What Titanic Taught Her Sisters

RMS (later HMHS) Britannic was the third and largest of the Olympic-class ocean liners built for the White Star Line. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and was intended to enter service as a transatlantic passenger liner. Titanic sank on April 14-15th 1912 and before the survivors even arrived in New York, investigations were being planned to discover what had happened, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence. If the White Star Line were ever to attract a single customer to either of its two remaining Olympic-class liners (which to the naked eye of the public were identical to the Titanic) their design had to be improved to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.

Unlike the older RMS Olympic, which had to be hurriedly fitted out as best as possible with additional (second hand) lifeboats, Britannic was still under construction in Belfast at the time of the sinking, construction ground to a halt amid rumours of faulty designs and inadequate lifesaving measures. So the owners, Harland and Wolf, had the opportunity of completely re-designing the Britannic according to the lessons learned after the sinking of the Titanic. This resulted in a curious hybrid of optimistic Edwardian-ocean liner and a very modern health and safety view of actually anticipating and preparing for the 'unthinkable'.

Changes made to the Britannic:

Britannic as she would have appeared as a passenger liner in her White Star Livery

A change of name?
Though the White Star Line always denied it, before the sinking of the Titanic Britannic was originally going to be called RMS Gigantic. There were, more than likely, numerous reasons why they chose to quietly renamed her, most significant was probably the fact that Gigantic sounded a little too similar to Titanic. In the wake of the overconfidence highlighted by the Titanic inquiries and the public outcry after the disaster, someone probably felt that the time of dreaming up gargantuan names symbolic of mans triumph over nature were now over and that it was therefore somewhat tactful to change the seemingly overconfident and boastful sounding Gigantic to the more patriotic Britannic.

Double Hull
The entire hull of the Britannic, across her boiler rooms and engine-compartments, was doubled, giving her a true 'double skin' so that if the outer hull was breached the second hull layer beneath would prevent her from taking on water in the first place. The entire process was very costly to the White Star Line, but the whole process smacks of not taking any chances at all, no matter how unthinkable, with the safety of their ships and customers.

Raising the watertight bulkheads
Titanic's watertight bulkheads only stretched up to D deck, which meant she could stay afloat with four compartment breached, on Britannic five of the critical bulkheads were raised all the way to the height of B Deck some 40 foot above the waterline. These modifications meant that, in concert with the pumps, she could stay afloat with a full six compartments breached and this should in theory prevent her from sinking in under three hours having sustained heavier damage. An extra bulkhead was also added to make 17 compartments. This design alone could have saved the Titanic, but overconfidence got its own way as it was not the cost of construction that prevented the Titanic from having higher watertight bulkheads but simply that it made it slightly more difficult for passengers and crew to move through certain areas.

Perhaps the most visibly striking difference was the layout and complement of the lifeboats. Britannic was designed to carry 48 open lifeboats (compared to the Titanic's 16 plus 4 collapsible) forty-six of them would be 34 foot long (making them the largest lifeboats ever placed on a ship at that time). Two of the 46 would be motor propelled and would carry independent wireless sets for communications at sea. The other two were 26 foot cutters (equipped with sails to travel under their own power) placed at both sides of the bridge. All these lifeboats were fitted to massive crane-like davits, each capable of holding six lifeboats -if the White Star line ever cared more about 1st class passenger promenade-deck space than lifeboats they certainly didn't anymore. Additional lifeboats could be stored within reach of the davits on the deckhouse roof, and in an emergency the huge davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. The aim of this design was to enable all the lifeboats to be launched, even if the ship developed a list that would normally prevent lifeboats being launched on the side opposite to the list. However, several of these davits were placed abreast of funnels, defeating that purpose -for heaven's sake!

It's hard to get accurate information on exactly how many people these oversized lifeboats were designed to safely carry, though it certainly would have been more than each of Titanic's lifeboats. Though famously many were launched half full, Titanic's lifeboats had an official capacity of 65 persons (they had been successfully tested in Belfast with the weight of 70) though Britannic's could certainly hold more -even if they only held 65 the essential comparative arithmetic is still telling:
TITANIC: 16 full size at 65 persons each + 4 collapsible at 47 personas each = space for 1228
BRITANNIC: 48 full size estimated at a minimum of 65 persons each = space for 3120

Even more luxurious!
If the White Star Line were to keep customers flocking to their ships after the sinking of the Titanic, it had to keep its reputation for unparalleled luxury at all costs, therefore Britannic was to far surpasses her older sisters in refinement and grace. The Grand Staircase was to be home to an enormous pipe organ; while the First Class restaurant was to be even larger and more opulent. The second class were given a gymnasium and many of her 1st class room were fitted with private bathrooms.

Britannic as a Hospital Ship
Why did Britannic actually sink faster than Titanic?
Britannic was launched just before the start of the First World War and was laid up at her builders in Belfast for many months before being put to use as a hospital ship in 1915. In that role she struck a mine off the Greek island of Kea on 21 November 1916.
The explosion had blown a large hole into the forward bow, at the bulkhead between holds 2 and 3. The bulkhead between the first and second holds was damaged beyond use. The watertight door in the fireman’s passage was destroyed. As a result, boiler room 6 began taking on water. On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was not as confident in his ships abilities as Captain Smith had been with Titanic’s and immediately instructed the radio operator to send out a distress call and ordered the lifeboats uncovered and sounded the general alarm.

There had only been one explosion, so it was possible that the flooding could be contained to the forward hull. It was soon learned that the watertight door between boiler rooms 5 and 6 had malfunctioned, despite its distance from the explosion. Water was pouring into six of the forward compartments. The damage to Britannic was eerily reminiscent of the wound inflicted on Titanic by an iceberg two and a half years earlier, however with the addition of the higher bulkheads that topped Britannic’s watertight compartments off, the holds aft of boiler room 5 held and prevented the domino effect that had doomed her older sister. But soon, under this tremendous weight of water, Britannic was listing heavily to starboard. Many of the portholes on the upper decks had been opened to air out the stuffy wards. This was a serious breach of protocol in a war zone. The list was soon enough to plunge the portholes on E and F decks below the waterline and water poured into the ship which increased the list even more, Captain Bartlett then made a critical error which sealed Britannic's fate.  Only three miles away was the island of Kea and which had large shallow coastal sandbanks which could have offered salvation. If he could ground Britannic on the sand, she could be salvaged so he ordered the engines full ahead and in combination with the rudder and increased power on the port-engine Britannic began to turn for the sandbanks.

As the massive liner accelerated, so did the flooding of her forward compartments. The list increased dramatically and Bartlett realized there was no chance of reaching the island and ordered the engines stopped. Before Britannic could slow down, two lifeboats were launched without authorisation from the port side. Carrying about seventy people between them, the boats were drawn into Britannic’s still churning propellers and thirty people met a gruesome end being churned up in the massive blades. Up on the boat deck, the rest of the crew assembled in what was, for the most part, an orderly evacuation. It became clear very quickly that the ship was going to sink much faster than Titanic had, but the waters were warmer and there were far fewer people on board; less than half as many. It wasn’t long before Britannic’s bow was submerged and she began to roll onto her side. The engineering crew, including the chief engineer himself, escaped through the specially prepared evacuation route made for them up the fourth funnel. Britannic sank at 09:07, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion.
Britannic suffered much heavier damage than the Titanic, with six compartments flooded the Titanic would have sunk much quicker, the Britannic however would have stayed afloat had the portholes not been left open and the intake of water vastly increased by the attempt to beach the ship. Some testament at least, that her improvements would have prevented the Titanic from sinking.

Recommended further reading: 

(My favorite book on all the Olympic class liners, fluidly written, and lavishly illustrated with photographs rarely seen in other books).

The two most detailed, vivid and haunting survivors accounts available. The first, by Colonel Archibald Gracie was written in the months after the disaster before he died of the wounds he suffered that night.Thayer also had a remarkable escape from death in the icy waters of the Atlantic. He was only seventeen at the time and was, like Gracie, one of the last to leave the ship. His account is meticulously detailed.