Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

100 Years Ago This Week: HMHS Britannic Sunk 21 November 1916

Contributed by Jeffrey P. Ricker, CFA

Launched in 1914, HMHS Britannic was the third Olympic-class liner from Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyards, following RMS Olympic (1911–1935), and RMS Titanic (1912). The Olympic-class trio were the largest liners in the world, 100 ft. longer than competing Cunarders.  

Britannic was delayed for extensive and expensive safety modifications after the Titanic disaster. Watertight bulkheads were raised to B Deck, large lifeboat davits were installed together with plenty of lifeboats, and a double hull was added.  After launch, while fitting out in August 1914, the Great War engulfed Europe.  Work slowed, and Britannic was docked into storage.

HMHS Britannic

By 1915 as British Naval operations expanded around Europe, passenger liners were requisitioned as troop ships and hospital ships. Britannic was requisitioned as Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship, HMHS Britannic, to evacuate mounting casualties from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The ship was painted white with a green stripe and red crosses. Beginning in 1916, Britannic made five voyages to the Middle East Theater transporting sick and wounded soldiers back to the UK.

On the morning of 21 November 1916 Britannic was steaming at full speed through the Greek islands on a return trip to the Mideast. A total of 1,065 crew and Royal Army Medical Corps doctors and nurses prepared for the next load of evacuees. A huge explosion shook the ship. Britannic had struck a mine laid by the German U-Boat U-73.

Although badly damaged, Britannic should have stayed afloat thanks to the safety modifications. However, as in most disasters, a cascade of bad surprises combined to make it worse. A watertight door jammed and would not close. The firemen’s tunnel flooded, bringing water into two boiler rooms. The double hull caused asymmetric flooding and a serious list to starboard. Worst of all, contrary to orders, lower-deck portholes had been opened by nurses to ventilate the wards. Within 15 minutes some of these portholes on the starboard side were under water and the great ship was doomed.

After Titanic hit the iceberg, Captain Smith shut down the engines and called for help, hoping to reach another ship visible in the distance.  The distant ship was the SS Californian, whose wireless set was turned of,f and its crew ignored Titanic’s distress rockets. Britannic’s Captain Bartlett chose a different strategy — he kept the engines running hoping to beach the ship on a nearby island.

Contrary to orders, two lifeboats were launched during the desperate dash for land. Both boats drifted back and were sucked into the turning propellers, which were rising out of the water.  Thirty men were killed as the lifeboats were smashed to bits.  After hearing about this massacre, Captain Bartlett stopped engines and ordered abandon ship.

With plenty of lifeboats and warm 70F water, the evacuation proceeded without any more casualties. While Titanic took 2 hours 40 minutes to sink, the open portholes caused Britannic to roll over and sink in just 55 minutes. It was the largest ship lost in the Great War.

Titanic and Britannic Connections:

Stoker John Priest and Nurse Violet Jessop

Three Britannic survivors, Violet Jessop, a nurse, Archie Jewell, a lookout, and John Priest, a coal stoker, had also survived RMS Titanic. Violet Jessop and Archie Jewell were in one of the unlucky lifeboats, a horrifying experience. For John Priest HMHS Britannic was his fourth ship sinking. Five months later Priest survived SS Donegal when it was torpedoed and sunk. That’s five ship sinkings for John Priest, who lived to 1937 and died on land. Unfortunately, Archie Jewell was also on SS Donegal  but did not survive.


  1. Haunting especially for Priest and Archie. Sad that Archie went west.

  2. Violet Jessop was also on board the RMS Olympic when in 1911 it collided with the HMS Hawke. Although damaged, the Olympic was able to limp back to port without any casualties. So Miss Jessop was on each of the ill-fated Olympic class ships during their accidents, and survived each, dying of heart failure in 1971.