Violet Jessop, the 20th Century Lady Jonah: Part 6 – Aboard the HMHS Britannic


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
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HMHS Britannic (Author: Allan Green, 1878 - 1954)
HMHS Britannic (Author: Allan Green, 1878 – 1954)

The HMHS  Britannic was the third and largest Olympic-class ocean liner of the White Star Line larger than the RMS Titanic.

Some sources claim the ship was to be named “Gigantic“. At least one set of documentations exists, in which Noah Hingley & Sons Ltd., in Netherton, near Dudley, United Kingdom, discuss the order for the ship’s anchors; this documentation states that the name of the ship is Gigantic. It appears more probable that the name Gigantic must have been used informally in correspondence with Harland & Wolff before being dropped quietly. However, Tom McCluskie affirmed that in his capacity as Archive Manager and Historian at Harland & Wolff, he “never saw any official reference to the name ‘Gigantic’ being used or proposed for the third of the Olympic class vessels.

The keel for Britannic was laid on November 30, 1911, at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, 13 months after the launch of the RMS Olympic. Her watertight bulkhead was extended, higher than Titanic’s had been. Britannic was designed to carry 48 open lifeboats. Of these, 46 were to be 34 feet long, the largest lifeboats ever carried until then and two of the 46 were to be motor propelled equipped with wireless sets for communications. The other two were to be 26-foot cutters placed on either side of the bridge.

Though Britannic was intended to enter service as a transatlantic passenger liner, she never crossed the Atlantic carrying the rich and the poor to the New World.

After improvements were introduced as a consequence of the Titanic disaster, Britannic was launched at 11:10 am on February 26, 1914. Around 20 tonnes of tallow, train oil and soft soap were used to move the gigantic ship down the slipway. In 81 seconds she stood afloat in the water.  Later, she was towed to the Abercon Basin for fitting by five tugs.

The British press hailed her as “a twentieth century ship in every sense of the word” and “the highest achievement of her day in the practise of shipbuilding and marine engineering.” However, after launching, she was laid up at her builders in Belfast for many months.

In August 1914, when the first World War broke out, the shipyards in Britain focused on converting many liners for Transport of Troops. Some were converted to Hospital ships. Britannic‘s maiden voyage scheduled for April 1915 was cancelled.

On November 13, 1915, after being docked for 15 months, the British Admiralty requisitioned Britannic, which was just an empty hull, to use it as a hospital ship. She was readied in just six weeks before being put to use as a hospital ship and was given ship number 9618.

The public rooms on the upper decks were converted into wards for the wounded soldiers. The large first class dining rooms and the reception rooms were converted into operating theatres and main wards. Deck B was furnished to house the medical officers. The lower decks were fitted out for medical orderlies, other staff and the less wounded patients. In all, the ship was fitted to carry 3,309 people.

Digital plans of the Britannic in hospital ship colours by Cyril Codus. (Source: hmhsbritannic.weebly.com)
Digital plans of the Britannic in hospital ship colours by Cyril Codus. (Source: hmhsbritannic.weebly.com)

The ship’s hull was repainted in the internationally recognized colours of a hospital ship; a green band was painted along each side of the ship broken by three large red crosses, to provide her safe passage at sea. For protection at night, two large red crosses were painted on both sides of the boat deck and were highlighted at night with a band of green electric bulbs.

Renamed HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic, she entered service on December 23, 1915 under the command of Commodore Charles Alfred Bartlett.

On December 23, 1915, she entered service as His Majesty’s Hospital Ship – HMHS Britannic.

23-year-old Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic
23-year-old Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic

After her traumatic experience on the RMS Titanic, Violet Jessop secured a position with the British Red Cross as a stewardess. She was posted on HMHS Britannic.

Along with Violet on board was 27-year-old Arthur John Priest, a fireman / stoker, who, like her, had survived the collision of the RMS Olympic with the HMS Hawke, and escaped from the RMS Titanic when she sank on April 15, 1912.

Also, on board was 23-year-old Archie Jewel, one of the six lookout men on the deck of the ill-fated Titanic. On the night of April 14, 1912, he had worked the 8 pm to 10 pm shift and was in his berth when the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40 pm. He was one of the first to leave the ship on the starboard side at 12:45 pm in lifeboat 7, with just 28 people on it while the full capacity was for 65. After the Titanic, Archie was on board the SS Donegal which was sunk by enemy action in April 1917.

On December 23, 1915, HMHS Britannic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Moudros, on the island of Lemnos, North Aegean, Greece under the command of Commodore Charles Alfred Bartlett. She reached Moudros eight days later on December 31, 1915 and returned to Southampton on January 9, 1916.

After completing two more voyages to Naples, she was laid up on April 12, 1916.

On August 28, 1916, HMHS Britannic was recalled to active service and was given a new Transport Identification Number, G618. She made two more voyages to Moudros returning with the sick and wounded.

The HMHS Britannic left Southampton at 2:23 pm on November 12, 1916 with Captain Charles Bartlett in command on her 6th outbound voyage to Moudros. On arriving at Naples on November 17, 1916, she took on board more coal and water.

The ship was secured for two days at Naples due to a storm. On Sunday, November 19, 1916, finding a brief shift in the weather, Captain Bartlett decided to sail away from Naples. A total of 1,066 people – sick and wounded soldiers, the ship’s crew, and the medical staff – were on board.

As HMHS Britannic left the port, a storm set in and the sea rose again. The following morning, the storm passed and the sea became calm and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without any further problems. In the early hours of Tuesday, November 21, 1916, the ship rounded Cape Matapan.

At 8:00 am, Captain Bartlett changed course for the Kea Channel, in the Aegean Sea, lying between the islands of Makronisi (to her port side) and Kea (to her starboard side), just off Cape Sounion on the mainland of Greece. Chief Officer Robert Hume and Fourth Officer D. McTowis were on the Bridge along with him.

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 Previous: Part 5 – After the Titanic Disaster

To be continued

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