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HMHS Britannic: Titanic’s twin ship that also suffered a tragic fate

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 29 de junio de 2022

The HMHS Britannic was the youngest sister of the Titanic. Both tragically sank.

By now, over a century after the sinking of the Titanic, curiosity, and interest in the doomed ship continues to intrigue generations. The tragedy, popularized later by the iconic film, has been studied and researched endlessly, including the planning and building of the majestic ship. One of the things that startle those who venture into the history of the Titanic is that it was just one of three sister ships built by the White Star Line and that one of its sisters would suffer the same fate: sinking.

In 1907, J. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, started the building of three luxurious, fast, and ‘safe’ ships that would be unparalleled to the time’s technology: These were the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic (although it’s been said that the original name was going to be the Gigantic). The latter was the last ship to be built, and it was designed to top its eldest sisters in all ways imaginable including safety.

The HMHS Britannic

The Britannic was designed to have similar dimensions to her sisters although they were later on altered to make it a bit bigger. After the tragedy of the Titanic, modifications were made to ensure that the ship would be unsinkable and safe. The most important addition was that more lifeboats were stored on the deck of the ship to guarantee a complete evacuation of the ship in case of emergency. The Britannic had 48 big lifeboats that ensured room for 3,600 people; the ship’s maximum capacity was 3,309.

In February 1914, the White Star Line launched the Britannic with a grand ceremony, a luxurious dinner, and big speeches to the press. They wanted to end with the ghost of the Titanic that still haunted the company and it seemed it was working. The target of the Britannic changed a bit from its eldest sisters and it now had more room for second-class passengers making it more approachable while still maintaining its luxurious facilities.

Sadly, by the Summer of 1914, just before the Britannic was scheduled to have its first transatlantic voyage, WWI broke out. All commercial contracts were slowed including that of the Britannic. At first, small ships were requisitioned by the Admiralty to transport troops or armament, but just one year later, the Britannic was requested for service. It was turned into a hospital ship and renamed HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic.

All the luxuries and amenities that the White Star Line had added to the ship were replaced by 3,309 beds, some operating rooms, special areas for the wounded, housing for doctors and nurses, and a great reception for the lightly wounded. In December 1915, Britannic set sails from Liverpool to the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea to rescue wounded soldiers. Its other sister ship, the Olympia, joined it.

By the Summer of 1916, the White Star Line was paid 75 thousand pounds to restore the Britannic to its original passenger line. It returned to Belfast to start the retransformation of the ship. However, after months of hard work and huge money investment, the ship was recalled into military service.

The tragic ending of the Britannic

The Britannic completed five voyages between the United Kingdom and the Aegean Sea saving thousands of soldiers. But its fate was reaching its tragic end. On November 12, 1916, the Britannic and its crew of 1,066 including doctors, nurses, and navy military set sails for its sixth voyage in the Mediterranean. Storms and weather delayed its schedule. After some days stranded, the ship kept its route but on the morning of November 21, an explosion shook the Britannic.

At first, the crew thought the Britannic had hit a small ship. Today it’s known that the ship hit one of the many mines that were set in the Kea Channel a month earlier by the Germans. Although the explosion wasn’t perceived as important, it was soon evident that it had caused huge damage to the ship. Captain Charles Alfred Bartlett ordered the first emergency protocols that included closing the watertight doors and sending distress orders, which weren’t answered. In just 10 minutes, the Britannic was in pretty much the same condition the Titanic had been an hour after hitting the iceberg. It had over six compartments flooded already although engineers had worked to keep the ship afloat for more time in case something like this could happen.

Although it was more and more evident that the ship was going to sink entirely, Captain Bartlett thought he could still take the ship to shore so he only gave the order to prepare the lifeboats but told his crew to keep them on the ship. Ignoring the Captain’s orders the crew placed the boats on the water and almost all of the crew evacuated the Britannic. After some minutes Captain Bartlett realized there was no way they could take the ship to land; he gave the final signal to abandon the ship.

In less than an hour, the Britannic sank completely becoming the largest ship lost in WWI. Unlike its eldest sister, only 30 people passed and the main reason was that they had added enough lifeboats for all the passengers. Also, despite the change in temperatures, help was closer; they arrived in less than two hours after the incident while it took the RMS Carpathia over three and a half hours to reach the Titanic.

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