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  • Writer's pictureSiheli Siyathra

The Three Cursed Sister Ships

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

The Titanic. Even more than 100 years after her sinking, everyone still remembers her story. With over 1500 deaths it was the biggest maritime disaster to that date and this is the sad reason it is the most famous ship today. A far less known fact today is that the Titanic had two almost identical sister ships - the Olympic and Britannic. Although their stories didn’t end as catastrophically, their voyages were no less exciting than the Titanic’s. And all of them seemed to be followed by bad luck. In the end, despite being the biggest ships of their time, only one of them stayed in service for more than a year. Here’s their story.

The first one of the three Olympic class ocean liners was the RMS Olympic. Her construction began in December 1908, roughly 3 months prior to the Titanic in Belfast. During this time the White Star Line shipping company was in fierce competition for the title of the fastest ocean liner in the world. The latter was already held by seven of their ships before the Olympic would reclaim the title an eighth time. However, despite popular beliefs, the Olympic class liners, with 23 knots, were never the fastest ships - the main goals were size, luxury and travel comfort. As a result, the blue ribbon for fastest crossing the transatlantic run stayed with the Mauretania till 1929. The ambition not only to build the first ship over 40,000 GRT but to build multiple ones was a financial risk. The necessary funds for this project came in part from American financial tycoon JP Morgan, one of the richest and most influential bankers of all time. He had bought the White Star Line company indirectly in 1902. Almost nothing could be allowed to go wrong.

The Olympic launched on October 20th 1910. As was the custom with the White Star Line, no christening ceremony was performed beforehand. Over the next few months, the workers worked to transform the empty hull into a working ship. Following completion, the Olympic completed her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Her maiden voyage attracted considerable attention, both from the press around the world and the public. In New York alone, thousands of people came to see the world’s biggest ship. Things seemed to be going according to plan. But it wasn't long till disaster struck.

Only 3 months into her service, on September 20th 1911, the Olympic, under the command of Captain Edward Smith, was involved in a collision with cruiser HMS Hawke. As they passed each other in Osborne Bay, the Hawke was sucked into the side of the Olympic near the stern. This was likely because of a suction caused by the much bigger Olympic when she started to turn. The Hawke’s bow, which had been designed to sink ships by ramming into them, tore a large hole into the Olympic and flooded two of the watertight compartments. Despite this she didn’t sink, which only reinforced the ‘unsinkable’ reputation of the Olympic class liners. Still, after returning to Belfast, she had to be repaired for over three months. During the restoration, the Titanic was also under final construction, which also delayed her completion by weeks. Who was at fault was never definitely proven. But because the Royal Navy, blaming the Olympic, gained court verdict, the White Star Line had to fund the repairs themselves. This cost the company over 250,000 dollars, which was the equivalent of the forecasted profits of the first two years in service.

An internal investigation, however, concluded that there was no fault in Captain Smith’s actions so, as a gesture of trust, he was appointed to command the Titanic on her maiden voyage. According to some rumours, this was to be his last voyage before he retired. He died in the sinking of the ship on 15th April 1912, along with 1500 passengers - 70% of everyone on board. With a cost of 1.5 million pounds, the sinking of the Titanic was the second financial disaster for the White Star Line in only half a year. During the collision, the Olympic was 930km southwest, on her way back to England. After receiving the distress calls, they set off to help immediately but by the time all survivors were rescued, they were still 190km away. The offer to take on the survivors was refused as Captain Rostron, who was at the scene, feared the passengers would freak out seeing a mirror image of the Titanic. After the Titanic disaster, Olympic underwent various safety installations such as a double hull, reinforced bulkheads and 44 additional lifeboats. Similar changes were made to the RMS Britannic, the third ship of the Olympic class, which was still under construction in Belfast.

Despite these improvements, the loss of the company’s good reputation resulted in passenger numbers falling short of expectations. And as World War I broke out and submarine torpedoes became a real danger, passenger numbers dropped to a minimum. By the end of the year, White Star Line had no choice but to withdraw the Olympic from commercial service. In May 1915, because of ship shortages, the Olympic was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to be used for moving troops. For that, the ship was armed with 12-pounders and 4.7 inch guns. Carrying up to 600 troops respectively, the Olympic then made several trooping journeys to Greece and other eastern Mediterranean countries. One notable event during this time was when she picked up 34 survivors from the French ship Provincia, which was sunk by a German u-boat on October 1st 1915. Because the Olympic’s best defence against u-boats was her speed, Captain Hayes was criticised for risking the ship for only 34 souls. The French, however, later awarded him the medal of honour.

In 1916, the Olympic was chartered by Canada to transport troops from Halifax Nova Scotia to Britain. For that she received dazzle camouflage to make it harder for the enemy to judge her side and speed. Her many safe crossings in the following year made her a favourite symbol in Halifax.

After the United States entered the war in 1917, the Olympic also transported many American troops to Europe. On one of these runs, Captain Hayes spotted a German u-boat that was prepared to torpedo them, but seemed to have technical difficulties. He immediately ordered to ram the submarine and successfully sank it before it could fire. An action for which he was later awarded the DSO, a military decoration of the UK. Throughout the war, the Olympic carried up to 200,000 troops and other personnel, earning the nickname ‘Old Reliable.’ After the war had ended in 1918, she returned to Belfast for restoration, where she was modernised and returned to civilian service. Her youngest sister, RMS Britannic, however, didn’t make it through the war.

Before her final completion the war had already broken out, so she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to be a hospital ship, changing her name to HMHS Britannic. For this, she was painted white with large red crosses. After completing five successful voyages to the Mediterranean and back to the UK, Britannic struck a mine on 21st November 1916 in the Kea Channel in Greece. Despite her having the same safety features installed as the Olympic, she began to sink even faster than the Titanic. In less than one hour, the Britannic had disappeared completely, sharing the fate of her older sister. She was the biggest ship lost in World War I. However, due to high water temperatures, more available lifeboats, and faster help, 1006 of the 1036 passengers were saved. The 30 deaths mostly came from two lifeboats that launched without permission and got sucked into emerged propellers that were still working in an attempt to beach the ship. One of the few people that survived the two lifeboats was nurse Violet Jessop, who jumped out at the last moment. What makes this story even more amazing is the fact that she was aboard the Olympic during the collision with HMS Hawke and was one of the few who survived the Titanic disaster.

As a requisitioned ship that was under the service of Crown when it sank, the wreck of the Britannic belonged to the British government for the next 80 years. In 1996, it was sold to renowned British maritime historian Simon Mills, for 15,000 pounds. After the war, the Olympic became a popular and fashionable ship, carrying thousands of passengers a year across the transatlantic route. This, however, didn’t change the fact that the Olympic class was a financial disaster for the White Star Line, of which it never recovered. The White Star Line eventually agreed to fuse with the Cunard Line, their greatest competitor. This way, both companies could receive much needed subsidies from the British government. As a result of that merge and the near completion of the RMS Queen Mary, the fleet of older liners was gradually retired. But not before the Olympic’s bad luck returned one last time.

On the 15th of May, 1934, the year before she was withdrawn from transatlantic service, Olympic, inbound in fog, rammed the Nantucket lightship, one of the ships that marked the path into the United States. The collision cost 7 of the lightship’s crew members their lives. One year later, on the 5th April 1935, the Olympic left New York to return to Britain for the last time. Her final demolition was in 1937, 26 years after her maiden voyage, alongside the Mauretania, her biggest rival during her early career.

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