The race for the Atlantic

 TheBritannic was the third of the Olympic class vessels, a trio of giant and luxurious ocean liners (which also  included the Olympic and the Titanic) built by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland & Wolff for the White Star Line. The decision for this colossal project was taken in 1907 during a dinner at the home of Lord William Pirrie, chairman of Harland & Wolff. That evening Pirrie met Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line and president of the International Mercantile Marine (IMM) -a group of shipping companies owned by the famous American financier John Pierpont Morgan. In 1901 Morgan decided to join  the  increasing competition between shipping lines for transatlantic voyages between Europe and America. The massive wave of immigration (12 million crossed the Atlantic, heading just to New York, between 1892 and 1920) had made that line very profitable and the supremacy of the two leading British companies Cunard Line and White Star Line was  already under serious threat by German, French and Italian companies. Morgan used his usual tactic: the creation of an enormous trust, the IMM. The death of Thomas Henry Ismay, founder of the White Star Line, in 1899 found  his son Bruce managing the company under serious pressure. So in December 1902 IMM bought the White Star Line leaving Cunard the only independent British line. It was a huge blow for the British government because now the ships of the White Star Line couldn't be used in the event of a national emergency.                                                    

 First, the British government made an agreement stating that the ships of the White Star  Line would remain on the British register and would be available in case of an emergency. In return White Star would not be treated as a foreign company. Second, it loaned Cunard Line £2,600,000 for the construction of two super liners. With government support Cunard launched in 1907 the Lusitania (31500 tons, 24,5 knots) and the Mauretania (31938 tons, over 24,5 knots), the largest and fastest ocean liners in the world. White Star had to react and with the enormous economic resources of IMM entered the battle in 1910 with the Olympic (45324 tons, 22 knots) and the Titanic (46328 tons, 22 knots) in 1911. A third ship would follow in 1914, the Britannic (48158 tons, 22 knots) -originally named Gigantic but renamed  soon after the Titanic tragedy. Cunard didn't stand still and had already begun the construction of the Aquitania (45647 tons). The future would reserve many surprises for both companies and this balance wouldn't last for long.


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Mauretania (in hospital ship colours)

However, despite the huge investments of the two major British companies, it was the German Hamburg-Amerika  Line, run by Albert Ballin, that first introduced the concept of "the biggest and the best". The Germans (Hamburg-America Line and Norddeutcher Lloyd) had already overtaken the British several times during the course for the Blue Ribband, the prestigious prize for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic (eastbound or westbound). The construction of the two trios of super liners by Cunard and White Star forced Ballin to react. His project was even greater, as the race for the Atlantic had become a matter of national pride. Three super liners, over 50000 tons each, were designed for Hamburg- Amerika Line:the Imparator (52117 tons), the Vaterland (54282 tons), both launched in 1913, and the  Bismark (56000 tons),launched in 1914. But it was WW1 that ruined the ambitious plans of Albert Ballin who looked certain to dominate once more over his competitors. Here is the data for the four competitors in 1914:

Hamburg America Line (Germany): 194 ships (1,307,411 total tonnage)

Norddeutcher Lloyd (Germany): 135 ships (907,996 total tonnage)

White Star Line (Great Britain): 33 ships (472,877 total tonnage)

Cunard Line (Great Britain): 29 ships (344,251 total tonnage)

 Albert Ballin  never lived to see the fate of his super liners. He died after taking an overdose in 1918, just one day before the signing of the armistice. After the war two of them were awarded to his British rivals, both of whom had each lost one super liner during the hostilities. The Imparator was awarded to Cunard (who had lost the Lusitania) and was renamed Berengaria. The White Star (who had lost the Britannic) was awarded the Bismark, renamed Magestic. The Vaterland was seized by the Americans in New York and was renamed USS Leviathan.She transported more than 100.000 soldiers to France (in one trip she carried 14.416!) and after the war she served with the American Line.

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 Cunard was the luckier of the British companies. Having lost only one super liner (the Lusitania) and with the  Mauretania and the Aquitania still intact (plus the Berengaria), the company could still meet the high pre-war standards of service. On the other hand, the White Star, having lost the Titanic before the war and the Britannic during the conflict, remained with only one of its super liners, the Olympic.The Magestic  managed to guarantee some profit, but that was not enough to stop the slow decline. In 1934 White Star merged with Cunard.


The period

 The three ocean liners built for the White Star reflected the British social structure at the beginning of the new century. That period was marked by the influence of King Edward VII. Around him was developed a group of conservative industrialists who had a unique goal: the geographic and economic domination of the British Empire around the world. The effects were devastating for the lower classes and the contrasts were not few. The victory of the opposition in 1906 and the king's death in 1910 led to the introduction of the welfare state and more democratic measures. But tension remained high and the nation was paralyzed by a series of strikes during 1911-12. Immigration to America increased dramatically, especially from Ireland. At the same time rich Americans became regular users of the Atlantic line. So it's not surprising under those circumstances that new ocean liners had to be more luxurious for the rich passengers and much bigger for the immigrants. Velocity was still a crucial factor but the introduction of steam engines had solved this problem some years earlier. Cunard and White Star followed different paths. Cunard depended mainly on velocity in order to attract customers. White Star chose extreme luxury and size combined with acceptable speeds. On White Star's super liners the accommodations for first and second class passengers were unique and even third class passengers, who were usually making the trip in inhuman conditions, had their own open deck, a comfortable dining room, larger cabins (larger than second class cabins on other liners),a separate sector for single female passengers and sanitary services much above ordinary standards. Of course, prices were high ($4350 to $3100 for first and second class) and the third class passenger who could afford a trip ($32) on an Olympic liner was part of an elite, considering the desperate economic situation of most immigrants.


Birth of a giant

 On April 14th, 1912 Titanic struck an iceberg and sank after two hours and forty minutes during her maiden voyage in the North Atlantic. The accident claimed the lives of 1502 people, the largest maritime disaster  for 75 years (this sad record was taken  in 1987 by a ferryboat that sank near the Philippines with 4375 victims). The shock was great because the ship was considered unsinkable by experts and had a huge impact on the improvement of safety measures on ships worldwide. The British and American investigations pointed out:

1)Non-efficient design of the watertight bulkheads: None of them reached the Bridge deck, so as not to divide the 1st class areas. As a result the ship's hull was NOT divided into watertight compartments and water overflowed  from a flooded compartment to the next one from the top edge of the bulkheads. Longitudinal bulkheads were not installed on the Olympic class vessels ,a safety measure used on Cunard's ships.

2)Lifeboat capacity was around 50% of the ship's total number of passengers.

 Gigantic/Britannic's keel had been laid in yard number 433 on November 30th, 1911.She would join service in the summer of 1914 but the Titanic tragedy forced White Star to make extensive design modifications. This was much more difficult for the already operating Olympic,which had to stay out of service for six months, than for the Britannic,whose construction was in an early stage. It was a top priority project for the White Star, considering that  the company was suffering a difficult period in its public image.


(Gregoire Patrigot collection)


 There was the installation of anextended watertight double skin which ran the length of the boiler and engine rooms (60% of the ship's 852ft/269m total length) and rose 4ft/1.2m above the load line. The watertight bulkhead's arrangement was completely revised, too. A new bulkhead was added in the electric room engine and five of them (16 in total) were extended up to the Bridge deck. Now the ship was divided in 17 compartments and the hull was fully protected. With these modifications the ship should be able to survive a damage similar to the Titanic remaining afloat (but not in motion) with any six compartments flooded.


Britannic's watertight double skin. (Britannic 2003 Expedition)



Olympic Titanic Britannic

Watertight double skin

Yes* Yes Yes (extended)

Total # of watertight bulkheads/# of compartments/# of watertight compartments**

15/16/0 15/16/0 16/17/5

# of watertight bulkheads extending up to B deck

0 0 5

Total # of lifeboats/Lifeboat capacity [learn more]




Type of lifeboat davits [learn more] Wellin Wellin Gantry (motored)

Pneumatic tube (to transport messages from the Marconi room to the bridge)

No No Yes

* Extended after the Titanic tragedy.

**Watertight compartments: Spaces defined by the five watertight bulkheads extending up to B deck. The rest of the watertight bulkheads were continuining only up to E-Deck and they could not stop water passing from one flooded compartment to the next one.

 The engine arrangements were similar to the Olympic and the Titanic: 29 boilers, all but five double ended and weighing 105 tons each and two four-cylinder triple-expansion reciprocating engines each developing 16000hp.The remaining steam could pass into a low pressure turbine (weighing 490 tons) driving the center screw and developing another 18000hp. With a total engine power of 50000hp the Britannic could reach and maintain a speed of 21 knots  and have reserve power if needed.



  Olympic Titanic Britannic
Total # of boilers 29 29 29
# of double-ended boilers/# of single-ended boilers 24/5 24/5 24(enlarged)/5
Aprox. total heating surface (in sq.feet) 144.000 144.000 151.000


 Externally, the Britannic maintained the enclosed forward end of the promenade deck (present onthe Titanic but not on the Olympic) for the protection of the passengers against heavy weather. The aft shelter deck was also enclosed in order to create a covered area for third class passengers. But the most visible modification were the huge new lifeboat davits.The Britannic could carry 46 open lifeboats (plus two motor launches with their own wireless). The lifeboats were positioned in four groups on the boat deck. Each davit could handle more than one lifeboat and in two of the eight stations (those not located near the funnels) could transfer a lifeboat from one side of the ship to the other, something useful in case of increased list to one of the two sides. This arrangement created a  large space for the passengers on the boat deck and made possible boarding the lifeboats while still on deck. Then the full lifeboat could be lowered at a safe distance from the ship thanks to two separate motors and not manually. Finally a light at the end of each davit would make the operation easier at night. Indeed the new davits could guarantee a rapid and safe evacuation of all  passengers and crew.




Olympic Titanic Britannic
Expansion joints [learn more] 2 2 4

Fwd end of promenade area (A deck)


Fwd end enclosed

Fwd end enclosed

Promenade area (B deck) [learn more] Enclosed Reduced (cabins added) Reduced (cabins added)

Fwd well deck [learn more]

Open Open Enclosed

Aft well deck [learn more]

Open Open Partially enclosed


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Lifeboat arrangement on RMS Britannic (stern area).

(Ulster Folk & Transport Museum)

A motor launch is being lowered.In the background the port of Naples.

(courtesy of Russell Wild)

 Internally, the ship was quite similar to the Titanic.Some new features included a hairdressing salon for women, a children's playroom, dog kennels, a gymnasium for second class passengers, a fourth elevator for  first class passengers and a pneumatic tube than ran from the wireless room to the bridge in order to send navigational messages (on the Titanic the most important ice warning never arrived at the bridge because the operators were too busy to leave their posts). Of course, the ship would have all the major attractions of the Olympic class.



Olympic Titanic Britannic
Restaurant a la carte with reception room Yes Yes Yes
Dining saloon Yes Yes Yes
Lounge Yes Yes Yes
Squash court Yes Yes Yes
Gymnasium Yes Yes Yes
Smoke Room Yes Yes Yes
Verandah Cafe and palm court Yes Yes Yes
Barber shop for gents Yes Yes Yes
Hairdressing salon for ladies No No Yes
Souvenir shop Yes Yes Yes
Manicurist's Room No No Yes
Children's playroom No No Yes
Cafe Parisien [learn more] No* Yes No**
Swimming pool (heated) [learn more] Yes Yes Yes
Reading and Writing Room Yes Yes Yes
Elevators Yes (3) Yes (3) Yes (4)
Pipe organ [learn more] No No Yes
Turkish baths Yes Yes Yes
Olympic Titanic Britannic
Dining Room Yes Yes Yes
Reading and Writing Room Yes Yes Yes
 Gymnasium No No Yes
Smoke Room Yes Yes Yes
Olympic Titanic Britannic
Smoke Room Yes Yes Yes
Dining Room Yes Yes Yes
Passengers' Mail Room No No Yes
Sewage system [learn more] No No Yes
Hospital Yes (D deck) Yes (D deck) Yes (C deck)

* Added during the first refit (1913).

**According to The Shipbuilder magazine a "Winter Garden" was considered as a possible feature for the promenade deck.

 With all those modifications the gross tonnage would arrive at 50000 tons making the Britannic the largest British ocean liner and the best of the Olympic class. On February 26th, 1914 (at 11.15 a.m), Britannic was finally launched at Belfast without any launching ceremony (a White Star tradition) nearly 27 months after her keel had been laid. 81 seconds later the hull was afloat and five tugs towed it to the fitting out basin. When completed the ship would have the following passenger capacity:790 first class, 836 second class, 953 third class and 950 crew. She would be ready for service in the spring of 1915.

(Gregoire Patrigot collection)


Video: Britannic's launch (courtesy of Ronnie Clark)

2.22MB/0.14 sec




Simon Mills-"Britannic-The Last Titan"

Robin Gardiner & Dan Van Der Vat-"The Riddle Of The Titanic"

Michelle Gottardi - Article: "E sullo sfondo la storia" (Segno Cinema 90 Magazine)

Robert Fox-"Liners-The Golden Age"

Mark Chirnside - "The Olympic-class ships: Olympic, Titanic, Britannic"

Steve Hall & Bruce Beveridge - "Olympic & Titanic: The thruth behind the conspiracy"