Did You Know?

There are few people who have not heard about the sinking of the Titanic, a grand ship built in Belfast and meant to be almost impregnable. The tragic story of the ship’s encounter with an iceberg as it crossed the Atlantic is told in books and movies. It’s a cautionary tale of human error and hubris that is heartbreaking. I have been both fascinated and appalled by what happened on that disastrous voyage since I was a young child. In some ways it might be said that I have been haunted by the many “what ifs” that lead to the destruction of the grand ship and the loss of so many lives. 

What I did not know is that the Titanic was only one of three huge steamers built in the Belfast shipyards along with the Olympic and the Britannic. After the unbelievable tragedy of the Titanic, the construction of the Britannic was reconfigured to take into account flaws that lead to the Titanic’s misfortune. Watertight doors were included in the new design to operate as a second defense in the event of a breach in the hull of the ship. Extra lifeboats were placed on the ship as well. The Britannic was thought to be one of the safest ships in the world after all its new features had been added. 

As the newest ship of the White Star Line it sailed across the Atlantic until the outbreak of World War I when it was commandeered to be a hospital ship. Staffed with doctors and nurses, it traveled from Great Britain into the Aegean Sea on regular missions to bring wounded soldiers back to England. In November of 1916, the ship was on its way to a location in Greece when tragedy struck.

It was early morning on the day before the ship would be crowded with patients. The crew and the medical personnel were enjoying breakfast and relaxing a bit before what they knew would be a frenzy of activity caring for the needs of the soldiers that they would soon meet. Some of the employees had also worked on the Titanic on the fateful night when it sank. They were grateful to be alive and dedicated to their work. It seemed impossible to even think that a similar fate might befall the strong ship that carried them into supposedly safe waters. Not until everyone heard a loud explosion and felt a horrific jolt did a quiet panic begin to spread through the occupants of the ship. 

Below deck in the bowels of the ship water began to rush in, nearly drowning many of the crew members. The doors that should have shut mysteriously stayed open and before long the entire ship was listing. The captain had been called from his cabin just before taking an early morning bath, so he stood at his post in his pajamas. He decided that the best bet for the safety of the ship and its passengers would be to run aground. He instructed his crew to head for land which was not far away in the hopes of saving every person as well as the ocean liner itself. 

We now know that the Britannic had hit a German mine creating a huge gash in the hull of the ship. It is believed that the doors did not properly shut because the ship had been twisted out of shape from the explosion. The water was free to fill the ship quickly. Additionally doctors had opened portholes in the hospital area to allow the sea breezes to ventilate the rooms. This allowed more water to enter the already endangered Britannic. The ship was only minutes away from sinking.

Many of the crew members who worked below were so frightened by the rushing waters that they climbed into a lifeboat meant for eighty four people and lowered it into the water before getting the proper command from the captain. This lapse of protocol ultimately resulted in an horrific death for many of them. As the ship shifted forward from the weight of the water, the propellers came out of the water and sucked the lifeboat into its vortex. The poor souls were cut to ribbons by the spinning of the huge metal blades. 

Within less than an hour everyone realized that the Britannic was going down. The captain ordered the lifeboats to be lowered and he told the officers of his crew to leave the ship. He himself waited until the deck of the Britannic was level with the water when he walked into the sea as the ship fell from under his feet. He would swim for thirty minutes until being rescued by Greek fishermen in the area who came out to save as many of the passengers as they could. 

Only thirty people died that day but the rest of the over one thousand humans on board would forever be devastated by what they had witnessed. The sinking of the Britannic became lost in the tragic headlines of World War I as Great Britain and the souls who had endured unimaginable terror simply went back to work in the war efforts of the day. It would later be learned that many of them had also worked on the Titanic and had somehow escaped the fate of death once again. 

The terrible irony of the sinking of the Britannic was that even with all of the precautions that had so carefully been included in her construction, the foibles of humanity took it down. That mine lurked as surely as the iceberg that tore the Titanic apart, only it was invisible and far more evil. A ship and its passengers on a mission of mercy became victims of a war that ushered in decades of tragedy for the world. The story of the Britannic is in some ways even more touching than that of the Titanic because it was an horrific example of man’s inhumanity to man.  


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