On this day in 1916, the Hospital Ship ‘Britannic’ sank off one of the Greek islands. The Britannic was a sister ship of the famous Titanic which was sunk on her maiden voyage in 1912.
Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship in November 1915. Much work had to be done to prepare her ready for her new role, this included the installation of extra davits capable of holding even more lifeboats and repainting her hull white. She also sported a horizontal green stripe and three large red crosses down each side. The first class dining rooms were converted into operating theatres and ‘B’ deck would be home for the medical staff.
Her Captain, Charles Bartlett (known as ‘Iceberg Charlie’ to his crew) was on the bridge on Tuesday 21 November, just after 8am, along with Chief Officer Hume and Fourth Officer McTowis, when a loud explosion was heard – something had hit the ship on the starboard side, near the bow between the second and third cargo holds. Damage to a bulkhead meant that the first five compartments would become flooded. The timing of the explosion was to be fatal: watertight doors between boiler rooms were open to allow shift changes to take place.
Bartlett ordered the ship to be abandoned at 8.35am, just twenty three minutes after the explosion. Over the next half hour, the 600 crew and 500 medical personnel clambered into thirty-five lifeboats or swam for their lives away from the fast-sinking ship.
Incredibly, there were three people on board who had survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Violet Jessop, a nurse, was on board one of the two lifeboats that were destroyed by the propellers. Realising the danger just in time, she dived clear and was sucked below the waves. Coming to the surface, she hit her head on the keel but was rescued by another lifeboat.
Also surviving both the Titanic and the Britannic sinkings was John Priest, a stoker.
The third survivor of both sinkings was Archie Jewell, the lookout. He was to be less fortunate when he was drowned off SS Donegal in April 1917.
Of the 1,066 crew and medical staff on board, only 30 (21 crew plus one officer and eight men of the RAMC) were to lose their lives; most of these were probably in the lifeboats that drifted into the propellers.
Credit – Western Front Association