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Britannic (right) next to Olympic (left)

Titanic's sisters: The luxurious Olympic-class ocean liners

Image: Britannic (right) during fitting out in Belfast alongside Olympic (left) | Public Domain

RMS Titanic was one of three Olympic-class ocean liners built between 1908 and 1915. Her sister ships were RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic. While the sinking of Titanic made her the most famous ship in the world, her siblings have been largely forgotten. This is their story.

The grand plan

The idea for the three gigantic ocean liners came during a conversation in 1907 between White Star’s chairman, J. Bruce Ismay and the financier J. P. Morgan, controller of White Star’s American holding company.

White Star’s main rival, Cunard, had recently launched Lusitania and Mauretania - the fastest, most up-to-date liners in the world. At a stroke, these two ships made White Star’s main passenger liners, Majestic and Teutonic, obsolete. What was needed was a new class of liner - one that would be the last word in luxury. During their conversation, the concept of the Olympic-class liner was born.

Building the dream

To design and build these prestige ships, White Star turned to the Belfast firm of Harland and Wolff, and the company’s chief naval architect, Thomas Andrews. The instruction was a simple one - create the most luxurious ocean liners the world had ever seen. Andrews, along with his colleagues Alexander Carlisle and Edward Wilding, set to work.

Just a year after Ismay and Morgan’s conversation, the designs for Olympic, Titanic and Britannic were finished. The three ships were swiftly commissioned, and work began on construction a mere three months after the company had signed off on the designs.

Harland and Wolff decided to build Olympic and Titanic in tandem, side-by-side at their Belfast shipyard. Construction began on Olympic first, three months before Titanic. Launched on 20th October 1910, the first of the three sisters was completed on 31st May 1911. Olympic was the biggest ship in the world - a title she held briefly until the slightly heavier Titanic was completed a year later.

Olympic sets sail

While work continued on Titanic and the laying out of Britannic’s keel was planned for November, Olympic set sail on her maiden voyage on 14th April 1911.

Harland and Wolff had more than delivered on their brief, with first class passengers enjoying such delights as luxurious sleeping quarters (many with private bathrooms), an opulent fine dining hall, a smaller ‘A La Carte’ restaurant, a palm tree-festooned ‘Veranda Cafe’, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and even a lavishly-tiled Turkish bath. No ship - not even Cunard’s Lusitania - could boast such luxury.

Olympic’s maiden voyage attracted worldwide attention. She arrived in New York on 21st June 1911 to great fanfare. Onboard for her maiden voyage were bigwigs from both White Star and Harland and Wolff, J. Bruce Ismay and Thomas Andrews amongst them; at the helm was the distinguished Captain Edward Smith, who was later given the captaincy of Titanic.

While in harbour, Olympic was opened up to the public and 8,000 people came to wonder at her lavish interior. Another 10,000 spectators turned out to watch her set sail for home. Her maiden voyage had gone without a hitch, and Ismay was delighted. The era of the ‘superliners’ had begun. What could possibly go wrong?

The sinking that changed the world

The answer to that question came in September 1911, and again, most notoriously, in April 1912. First, there was a collision between Olympic and HMS Hawke, a Royal Navy cruiser, in the Solent. A subsequent enquiry laid the blame on Olympic, which left White Star facing not only a huge repair bill and loss of revenue while the liner was out of action, but also a large legal bill. Unfortunately, things were about to get a whole lot worse.

On the night of 15th April 1912, the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank less than three hours later. An inadequate number of lifeboats onboard meant over 1,500 people lost their lives, among them Olympic’s former captain, Edward Smith, and her chief architect, Thomas Andrews. The news shocked the world.

In the wake of the disaster, Olympic was hastily withdrawn from service and underwent an urgent refit. An extra hull was constructed, the ship’s watertight doors were raised and sufficient lifeboats to evacuate all passengers were added. These modifications were also applied to Olympic’s sister ship Britannic, which was still under construction in Belfast when Titanic sank.

White Star was determined that the company’s remaining Olympic-class liners would not meet the same fate as Titanic. Unfortunately, within three years of Titanic’s sinking, another of the three sisters was lying broken on the seafloor.

Call to arms

The outbreak of World War I and the sinking of Cunard’s Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915 brought the Transatlantic passenger trade to an abrupt halt. White Star planned to store Olympic and the close-to-completion Britannic in Belfast until the war’s end. The Admiralty had other ideas. Olympic was requisitioned for use as a troop carrier - a role she played for the rest of the war, safely transporting an estimated 210,000 British, Canadian and American troops across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, earning her the nickname ‘Old Reliable’.

Britannic, meanwhile, was requisitioned on 13th November 1915. Work to convert her into a hospital ship began immediately. Common areas in the ship’s upper decks were converted into wards, cabins were prepared to house medical staff and dining rooms meant to feed the upper crust of society became operating theatres. Within a month, HMHS Britannic set sail for Greece to pick up soldiers wounded during the Gallipoli campaign. The first three trips went without a hitch. The fourth was a disaster.

Death in the Mediterranean

At 8:12am on 21st November 1916, Britannic struck a mine in the Aegean Sea off the coast of the Greek island of Kea. Within minutes, four of the ship’s watertight compartments had flooded and the ship began to list on her starboard side. Portholes on the lower decks opened against standing orders to ventilate the wards, and began letting in water. Designed to stay afloat with six flooded compartments, the water flowing in through these open portholes exceeded that number and doomed the ship.

Doctors, nurses and crew started to gather on deck, preparing for evacuation. Ignoring the fact that the order to abandon ship had not yet been given, two lifeboats full of men from the boiler rooms were lowered into the water. As the ship listed further and further to the right, one of Britannic’s giant, 20 feet high propellers began to rise from the water.

The lifeboats were sucked towards the spinning blades and smashed to pieces. As those onboard watched on in horror, the air filled with screams, the water surrounding the churning blades turned red, and blood spattered up the side of the white-painted hull.

Realising he could not save the stricken liner, Bartlett stopped the engines and gave the order to abandon ship. 55 minutes after she had struck the mine, Britannic sank beneath the waves. All but the 30 men who were killed by the ship’s giant propeller blades were saved by nearby Greek fishermen and three Royal Navy destroyers.

Postwar glory and the end of the line

After a postwar refit, the last remaining sister returned to life on the Atlantic. Over the next 15 years, Olympic carried thousands of passengers as she made her way backwards and forwards between Europe and the United States.

She was a popular ship, carrying some of the most famous people in the world such as the film stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ were great times to be onboard one of the most luxurious and fashionable liners in the world. However, as the 1920s drew to a close, an unprecedented global financial disaster brought the good times to an abrupt halt.

The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression dealt a near-fatal blow to the Transatlantic shipping trade. Before 1930, Olympic averaged 1,000 passengers per journey. By 1934, this had dwindled to just 9,000 a year. After the merger of White Star and Cunard in the same year, a surplus of ships and a lack of passengers meant cuts needed to be made.

Sadly, the axe fell on Olympic. She was sold to a British MP in 1935 for £97,500, sent to Jarrow in the North East and scrapped to create jobs in one of the most economically-deprived parts of the country. Throughout her lifetime, she had travelled 1.8 million miles, made 257 round trips across the Atlantic and carried 430,000 commercial passengers, as well as a huge number of troops during the war. By 1937, the last of the Olympic-class liners was no more.

Facts about Olympic and Britannic

  • Stewardess Violet Jessop worked on all three liners. She was on Olympic when it collided with HMS Hawke, on Titanic when it sank in the North Atlantic and on Britannic when it hit a mine and sank in 1915. She died in 1971 at the age of 83.
  • Olympic came very close to joining her sisters at the bottom of the sea. Spotted by a U-boat during World War I, the submarine was unable to flood its two stern torpedo tubes. Instead, it was rammed by the liner and sliced open by Olympic’s portside propeller. Unable to dive, the crew of the submarine blew its ballast tanks and abandoned ship.
  • The wreck of Britannic was found by the famous French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975.
  • Though the ship may be long gone, parts of Olympic live on due to her fixtures and fittings being auctioned off in 1935. The ship’s first class lounge, for example, can be found in the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, Northumberland.