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 from 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.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story (part 2)

This is the 2nd installment in the Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story, from the scrapbook kindly donated for digitisation by her family. The scrapbook is available to view in its entirety on Capital Collections.

In November 1916, military nurse Sheila was in Southampton ready to join the HMHS Britannic on what was to be her sixth and final voyage. Time on board the Britannic began as normal. On returning to the hospital ship, Sheila wrote:

Leave up – so back to Southampton to join our ship. Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate, and to see how homely it is now looking, with my chintz cushions and our nice jar of brown beech leaves.”

They were en route to pick up wounded troops via Naples where they re-fuelled and took on more supplies. The nurses were kept busy getting ready 3,000 beds and keeping fit:

“One of the sergeants gives us a gymnastic class each morning on the boat deck, much to the amusement of the M.O.s, who come up and take snapshots of us when looking most ridiculous and unable to retaliate”.

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

Page from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell scrapbook (section)

It was on the morning of 21 November when passing near to the Greek Island of Kea, that a loud explosion echoed around the ship. Sheila recalled:

“Up late – so only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bang!  and a shiver right down the length of the ship. Of course we all knew what it was! We had thought too much about torpedoes to be surprised to have met one at last. When the siren sounded, I went off to my cabin for my belt, and took my pillow, eider-down, and the first coat I could pick up…”.

“We were kept hanging over the side of the ship for a long while, as the Vice-Captain, who was looking after the lowering of the boats, had to dash off in the middle to call back some fourteen or fifteen firemen, who had gone off from the poop deck in a boat which should have held about eighty-four persons. They were made to come back to pick up a number of men who had jumped over-board…… We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water – we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast. In our boat, we got well away from the sinking ship and busied ourselves with the wounded, whom we picked out of the water”.

The Britannic disappeared fifty-five minutes after she had been hit. As no help had come yet in answer to the S.O.S. calls, Sheila and the rest of the medical crew waited until there was no likelihood of more explosions then sailed back to where the ship had gone down to see if they could find more survivors. After a time, they saw three trails of black smoke in the distance and knew that help was on the way. These were three British ships the Foxhound , Scourge and Heroic, and after three hours in a lifeboat, Sheila was taken on to the Scourge , a torpedo destroyer. Whilst waiting as sailors rowed around making a final search for survivors, Sheila saw a sailor pulling a chair bearing the White Star emblem from the water:

and gave me a part of the back, which I guarded safely under my coat… they gave us all the food they had – tea, dog-biscuits and oranges out of sacks…Several of them gave us their cap-ribbons as souvenirs”.

Cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

Letters and cap ribbons belonging to sailors from the rescue boats.

After a few hours towing the lifeboats, they were transferred to HMS Duncan then on to a French ship Piraeus, and then transferred to the Russian Hospital in Piree [Piraeus] where after a few days they were:

hurried away to Malta on the hospital ship ‘Grandtully Castle’ as Athens was getting a little too exciting for us….. After four days, when we were very happy – knowing we were at last on our way home – we reached Valetta, where we were met by the P.M. and all put into ambulances and sent to the different Hospitals on the island”.

After seventeen days on the island, they boarded HMHS Valdivia and set sail home to England.

Telegram sent from Athens with message 'SAVED - SHEILA MACBETH'

Telegram sent from Athens with message ‘SAVED – SHEILA MACBETH’

Sheila ends her recollections:

On Boxing Day we got into Southampton at about 9 am and left the boat after lunch as she had to go off to France that afternoon. We all crowded into the Waterloo train, where we were met by Miss Becher (The Matron-in-Chief) who told us that we might proceed to our homes to await further orders.

So ended my days as a refugee – at any rated for this trip”. 

After her serving on the Britannic, Sheila nursed the wounded in France. In 1919 while on holiday in Switzerland she met her future husband John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service.  They were married in 1920 and returned to India where three of their four children were born. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependants. They stayed in India until 1935 when John retired.

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

Scrapbook page of wedding photos for Sheila and John Mitchell

At the age of 86 Sheila answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the sinking of the Britannic, and Sheila Mitchell flew to where Cousteau had located the wrecked ship on the bed of the Aegean. She was the only survivor who ever visited the wreck. She arrived on the Calypso, using the ship’s small helicopter, determined to retrieve an alarm clock and ring she had left in her cabin! With her she had brought her scrapbook filled with photos and notes. Sheila was able to give him her clear memories of the sinking. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau’s mini submarine to see round the wreck. As the star of the film Cousteau in Search of the Britannic, she greatly enjoyed a six week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her:

Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life”.

For many years Sheila and John, who was a founder member of the Scottish Genealogy Society, systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable record for people tracing their ancestry. They are commemorated with a bench in the Archivists’ Garden at the National Records of Scotland. Sheila was appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists' Garden

Bench dedicated to Sheila and John Mitchell, in the Archivists’ Garden

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell died on 15th February 1994, aged 103.

Read the first part of Sheila’s story and view the full scrapbook online via Capital Collections.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell (part 1)

Back in June, when we published our series of blog posts about Ethel Moir, a nurse who had served during World War One in the Scottish Women’s Hospital, we received an intriguing comment from someone called Jonathan. He had read the story and was getting in touch to tell us about his grandmother, Sheila Macbeth Mitchell, a nurse who had been on board HMHS Britannic when she’d sunk in the Aegean in 1916. Sheila had left him a large scrapbook containing photographs and ephemera from the time  –

If Capital Collections would be interested in seeing this sometime and copying pictures to add to the special collection – get in touch”.

After meeting with Jonathan, seeing the scrapbook and hearing stories of his grandmother, we were extremely keen to take up his offer of sharing the contents and the story of another remarkable woman who led an extraordinary and adventurous life. The scrapbook is now available to discover on Capital Collections.

Sheila Macbeth was born on 12th June 1890 in Lancashire and was educated at Polam Hall in Darlington. An accomplished golfer in her youth, she wanted to become a teacher of physical education, but her family would not let her have a job. World War One, however, enabled her – like many other women of her generation – to leave home and develop her independence. She served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services.

Page of family photos from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell's scrapbook

Page of family photos from Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s scrapbook

Sheila’s roots however were in Scotland, her great-grandfather James Macbeth had been an Excise Officer in Port Glasgow and both her grandfather and father were born in Greenock. Her grandfather Norman was a portrait painter who, when he came to Edinburgh in 1861 gained employment as a portrait painter and was elected A.R.S.A (Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy) in 1870 and R.S.A. (Royal Scottish Academy) in 1880.

Her father’s first school was Mr Henderson’s Preparatory School in India Street where he was in the same form as Robert Louis Stevenson. He later attended The Institution (later to become Stewart’s Melville) in Queen Street and Edinburgh Academy. When he left school he went to Friedrichshafen in Germany to study engineering and was apprenticed to an engineering firm in Leith Walk. He later relocated to Lancashire where Sheila and several of her siblings were born.

In 1908 aged 18, Sheila went with her elder sister Flora to live in Paris for a year. Here she attended the Cours de Musique, a music course run by Mlle [ Miss] Yvonne Galliet.

Sheila Macbeth, Parc Monceau, in Paris, c1908

Sheila Macbeth, Parc Monceau, in Paris, c1908

Sheila also started to get interested in golf around this time. In her notes she relates:

Flora & I joined the Surrey County Golf Club as well as one at Purley Downs & until Flora married, Father let us have the use of a car & chauffeur – but when she went & I was the only golfer – I had to go by train & it made a hole in my Dress allowance of £50 per annum as I had to take caddies & have new balls when playing matches”.

When war broke out in 1914 one of her first introductions to it was cooking in the hospital of the Camp of Public Schools Battalion:

which was built high above Mother’s house in Surrey. We let soldiers use our dining room each night where we left newspapers etc. & we gave them the use of one bathroom. Many of them filtered into the drawing room with the family – & we had a dance there on occasions – & much music”.

Public School Boys Camp, 16th Middlesex Regiment, August 1914

Public School Boys Camp, 16th Middlesex Regiment, August 1914

In 1915 and with the war continuing in Europe, Sheila served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services, noting sometime later,

In 1915, the London Hospitals were asked to take people like me for 6 months training – so that there would be enough nurses to look after the wounded. I went to Training School of London Hospital for 6 weeks in Bow – & then worked at the Hospital in Whitechapel for 6 months – after which I became a Special Military Probationer attached to Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service Q.A.M.N.S. My 1st Station was outside Nottingham”.

Sheila's timetable as a probationer at the London Hospital Training School.

Sheila’s timetable as a probationer at the London Hospital Training School.

Having completed her training, Sheila joined the crew of HMHS Britannic in November 1916 as she set off for what would be her sixth and final voyage…

Read the second part of Sheila’s story and view the full scrapbook online via Capital Collections.