Monday, May 14, 2012

Sisters of Titanic

With all the renewed interest in the Titanic recently as we observed the 100th anniversary of its sinking on April 14-15, 1912, most of the attention has been on the Titanic itself and the sinking in particular.  While I have always been fascinated with the infamous sinking and the exploration of the wreck, I have always been very interested in the ship itself.  Probably the biggest reason I was excited about the movie Titanic in 1997 was being able to see what the ship was probably like on the inside.  That alone made the movie worth it to me.
Olympic on the left and Titanic on the right, just before completion of Titanic in 1912.  This is before Titanic had its upper promenade enclosed, which was one of the differences it had with Olympic.  I have always loved this picture.  Too bad there was never a chance to get all three ships together.
Understanding the Titanic means realizing it was part of a class of ships.  Most Titanic enthusiasts are aware that the Titanic was the second of three ships known as the Olympic-class.  The first ship, the RMS Olympic, was launched several months before the Titanic and in many ways was identical to the Titanic.  The third ship of the class, the Britannic, was launched in 1914 (2 years after Titanic) and never saw service as an ocean liner because of World War I.  Instead, it served as a hospital ship before sinking after hitting a mine.

Olympic was the first of the new class of ocean liners from the White Star Line intended to be the most luxurious on the market.  This is in the days before air travel, so the only way to cross the Atlantic was by ocean liner (not to be confused with a cruise ship).  Being first of the class, like most first-time products, meant that the later sisters overall had the same shape and basic design, but also had slight improvements on the Olympic.  Because the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, there are very few photos of the ship, particularly the inside.  Most of the shots used to show the interior of Titanic are actually those of Olympic because in most respects they were identical.  They had the exact same base plan and were largely built side-by-side.  It's not uncommon for exterior shots of Olympic to be mistaken for Titanic since they had very similar exteriors and identical paint schemes.  There are differences, though, that are easy to spot.

The biggest visible difference between the Olympic and Titanic was on the forward Promenade Deck (originally labeled as A-deck, the first deck below the top level or Boat Deck).  The Olympic's promenade was open the entire length.  During its initial runs, there was apparently some complaint about spray from the wind, so Titanic had the forward part of the promenade enclosed.  The later sister ship, Britannic, also had the forward promenade enclosed, but Olympic never did despite having several refits over the course of its career, many of which added features the Titanic had.  This is probably the most frequently used feature to distinguish the two ships, though it's not a perfect difference.  Titanic did not have that modification made until the very end of construction, so early shots have the same fully-opened promenade as Olympic, which often results in some Titanic enthusiasts believing they are looking at Olympic when, in fact, it is Titanic in latter stages of construction.

Comparison picture from  "The Great Titanic Switch" highlighting some of the differences between Olympic and Titanic

There is another way to distinguish the Olympic from Titanic in the early photos, but it's very small.  On the bridge level, there were two "wing" cabins on either end.  In the original configuration, the outer walls of these cabins on the Olympic were flush with the edge of the ship.  On the Titanic, however, these cabins protruded 2 feet over the edge of the ship.  After the loss of Titanic, several changes were made to Olympic, one of which was altering the wing cabins to protrude outward (among other changes; the bridge of the Titanic was quite different than the original configuration of the Olympic and was a major improvement).

Olympic on the left and Titanic on the right showing the subtle differences in their bridge wings.  After the loss of Titanic, Olympic had a major refit, part of which extended the bridge wings like Titanic's (Olympic below, 1929).  Britannic's bridge wings also protruded out

There are several other small differences between Olympic and Titanic, all of which have been documented and studied due to the conspiracy theory that the ship that sank was actually the Olympic redressed as Titanic.  While the idea is tantalizing to say the least, the idea that the ships would be switched (allegedly because the Olympic had received major damage in a collision with the HMS Hawke and was sunk on purpose to get insurance money), it's pretty much impossible not only because the immense amount of money required to change them, but the very obvious problem that Olympic's parts were stamped with the hull number 400 and Titanic's were stamped with 401.  Pieces of Titanic recovered from the wreck have had 401 on them.  Oh well!

Britannic painted in hospital ship colors.  The huge lifeboat arms can be seen here as well, a defining characteristic of the ship.  Like Titanic, Britannic had a partially enclosed upper promenade.
Britannic was the third and final sister of the Olympic class and was the largest of the three both by tonnage and by width.  The Britannic is much easier to differentiate for two major reasons: first, because it was never used as an ocean liner, pretty much all pictures of the ship show it as a hospital ship, which was a far different pain scheme than the White Star Line used for its ocean liners.  The only pictures of Britannic in its White Star paint scheme are postcards or artists' renditions, not actual photos.  Even so, the other very obvious difference on Britannic was the huge lifeboat davits that were installed.  They were supposed to be capable of launching lifeboats on the opposite side of the ship (in the event the ship started to list to one side to prevent lifeboats from being launched on that side), but the huge funnels made that pretty much impossible.

Cool picture of Britannic under construction with the Olympic's funnels visible in the background, from Kevin Scott Bolinger's post
Britannic (officially the HMHS Britannic for "His Majesty's Hospital Ship"), had a tragic end, though not as tragic as Titanic.  It struck a sea mine in the Adriatic sea of the coast of Greece and sank in about 400 feet of water.  30 people died in the sinking, and pretty much all of those deaths were the result of loading lifeboats prematurely before the ships engines had been shut off.  Britannic's low loss of life was also aided by the fact that it had recently unloaded most of its patients, so there were far less people on board.  The wreck of the Britannic was discovered in 1975 by French explorer Jacques Cousteau.  Unlike Titanic, the Britannic sank in one piece, though the front of the ship is bent since it hit the seabed before the ship totally sank (the water was 400 feet deep and the ship was just over 882 feet long).  The wreck is explored regularly and can be explored by scuba divers since it is at a far higher depth than Titanic, which is some 2 miles below the surface.  Britannic is also far better preserved than the Titanic.

Olympic served a long and eventful career, finally being retired in 1935 and scrapped about a year later.  It served as a troopship during World War I and actually rammed a German U-boat in that capacity and, of course, had a long career as an ocean liner between New York and Southampton.  It is likely that if Titanic hadn't sunk, it would have also been used as a troopship in the war or some other military purpose.

This painting and the picture below show Olympic in "dazzle paint" during its time as a troopship.  The dazzle paint was supposed to act as a camouflage to protect against submarine attacks