Passion for Transatlantic Passenger Liners

FAMOUS FOUR STACKERS: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic




Postcard for RMS Olympic in 1911

RMS Olympic:

In the early 20th century, there was quite the competition on the Atlantic shipping immigrants from Europe to the United States. Ships were considered national symbols and stood for technological might. Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Canada and the United States all tried to one-up each other. It was a battle of ship building on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States began the competition much later than the European countries. Great Britain ruled the waves on and off for about fifty years. The great Cunard Line was Britain’s national pride. White Star began as a British company, but was bought by the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company which was American owned.

When Cunard introduced their two ocean greyhounds as a response to the German four funneled liners, White Star saw the need to compete. They would plan not two, but three very large four funneled liners of their own. They were not to be focused on speed, but size and luxury. Their names would have Greek influence and they were to stun the world. They were to be called Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic. They were to be the epitome of style on the seas.

Passenger accommodations aboard were greatly improved over any other Atlantic liner of the day. There was much publicity about this massive project undertaken by White Star.

Olympic passed her sea trials with flying colors, and set sail on her maiden voyage in June of 1911. On the very day she left for that first trip across the ocean, her sister was launched.

Olympic suffered damage after  a harrowing collision with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. Both ships were required to be removed from service for repairs. The damage to Olympic wasn’t severe enough to keep her down for long.

When the Great War erupted, many ships were called into wartime duty. Olympic was no exception. She was painted in a dazzle color scheme meant as a sort of camouflage and was used as a troop transport.


Dressed for war

During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel. She gained the nickname ‘Old Reliable’ by the troops and was considered a celebrated war hero.

After the war, Olympic returned to her peacetime service as a transatlantic liner. First, she would undergo a refit and there were changes to her interiors.

With the loss of two sister ships, Olympic needed Atlantic running mates. Germany was forced to give White Star two of their liners as repayment for sinking dozens of British ships during the war. The Columbus became Homeric, and Bismarck became Majestic.

The Olympic class liners were different from other liners of the day as the third class passengers were not forced to sleep in dormitory style rooms with dozens of people occupying one space. There were individual rooms with two to ten beds. This allowed for more privacy and boost morale of the class. The accommodations aboard were a vast improvement over other ships in each class aboard. The first class was quite opulent and posh. Second class was as first class aboard other ships.

Although she was the most successful of the three ships designed, Olympic’s career was not without mishap. In September of 1911, Olympic collided with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. The British cruiser was designed to sink other ships by ramming them, so the damage to Olympic was decently severe. There was no loss of life in this incident, but questions were raised about the liner’s size. An inquiry stated that the suction current produced by Olympic’s massive hull pulled the Hawke into her side. The completion of Titanic was delayed to allow for the repair of her sister.

A woman named Violet Jessop was aboard Olympic when the collision with the Hawke occurred. She also survived the sinking of Olympic’s sister Titanic, and their sister Britannic later during The Great War. A biography of Miss Jessop’s life has been released and it is quite the read.

RMS Olympic in NYC

RMS Olympic in NYC

In October of 1912, Olympic was removed from service due to the sinking of her near twin, Titanic. This was needed to upgrade the safety features which included more than doubling the number of lifeboats. Water tight bulkheads were extended up to B deck instead of the D or E deck as originally designed. This configuration had spelled doom for Titanic and correction was required.

Another incident for Olympic happened in 1934 during a period of heavy fog. The sea lanes approaching the American shore were marked by light ships. Olympic rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship killing 7 of the 11 crew members aboard. The survivors were rescued by Olympic, but the others could not be saved.

Olympic enjoyed a decently long career, being loved by many despite her similarity to her doomed sister. Her service went on through the merger of White Star with Cunard. The introduction of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth meant that the older White Star ships had become obsolete. Olympic was withdrawn and sent to the scrap yard.


RMS Titianic

This particular ship is so widely talked about, that I will only touch on the most important aspects. Resources about details are widely found in books and on the internet. Titanic is iconic because of many reasons. Her demise was a world changing event.

The second of the Olympic class liners planned for the White Star Line was highly celebrated as she would be larger than her slightly older sister Olympic. This ship was advertised as nearly unsinkable and attracted the quite wealthy and ostentatious American and European travelers. Aboard the fateful maiden voyage were the likes of Isidor Strauss, founder of Macy’s department stores, the Countess of Rothes, Sir and Lady Duff-Gordon,  Colonel Gracie, Mr. and Mrs. John Astor (one of the wealthiest men in the world), Benjamin Guggenheim, and a variety of other extremely well to do people.


Titanic at Southampton


Fourteen years before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, a book was published called Futility. In this book, a ship, the largest the world had seen, carrying the rich and famous, hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank. Thousands of people died because there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Who was to know that this exact event would actually take place. The name of the ship in this book: Titan


As Titanic was preparing to leave Southampton on her first voyage on April 10, 1912,  there was a near-collision. The Titanic’s engines created a suction that pulled the SS New York from her moorings. The two ships came within feet of hitting. There was a fire in one of the coal bunkers as the ship left port. There were a variety of things that attempted to keep Titanic from beginning her maiden voyage to New York. After this near mishap, quite a few people left the ship when it stopped in Cherbourg.


On the fourth night of her maiden voyage, April 14, Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank bow first in just under three hours. The lack of lifeboats for all passengers and people not believing the ship would actually sink cost the lives of 1,517 people.

New York Times reports Titanic disaster

New York Times reports Titanic disaster

The aftermath of this great disaster brought about changes in regulations. Now it was required that a ship carry more than enough lifeboats for every person on board, the look out crew must have proper equipment to see ahead of the ship, watertight bulkheads must extend above the waterline and the International Ice Patrol was founded to keep track of drifting ice in the commercial sea lanes. A very long and drawn out investigation revealed many problems with the operation of the ship and not only the White Star Line, but all other shipping lines were required to change. Never again would the sea take the lives of so many people due to oversight and negligence.


From James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ 1997

Over the years, the sinking of this ship has been debated and talked about all around the world. Theories developed that seem absurd. One of these is that because of the collision between Olympic and Hawke, the Olympic was swapped with Titanic. The theory states that the damage to Olympic was worse than conveyed and was swapped with her sister and purposely sunk.

World interest in the wreck of Titanic was sparked again in 1985, when famed oceanographer Robert Ballard located the sunken ship two miles beneath the Atlantic’s surface. It was then confirmed that the ship had broken in two at the surface. 73 years after that fateful night, lights were shined on the RMS Titanic. Conversations and debates were sparked again about that night in April of 1912.

Public fascination with the story of how the great ship went down has led to books and movies. ‘A Night To Remember’ was a very popular book written by Walter Lord based on the eyewitness accounts of survivors. This book was later turned into a very popular motion picture in 1958. Other films would include several films called Titanic before 1958, ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ in 1964, ‘Raise the Titanic’ in 1980 based on a fictional novel by Clive Cussler, ‘Titanica’ narrated by Leonard Nimoy which was a documentary film made in the IMAX format, ‘Titanic’ in 1997 directed by James Cameron and winner of 11 Academy Awards, ‘SOS Titanic in 1979, ‘Ghosts of the Abyss’ which was another IMAX documentary based on the underwater dives by James Cameron to film 1997’s ‘Titanic’, and ‘Titanic II’ about the rebuilding of the ship and another untimely demise (not a very good movie). There have been several miniseries made for television on the subject as well.

Clive Palmer, and Australian billionaire announced his plans to recreate Titanic as accurately as possible but still falling within the newest safety guidelines set by SOLAS. I believe this to just be a massive and expensive rumor. As of 2015, not a single part of this ship has been constructed. No other ship disaster in all of history has stayed in the attention of society.


HMHS Britannic

After the sinking of the now legendary RMS Titanic in 1912, the final Olympic class liner required many changes. Most of these changes were made before this ship ever entered the water. Her hull was wider than the previous Olympic liners partly due to a new double hull design and redesigned expansion joints.


HMHS Britannic painting by Ken Marschall


It was finally launched on 26 February 1914 as the Britannic. White Star announced that it would begin sailing the Southampton-New York route in the spring of 1915. The outbreak of World War One changed this and it was converted into a hospital ship with over 3,300 beds. On 13 November it was fitted out medically and on 8 December commissioned as a hospital ship and handed over in International Red Cross livery. The Britannic arrived at Liverpool, from Belfast, on 12 December 1915, but it did not leave on its maiden voyage to Mudros until 23 December.


On November 21, 1916, Britannic was in the Mediterranean sea just off the coast of Italy when a huge explosion rocked the ship. It is still debated whether this was a torpedo strike, or a mine. The nurses had opened the portholes to bring fresh air into the wards. The damage to the ship wasn’t immediately fatal, but the opened windows caused water to pour in. As it settled by the head abandon ship was ordered. Two boats were lowered and slashed by the still rotating propellers killing 30. One hour after the explosion the ship keeled over to starboard and sank. The survivors were picked up by the escorting destroyers Foxhound and Scourge and the armed merchant cruiser Heroic. Two of the survivors had also been aboard the Titanic. The light cruiser HMS Foresight berthed at Port St. Nikolo and the French tug Goliath also assisted in the rescue. Captain Bartlett was the last to leave the ship and only 30 people died from the large number on board. The Britannic was the largest ever, 48,158 tons, British Merchant Service war loss.The ship lurched to a pronounced list to starboard causing many of the lifeboats to become unusable. 30 lives were lost in this sinking, the largest ship lost in WWI. Violet Jessop, who was serving aboard as a nurse, wrote her account of the mayhem.



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