Interview:Simon Mills

 

December 2002

 Simon Mills is the current owner of the wreck. He works for the film industry but he's also built an excellent reputation as a maritime historian. His first book Britannic-The last Titan is still considered the best resource for Britannic researchers. As his second book about the Britannic hit the shelves a couple of months ago, I thought it would be interesting to send him an invitation to give an e-mail interview to Hospital Ship Britannic. His answer was positive. I would like to thank him for the time he dedicated in order to reply to our questions and for keeping Britannic's memory alive during the years.

 

How would you present your new book about the Britannic to the public?

  The new book is intended to be very different from Last Titan. While I am still very proud of my first book on the Britannic, you have to remember that it was written at a time when there was very little knowledge of the people who actually sailed in the ship. As a result it tended to concentrate far more on the technical aspects of the Britannic, which, while probably being more satisfying to the rivet counters among us, still leaves an enormous gap to those who are more interested in the social historical aspects. Hostage to Fortune is an attempt to tell the human side of Britannic's story, which is no less important than that of the Titanic, and now that I have been able to unearth numerous personal diaries and make contact with the families of several survivors (not to mention an actual survivor) this has gone a long way to filling the huge void that previously existed.

Are there any expeditions planned for the future? Is there any chance of a thorough expedition like Dr. Ballard did?

  Yes, there is something very big being discussed, but at this time I think it would be best for me to say nothing in public until matters are more clearly defined in the New Year.


The new book makes little mention of the plan - which was launched years ago - to make an underwater museum of the Britannic. Was this idea too optimistic or is it still in the works?

  The idea was (is?) not too optimistic, in fact Bob Ballard already has his first underwater camera system up and running in Monterey Bay (California). The idea was to test the technology in America and then extend it to other sites around the world, including Britannic. So far as I am aware it is still a possibility, but it has to be remembered that the events in New York on 11th September of last year have had an unfortunate knock-on effect. As a result, many TV, advertising and business sponsors are more reluctant to extend themselves to such an extent in these uncertain times, and until things settle down then I don't think that it is possible to put a realistic timetable on the project. The will and technology are still there, so anything is still possible.

There has been a new Britannic documentary aired recently in America. Is there a chance of more documentaries - perhaps even another motion picture-about the Britannic?

  The answer to that question is a definite yes; there is a big documentary in the planing stage, but again I cannot be too specific until the production aspects are more clearly defined. As for a feature film I would imagine it's possible (the story undoubtedly has tremendous potential) but I would hope that the next one will be more faithful to the historical facts than the TV movie that was produced a couple of years ago.

In their report, Captain Hugh Heard and Commander George Staer state: "The water was deep, probably over 100 fathoms and there is a current through the Kea Channel. This against the mine theory." This comes in contrast with Captain Bartlett's report that states: "The explosion occurred whilst 'Britannic' was in about 65 fathoms of water..." How is possible that the two reports are conflicting and which was the maximum depth for deploying underwater mine barriers?


  Britannic lies in 119 metres of water. That equates to 390 feet in Imperial measurements, which works out at almost exactly 65 fathoms (based on the fact that six feet are equal to one fathom). Therefore, insofar as Britannic's sinking position is concerned, Captain Bartlett is unquestionably in the right. With regard to Heard and Staer's assertion that Britannic was in over 100 fathoms of water, don't forget that Britannic was further out into the Kea Channel when the explosion occurred, where the water is deeper. We have not as yet found the mine anchor so we cannot with confidence say exactly how deep the water was at the time, but it is probably safe to assume that it was somewhere between 65 and 100 fathoms. I don't think that we can necessarily read anything in to the fact that the two reports refer to different depths. To my mind that is only a minor difference in emphasis. With regard to the maximum depth of the German mines, depending on the type this could be anything from 150 to 200 metres. If my maths is correct, that's between 82 and 109 fathoms.

The Heard/Staer report also states the following: "There is no evidence of a column of water having been thrown up outside the ship," as an argument against the torpedo theory. Once more they are in conflict with Captain Bartlett who wrote that: "water was seen to be thrown up to "E" and "D" deck forward at the time of the explosion, and a cloud of black smoke was seen, the fumes for some time being suffocating." The two officers did not to mention this important information in their report, despite the fact that they had talked to the Captain at Piraeus. How do you explain this?

  I do not believe that there is a conflict at all. The classic image of a ship being torpedoed, and this is readily born out by numerous photographs and news reel items, is of a huge column of water rising a hundred feet or more into the air when the explosion occurred. The internal surge of water up to E-deck to which Captain Bartlett refers is nowhere near comparable. Don't forget, E deck is barely two decks above Britannic's load line, so other than the fact that the massive surge of water into the hull would seem to indicate that the scale of damage was very extensive, there is nothing more to it than that. As for the testimony of Hume and McTavish, unfortunately there is no written testimony in the records to confirm what they might have said. Indeed, it's entirely possibly that their evidence was given orally, so what they may or may not have said at Piraeus is pure conjecture. Judging from Heard's report, we can safely assume that they did not report an external column of water.

 The two rigging plans present in the new book are a very welcomed addition for all the "rivet counters". However, Britannic's lifeboats seem still very confusing. Your two books give different figures regarding the lifeboat configuration on RMS Britannic. What would have been the total amount of lifeboats and which sources did you use to assertain this number?

  One thing you have to remember is that since Last Titan was written (1992), a number of the perceived voices of authority in earlier published sources have been found to be wrong. For instance, in the early eighties it was believed that the first-class dining saloon was converted into a ward and that the photograph of the pipe-smoking officer was Captain Bartlett, etc. It's only in the last couple of years, through reference to hitherto unpublished diaries and recently unearthed technical papers and drawings from Harland and Wolff, that I've been able to correct these misconceptions. For instance, would you believe that it was impossible to actually get a hold of the line drawing of the Britannic as a hospital ship (detailing the revised lifeboat arrangements) until it had been cleared by the Ministry of Defence? Even the published deck plans did not correlate to the illustrations of the Harland and Wolff builder's model, but having now had the chance to examine the specification book in detail (a document which had to be agreed by both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line) it is now possible to categorically state exactly how many lifeboats that Britannic was originally intended to carry. Those numbers are now included in the new book and when the next edition of Last Titan is due for publication then the figures in that book will be revised accordingly.

Many people wonder about the whereabouts of the luxurious Britannic fittings that were auctioned after
her sinking. According to our research, it seems that some of the fittings ended to Billingham Arms Hotel
and to a Belfast pub. In the book there is an advertisement for one of the auctions. Since the names
of the Auctioneers are known, it should be possible to track down the buyers from their archives. Have you done any research on the subject?


  As it happens, no, I haven't really looked too deeply into that side of things to date.
 

The chapter The Modern Greek Myth is perhaps the most revealing part of the book, as it contains convincing answers to many questions regarding the dynamic of the sinking. According to your research, there are two important phenomena that could explain the massive damage observed at  the bow section of the wreck and the quick list to starboard:

a) the "chaotic fracture" of the steel plates due to the stresses which were developed  near the bow as the ship touched the bottom. As a result some steel plates were bent outwards. Were any tests made - using steel plates from Britannic as samples - in order to examine this possibility or it's just a theory? Is there a  test that could indicate the nature of the forces that caused the deformation of the steel plates?


  No metallurgical tests have been made as yet (in fact, no retrievals have been made at all), but this is something we hope to carry out as and when we carry out the next big expedition. A great deal of the video evidence is confirmed by similar phenomena on the Titanic, when the ship broke in half the metal plates distorted in all directions, and the damaged area of Britannic's hull shows similar symptoms in some places.

b) A possible failure of the external riveted seams near the area of the blast on the  -now hidden - starboard side. This may have caused the flooding of some compartments inside the double skin and the subsequent list to starboard. Using a modified sonar device Dr. Paul Matthias was able to "see"  the holes left by the iceberg on the part of Titanic's bow that is now hidden under the mud of the ocean floor. Can we use the same technology in order to "see" the damage on Britannic's starboard side?

  Paul's device was looking through the soft muddy seabed, so he was able to get a reasonably accurate idea as to the nature of the damage inflicted on Titanic's hull by the iceberg. On Britannic the damaged area is covered by hundreds of tons of steel and the additional damage caused during the sinking process will have further complicated the available evidence. However, Paul will hopefully be involved in the future expedition, so we're going to try all sorts of things if at all possible.

The huge gantry davits installed on Britannic proved very effective during the evacuation  but only one or two ships used that same type after the sinking of the Britannic. How do you explain this?

  I honestly have no idea why the gantry davit idea never caught on. Perhaps it was simply that people didn't like the look of the davits, or possibly that after the tightening up of the American immigration laws the liners no longer carried so many passengers? It's all total conjecture, of course, but the best that I can come up with.

Reading the book we also find out that the radio receiver of the Britannic malfunctioned and the radio operators were unable to receive the messages sent by the ships who were coming to Britannic's rescue. Despite this, it seems that they did not try to inform the other ships about this problem or make clear that their vessel was sinking fast. Is it possible that Britannic's radio transmitter was also damaged or that the radio operators left their positions after having sent the first distress call?

  There is no mention of the transmitting apparatus having been damaged, as several ships picked up the distress call. Apparently it was a problem for them to receive incoming responses, but there is no record of exactly what was transmitted or when the radio operators left their posts. Mind you, I would imagine that they stayed in the Marconi room for as long as possible.

 

Many thanks to Mark Chirnside and Remco Hillen for their help with the questions.

 

January 2001

 

This interview was given via e-mail to Russell Wild and it was first published on the Official Britannic Research Centre website.

When did you first become properly interested in HMHS Britannic?

  A little over ten years ago, probably two or three years after Robert Ballard found the Titanic. Having read one or two books on the subject shortly afterwards, I was frustrated by the fact that nearly all the historians who wrote about the Titanic made only the same minor passing references to the Olympic and Britannic. In the end, I just decided to do my own research and make those two ships my area of interest.

Why did you choose to become the owner of the wreck? What did you see in it as an advantage to you as a historian?

  I was in the right place at the right time when a friend told me that the wreck was for sale (August 1996), and as the asking price was surprisingly within my means I couldn't possibly say no. As to the advantages it has brought me as a historian, the answer is "immense". In the last three years I have provided dive plans for three expeditions, and as each dive group has been very co-operative we now have very useful images of the wreck, as opposed to just interesting ones. Strangely enough, the underwater video and stills are only really of secondary importance to me; I'm more pleased with the fact that the dives have resulted in contact with descendants of the crew members who have family photographs, diaries, etc. I'm also now in touch with at least one survivor. Without these dives, the chances are that none of this would have been possible.

Are you currently working with Robert Ballard on turning the Britannic into a virtual museum?

  It's still on the cards, but there is no definite news as yet. I understand that this year the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) might be funding the development of the first two underwater monitoring systems. These two units are currently intended for deployment somewhere in American waters (I have no idea where or when), where the necessary legal aspects and telecommunication technology are more clearly defined and better established. Assuming that these trials are successful, then subject to further funding and obtaining the necessary authority of the Greek Government, perhaps matters will become a little more clear.

If so when do you expect the project to be completed?

  I honestly have no idea because there is no specific schedule in place at this time, but I don't foresee anything happening for the next couple of years. Probably best to just wait and see.

If you had all the money and support you needed, what would your ideal vision be for the wreck of Britannic?

 That's simple -- to leave it as it is!

 

Thanks to Dan Hughes for thinking up a couple of the questions.