HMHS Britannic was the third ship as well as the largest of the Olympic class ocean going liners to be built by the White Star Line. She was the sister ship to the ill fated RMS Titanic and The RMS Olympic. She was intended to go into service operating between Southampton and New York, the First World War broke out shortly after her launching but before she could make the first trans-Atlantic crossing. Due to the war the ship returned to the Belfast yard where she was built to be laid up possibly for the duration of the war.
In 1915 the Britannic was commissioned by the British government to be used as a hospital ship, it was while operating in that role that the ship hit a mine close to the Greek island of Kea on the 21st November 1916 and sank in less than an hour with the loss of 30 lives.
After the sinking of the Titanic several changes were made to the design of the Britannic. The boat was given a double hull and six of the ships watertight bulkheads were raised to a height of the ‘B’ deck. Another change was in the way of operating the lifeboats, with the crane like davits able to reach the lifeboats on the opposite side of the ship as well as being able to hold six lifeboats each.
Once the war was into its second year and the need for additional hospital ships became apparent the Britannic was pressed into service. The loss of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was a reminder of the dangers from enemy craft when it was torpedoed off the Irish coast bound for North America.
Britannia was set to be used on the evacuation of injured troops from Gallipoli, she had completed five runs from the Eastern Mediterranean to Southampton when she was returning on the sixth one. After docking at Naples the ship continued on its way and steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel on the morning of the 21 November 1916 when it hit a mine.
As well as damage to the ships hull and water rushing in there was damage internally with a connecting fireman’s tunnel allowing water to flow into the first four watertight compartments as well as into the first boiler room. The Britannic had reached the flooding limit and should have remained afloat but to air the ship nurses had opened portholes, these were now below the waterline of the listing ship. This was the difference between staying afloat and sinking.
The captain was doing his best to save his ship, just tem minutes after the blast the ship was in the same position as the Titanic had been an hour after striking the iceberg. The Captain tried to make a run to the shore about three miles away and beach his ship. On the boat deck, crew members were preparing the lifeboats, some of the crew in a panic rushed for the lifeboats and after they were launched against the captains orders they drifted into the propeller which by this time was partway out of the water. These were the bulk of the fatalities from the ship.
Eventually the captain realized they would not reach the shore ordered the engines to be stopped and gave the order to abandon ship. The ship rolled onto her side and began sinking. One of the crew had been a survivor of the Titanic and also an earlier collision while working on board the RMS Olympic. He survived this one as well. Britannic went down just 55 minutes after hitting the mine, it was the largest vessel lost in WW1. 1036 of those on board were rescued, 30 died with 24 injured.
The wreck lies in about 400ft of water and was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1975, the bow of the ship is heavily damaged as the bow hit the seabed before all the liner had disappeared below the surface, the ship was 882 feet in length. It is listed as a British war grave and any diving expedition must have the approval of both the British and Greek governments before any diving can commence.