her usual coal and water refueling stop on November 17, 1916.
A storm prevented her from departing Naples until that Sunday afternoon. Captain Bartlett then made the decision to take his chances, as there was a break in the weather. Just as they left, however, the sea rose again, but by the next morning the storm died down and Britannic passed the Strait of Messina.
Britannic struck the mine low on the starboard bow between numbers 2 and 3 holds at 8:12am November 21, 1916.
The nurses and doctors and chaplins had just sat down for breakfast when the mine was struck, and all of the cutlery seemed to dance and fall to the ground and smash. The matron told them to put their lifejackets on and get to the boat deck.
The force of the explosion damaged the watertight bulkheads between boiler room 1 and the forepeak. That meant that the first four compartments were flooding. The explosion caused a gas bubble lifting the Britannic’s bow and causing the hull to flex, whipping the foremast, and breaking some of the connections between the mast and the wireless transmitter in the ship’s silent room. This meant that the Britannic could still send out distress messages but could not receive a reply.
The firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room 6 had also been seriously damaged and water was flowing into that boiler room.
Captain Bartlett, in his pyjamas, came to the bridge and set a course to make for Kea Island in an attempt to beach the ship. For some reason, the Britannic’s steering gear wasn’t responding so they had to use the engines on the port side to try to steer the ship in the direction of Kea island. The explosion warped her steel and twisted her frame a little which caused the bulkhead door between boiler rooms 6 and 5 to fail in closing. The ship's telegraph chains had also been damaged so the Captain had to use the emergency telegraph to give orders to his engineers.
The Captain hadn’t given the order to abandon ship, but some of the stokers, who were in the bowels of the ship, decided to launch two of the lifeboats upon reaching them. One of the occupants was Titanic survivor Violet Jessop, but as the lifeboats were launched the port propeller was above the surface of the water and still turning. The two small lifeboats were pulled into the turning propeller, smashing the lifeboats and killing many of the occupants in them.
At 8.35 a.m. Captain Bartlett noticed the rate of the ship’s sinking had quickened, and he finally gave the order to abandon ship and for the engines to be stopped.
The doctors had left the portholes open on E deck, normally 25ft above the ship's waterline. The vessel had sunk considerably so that water was able to reach these portholes ultimately flooding compartments that had not been compromised by the mine explosion.
At 8.50 a.m. Captain Bartlett noticed the ship’s sinking had slowed, so he gave the order to start up the engines again in his final desperate efforts to save his beloved ship. The port propeller had pushed the vessel too far to starboard and the Britannic had overshot Kea Island so the helmsman had turned the ship’s wheel to port to try and push Britannic back towards Kea Island. This time the ship’s rudder somewhat responded, but this did nothing to help push Britannic back on course towards the island.
At 9.00 a.m. Captain Bartlett ordered the engines to be stopped for the final time. The ship had turned a complete 180 degrees turn from the vessel's heading at the time of the mine impact.
With more than six watertight compartments flooded, Britannic had reached her full capacity and surpassed her safety design features. Unable to stay afloat, the ship took a severe list to starboard, and the forecastle deck was under water. The sea rose quickly towards the bridge. The captain, still in his pyjamas, gave two final blasts of the ship's whistle. As the ship was rolling over onto her starboard side, Captain Bartlett walked off the starboard wing of the bridge and swam into the sea.
Britannic rolled over on her starboard side with her funnels falling off like chimneys over into the sea. She was nearly 883 feet long, and she sank in approximately 400 feet of water. The bow struck the sea floor as the stern was still on the surface, and the Britannic’s stern vibrated and slid slowly beneath the sea to her final resting place.
By 9.07 a.m. HMHS Britannic had gone.