The Olympic-class ocean liners were a trio of British ocean liners built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard for the White Star Line during the early 20th century. They were Olympic (1911), Titanic (1912), and Britannic (1915). All three were designed to be the largest and most luxurious passenger ships in the world, designed to give White Star an advantage in the transatlantic passenger trade. Two were lost early in their careers: Titanic sank in 1912 on her maiden voyage, after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean, and Britannic in 1916, after hitting a mine laid by the minelayer submarine U-73 in a barrier off Kea in the Aegean Sea during World War I. Olympic, the lead vessel, had a career spanning 24 years and was retired in 1934 and sold for scrapping in 1935.
Although the two younger vessels did not have successful careers, they are among the most famous ocean liners ever built. Both Olympic and Titanic briefly enjoyed the distinction of being the largest ships in the world; Olympic would be the largest British-built ship in the world for over 20 years until the launch of RMS Queen Mary in 1936. Titanic's story has been adapted into many books and films. Britannic has also inspired a film of the same name.
The Olympic class had its origins in the intense competition between the United Kingdom and Germany in the construction of the liners. The Norddeutscher Lloyd and HAPAG, the two largest German companies, were indeed involved in the race for speed and size in the late 19th century. The first in service for the Norddeutscher Lloyd was SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which won the Blue Riband in 1897 before being beaten by Deutschland of HAPAG in 1900. Then followed the three vessels of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse: SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, SS Kaiser Wilhelm II and SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie all of whom were part of a "Kaiser class". In response to this, the Cunard Line of the UK ordered two vessels whose speed earned them the nickname "greyhounds of the seas:" Lusitania and Mauretania. Mauretania kept the Blue Riband for more than twenty years, from 1909 to 1929.
The White Star Line knew that their Big Four, a quartet of ships built for size and luxury were no match for the Cunard's new liners in terms of speed. In 1907, J. Bruce Ismay, president of White Star and William J. Pirrie, director of the shipyard Harland & Wolff decided to build three vessels. And so, the Olympic-class ships were built to surpass rival Cunard's largest ships, Lusitania and Mauretania, in size and luxury. Olympic, along with Titanic and the soon to be built Britannic, were intended to be the largest and most luxurious ships to operate on the North Atlantic, but not the fastest, as the White Star Line had already switched from high speed to size and luxury. The three vessels were designed by Thomas Andrews and Alexander Carlisle.
Construction of Olympic started in December 1908 and Titanic in March 1909. The two ships were built side by side. The construction of Britannic began in 1911 after the commissioning of Olympic and Titanic's launch. Following the sinking of Titanic, the two remaining vessels underwent many changes in their safety provisions.
All three of the Olympic-class ships had nine decks, seven of which were for passenger use. From top to bottom, the decks were:
Propulsion was achieved through three propellers: two outboard or wing propellers had three blades, while the central propeller had four. The two lateral propellers were powered by reciprocating steam triple expansion, while the central shaft was driven by a steam turbine. All power on board was derived from a total of 29 coal-fired steam boilers in six compartments. However, Olympic's boilers were adapted for firing by oil at the end of the First World War, which reduced the number of engine crew required from 350 to 60.
The Olympic-class ships were 269.13 metres (883.0 ft) long, displacing 52,310 long tons (53,150 t) normally (their draft at this displacement being 34 ft 7 in (10.5 m)), and their tonnage was around 45-46,000 GRT. Olympic became the largest ship in the world when it was completed in May, 1911 before losing the title to its sister Titanic when she was completed in April, 1912. After the loss of Titanic the third sister ship Britannic claimed the title of largest British-built ship until her own sinking in November 1916. After this Olympic would enjoy the title for 20 years until the commissioning of RMS Queen Mary in 1936. All three vessels sported four funnels, with the fourth being a dummy which was used for ventilation purposes. Smoke from the galleys and Smoking Room fireplaces was exhausted through a chimney up the forward portion of this funnel. On the one hand it was a decoration to establish a symmetry in the ships' profile, on the other hand, acting as a huge ventilation shaft, it prevented the large amount of ventilation cowls on deck as on Cunard's Lusitania and Mauretania.
The trio of ships incorporated advanced safety precautions into their designs, intended to mitigate the risk of flooding and all but eliminate the chances of foundering. Each ship featured an inner skin, a second layer of 1.25 in (31.8 mm) thick steel above the keel which created a watertight box along the bottom of the hull known as a "double bottom." 15 transverse steel bulkheads reaching 45 ft (13.7 m) up to E Deck (D Deck in the case of the two forward most bulkheads) divided the hulls of each ship into 16 watertight compartments, each equipped with an electric pump to remove floodwater. The compartments could be sealed by automatic doors from the bridge in the event of a collision, preventing water from spreading to other parts of the ship. Olympic and Titanic were so designed that either could stay afloat with four compartments breached. The Olympic-class liners also eliminated converse bulkheads, such as those on Lusitania and Mauretania, which separated the coal bunkers along either side of the hull from the engine rooms and boiler rooms in the center. Such an arrangement was believed to increase the risk of a ship capsizing by trapping water lengthwise along the ship and increasing her list to one side.
The sinking of Titanic revealed serious faults in the design of the Olympic-class liners, necessitating a major refit for Olympic in late 1912 and major changes to Britannic, still in the early phases of construction. Titanic had sunk because her six forward compartments had been breached, above the keel but below the waterline, bypassing the double-bottom completely. The low height of the bulkheads had also failed the ship, allowing for uncontrolled flooding once the water in the breached compartments had reached E Deck. The refit on Olympic raised the middle five bulkheads to B Deck, the others to D Deck and also extended the double-bottom along the hull up to G Deck. These improvements were incorporated into Britannic, along with two additional bulkheads. Such improvements meant that both Olympic and Britannic could survive the scenario that had caused their sister ship to founder.
Each ship could accommodate a maximum of sixty-four lifeboats. However, only 20 boats were installed on Olympic and Titanic during construction to avoid cluttering the deck and provide more space for passengers. Shipbuilders of the era envisaged the ocean liner itself as the ultimate lifeboat and therefore imagined that a lifeboat's purpose was that of a ferry between a foundering liner and a rescue ship. Despite the low number of lifeboats, both Olympic and Titanic exceeded Board of Trade regulations of the time. Following the sinking of Titanic, more lifeboats were added to Olympic (some lifeboats might even have been from the foundered Titanic). Britannic, meanwhile, was equipped with seven huge gantry davits, five along the Boat Deck and two on the Poop Deck at the stern. Each contained six lifeboats and were individually powered by electric motors with their own night time illumination. In the event that the ship should develop a list and make the lowering of lifeboats impossible along one side, the davits could be maneuvered to pick up lifeboats from the other side of the deck.
The three vessels had several levels of passenger accommodation, with slight variations between the ships. However, no class was neglected. The First Class passengers enjoyed luxurious cabins and many were equipped with private bathrooms, a novelty at the time. The two most luxurious suites included a private promenade deck, sitting room, two walk-in wardrobes, two bedrooms, a private bath and lavatory.[a] Each class had its own large dining saloon, while First Class also featured a lavish Grand Staircase descending in seven levels through the ship, a Georgian-style smoking room, a Veranda Cafe decorated with palm trees, a swimming pool, Turkish bath, gymnasium, and several other places for meals and entertainment. The Olympic-class liners were the first British ships to contain separate restaurants independent of the dining saloons. These were in imitation of the precedent set on the German Hamburg-Amerika liner Amerika (1905), which had included a restaurant serving French haute cuisine run by the famous hotelier César Ritz. Olympic and Titanic had À la Carte Restaurants aft on B-Deck run by the London restaurateur Luigi Gatti and his staff, all of whom died in the sinking of Titanic.
The second class also included a smoking room, a library, a spacious dining room, and an elevator. Britannic's second class also featured a gymnasium.
Finally, the third-class passengers enjoyed reasonable accommodation compared to other ships, if not up to the second and first classes. Instead of large dormitories offered by most ships of the time, the third-class passengers of the Olympic class lived in cabins containing two to ten bunks. The class also had a smoking room, a common area, and a dining room. Britannic provided third-class passengers more comfort than its two sister ships.
|Olympic||Harland and Wolff, Belfast||1 August 1908||16 December 1908||20 October 1910||14 June 1911||Broken up at Inverkeithing, 1937|
|Titanic||Harland and Wolff, Belfast||1 August 1908||31 March 1909||31 May 1911||10 April 1912||Sunk following iceberg strike, 15 April 1912|
|Britannic||Harland and Wolff, Belfast||1 August 1908||30 November 1911||26 February 1914||23 December 1915||Sunk following mine strike off Kea, 21 November 1916|
1: ^ For ships in passenger service, "commissioned" is taken to mean the date of departure on maiden passenger voyage
First of the Olympic-class liners, Olympic was launched on 20 October 1910 and commissioned on 14 June 1911. She made her maiden voyage on 14 June 1911, under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith to great fanfare and acclaim. On 20 September of the same year, while under the command of a harbour pilot she was involved in a collision with the cruiser HMS Hawke in the port of Southampton, leading to her repair back at Harland and Wolff and delaying the launch of her sister Titanic. When RMS Titanic sank, Olympic was on her way across the Atlantic just in the opposite direction. She was able to receive a distress call from Titanic but she was too far away to reach her sister before she sank. After the sinking of Titanic, Olympic was returned to dry dock in the autumn of 1912, where she underwent a number of refinements to improve her safety. She then resumed her commercial service.
During the First World War, the ship served as a troop transport. On 12 May 1918, she rammed and sank the German submarine U-103. Once she was returned to commercial service in 1920, she crossed the Atlantic as one of a trio of grand White Star liners. The other two were seized as war reparations from Germany: Majestic and Homeric. During the 1920s Olympic would enjoy great popularity on the transatlantic route, earning the nickname 'Old Reliable'. Passengers included such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin and the then Prince of Wales Edward VIII. In 1934 she inadvertently collided with and sank Nantucket Lightship LV-117, leading to the death of seven of her eleven crewmembers.
Despite a major refit later in her career, Olympic struggled to compete with her newer competitors. Following the merger of White Star Line and Cunard Line in 1934, Olympic was taken out of service in 1935, and scrapped between 1935 and 1937.
Second in line of the Olympic class, Titanic was launched on 31 May 1911, and her commissioning was slightly delayed due to ongoing repairs of Olympic. The ship left the port of Southampton 10 April 1912 for her maiden voyage, narrowly avoiding a collision with SS New York, a ship moored in the port pulled by the propellers of Titanic. After a stopover at Cherbourg, France and another in Queenstown, Ireland, she sailed into the Atlantic with 2,200 passengers on board (a total capacity of 3,500), under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith headed for New York City. The crossing took place without major incident until Sunday, 14 April at 23:40.
Titanic struck an iceberg at  while sailing about 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland shortly before midnight. The strike and the resulting shock sheared the rivets, thus opening a leak in the hull below the waterline. This caused the first five compartments to be flooded with flooding in a sixth compartment controlled by the pumps; the ship could only stay afloat with four compartments flooded. Titanic sank 2 hours and 40 minutes after the collision. There being not enough lifeboats for all the passengers and the nearest responding ship (RMS Carpathia) being too far away, 1,517 of the 2,223 people on board died, making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
In 1911, Britannic supposedly was named Gigantic in its early phases, although this was denied by the White Star line. The third, and final liner to the Olympic-class trio, Britannic was launched on 26 February 1914 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and fitting out began. In August 1914, before Britannic could commence transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, World War I began. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including Britannic) were slowed down.
On 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship from her storage location at Belfast. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was renamed HMHS (His Majesty's Hospital Ship) Britannic.
At 08:12 am on 21 November 1916, HMHS Britannic struck a mine[b] at , and sank. 1,036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster. One survivor, nurse Violet Jessop was notable as having also survived the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, and had also been on board RMS Olympic, when it collided with HMS Hawke in 1911. Britannic was the largest ship lost during World War I, but her sinking did not receive the same attention as the sinking of her sister, Titanic, or the sinking of the Cunard superliner RMS Lusitania, when she was sunk by a torpedo in the Irish Sea.
When Titanic sank in 1912 and Britannic sank in 1916, their sinkings did not receive the same attention, due to the death toll (1,517 on Titanic and 30 on Britannic). Because the exact position of the sinking of the Britannic is known and the location is shallow, the wreck was discovered relatively easily in 1975. Titanic, however, drew everyone's attention in 1912. After several attempts, the wreck was finally located by Jean-Louis Michel of Ifremer and Robert Ballard following a secret mission for the US Navy. The discovery of the wreck occurred on 1 September 1985, at 25 kilometres from the position given of the sinking. The wreck lies about 4,000 metres deep, broken in two. The bow is relatively well preserved, but the stern partially imploded, and to a large extent disintegrated during the descent and impact on the seabed.[c]
The wreck of Britannic was discovered in 1975 by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It has a large tear in the front caused by the bow hitting the ocean floor before the rest of the ship sank (the ship's length is greater than the depth of the water). She has been, after the discovery, regularly seen as part of many other expeditions. In contrast to Titanic, which lies at the very bottom of the North Atlantic and is being fed on by iron-eating bacteria, the Britannic is in remarkably good condition, and is much more accessible than her infamous sister. Many external structural features are still intact, including her propellers, and a great deal of her superstructure and hull.
Museums and exhibitions pay tribute to the ships, and the two tragedies have inspired many movies, novels, and even musicals and video games.
When decommissioned, Olympic was previously set to be converted into a floating hotel, but the project was cancelled. However, its decorative elements were auctioned. The first class lounge and part of the aft grand staircase, can be found in the White Swan Hotel, in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The à la carte restaurant of Olympic is now restored on the Celebrity Millennium.
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