Everyone knows the fate of the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic after striking an iceberg, taking some 1,500 people with it. Fewer people know of the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, also owned by the White Star Line. Because the Olympic was the first of the two to be launched, comparatively few photos exist of the Titanic; the majority of the photos showcasing details from the ill-fated ship are actually of the Olympic. There just weren’t many photographers present when the Titanic steamed off, seeing as it was No. 2.
Even fewer people know that there was a third sister ship, the HMHS Britannic. While Titanic found its final resting place in waters deeper than 12,000 feet and the Olympic was scrapped in 1938, the Britannic sits at 400 feet, a diveable depth for only the most highly trained and experienced tec divers.
The Britannic was the last to be built of the three Olympic Class liners and was also the largest, weighing in at almost 2,000 gross registered tons heavier than the Titanic. While the Titanic met its famous fate in the Atlantic, both the Olympic and the Britannic sailed long enough to see active service in World War I. The Britannic was completed on the eve of the war and never saw civilian service before being drafted into British naval service. It was officially launched in 1915 and went into service as a hospital ship. It was re-christened the HMSM (Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic, painted white with a large red cross on it, and sent off to the Mediterranean. After the campaign at Gallipoli, there was a huge need for hospital ships, and with its huge capacity, the HMHS Britannic was perfectly suited for the job.
In its military career, the ship completed five successful voyages to the Mediterranean before sinking in the Aegean Sea’s Kea Channel between the island of Kea and the Greek mainland. On November 21st, 1916 at 8:35am, Captain Bartlett gave the order to abandon ship, and at 9:07am, the ship was lost, becoming the largest ship to go down in World War I. Only 30 people lost their lives, with more than 1,000 saved by local fishermen and navy ships coming to the rescue.
The wreck was discovered by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1976, who thought that it had been hit by a torpedo. A September 2003 expedition led by Carl Spencer, however, determined that the Britannic was sunk by a single mine. Spencer tragically succumbed to the bends in 2009 while filming a documentary about the HMHS Britannic.
The depth of the wreck puts it outside the range of all but the most experienced tech divers, some of whom have dived the wreck since Cousteau’s initial dives. Several of these, including penetration dives in 1999, have been broadcast on The History Channel, National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
In 1996, marine historian Simon Mills bought the wreck of the Britannic. When asked what his vision was for the wreck, he replied “that’s simple — to leave it as it is!”