When the Titanic was built, it was to be the second in a trio of luxury liners intended to dominate the world of transatlantic travel. Only one of the three the Olympic lived up to White Star Line’s dream. The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. The Britannic was only ever used for military service, and its entire working life was less than one year. The Olympic was the exception. After the Titanic tragedy, the Olympic was equipped with extra safety precautions and cruised the North Atlantic for more than 20 years as both a civilian and a military ship. In 1934, the White Star Line merged with its old rival, Cunard, and within a year the Olympic sailed its final voyage. The dream was over.
NOT SO GIGANTIC
The third of the great White Star Liners was originally to be called Gigantic, but it was renamed Britannic to avoid comparisons with the Titanic. With the recent tragedy in mind, the Britannic was equipped with a double skinned hull, bulkheads up to B deck, and giant davits (lowering devices) capable of launching enough lifeboats for everyone on board.
In the first few months of World War I, the Olympic continued to take passengers across the Atlantic and even rescued the crew of a British battleship that had struck a mine off the coast of Ireland. In September 1915, the Olympic was commissioned as a naval transport ship and, over a three-year period, ferried 119,000 troops and civilians. The survivor of three submarine attacks, the ship earned itself the nickname “Old Reliable.”
THE BOOM YEARS
After a postwar refit, the Olympic returned to civilian service in July 1920. For the next 15 years the ship made hundreds of voyages across the Atlantic and carried many thousands of passengers. The ship had only one major accident when, on May 15, 1934, it struck a lightship in heavy fog. Seven of the lightship’s 11 crew members were killed. By 1935, the Olympic had become dated and, in March of that year, made its final voyage before it was sold, stripped of its fixtures, and scrapped.
World War I broke out only six months after the Britannic’s launch on February 26, 1914. The ship was hurriedly transformed into a fully equipped hospital ship with dormitories and operating rooms on each deck and entered war service in December 1915.
Most of those who lost their lives on the Britannic were actually afloat in lifeboats, but were killed by the rotating propellers when an attempt was made to restart the engines. One of the lucky survivors was Nurse Violet Jessop, who had already escaped death as a stewardess aboard the Titanic.
TO THE SEABED
On November 21, 1916, the Britannic was steaming northward through the Kea Channel, southeast of Athens, on her way to pick up wounded Allied soldiers on the Isle of Lemnos. A sudden explosion ripped the ship open and sank it within an hour. No one knows what caused the explosion, but it is likely that the ship struck a mine.
Many of the carved wooden panels and other fixtures from the Olympic were removed from the ship before it was scrapped and stored in a barn in northern England. Rediscovered 56 years later, the fixtures were offered for sale and now furnish the interiors of hotels, factories, and private homes across England.