History of the White Star Line Trio: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic

— compiled from multiple sources, including: "Titanic & Her Sisters: Olympic & Britannic" by Tom McCluskie, Michael Sharpe and Leo Marriott; "RMS Olympic: The Old Reliable" and "HMHS Britannic: The Last Titan" by Simon Mills; and personal correspondence with Mark Baber and Simon Mills


Summer 1907 - In response to both the success enjoyed by Cunard Line's Mauretania and Lusitania and the emerging competition with German lines, Harland & Wolff Shipbuilders owner Lord William Pirrie and White Star Line chairman Joseph Bruce Ismay decide upon the construction of the first two of a proposed trio of Olympic-class liners. The names, inspired by the epic battles among Olympians, Titans and Giants in Greek mythology, would be Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic, respectively (White Star ships traditionally ended with the —ic suffix, Cunard with —ia). Recognising that White Star ships can not compete with the Cunard ships (whose power plants were built to Admiralty specifications as part of a government subsidy agreement) in the race for the Blue Ribband, Ismay instead strives to provide the transatlantic market with the largest and most luxurious ships afloat.

16 December 1908 — Keel for hull number 400 is laid at Harland & Wolff, Belfast, Ireland.

22 March 1909 — Keel for hull number 401 is laid in adjacent slip to her sister.

Olympic launching brochure20 October 1910 — R.M.S. Olympic is launched. According to White Star tradition, there is no christening ceremony (no champagne bottle broken across the stem).

May 1911 — Fitting out of Olympic is completed in Thompson graving dock, Harland & Wolff shipyard. Sea trials are completed by the end of the month.

31 May 1911 — R.M.S. Titanic is launched. Slightly heavier than Olympic and with added luxuries (but otherwise essentially identical), Titanic is billed as "The World’s Largest Ocean Liner." Launch of Titanic coincides with acceptance ceremony of Olympic by White Star Line officials. After Titanic's launching ceremony, Olympic sails for Liverpool (port of registry, but not homeport) with dignitaries aboard. Titanic is towed to the Thompson graving dock to begin fitting out.

14 June 1911 — Maiden voyage of Olympic from Southampton, England (White Star Line's homeport) to New York.

20 June 1911 — Encouraged by the public's reception of Olympic, White Star exercises the option for a third superliner even before Olympic completes the westbound portion of her maiden voyage and as a result, the keel for hull number 433 is laid on 30 November in 400's old slip.

20 September 1911 — Olympic is involved with a collision off the Isle of Wight with the Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S. Hawke. Olympic suffers damage to two major watertight compartments, but makes it back into Southampton on one engine. She is returned to Belfast for repairs, interrupting Titanic's fitting out and delaying the latter's entry into service by some three weeks. Olympic's ability to absorb such major damage inspires people, including Olympic's Captain, E.J. Smith, to talk about the Olympic-class ships being "practically unsinkable".

24 February 1912 — Olympic throws a propeller blade after striking an underwater obstruction. She is returned to Belfast for repairs, interrupting work on Titanic once again.

10 April 1912 - Maiden voyage of Titanic from Southampton to New York. As she proceeds down the River Test, the suction from the larger Titanic pulls the moored New York towards her (much like when Olympic pulled Hawke into her), snapping her lines. Quick action by Captain Smith and the tug Vulcan prevents a collision.

14-15 April 1912 — Titanic collides with an iceberg and sinks within 2 hours, 40 minutes. Over 1500 souls are lost.

Britannic launching brochure9 October 1912 — Olympic is withdrawn from service and arrives in Belfast for a major rebuild to incorporate lessons learned from the Titanic disaster. Work is halted on the hull number 433, as several major changes are worked into her design. As a direct result of the Titanic disaster, Gigantic is later re-named Britannic.

2 April 1913 — Olympic is returned to service, resuming weekly transatlantic timetable.

26 February 1914 — R.M.S. Britannic is launched, expecting to join service in the spring of 1915. She would never fly White Star Line colours.

August 1914 — Olympic is headed to New York when war is declared. After a coat of naval grey paint replaces her peacetime colours, she makes a high-speed run back to England.

October 1914 — Planned to be laid-up in Belfast for the duration of the war, Olympic is instead chartered by the Admiralty for use as a troopship. Harland & Wolff removes her peacetime luxury fittings and makes room for 6,000 troops and a pair of auxiliary 6-in. guns.

13 November 1915 — Britannic is formally requisitioned by the Admiralty towards the end of her fitting-out period for use as a hospital ship, carrying approximately 3300 casualties.

12 December 1915 — His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic is commissioned in Liverpool. As such, she is painted with an all-white hull and superstructure, buff coloured funnels and a broad green stripe running the full length of her hull, broken by three red cross markings per side.

23 December 1915 — Maiden voyage of H.M.H.S. Britannic from Liverpool to the Mediterranean.

Olympic in dazzle-paint camouflage1915-17 — Olympic participates in the evacuation of troops from Gallipoli. Later, in dazzle-paint camouflage, she ferries Canadian troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to England.

21 November 1916 — On her sixth voyage to the Mediterranean theatre of operations, Britannic strikes a mine laid by German U-Boat U-73 in the Aegean Sea. A combination of open portholes, a jammed watertight door in Boiler Room 6 and Captain Bartlett's decision to try and beach the ship before she sank forced water aft into undamaged compartments, overwhelming the internal subdivision. Britannic goes down in 55 minutes and was the largest ship of any nation to be sunk during World War I. Luckily, only 30 souls were lost as two lifeboats, hastily launched before way was taken off the ship, were drawn into Britannic's still-turning propellers. Had Britannic been loaded with casualties from the hospitals of Mudros (her destination), the loss of life might easily have been double that of Titanic's.

1917 — Having earned the nickname "Old Reliable" because of her remarkable record of safe voyages across the Atlantic, the need for Olympic's troop-carrying capacity is increased by America's entry into the war.

12 May 1918 — Olympic intentionally rams and sinks U-103 operating in the Channel, the only recorded instance of a merchant ship sinking an enemy warship during World War I. Olympic's stem is bent, later repaired in drydock. It would later be claimed by some that Olympic actually sank two U-boats that day (one by ramming, one by her after guns), but no proof exists to back this claim.

12 August 1919 — Olympic is returned to Belfast and her original owners for peacetime refit. During the refit, it is discovered that sometime during the war, a torpedo hit the ship (denting several plates) but failed to explode. Olympic's boilers are converted from coal- to oil-burning.

1920s — Olympic proves to be hugely popular on the transatlantic run, a favourite of celebrities and royalty alike.

1930 — A structural survey reveals extensive crack propagation in Olympic's top shell plating. Temporary patches convince the Board of Trade to allow Olympic to return to service, but she is placed on their Confidential list.

1932 — Olympic's service speed is restricted to 21 knots so as not to accelerate the stresses now threatening major structural supports in her hull. Olympic's seaworthiness certificate is only now granted in half-yearly, vice yearly, increments. A survey in October reveals major vibration damage in the engine bed plates and lower hull riveting.

1934 — Weakened by the years of depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash, the White Star Line is taken over and officially merged with Cunard on 10 May. Just 6 days later, Olympic collides with and sinks the Nantucket lightship.

12 April 1935 — Olympic is retired from service, part of the Cunard White Star Line's drawdown to make way for the new breed of superliners, beginning with RMS Queen Mary. Despite a major overhaul in 1932/3, the new company cannot justify the continuing and projected maintenance costs incurred by Olympic.

11 October 1935 — "Old Reliable" is towed from Southampton to Jarrow, England, to be scrapped. The dismantling would last two years. Many of Olympic's internal fittings and artifacts are dispersed to a variety of places in England.

19 September 1937 — The remains of Olympic's hulk is towed to Inverkeithing for final demolition. Joseph Bruce Ismay dies in his London home less than a month later.


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