She was launched
on February 26th 1914 and White Star announced she would
commence service between Southampton and New York in the
spring of 1915. Outbreak of World War One was to change
this. On November 13th 1915 she was requisitioned by the
admiralty and officially completed as a hospital ship. Her
nearly completed interiors were converted into dormitories
and operating rooms. On December 12th 1915 she was ready for
She arrived in Liverpool on December 12th, 1915 under heavy
armed escort. She was outfitted for her duties as a hospital
ship with 2034 berths and 1035 cots for casualties. A
medical staff of 52 officers, 101 nurses, 336 orderlies, and
a crew of 675 men and women. The ship was under the command
of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.
He started his career with the White Star Line in 1874 and
rose through various positions serving on such ships as
Celtic, Teutonic, Oceanic and Georgic. He earned his Masters
Certificate in 1903. As a Master, he commanded such ships as
the Germanic, Cedric, and for a brief period the ill fated
Republic. His daughter recalls that he was well liked by his
passengers but not always by the White Star Management,
mainly because of his excessive concern for safety over
The Britannic was commissioned "His Majesty's Hospital Ship"
on December 12, 1915 and departed Liverpool for her maiden
voyage on December 23, 1915. She was bound for Mudros on the
isle of Lemnos. She was joining the Mauretania, Aquitania,
and her sister, Olympic, in the "Dardanelles Service."
Joined later by the Statendam the five ships together were
capable of carrying 17,000 sick and wounded or 33,000
Because of their size, the five ships including Britannic
would have to anchor in very deep water and rely on as many
as eight smaller ships to ferry the wounded and ill from the
battlefront docks to the ships.
Christmas was celebrated on the Britannic as she sailed for
her coaling port of Naples, arriving on 28th December, 1915.
Once coaled, she departed on 29th December bound for Mudros
in the Agean Sea. She spent four days at Mudros seeing the
start of 1916 and taking on 3,300 wounded and sick military
The Britannic returned to Southampton on January 9th, 1916
where her patients were transferred to waiting trains for
transportation to hospitals in London. The second voyage was
shorter as she only sailed as far as Naples where she took
on wounded and returned to Southampton on February 9, 1916.
The third voyage was just as uneventful. She spent four
weeks as a floating hospital off the Isle of Wight, Cowes.
Following this service, the Britannic returned to Belfast on
June 6th, 1916 and was released from war service. Harland
and Wolff started refitting her for Royal Mail and Passenger
service once again, but work was halted when the Admiralty
recalled her to war service and she once again returned to
Southampton on August 28th, 1916.
Britannic began her fourth voyage on September 24th, 1916
with members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment on board. These
members of VAD were to be trans-shipped at Mudros, bound for
Malta. Following her coaling stop at Naples, the ship
arrived at Mudros on October 3rd, 1916 where VAD members
were transferred to His Majesty's Hospital Ship Galeka. The
Britannic was detained at Mudros while officials
investigated the possible cause of food poisoning which had
stricken some of the staff. The ship returned to Southampton
on October 11, 1916. Voyage number five was the Southampton,
Naples, Mudros trip. On the last day of the fifth voyage she
encountered heavy seas and storms. She finally made it to
Southampton and over 3000 wounded were transferred to
waiting trains. The Aquitania had suffered damage in the
same storms and was laid up for repairs, and because of this
Britannic was ordered to start her sixth voyage after only
four days in port.
The Britannic departed Southampton on Sunday 12th November
1916. She was due to leave at 10:00 am but actually left the
docks at noon. The weather was calm. She carried no
"passengers". Friday November 17th 1916 she arrived at
Naples, for coaling and was to depart on Saturday but a
fierce storm set in a delayed the departure.
A perfect day, Tuesday November 21, 1916 she was steaming
through the Kea Channel in the Aegean during World War One.
Shortly after 8:00am she was struck by a tremendous
explosion and quickly began to sink by the bow. Captain
Bartlett tried unsuccessfully to beach her on Kea Island but
in 55 minutes, Britain's largest liner had gone, and not
quite a year from trials to sinking of only 351 days. The
explosion apparently occurred at the watertight bulkhead
between holds 2 and 3, and the bulkhead separating holds 2
and 1 were also damaged. At the same time, boiler rooms 5
and 6 began taking water. This was roughly the same damage
as that sustained by her sister the Titanic four and a half
She lies on her side in only 350 feet of water. So shallow,
that the bow hit bottom before she totally sank and with the
weight, the entire bow is now bent. She was discovered in
1976 on an Underwater Exploration by Jacques Cousteau. She
is largely intact except for the massive hole in her forward
bow. The hull below the Shelter Deck is completely blown
away between holds 2 and 3. The hull sections of the keel
are simply missing for a distance of about 60 to 70 feet.
The port side hull plates are bent outward, indicating a
large explosion from within, probably from ignition of coal
dust in the reserve bunker.
Her captain Charles Bartlett was the last to leave the ship
and only 30 people died from over 1100 on board at the time.
Most of these deaths occurred as the ship remained under way
when two lifeboats were launched prematurely and were sucked
into the still turning propellers.
Even with all her modifications she sank in only fifty five
minutes, with similar damage to her sister. The Titanic
without the modifications managed to stay afloat three times
longer. The easiest way to distinguish her from her two
sisters are by the out-sized lifeboat davits, and most
photos of her show a white hull with three red crosses and a
green hull band on her side, designating her as a hospital
ship. HMHS Britannic was never to carry a fare paying