Hospital Ship Lost
Britannic's survivors on HMS Scourge
After completing five successful voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre and back to the United Kingdom transporting the sick and wounded, HMHS Britannic departed Southampton for Lemnos at 1423 on the 12th of November 1916, her sixth voyage to the Mediterranean Sea. The Britannic passed Gibraltar around midnight on 15 November and arrived at Naples on the morning of 17th of November, for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.
A storm kept the ship at Naples until Sunday afternoon, when Captain Bartlett decided to take advantage of a brief break in the weather and continue on. The seas rose once again just as Britannic left the port. However, by next morning, the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan was rounded in the first hours of Tuesday, 21 November. By the morning, Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion (the southernmost point of Attica, the prefecture that includes Athens) and the island of Kea.
There were a total of 1,066 people on board, mostly made up of the ships crew, wounded soldiers, and medical staff.
At 0812 on 21st of November 1916, a loud explosion shook the ship. It is believed to be either a torpedo or a mile from the German submarine U73. The cause, whether it was a torpedo from an enemy submarine or a mine, was not apparent. The reaction in the dining room was immediate. Doctors and nurses left instantly for their posts. Not everybody reacted the same way, as further aft, the power of the explosion was less felt, and many thought the ship had hit a smaller boat. Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time, and the gravity of the situation was soon evident. The explosion was on the starboard side, between holds two and three. The force of the explosion damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. The first four watertight compartments were filling rapidly with water also, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room six was seriously damaged, and water was flowing into that boiler room.
Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Water was flowing further aft into boiler room five. The Britannic had reached her flooding limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with her first six watertight compartments flooded. There were five watertight bulkheads rising all the way up to B-deck. Those measures had been taken after the Titanic disaster. (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded, but the bulkheads rose only as high as E-deck.) The next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have guaranteed the survival of the ship. However, there were open portholes along the lower decks, which tilted underwater within minutes of the explosion. The nurses had opened most of those portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship's list increased, water reached this level and began to enter aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, the Britannic could not stay afloat.
On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was trying to save his ship. Only two minutes after the blast, boiler rooms five and six had to be evacuated. In about ten minutes, the Britannic was roughly in the same condition the Titanic had been in one hour after the collision with the iceberg. Fifteen minutes after the ship was struck, the open portholes on E-deck were underwater. Water also entered the ship's aft section from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. The Britannic quickly developed a serious list to starboard. To his right Bartlett saw the shores of Kea, about three miles (5 km) away. He decided to make a last desperate effort to beach the ship at the island, where if successful she would have remained for the duration of the war. This was not an easy task because of the combined effect of the list and the weight of the rudder. The steering gear was unable to respond properly. However, by varying the speed of each propeller alone (giving more power to the port shaft), Britannic slowly started to turn to starboard.
Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew members were preparing the lifeboats. Some of the boats were immediately rushed by a group of stewards and some sailors, who had started to panic. An unknown officer kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to get out and stand by their positions near the boat stations. He decided to leave the stewards on the lifeboats because they were responsible for starting the panic, and he did not want them in his way in the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them in order to take charge of the lifeboat after leaving the ship. After this episode, all the sailors under his command remained at their posts until the last moment. As no RAMC personnel were near this boat station at that time, the officer started to lower the boats, but when he saw that the ship's engines were still turning, he stopped them within 2 metres (6 ft) of the water and waited for orders from the bridge. The occupants of the lifeboats did not take this decision very well and started cursing. Shortly after this, orders finally arrived: no lifeboats should be launched, as the Captain had decided to beach the Britannic at the nearby island.
Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke was making the arrangements for the lowering of the lifeboats from the aft davits of the starboard boat deck when he spotted a group of firemen who had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authorisation and had not filled it to maximum capacity. Dyke ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.
At 0830, two lifeboats from the boat station assigned to Third Officer David Laws were lowered, without his knowledge, through the use of the automatic release gear. Those two lifeboats dropped some 2 metres (6 ft) into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats soon drifted back into the still-turning propellers, which were almost out of the water by now. As they reached the turning blades, both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were torn to pieces. Word of the carnage arrived on the bridge, and Captain Bartlett, seeing that water was entering more rapidly as Britannic was moving and that there was a risk of more victims, gave the order to stop the engines. The propellers stopped turning the moment a third lifeboat was about to be reduced to splinters. RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely.
The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 0835, he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port-side davits soon became useless. The unknown officer had already launched his two lifeboats and managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the aft set of portside davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First Officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use its speed to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the sinking Britannic. After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown officer filled another lifeboat with seventy-five men and launched it with great difficulty because the port side was now very high from the surface because of the list to starboard. By 0845, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. The unknown officer with six sailors decided to move to mid-ship on the boat deck to throw overboard collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. About thirty RAMC personnel who were still left on the ship followed them. As he was about to order these men to jump then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown officer spotted Sixth Officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat, but they had not enough men. Quickly, the unknown officer ordered his group of forty men to assist the Sixth officer. Together they managed to lift it, load it with men, then launch it safely.
At 09:00, Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle, he then was washed overboard, as water had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to co-ordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blow was the final signal for the ship's engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their heroic colleagues on the Titanic, had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via the staircase into funnel #4, which ventilated the engine room.
The Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side, and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop (who was also one of the survivors of Britannic's sister-ship Titanic, and had even been on the third sister, Olympic, when she collided with HMS Hawke) described the last seconds:
"She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence...."
It was 0907, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion. Britannic was the largest ship lost in the First World War.
Compared to the Titanic, the rescue of the Britannic was facilitated by three factors: the temperature was higher (70 °F (21 °C) compared to 28 °F (−2 °C) for the Titanic), more lifeboats were available (35 were launched and stayed afloat compared to Titanic's 20) and help was closer (arrived less than 2 hours after first distress call compared to 3½ hours for the Titanic.
The first to arrive on the scene were the Greek fishermen from Kea on their caïque, who picked up many men from the water. One of the fishermen, Francesco Psilas, was later paid £4 by the Admiralty for his services. At 1000, HMS Scourge (destroyer) sighted the first lifeboats and ten minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. HMS Heroic (an armed merchant ship) had arrived some minutes earlier and picked up 494. Some 150 had made it to Korissia (a community on Kea), where surviving doctors and nurses from the Britannic were trying to save the horribly mutilated men, using aprons and pieces of lifebelts to make dressings. A little barren quayside served as their operating room. Although the motor launches were quick to transport the wounded to Korissia, the first lifeboat arrived there some two hours later because of the strong current and their heavy load. It was the lifeboat of Sixth Officer Welch and the unknown Officer. The latter was able to speak some French and managed to talk with one of the local villagers, obtaining some bottles of brandy and some bread for the injured.
The inhabitants of Korissia were deeply moved by the suffering of the wounded. They offered all possible assistance to the survivors and hosted many of them in their houses while waiting for the rescue ships. Violet Jessop approached one of the wounded. "An elderly man, in an RAMC uniform with a row of ribbons on his breast, lay motionless on the ground. Part of his thigh was gone and one foot missing; the grey-green hue of his face contrasted with his fine physique. I took his hand and looked at him. After a long time, he opened his eyes and said: 'I'm dying'. There seemed nothing to disprove him yet I involuntarily replied: 'No, you are not going to die, because I've just been praying for you to live'. He gave me a beautiful smile . . . That man lived and sang jolly songs for us on Christmas Day."
The Scourge and Heroic had no deck space for more survivors and they left for Piraeus signalling the presence of those left at Korissia. Luckily the destroyer HMS Foxhound arrived at 1145 and, after sweeping the area, anchored in the small port at 1300 to offer medical assistance and take onboard the remaining survivors. At 1400 the light cruiser HMS Foresight arrived. The Foxhound departed for Piraeus at 1415 while the Foresight remained to arrange the burial on Kea of Sergeant W. Sharpe, who had died of his injuries. Another two men died on the Heroic (Armed Merchantman) and one on the French tug Goliath. The three were buried with military honours in the British cemetery at Piraeus. The last fatality was G. Honeycott, who died at the Russian Hospital at Piraeus shortly after the funerals.
1,036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried. The others were left in the water and their memory is honoured in memorials in Thessaloniki and London. Another twenty-four men were injured. The ship carried no patients. Survivors were hosted in the warships that were anchored at the port of Piraeus. However, the nurses and the officers were hosted in separate hotels at Phaleron. Many Greek citizens and officials attended the funerals.
For almost nine decades the exact location of the grave of RAMC Sergeant William Sharpe remained unknown. In November 2006 Britannic researcher Michail Michailakis discovered that one of the 45 unidentified graves in the New British Cemetery on the island of Syros contained the remains of a soldier collected from the church of Ag.Trias at Livadi (the old name of Korissia). The information was passed to maritime historian Simon Mills who came in contact with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Further research established that this soldier was a Britannic casualty and that his remains had been registered as belonging to a certain "Corporal Stevens" (October 1919). When the remains were moved to the new cemetery at Syros (June 1921) it was found that there was no record relating this name with the loss of the ship and the grave was registered as unidentified. Simon Mills provided all the necessary evidence in order to prove that this man could be no other than Sergeant William Sharpe and eventually the case arrived to the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency. Since the cause of the mistake couldn't be established with certainty—but with the evidence in favour of Sergeant William Sharpe being very strong—it was decided to have the grave marked with a new headstone bearing the inscription "Believed to be Sergeant William Sharpe". The new headstone was placed in 2009 and the CWGC has also updated its database with the new information.