Good melodramatic title, eh! That’s the description sometimes given to the three Olympic-class liners built in Belfast – the Olympic was the beloved (aka the One That Worked), the Titanic was the damned (aka the One That Sank), and the third and last – the Britannic – is sometimes the forgotten sister. But not today!
This morning the members of the Belfast Titanic Society gathered on the frosty slipways to mark the centenary of the sinking of HMHS Britannic. Her story is scarcely less dramatic than that of Titanic – in fact it would make a fantastic movie (if done properly – there is a Britannic movie but let us not speak of it – it is terrible)
Building Britannic was every bit as awe-inspiring as the construction of Titanic; the pictures of the yardmen dwarfed by gargantuan machinery have that same epic scale. But the world was changing fast in the years following the Titanic disaster: by the time Britannic was complete, World War One had broken out and instead of transporting passengers across the Atlantic in opulence and luxury, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship to serve the war effort.
Hence the pictures of a ship, nearly identical to Titanic in every respect, painted white and bearing a red cross. Identical on the outside, but less ornate inside; as part of the commemoration this morning we were able to see some of the beautiful carvings and decorations intended for Britannic if she had ever been fitted out as a luxury liner rather than a utilitarian floating hospital:
But alas her career was very nearly as short as her older sister. On her 5th journey out to tend to the wounded at Gallipoli, an underwater explosion (probably a mine) engulfed the Britannic just off the coast of Greece; she sank in just 55 minutes, although 1035 of her 1065 passengers were saved.
The story of those 55 minutes is incredibly dramatic. Realising that they were close to the coast of the Greek island of Kea, Captain Bartlett made a desperate attempt to beach the ship. But as the propellers started to spin, screams rang out: against orders, two lifeboats had been launched and were being sucked into the wash of the propellers.
The Captain ordered a full stop, but it was too late: both for the unlucky souls on the lifeboats, and for any other attempt or hope to reach dry land. In the end, all the rest of the passengers either made it safely to the remaining lifeboats, or were rescued by fishing boats which had launched from Kea to aid the stricken ship. The only fatalities were those in the first lifeboats.
Britannic now rests just 400 feet deep off the coast of Kea (and the very nice chap who now owns the wreck was part of the commemoration this morning). She was the largest ship sunk during the First World War; she still remains the largest passenger ship lying on the sea floor anywhere in the world. The end of the story lies in the warm Greek waters; the start of the story is right under our feet in the Belfast shipyard.
What incredible history we are walking on, talking about, uncovering and redeeming day by day. Every time the Wee Tram passes the names of the lost on the slipways; every time an old yardman tells us the story behind one of the shipyard photographs in Dock Cafe; every time a visitor gazes open-mouthed across the vast Thompson Dock, another thread of shipyard history is woven into the new Titanic Quarter story.