On November 21, 1916, at 8:15 am, the British destroyer the HMS Scourge had received the distress signal from HMHS Britannic. Immediately, her Captain set course for the Kea channel. He sent a request for assistance to the HMS Foxhound, another British destroyer, patrolling in the Gulf of Athens. He also requested the French tugs Polyphemus and Goliath to help rescue survivors.
At 8:28 am, the auxiliary cruiser SS Heroic, which had encountered the Britannic earlier that day, received the signal and reversed its course immediately.
At 8:35 am, the HMS Scourge requested the assistance of the HMS Foxhound, another British destroyer, patrolling in the Gulf of Athens.
Northwest of Korissia on Kea, the sea was littered with debris, corpses and survivors in lifeboats.
Fortunately, as I mentioned before, two lifeboats on HMHS Britannic were motor propelled and equipped with wireless sets for communications. These innovations proved crucial in the rescue of the hundreds of people scattered all over the area of the wreckage. The two motorized lifeboats quickly picked up as many survivors as possible as they traveled faster and were more maneuverable than the vintage non-motorized lifeboats. They transported the wounded to Korissia.
Greek fishermen from Kea were the first to arrive on the scene of the wreckage. They picked up a few people from the water.
Around 10 am, SS Heroic picked up 494 people from the lifeboats and from water.
A few minutes later, HMS Scourge arrived and picked up 339 survivors. The HMS Foxhound arrived at 11:45 am, followed by the HMS Foresight, one of two Forward class scout cruiser of the Royal Navy, at 2 pm.
A total of 1,036 people out of 1,066 on board the HMHS Britannic were saved. Thirty people – nine members of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and 21 crew members – lost their lives and 24 people were injured.
Even though HMHS Britannic was the biggest ship lost in the First World War, her sinking was not costly in terms of loss of human life when compared to the sinking of her sister ship RMS Titanic. There were 1,066 people on board, with 1,036 survivors picked up from the sea and lifeboats with the loss of 30 lives chopped by the giant propellers.
After the sinking of HMHS Britannic, Violet Jessop continued to work aboard ocean liners for 38 more years. After the First World War, she left the White Star Line and joined the Red Star Line and then joined the Royal Mail Line again.
She got married in her late thirties. The marriage was brief. In 1950 she retired to Great Ashfield, Suffolk.
Violet Jessop, often, allegorically called “Miss Unsinkable” by many, died of congestive heart failure in 1971 at the age of 83.
The book “Titanic Survivor” contains some passages of Violet Jessop memoir written in 1934, originally named Neptune’s Greenroom. It has been informatively annotated by editor John Maxtone-Graham.
I feel that Arthur John Priest, the lowly stoker in the boiler rooms, truly deserves the name ‘unsinkable‘ rather than Violet Jessop. He survived the following incidents:
In 1907, the RMS Asturias foundering on its maiden voyage.
On September 20, 1911, the collision of RMS Olympic with HMS Hawke.
On April 15, 1912, the sinking of RMS Titanic. He was rescued, probably in lifeboat 15.
On February 29, 1916, the sinking of SS Alcantara by the German armed merchant cruiser SMS Greif.
On November 21, 1916, the sinking of RMS Britannic.
In April 1917, the sinking of SS Donegal. Also, on board that ship was Archie Jewell, the lookout. Priest survived yet again, but Archie Jewell was killed.
John Priest died in Southampton from pneumonia in 1937.
Now, I wonder who the real Jonah was on the three ships: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic. Was it Violet Jessop, the stewardess/nurse, or Arthur John Priest, the fireman/stoker?
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:
“…atremendous 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.
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.
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 blades…I 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 top…I came up under some of the wreckage … everything was goinblack 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.
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.“
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.
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.
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.