On this day – HMHS Britannic, the largest ship lost in World War One

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition is a unique personal record of the sinking of HMHS Britannic during World War One.

HMHS Britannic was the third and largest of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic and was intended to enter service as the transatlantic passenger liner RMS Britannic.

Originally the ship was to be named ‘Gigantic’, but due to the loss of the Titanic, her name was changed. The White Star Line knew if they were to keep ahead in the race across the Atlantic, the new liner would have to be more magnificent than her predecessors.

HMHS Britannic - page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

HMHS Britannic – page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook

Britannic was launched just before the start of World War One but never operated as a commercial vessel. In 1915 this huge luxury liner, the new jewel in the White Star Line, was requisitioned, painted white with a red cross on each side, and fitted out as a hospital ship. On the morning of 21 November 1916, on her way to Naples and on only her sixth voyage, she was shaken by an explosion caused by an underwater mine. She sank 55 minutes later, killing 30 people. 1,065 people survived, rescued from the water and lifeboats.

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

Photograph of survivors from HMHS Britannic taken at Fort Manoel, Malta

There have been many stories surrounding the sinking of the Britannic, some saying that she was transporting weapons to allied forces and so was a legitimate target for the German authorities.

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Newspaper clippings showing coverage of the Britannic sinking

Mysteriously, when film-maker Jacques Cousteau first attempted to locate the wreck, he could find no trace of it in the position marked on the British Admiralty chart. Britannic’s true position was eventually found some 6.75 nautical miles north-east of the charted position and had been deliberately misplaced to prevent any further investigation of the site.

The wreck of the Britannic lies in about 400 feet of water and was first explored by Cousteau in 1976. The water is shallow enough that scuba divers can explore it, but as a listed British war grave, any expedition must be approved by both British and Greek governments.

In 1996 the wreck of HMHS Britannic was bought by maritime historian Simon Mills. When asked what his ideal vision for the wreck would be, he replied, “That’s simple – leave it as it is”.

And so HMHS Britannic has lain at the bottom of the sea, off the coast of the Greek Island of Kea undisturbed for a hundred years.

Explore Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s scrapbook for an amazing first-hand survivor’s account of the terrible event.

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