HMHS Britannic Disaster

Following our series of articles on the Titanic, we thought we should move on to other disasters in the shipping industry, starting with the HMHS Britannic (henceforth called merely “Britannic”), which struck an underwater mine off the coast of a Greek island, causing the ship to sink. This is an appropriate place to start, as Britannic was in the same class of ocean liners as Titanic (and Olympic). Together, Britannic and these other two ships made up the Olympic class of White Star Line. The Britannic disaster claimed 30 lives, making the survival rate relatively high, as there were 1,066 people on board the Britannic. Below is a brief overview of the Britannic disaster.

For clarification, we should begin by noting that although the full name of the ship is indeed HMHS Britannic, it is often known simply as “Britannic.” “HMHS” is short for “Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship,” making “HMHS” a variation of “HMS” (short for “Her Majesty’s Ship”), the three-letter abbreviation that was commonly affixed to other ships that served as military vessels. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 changed the course of Britannic. It was originally supposed to be used as a transatlantic passenger liner (just like Titanic), but a little over a year after the war broke out, it was requisitioned as a hospital ship for military use (hence the “HMHS” part of the name). Britannic completed five voyages transporting sick or wounded troops. It is on the sixth voyage that disaster struck.

On November 12, 1916, Britannic set out for the Mediterranean Sea. The ship successfully completed the first leg of its journey, but on November 21 an explosion shook the ship. At this point in the journey, the ship was off the coast of Kea, a Greek island. The explosion, which struck the starboard side (i.e., the right side relative to a person facing forward) of the ship, was not felt equally on all parts of the ship, so not everyone on board reacted with immediate alarm. However, the captain, Charles A. Bartlett, recognized the gravity of the situation quickly and ordered that the lifeboats to be prepared.

The ship begin to rapidly fill with water, and the situation on board turned hectic. Even though he had order the lifeboats to be prepared, Captain Bartlett was still trying to save the ship. The shores of Kea were only three miles (5 kilometers) away, so the captain attempted to turn the ship toward land in order to beach the ship on the island. Because this decision required the ship’s engine to stay on, no life boats could be launched at this point in the evacuation. However, two lifeboats were lowered by an automatic release gear. These lifeboats quickly drifted toward the spinning propellers, which ripped apart the lifeboats and, gruesomely, the occupants on board these life boats. Many of the victims of this accident were killed immediately, and others died later from their injuries. (For the record, not all of the 30 causalities that resulted from the Britannic disaster died in the propeller incident. Others died from the explosion and/or went down with the ship.) The Captain was apprised of this unfortunate development, and after hearing this and observing that the ship was taking on more water as it moved toward the island, he order the engines to be shut off.

At this point, which was only about 20 minutes after the explosion, the captain officially order the lifeboats to be released (they were already filled because the lifeboats were being prepared as the captain tried to get Britannic to shore). Shortly after this, the captain blew the final whistle, indicating that the remaining crew members on board could abandon their positions. The ship had completely sunk only 55 minutes after the explosion.

That is, in short, what happened during the Britannic disaster. Fortunately, the temperature was warm (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or 21 degrees Celsius) when the ship sank, and help was nearby, with ships arriving as little as two hours after the sinking of Britannic. Both of these factors significantly decreased the death toll of the Britannic wreck, although the event remains, needless to say, a disaster just the same.

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