Violet Jessop, the 20th Century Lady Jonah: Part 7 – Sinking of the HMHS Britannic


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
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HMHS Britannic - Coloured by Cyril Codus (Source: httptitanic-model.com)
HMHS Britannic – Coloured by Cyril Codus (Source: httptitanic-model.com)

On November 21, 1916,  Violet Jessop, after attending an early service by Rev. John A. Fleming, one of the ship’s chaplains, was having breakfast along with others in the dining room. In the dining room was John Priest, a fireman or stoker who was on board along with Violet Jessop on the RMS Olympic when she collided with the HMS Hawke, and was also aboard the RMS Titanic when she sank on April 15, 1912.

At 8:12 am, a loud explosion reverberated around the ship. HMHS Britannic apparently struck a submerged sea mine. Violet Jessop later wrote:

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...”

Later on, Reverend Fleming described the blast as “if a score of plate glass windows had been smashed together.”

In his official report Captain Charles Alfred Barlett said:

a tremendous but muffled explosion occurred, the ship trembling and vibrating most violently fore and aft, continuing for some time; the ship fell off about 3 points from her course.

Some aboard the ship thought the ship had hit a small boat. Even so, the doctors and nurses left the dining room immediately for their posts. Many others outside the dining room felt a forceful bump that swept them off their feet. Captain Barlett said:

Water was seen to be thrown up to E or 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 first reports brought to Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume on the bridge were alarming; HMHS Britannic had apparently struck a submerged sea mine. The explosion had taken place low on the starboard side between holds 2 and 3. The watertight bulkhead between hold 1 and the forepeak was damaged.

Britannic's flooding limit. Green:Firemens tunnel. Purple: Watertight bulkheads. Digital elaboration by Michail Michailakis. (Source: hmhsbritannic.weebly.com)
Britannic’s flooding limit. Green:Firemens tunnel. Purple: Watertight bulkheads. Digital elaboration by Michail Michailakis. (Source: hmhsbritannic.weebly.com)

The first four watertight compartments started filling with water. The watertight door of the firemen’s tunnel connecting the firemen’s quarters in the bow with boiler room 6 was severely damaged and water started flowing into that boiler room. The watertight door between boiler rooms 6 and 5 also failed to close properly.

Captain Barlett later said:

The damage was most extensive, probably the whole of the fore part of the ship’s bottom being destroyed and in my opinion penetrating to No.6 boiler room.

To aggravate matters, as the ship’s list increased, water reached the level of the portholes that had been opened previously by the nurses to ventilate the wards.

Captain Bartlett sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to get ready to launch the lifeboats.

At 8:35 am, Captain Bartlett gave the order to abandon ship and the crew members started the drill to lower the lifeboats for evacuation.

Death of the Britannic.a(Artist - Ken Marschall)
Death of the Britannic.a(Artist – Ken Marschall)

At 8:35 am, Captain Bartlett gave the order to abandon ship and the crew members started the drill to lower the lifeboats for evacuation.

An officer ordered two lifeboats to be lowered. A group of panic-stricken stewards and some sailors rushed immediately and occupied the two lifeboats. The officer decided not to remove the frightened stewards from the lifeboats as he did not want them later to obstruct the evacuation of the people on board. He ordered all the sailors to get out except one on each lifeboat to take charge of it as it left the sinking ship.

The officer then ordered the lifeboats to be lowered, but stopped lowering them when they were about six feet above the churning water as he realized the engines were still running. He waited for further orders from the bridge. Shortly after, the order came from the bridge not to launch any lifeboats as the Captain Bartlett had decided to beach the Britannic.

Captain Bartlett made a dire try to beach the ship on the shores of Kea, about three miles out to his right. Unfortunately, the steering gear did not respond due to the list and she slowly started to turn.

The nurses were loaded onto the lifeboats for evacuation after being counted and grouped by Matron E. A Dowse.

A group of firemen/stokers furtively took a lifeboat from the poop deck without being authorized. Seeing the lifeboat was not filled to its maximum capacity, Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke ordered the firemen to pick up some men who had already jumped into the water. In the next 50 minutes, the crew managed to lower 35 of 58 lifeboats.

Of the lifeboats assigned to Third Officer David Laws three were lowered without his knowledge. Using automatic release gear they dropped six feet and hit the water violently. The gigantic propellers that were still running were almost out of the water and the two of the three unauthorized lifeboats started drifting towards the giant rotating blades of the portside propeller.

Archie Jewell, the lookout, was in one of the lifeboats which was being sucked into the ship’s still turning propellers. However, he survived. In a letter to his sisters Archie described his escape:

“… most of us jumped in the waterbut it was no good we was pulled right in under the bladesI shut my eyes and said good bye to this world, but I was struck with a big piece of the boat and got pushed right under the blades and I was goin around like a topI came up under some of the wreckage everything was goin black to me when some one on top was strugling and pushed the wreckage away so I came up just in time I was nearly done for there was one poor fellow drowning and he caught hold of me but I had to shake him off so the poor fellow went under.

Violet Jessop was in one the other lifeboat, No. 4. In her memoirs she wrote:

“... 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...”

… 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 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.

… 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“.

To avoid being sucked into the Britannic’s propellers that chopped to shreds the lifeboats, one after another, Violet overcame her fear and jumped out of the lifeboat even though she could not swim. She struck her head on the ship’s keel. An arm grabbed her, but Violet shirked it off fearing the arm was that of another person drowning like herself. She surfaced because of the life-belt she was wearing and her clothes almost torn off her.

… 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…“.

At this exact moment, a third lifeboat was about to be shred to pieces by the propellers. Violet Jessop closed her eyes to stop watching the impending massacre. Unaware of the bloodbath generated by the monstrous propeller blades, Captain Bartlett gave orders to stop the engines. The propellers stopped turning, and the occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and escaped with their lives.

Violet Jessop was rescued once again by a lifeboat.

Around 8:50 am noticing the rate of the flooding had decreased, Captain Bartlett gave orders to restart the engines in a second attempt to beach the ship. But he immediately aborted the attempt as water was reported on Deck D.

At 9:00 am, when the water reached the bridge, Captain Bartlett sounded one last blow on the whistle alerting the ship’s engineers, who had remained at their posts until the last possible moment, to evacuate the ship.

Captain Bartlett swam from the bridge to a collapsible lifeboat. From there he coordinated the rescue operations.

The ship rolled over her starboard side. The funnels collapsed. The machinery on the deck fell into the sea.

Location where HMHS Britannic sank.
Location where HMHS Britannic sank.

At 9:07 am, 55 minutes after the explosion, HMHS Britannic, built to be an ocean cruiser, envisaged to be the last word in luxury travel, but never served as a transatlantic passenger liner, sank and vanished into the depths at 37°42’05.0″N 24°17’02.0″E, on its sixth voyage as a hospital ship transporting sick and wounded soldiers.

Reverend John Fleming who left the sinking ship in the second-last boat, described the sinking:

Gradually the waters licked up and up the decks — the furnaces belching forth volumes of smoke, as if the great engines were in their last death agony; one by one the monster funnels melted away as wax before a flame, and crashed upon the decks, till the waters rushed down; then report after report rang over the sea, telling of the explosions of the boilers. The waters moved over the deck still, the bows of the ship dipping deeper and deeper into the sea, until the rudder stood straight up from the surface of the water, and, poised thus for a few moments, dived perpendicularly into the depths, leaving hardly a ripple behind. A sense of the desert overwhelmed my soul.

 

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