The explosion

 The Britannic departed from Southampton for Moudros at 2.23 p.m. on November 12th, 1916. It would be her sixth voyage in the Mediterranean Sea. She passed Gibraltar around midnight of the 15th and arrived at Naples on the morning of the 17th for her usual coaling and water refueling stop, completing the first stage of her mission. A storm kept the ship at Naples until Sunday afternoon. Then Captain Bartlett decided to take advantage of a brief break in the weather and decided to lift anchors. The seas rose once again just as the Britannic left the port but by next morning the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan (the southernmost point of continental Greece) was rounded during the first hours of Tuesday 21st November. By the morning Britannic was steaming at full speed (around 21 knots) into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounio (the southernmost point of Attica, the province which includes Athens) and the island of Kea.

 

Photo taken in 2001 (NASA)

click on the  boxes  to take a closer look of these areas

 

 In the dining room the nurses were taking their breakfast after having attended the early mass held by the ship's chaplain, John Fleming. Among them was Violet Jessop, who had worked as a stewardess on the Olympic and the Titanic. She had witnessed all the tragic moments of the Olympic class vessels: the collision of the Olympic with the  HMS Hawke (without loss of life but with the Olympic badly damaged) and the disaster of April 14th, 1912 when Titanic sank during her maiden voyage. Apart from Violet Jessop only one person on board had worked on all 3 Olympic class liners. This person was Fireman John Priest.

 At 8.12 a.m. a loud explosion shook the ship. Violet Jessop later recalled: "Suddenly, there was a dull deafening roar. Britannic gave a shiver, a long drawn out shudder from stem to stern, shaking the crockery on the tables, breaking things till it subsided as she slowly continued on her way. We all knew she had been struck...". The reaction in the dining room was immediate. Doctors and nurses left instantly for their posts. That seemed strange to Violet Jessop when compared with the calmness aboard Titanic after the collision with the iceberg, but during a war fear for the worst makes people foresee danger, especially when they are in uniform and they have already experienced the cruel reality of the front. However, not everybody reacted the same way. Further aft the power of the explosion was less felt and many thought the ship had hit a smaller boat. It seems that no casualties occurred as no one was present in the area of the blast, but Private J. Cuthbertson had a close call as the force of the water washed him from G deck up to the E deck through the debris of the staircase between the two decks. An unknown Britannic Officer (believed to be Fifth Officer Gordon Fielding) was shaving in his cabin after having finished his bath. His cabin was"about 10 yards from the point of contact" and the force of the explosion threw him with violence across the room with various items falling on top of him. He felt that the ship "lifted twice" and the fumes from the explosion left him blind for a couple of seconds. After having recovered, he put on some clothes and hurried to his boat station.

 

 

The fatal explosion.

Digital elaboration by M. Michailakis

 

 

  On the bridge at the time of the explosion, were present Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume. The gravity of the situation was soon evident. The first reports were alarming. The explosion had taken place on the starboard side between holds 2 and 3, but the force of the explosion had also damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold 1 and the forepeak. That meant that the first 4 watertight compartmentswere filling rapidly with water. To make things worse, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room 6 had also been seriously damaged and water was flowing into that boiler room (the watertight bulkhead between hold 3 and boiler room 6 was incredibly intact but its watertight door probably not). Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Unfortunately, another bad surprise was waiting. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms 6 and 5 also failed to close properly for some unknown reason. Now water was flowing further aft into boiler room 5.

 

Britannic's flooding limit.

Green=Firemen's tunnel

Purple=Watertight bulkheads

 

Digital elaboration by M. Michailakis

 

 The Britannic had reached her flooding limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with six watertight compartments flooded and  had five watertight bulkheads raised up to B-deck. Those measures were taken after the Titanic disaster, when the ship (designed to stay afloat with five watertight compartments flooded) suffered a domino effect with water flowing over the bulkheads, which were not protecting the keel up to B deck but only up to E deck. That meant that the Titanic was NOT really divided into watertight compartments like her sister ship. If we could have called a ship "unsinkable", that would have been the Britannic. Luckily, the next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms 5 and 4 and its door were undamaged and should have guaranteed the survival of the ship. However, there was something else that probably sealed Britannic's fate: the open portholes of the lower decks. Most of those portholes had been opened by the nurses in order to ventilate the wards. As the ship's list increased, water reached this level and began to enter aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms 5 and 4. With more than six compartments flooded, the Britannic was doomed.

 

Evacuation and tragedy

  On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was trying to choose the best action in order to save his vessel. Only two minutes after the blast boiler rooms 5 and 6 had to be evacuated. In other words, in about ten minutes the Britannic was roughly in the same condition the Titanic was one hour after the collision with the iceberg. Fifteen minutes after the explosion the open portholes on E deck were underwater. That fact probably compromised the Britannic. Water entered the ship aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms 5 and 4.The Britannic quickly developed a serious list to starboard. To his right Bartlett saw the shores of Kea, about three miles away. He decided to make a last desperate effort by trying to beach the ship. That wasn't an easy task because of the combined effect of the list and the weight of the rudder. The steering gear was unable to respond properly but by using the propellers (giving more power to the left one) Britannic slowly started to turn right.

  Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew members were preparing the lifeboats. When the unknown Officer arrived at his boat station (located at the port gantry davits and consisting of 12 lifeboats) he swung out two lifeboats. Those boats were immediately rushed by a group of stewards and some sailors, who had started to panic. The Officer kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to get out and stand by their positions near the boat stations. He decided to leave the stewards on the lifeboats as they were responsible for starting the panic and he didn't want them in his way during the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them in order to take charge of the lifeboat after leaving the ship. After this unfortunate episode all the sailors under his command remained at their posts until the last moment. As no RAMC personnel were near this boat station at that time, the Officer started to lower the boats, but, when he saw that the ship's engines were still running, he stopped them within 6ft from the water and waited for orders from the bridge. The occupants of the lifeboats didn't take this decision very well and started cursing. Shortly after this, orders finally arrived: no lifeboats should be launched, as the Captain had decided to beach the Britannic.

  The nurses were grouped and counted into the life boats separately byMatron E. A Dowse, who supervised their evacuation.Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke was making the arrangements for the lowering of the lifeboats from the aft davits of the starboard boat deck when he spotted a group of firemen who had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authority and hadn't filled it to its maximum capacity. Dyke ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.

 At 8.30 a.m. two lifeboats from the boat station assigned to Third Officer David Laws were lowered without his knowledge through the use of the automatic release gear. Those two lifeboats dropped some 6ft into the water and hit the water violently. Violet Jessop was one of their unlucky occupants as she was late picking up her personal belongings after assisting a sick friend and arrived on the boat deck when all the nurses had gone. In her memoirs she remembered that the lifeboat "...started gliding down rapidly, scraping the ship's side, splintering the glass in our faces from the boxes, which formed, when lighted, the green lighted band around a hospital ship's middle, and making a terrible impact as we landed on the water...". The two lifeboats soon drifted into the giant running propellers, which were almost out of the water by now. As the first one reached the turning blades, the tragedy of the day took place. The spectacle was horrifying and beyond imagination. Violet Jessop described the scene in a very vivid way :"...eyes were looking with unexpected horror at the debris and the red streaks all over the water. The falls of the lowered lifeboat, left hanging, could now be seen with human beings clinging to them, like flies on flypaper, holding on for dear life, with a growing fear of the certain death that awaited them if they let go....". Moments after touching the water, her lifeboat (No.4) clustered with the other lifeboats already in the water, struggling to get free from the ship's side, but it was rapidly drifting into the propellers. She wrote:"...every man jack in the group of surrounding boats took a flying leap into the sea. They came thudding from behind and all around me, taking to the water like a vast army of rats.[.....]I turned around to see the reason for this exodus and, to my horror, saw Britannic's huge propellers churning and mincing up everything near them-men, boats and everything were just one ghastly whirl". She couldn't swim but overcame her fear in front of the danger and jumped into the water.....One of the people who jumped with her was George Perman, one of the young scouts of the Britannic. At the last moment he was able to grab a davit cable and escaped death. Violet Jessop's lifebelt brought her to the surface, where she violently hit her head twice on something solid. Suddenly, she grabbed an arm but having heard that people drowning retain their hold after death, she let go. After some more agonizing seconds she finally reached the surface with her clothes almost torn off her. Then she opened her eyes: "...The first thing my smarting eyes beheld was a head near me, a head split open, like a sheep's head served by the butcher, the poor brains trickling over on to the khaki shoulders. All around were heart-breaking scenes of agony, poor limbs wrenched out as if some giant had torn them in his rage. The dead floated by so peacefully now, men coming up only to go down again for the last time, a look of frightful horror on their faces...". She closed her eyes to keep out the scene while trying to keep her nose out of the water (the lifebelts used at the time couldn't support the weight of the head and this sometimes was fatal for people who were unconscious or who couldn't swim). The men in the boats that were still waiting to be launched by the Officer stopped cursing about not being released from the davits......

 By then the word of the massacre arrived on the bridge. Captain Bartlett, seeing that water was entering more rapidly as Britannic was moving and that there was a risk of more victims, gave the order to stop the engines. The propellers stopped turning the moment a third lifeboat was about to be reduced to pieces. Captain T. Fearnhead  and some other  RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely. At the same time, Scout George Perman slid down the davit cable, burning his hands, and dropped into the water. Soon afterwards he was picked up by a nearby lifeboat.

 

"..I turned around to see the reason for this exodus and, to my horror, saw Britannic's huge propellers churning and mincing up everything near them-men, boats and everything were just one ghastly whirl..."

 

Painting byRyan Hill

 

 

 

The last moments

 The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 8:35 a.m. he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. The unknown Officer had already launched his two lifeboats and also managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the after set of port side davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First Officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use her speed  to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the doomed liner. After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown Officer filled another lifeboat with 75 men and launched it with great difficulty because the port side was now very high from the surface due to the list to starboard. At 8:45 a.m. the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. The unknown Officer with six sailors decided to move to the Midship Island on the boat deck in order to throw overboard collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. They were followed by about 30 RAMC ratings who were still left on the ship. As he was about to order these men to jump and then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown Officer spotted  Sixth Officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat but they hadn't enough men. Quickly, the unknown Officer ordered his group of 40 men to assist the Sixth Officer. Together they managed to lift it , load it with men and then launch it safely.

 At9:00 a.m. Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle and then just walked into the water, which had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to co-ordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blow was the final signal for the ship's engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their heroic colleagues on the Titanic,had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via the staircase into funnel #4 which was serving to ventilate the engine room. The Assistant Chief Engineer was seen sliding over the stern. After a fall of about 150ft  he managed to avoid the floating wreckage and he was picked up by the lifeboat of the unknown Officer. From the lifelines of this boat was also hanging Violet Jessop, who was soon picked up by one of the motor launches.

 

"...All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys..."

 

Painting byRyan Hill

 

 TheBritannic rolled over her starboard side and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop saw the last seconds: "She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding though the water with undreamt-of violence...". It was 9:07 a.m., only 55 minutes after the explosion.

The rescue

 At 8:15 a.m. the British destroyer  Scourge received the SOS sent by the ill-fated hospital ship. Immediately, her Captain set course for the Kea channel and also ordered the French tugs Goliath and Polyphemus to follow. At 8:28 a.m the auxiliary cruiser Heroic, which had encountered the Britannic earlier that day returning from Moudros to Salamina, received the distress signal and reversed course immediately. The ship had just rounded Cape Sounio and was very close. At 8:35 a.m. the Scourge requested the assistance of another British destroyer, the Foxhound, which was on patrol in the Gulf of Athens.

 It was a very nice Tuesday morning in the Aegean Sea, the sea was calm and the sun was shining up in the sky. Three miles northwest of port St. Nicolo, the calm waters were full of debris, lifeboats, corpses and survivors. The crew had managed to get into the water 35 of 58 lifeboats in less than 50 minutes. Luckily, at least one of the ship's innovations proved to be crucial for the rescue of the hundreds of people who were scattered all over the area of the disaster. Within moments the two motor launches rapidly picked up many survivors as they were much faster than the non-motored lifeboats and were also much easier to operate. From the motor launch Violet Jessop, who had suffered a skull fracture and a deep cut in her leg, was observing the search for survivors among the wreckage: "Several did not respond. Here a poor scullion with his apron still on, there a RAMC orderly, now a wee, fair-haired sailor boy. I looked on miserably as the order was given to drop them overboard again and saw them floating away.".

 The first to arrive on the scene were the Greek fishermen from Kea on their kaikia (small fishing boats), who picked up many men from the water. One of them, Francesco Psilas, was later paid £4 by the Admiralty for his services. At 10:00 a.m. the Scourge sighted the first lifeboats and ten minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. The Heroic had arrived some minutes earlier and picked up 494. Some 150 had made it to port St. Nicolo (Korissia), where surviving doctors and nurses from the Britannic were trying to save the horribly mutilated men using aprons and pieces of lifebelts to make dressings. A little barren quayside served as their operating room. Although the motor launches were quick to transport the wounded to Korissia, the first lifeboat arrived there some two hours later due to the strong current and their heavy load. It was the lifeboat of Sixth Officer Welch and the unknown Officer. The latter was able to speak some French and managed to talk with one of the local villagers, obtaining some bottles of brandy and some bread for the injured. The inhabitants of Korissia were deeply moved by the suffering of the wounded. They offered all possible assistance to the survivors and hosted many of them in their houses while waiting for the rescue ships. Violet Jessop approached one of the wounded. "An elderly man, in an RAMC uniform with a row of ribbons on his breast, lay motionless on the ground. Part of his thigh was gone and one foot missing; the gray green hue of his face contrasted with his fine physique. I took his hand and looked at him. After a long time, he opened his eyes and said: 'I'm dying'. There seemed nothing to disprove him yet I involuntarily replied: 'No, you are not going to die, because I've just been praying for you to live'. He gave me a beautiful smile[...]That man lived and sang jolly songs for us on Christmas Day.".                                        

 The Scourge and the Heroic had no deck space for more survivors and they left for Pireaus signaling the presence of those left at Korissia. Luckily, the Foxhound arrived at 11.45 a.m. and, after sweeping the area, anchored in the small port at 1:00 p.m. to offer medical assistance and take onboard the remaining survivors. At 2:00 p.m. arrived the light cruiser Foresight. The Foxhound departed for Pireaus  at 2:15pm while the Foresight remained to arrange the burial on Kea of Sergeant W. Sharpe, who had died of his injuries. Another two men died on the Heroic and one on the French tug Goliath. The three were buried with military honors in the British cemetery at Pireaus. The last fatality was G. Honeycott, who died at the Russian Hospital at Pireaus shortly after the funerals.

 A total of 1036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried. The others were left in the water and their memory is honored in memorials in Salonika (Thessaloniki) and London. Another twenty four men were  injured. Luckily, the ship had no patients. If that had been the case probably the death toll would have been much higher, perhaps even greater than the Titanic. The survivors were hosted in the warships that were anchored at the port of Pireaus imposing an embargo (after the failure of the French to have military material and naval material handled  by the neutral Greek army and the battle that followed in downtown Athens). However, the nurses and the officers were hosted in  separate hotels at Phaleron. The environment was hostile in Athens, but many Greek citizens and officials attended the funerals.

 

Illustrated timeline of the sinking (by Remco Hillen)

 

 

Sources

-Simon Mills - "Britannic, The Last Titan"

-Simon Mills - "Hostage To Fortune"

-John Maxtone-Graham (editor) -"Titanic Survivor-The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess"

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

- Account written by an unknown Britannic Officer -The Titanic Commutator Vol.15;No.3;1991