HMHS Britannic steamed out of Southampton on the 12th of November 1916 just after midday bound for Mudros on the island of Lemnos, in the North Aegean, Greece. Stopping at Naples for coal on route.
She was the largest ship in the world at that time, being the last and largest of the three Olympic class ships built in the Harland and Wolff ship yard in Belfast for the White Star Line. On the 4th of April 1912 her sister ship Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She sunk in less than three hours taking with her 1502 passengers and crew, the 705 Titanic survivors were rescued by the Carpathia and taken to New York. Because of the large loss of lives on the Titanic, there followed two reports on the disaster, they recommended increased water tight compartments and lifeboat capacity for everyone on board passenger ships. At this time the Britannic was still on the stocks at Harland and Wolff, the alterations included, a watertight double skin and an extra bulkhead, making 17 in all. Larger davits which could transfer lifeboats from one side of the ship to the other and that were also able to launch the boats further away from the ship, allowing for a list of the vessel. She was now equipped with enough lifeboats to carry all the passengers and crew.
The launching of RMS Britannic on the 26th February 1914. Filmed by Pathe News
After she was launched the fitting out begun with the engines, boilers and other heavy machinery , however when War was declared on the 4th of August 1914 Shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given priority for supply of goods and materials. The work on Britannic continued but at a slow rate, Harland and Wolff then laid off some 6000 skilled workers who had little prospect of finding other work, most enlisted in the forces. In November 1914 she was joined in the yard by her sister ship RMS Olympic which had been taken out of service by White Star because of the war.
Then on the 13th November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship. Work began immediately preparing the ship for duty, she was able to carry just over 3,300 casualties. Painted white with a green line running the full length of the ship with three large red crosses on each side, for the night time running she had lights fitted along the length of the ship. Her funnels were painted in the White Star colour buff but without the black tops. Britannic left Belfast on the 11th of December arriving at Liverpool where she was commissioned as His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic. She left Liverpool bound for Mudros on the island of Lemnos, Greece via Naples on the 23rd of December 1915, she brought back casualties from the Gallipoli campaign to Southampton. She continued this route between Southampton and Mudros via Naples or Augusta (Sicily) for refuelling, until April 1916 when she was laid up, being discharged in May she returned to Harland and Wolff on the 18th of May 1916.
On the 28th of August 1916 she was again called up as a Hospital ship, retuning to the same route between Southampton and Mudros.
Britannic departed Southampton for Mudros on 12th November 1916, she arrived at Naples on the morning of 17th November. A storm blow up and kept the ship in Naples for two days, when it subsided Captain Bartlett set course for Mudros. On the early morning of 21st of November, she was steaming into the Kea Channel at 21 knots, when at 08.12 am a loud explosion was heard that made the whole ship shudder. She had struck a mine laid by the German long range mine laying submarine U73, the exploding mine had caused damage on the starboard side between holds 2 and 3 destroying the bulkhead between them, also damaging the bulkhead between 1 and 2, the bulkhead between No. 3 and the boiler room was undamaged but the watertight tunnel that run between No. 6 boiler room and the bow of the ship had been damaged which let the water into the boiler room. The watertight door between boiler rooms 5 and 6 failed to close allowing 5 to flood as well. Captain Bartlett then attempted to steer the ship towards the island of Kea with the intention of beaching the ship, however the forward motion of the ship increased the rate flooding, he ordered the engines to stop and the evacuation of the ship which was by now bow down with a list to starboard. There were a total of 1,065 people on board, 673 of which were crew, 315 Royal Army Medical Corps and 77 nurses. As the lifeboats were lowered into the sea two were pulled into the wash of the still tuning propellers causing casualties. Another issue that hastened the ships sinking was that the port holes had been opened to air the ship. A total of 21 crew and 8 Officers and Men of the RAMC lost their lives in the sinking and 21 persons sustained injuries, of the 1036 survivors one was Violet Jessop a Stewardess who had survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side, her funnels collapsed into the sea and at 09.07am, only 55 minutes after the hitting the mine she slipped below the surface. Had this occurred on the return trip with over 3000 wounded troops on board the loss of life would have been catastrophic. Britannic was the largest ship lost in the First World War, and still the largest passenger ship wreck.
Picture Google Earth
HMHS Britannic lays in about 400 feet of water of the island of Kea and is listed as a British War Grave. The wreck is now owned by Military historian Simon Miles who is an authority on the ship. For further information we would recommend reading, HMHS Britannic The Last Titan by Simon Miles.