World War I: HMHS Britannic

HMHS Britannic. Public Domain

In the early 20th century an intense competition existed between British and German shipping companies which saw them battle to build larger and faster ocean liners for use in the Atlantic. The key players including Cunard and White Star from Britain and HAPAG and Norddeutscher Lloyd from Germany. By 1907, White Star had given up the pursuit of the speed title, known as the Blue Riband, to Cunard and began focusing on constructing larger and more luxurious ships. Led by J. Bruce Ismay, White Star approached William J. Pirrie, head of Harland & Wolff, and ordered three massive liners which were dubbed the Olympic-class. These were designed by Thomas Andrews and Alexander Carlisle and incorporated the latest technologies.

The first two ships of the class, RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, were laid down in 1908 and 1909 respectively and were built in neighboring shipways in Belfast, Ireland. Following the completion of Olympic and launching of Titanic in 1911, work began on the third vessel, Britannic. This ship was laid down on November 30, 1911. As work moved forward in Belfast, the first two ships proved star-crossed. While Olympic was involved in a collision with the destroyer HMS Hawke in 1911, Titanic, foolishly dubbed "unsinkable," sank with a loss of 1,517 on April 15, 1912. Titanic's sinking led to dramatic changes in Britannic's design and to Olympic returning to the yard for alterations.


Powered by twenty-nine coal-fired boilers driving three propellers, Britannic possessed a similar profile to its earlier sisters and mounted four large funnels. Three of these were functional, while the fourth was a dummy which served to provide extra ventilation to the ship. Britannic was intended to carry around 3,200 crew and passengers in three different classes. For first class, luxurious accommodations were available along with lavish public spaces. While the second class spaces were quite good, Britannic's third class was considered more comfortable than its two predecessors.

Assessing the Titanic disaster, it was decided to give Britannic a double hull along with its engine and boiler spaces. This widened the ship by two feet and necessitated the installation of a larger 18,000-horsepower turbine engine in order to maintain its service speed of twenty-one knots. In addition, six of Britannic's fifteen watertight bulkheads were raised to "B" deck to aid in containing flooding if the hull was breached. As a lack of lifeboats had famously contributed to the high loss of life aboard Titanic, Britannic was fitted with additional lifeboats and massive sets of davits. These special davits were capable of reaching lifeboats on both sides of the ship to ensure that all could be launched even if it developed a severe list. Though an effective design, some were blocked from reaching the opposite side of the ship due to the funnels.

War Arrives

Launched on February 26, 1914, Britannic began fitting out for service in the Atlantic. In August 1914, with work progressing, World War I began in Europe. Due to the need to produce ships for the war effort, materials were diverted from civilian projects. As a result, work on Britannic slowed. By May 1915, the same month as the loss of Lusitania, the new liner began testing its engines. With the war stagnating on the Western Front, the Allied leadership began looking to expand the conflict to the Mediterranean. Efforts to this end began in April 1915, when British troops opened the Gallipoli Campaign at the Dardanelles. To support the campaign, the Royal Navy began requisitioning liners, such as RMS Mauritania and RMS Aquitania, for use as troopships in June.

Hospital Ship

As casualties at Gallipoli began to mount, the Royal Navy recognized the need to convert several liners to hospital ships. These could act as medical facilities near the battlefield and could transport the more severely wounded back to Britain. In August 1915, Aquitania was converted with its troop transport duties passing to Olympic. On November 15, Britannic was requisitioned to serve as a hospital ship. As suitable facilities were constructed on board, the ship was repainted white with a green stripe and large red crosses. Commissioned at Liverpool on December 12, command of the vessel was given to Captain Charles A. Bartlett.

As a hospital ship, Britannic possessed 2,034 berths and 1,035 cots for casualties. To aid the wounded, a medical staff of 52 officers, 101 nurses, and 336 orderlies was embarked. This was supported by a ship's crew of 675. Departing Liverpool on December 23, Britannic coaled at Naples, Italy before reaching its new base at Mudros, Lemnos. There around 3,300 casualties were brought on board. Departing, Britannic made port at Southampton on January 9, 1916. After conducting two more voyages to the Mediterranean, Britannic returned to Belfast and was released from war service on June 6. Shortly thereafter, Harland & Wolff began converting the ship back into a passenger liner. This was halted in August when the Admiralty recalled Britannic and dispatched it back to Mudros. Carrying members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, it arrived on October 3.

The Loss of the Britannic

Returning to Southampton on October 11, Britannic soon departed for another run to Mudros. This fifth voyage saw it return to Britain with around 3,000 wounded. Sailing on November 12 with no passengers, Britannic reached Naples after a five-day run. Briefly detained in Naples due to bad weather, Bartlett took Britannic to sea on the 19th. Entering the Kea Channel on November 21, Britannic was rocked by a large explosion at 8:12 AM which struck the starboard side. It is believed that this was caused by a mine laid by U-73. As the ship began to sink by the bow, Bartlett initiated damage control procedures. Though Britannic had been designed to survive taking heavy damage, the failure of some watertight doors to close due to damage and malfunction ultimately doomed the vessel. This was aided by the fact that many of the lower deck portholes were open in an effort to ventilate the hospital wards.

In an effort to save the ship, Bartlett turned to starboard in the hope of beaching Britannic on Kea, approximately three miles away. Seeing that the ship would not make it, he ordered abandon ship at 8:35 AM. As the crew and medical staff took to the lifeboats, they were aided by local fishermen and, later, the arrival of several British warships. Rolling on its starboard side, Britannic slipped beneath the waves. Due to the shallowness of the water, its bow hit the bottom while the stern was still exposed. Bending with the weight of the ship, the bow crumpled and the ship vanished at 9:07 AM.

Despite taking similar damage as Titanic, Britannic only managed to remain afloat for fifty-five minutes, approximately one-third the time of its older sister. Conversely, losses from the sinking of Britannic numbered only thirty while 1,036 were rescued. One of those rescued was nurse Violet Jessop. A stewardess before the war, she survived the Olympic-Hawke collision as well as the sinking of Titanic.

HMHS Britannic at a Glance

  • Nation: Great Britain
  • Type: Hospital Ship
  • Shipyard: Harland & Wolff (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
  • Laid Down: November 30, 1911
  • Launched: February 26, 1914
  • Fate: Sunk by mine on November 21, 1916

HMHS Britannic Specifications

  • Displacement: 53,000 tons
  • Length: 882 ft., 9 in.
  • Beam: 94 ft.
  • Draft: 34 ft. 7 in.
  • Speed: 23 knots
  • Complement: 675 men


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: HMHS Britannic." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War I: HMHS Britannic. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: HMHS Britannic." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).