The RMS Olympic was an Olympic-Class ocean liner. Launched in 1910, she was the sister ship of the RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic. At the time of her completion, she was the largest ship in the world, a distinction she would continue to hold with the exception of the brief time periods that her sister ships sailed. She lived a full life in service until 1937 and became known as the "Old Reliable", surviving the longest of the three Olympic-class ships.
She was the largest ocean liner in the world for two periods in 1911–13, interrupted only by the brief career of the slightly larger Titanic. Olympic retained the title of the largest British built liner until the RMS Queen Mary was launched in 1934, interrupted only by the short careers of her two slightly larger sister ships.
Built in Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland, the RMS Olympic was the first of the three Olympic-Class ocean liners – the others were the RMS Titanic and the HMHS Britannic (rumored to have been originally named Gigantic). They were by far the largest vessels of the British shipping company White Star Line's fleet, which comprised 29 steamers and tenders in 1912. The three ships had their genesis in a discussion in mid-1907 between the White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, and the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who controlled the White Star Line's parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. The White Star Line faced a growing challenge from its main rivals Cunard, which had just launched RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania – the fastest passenger ships then in service – and the German lines Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd. Ismay preferred to compete on size rather than speed and proposed to commission a new class of liners that would be bigger than anything that had gone before as well as being the last word in comfort and luxury.
The company sought an upgrade in their fleet primarily in response to the Cunard giants but also to replace their largest and now outclassed ships from 1890, the SS Teutonic and SS Majestic. The former was replaced by Olympic while Majestic was replaced by Titanic. Majestic would be brought back into her old spot on White Star's New York service after Titanic's loss.
The ships were constructed by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, who had a long-established relationship with the White Star Line dating back to 1867. Harland and Wolff were given a great deal of latitude in designing ships for the White Star Line; the usual approach was for the latter to sketch out a general concept which the former would take away and turn into a ship design. Cost considerations were relatively low on the agenda and Harland and Wolff was authorised to spend what it needed on the ships, plus a five percent profit margin. In the case of the Olympic-class ships, a cost of £3 million for the first two ships was agreed plus "extras to contract" and the usual five percent fee.
Harland and Wolff put their leading designers to work designing the Olympic-class vessels. It was overseen by Lord Pirrie, a director of both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line; naval architect Thomas Andrews, the managing director of Harland and Wolff's design department; Edward Wilding, Andrews' deputy and responsible for calculating the ship's design, stability and trim; and Alexander Carlisle, the shipyard's chief draughtsman and general manager. Carlisle's responsibilities included the decorations, equipment and all general arrangements, including the implementation of an efficient lifeboat davit design.
On 29 July 1908, Harland and Wolff presented the drawings to J. Bruce Ismay and other White Star Line executives. Ismay approved the design and signed three "letters of agreement" two days later authorising the start of construction. At this point the first ship – which was later to become Olympic – had no name, but was referred to simply as "Number 400", as it was Harland and Wolff's four hundredth hull. Titanic was based on a revised version of the same design and was given the number 401. Bruce Ismay's father Thomas Henry Ismay had previously planned to build a ship named Olympic as a sister ship to the Oceanic. The senior Ismay died in 1899 and the order for the ship was cancelled.
J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, and William Pirrie, the chairman of Harland and Wolff shipyard, intended the Olympic-class ships to surpass rival Cunard's largest ships, Lusitania and Mauretania, in size and luxury. Construction of the Olympic began three months before Titanic to ease pressures on the shipyard. Several years would pass before Britannic would be launched.
In order to accommodate the construction of the class, Harland and Wolff upgraded their facility in Belfast; the most dramatic change was the combining of three slipways into two larger ones. Olympics keel was laid in December 1908 and she was launched on 20 October 1910. For her launch, the hull was painted in a light grey colour for photographic purposes; a common practice of the day for the first ship in a new class, as it made the lines of the ship clearer in the black and white photographs. Her hull was repainted black following the launch.
FeaturesThe Olympic was designed as a luxurious ship, her passenger facilities, fittings, deck plans and technical facilities were largely identical to those of her more famous sister Titanic, although with some small variations.The first class passengers enjoyed luxurious cabins, some were equipped with bathrooms. There were also large dining rooms, a lavish Grand Staircase built only for the Olympic-class ships, a Georgian-style smoking room, a Cafe Veranda decorated with palm trees, and several other places for meals and entertainment.
The second class facilities included a smoking room, a library, a spacious dining room, and a lift. Finally, the Third Class passengers enjoyed reasonable accommodation compared to other ships, if not up to the second and first classes. Instead of large dormitories offered by most ships of the time, the third-class passengers of the Olympic travelled in cabins containing two to ten bunks. Facilities for the third class included a smoking room, a common area, and a dining room.
Olympic had a cleaner, sleeker look than other ships of the day: rather than fitting her with bulky exterior air vents, Harland and Wolff used smaller air vents with electric fans, with a "dummy" fourth funnel used for additional ventilation. For the powerplant Harland and Wolff employed a combination of reciprocating engines with a centre low-pressure turbine, as opposed to the steam turbines used on Cunard's Lusitania and Mauretania. White Star claimed the Olympic-class's engine set-up to be more economical than expansion engines or turbines alone. Olympic consumed 650 tons of coal per twenty four hours with an average speed of 21.7 knots on her maiden voyage, compared to 1000 tons of coal per twenty four hours for both the Lusitania and Mauretania.
Compared to Titanic
Although Olympic and Titanic were largely identical, a few fairly minor changes were made to Titanic (and later on the Britannic) based on experience gained from the Olympic's first year in service. The most noticeable of these was that the forward half of Titanic's promenade on A Deck was enclosed by a steel screen with sliding windows, which provided additional shelter, whereas Olympic's promenade deck remained unenclosed. Also Olympic's B Deck was completely different from Titanic's. The Titanic had a specialty restaurant called the Café Parisien, a feature that the Olympic did not receive until 1913. Some of the flaws found on the Olympic, such as the creaking of the aft expansion joint, were corrected on the Titanic. The skid lights that provided natural illumination on A Deck, were round on Titanic, while on Olympic they were oval. The Titanic's wheelhouse was made narrower and longer than the Olympic's as well. Also the promenade on Titanic's B Deck was reduced in size, and the space was used for additional cabins and public rooms. These differences meant that Titanic had a slightly higher gross tonnage of 46,328 tons, compared to Olympic's 45,324 tons.
Following completion, Olympic started her sea trials on 29 May 1911, which she successfully completed, Olympic then left Belfast bound for Liverpool, her port of registration, on 31 May 1911. As a publicity stunt the White Star Line deliberately timed the start of her first voyage to coincide with the launch of Titanic. After spending a day in Liverpool, open to the public, Olympic sailed to Southampton, where she arrived on 3 June, to be made ready for her maiden voyage.
Her maiden voyage commenced on 14 June 1911 from Southampton, calling at Cherbourg and Queenstown, reaching New York on 21 June. The maiden voyage was captained by Edward Smith who would lose his life the following year in the Titanic disaster. Designer Thomas Andrews was present for the passage to New York and return, along with a number of engineers, as part of Harland and Wolff's "Guarantee Group" to spot any problems or areas for improvement. Andrews would also lose his life in the Titanic disaster.
As the largest ship in the world, and the first in a new class of superliners, Olympic's maiden voyage attracted considerable worldwide attention from the press and public. Following her arrival in New York, Olympic was opened up to the public and received over 8,000 visitors. More than 10,000 spectators watched her depart from New York harbour, for her first return trip.
Collision with HMS Hawke
Olympic's first major mishap occurred on her fifth voyage on 20 September 1911, when she collided with a British warship, HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight. The collision took place as Olympic and Hawke were running parallel to each other through the Solent. As Olympic turned to starboard, the wide radius of her turn took the commander of the Hawke by surprise, and he was unable to take sufficient avoiding action. The Hawke's bow, which had been designed to sink ships by ramming them, collided with Olympic's starboard side near the stern, tearing two large holes in Olympic's hull, below and
above the waterline respectively, resulting in the flooding of two of her watertight compartments and a twisted propeller shaft. HMS Hawke suffered severe damage to her bow and nearly capsized. Despite this, Olympic was able to return to Southampton under her own power, and no-one was seriously injured or killed.
In command during this incident was Captain Edward Smith, who was lost at sea a year later onboard Titanic. One crew member, Violet Jessop, survived not only the collision with the Hawke but also the later sinking of Titanic and the 1916 sinking of Britannic, the third ship of the class.
At the subsequent inquiry the Royal Navy blamed Olympic for the incident, alleging that her large displacement generated a suction that pulled Hawke into her side. The Hawke incident was a financial disaster for Olympic's operator. A legal argument ensued which decided that the blame for the incident lay with Olympic. Olympic endured such a serious collision and stayed afloat, appeared to vindicate the design of the Olympic-class liners and reinforced their "unsinkable" reputation.
It took two weeks for the damage to Olympic to be patched up sufficiently to allow her to return to Belfast for permanent repairs, which took just over six weeks to complete, to speed them up, Harland and Wolff was forced to delay Titanic's completion in order to use her propeller shaft for Olympic. By 29 November she was back in service, however in February 1912, Olympic suffered another setback when she lost a propeller blade on an eastbound voyage from New York, and once again returned to her builder for repairs. To get her back to service as soon as possible, Harland & Wolff again had to pull resources from Titanic, delaying her maiden voyage from 20 March 1912 to 10 April 1912.
When the Titanic was finally complete and ready to begin her maiden voyage, several crew members of the Olympic were transferred to the Titanic.
- Main article: Sinking of the Titanic
On April 14th, 1912, Olympic, now under the command of Herbert James Haddock, was on a return trip from New York. Wireless operator Ernest James Moore received the distress call from her sister RMS Titanic, when she was approximately 500 nautical miles (930 km; 580 mi) west by south of Titanic's location. Haddock calculated a new course, ordered the ship's engines to be set to full power and headed to assist in the rescue.
When Olympic was about 100 nautical miles (190 km; 120 mi) away from Titanic's last known position, she received a message from Captain Rostron captain of Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia, explaining that continuing on course to Titanic would gain nothing, as "All boats accounted for. About 675 souls saved [...] Titanic foundered about 2.20 am." Rostron requested that the message be forwarded to White Star and Cunard. He said that he was returning to harbour in New York. Subsequently, the wireless room aboard the Olympic operated as a clearing room for radio messages.
When Olympic offered to take on the survivors, she was heatedly turned down by an appalled Rostron, who was concerned that it would cause panic amongst the survivors of the disaster to see a virtual mirror-image of the Titanic appear and ask them to board. Olympic then resumed her voyage to Southampton, with all concerts cancelled as a mark of respect, arriving on 21 April.
Over the next few months, Olympic assisted with both the American and British inquiries into the disaster. Deputations from both inquiries inspected Olympic's lifeboats, watertight doors and bulkheads and other equipment which were identical to those on Titanic. Sea tests were performed for the British enquiry in May 1912, to establish how quickly the ship could turn two points at various speeds, to approximate how long it would have taken the Titanic to turn when it sighted the iceberg.
Olympic, like Titanic, did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board, and was hurriedly equipped with additional, second-hand collapsible lifeboats following her return to England. Toward the end of April 1912, as she was about to sail from Southampton to New York, 284 of the ship's firemen went on strike because of fears that the ship's new collapsible lifeboats were not seaworthy. 100 non-union crew were hastily hired from Southampton as replacements, with more being hired from Liverpool.
The 40 collapsible lifeboats were secondhand, having been transferred from troopships, and many were rotten and could not open. The crewmen instead sent a request to the Southampton manager of the White Star Line that the collapsible boats be replaced by wooden lifeboats; the manager replied that this was impossible and that the collapsible boats had been passed as seaworthy by a Board of Trade inspector. The men were not satisfied and ceased work in protest.
On April 25th, a deputation of strikers witnessed a test of four of the collapsible boats. Only one was unseaworthy and they said that they were prepared to recommend the men return to work if it was replaced. However the strikers now objected to the non-union strikebreaker crew which had come on board, and demanded that they be dismissed, which the White Star Line refused. 54 sailors then left the ship, objecting to the non-union crew who they claimed were unqualified and therefore dangerous, and refused to sail with them. This led to the scheduled sailing being cancelled.
All 54 sailors were arrested on a charge of mutiny when they went ashore. On 4 May 1912 Portsmouth magistrates found the charges against the mutineers were proven, but discharged them without imprisonment or fine due to the special circumstances of the case. Fearing that public opinion would be on the side of the strikers, the White Star Line let them return to work and the Olympic sailed on 15 May.
On October 9th, 1912 White Star withdrew Olympic from service and returned her to her builders at Belfast to be refitted to incorporate lessons learned from the Titanic disaster, and improve safety. The number of lifeboats carried by Olympic was increased from twenty to sixty four, and extra davits were installed along the boat deck to accommodate them. Also, an inner watertight skin was constructed in the boiler and engine rooms. Five of the Watertight Bulkheads were extended up to B-deck, and an extra bulkhead was added to subdivide the electrical dynamo room, bringing the total number of watertight compartments to 17. These modifications now meant that the Olympic could survive a collision similar to that of the Titanic in that her first six compartments could be breached and the ship could remain afloat.
At the same time, Olympic's B Deck was refitted with extra cabins and public rooms, this necessitated deleting her B-Deck promenades – one of the few features that separated her from her sister ship. With these changes, Olympic's gross tonnage rose to 46,359 tons, 31 tons more than Titanic's.
In March 1913, Olympic returned to service and briefly regained the title of largest ocean liner in the world, until the German liner SS Imperator entered passenger service in June 1913. Following her refit, Olympic was marketed as the "new" Olympic and her improved safety features were featured prominently in advertisements.
World War I
In August 1914 World War I began. Olympic initially remained in commercial service under Captain Herbert James Haddock. As a wartime measure, Olympic was painted in a grey colour scheme, portholes were blocked, and lights on deck were turned off to make the ship less visible. The schedule was hastily altered to terminate at Liverpool rather than Southampton, and this was later altered again to Glasgow.
The first few wartime voyages were packed with Americans trapped in Europe, eager to return home, although the eastbound journeys carried few passengers. By mid-October, bookings had fallen sharply as the threat from German U-boats became increasingly serious, and White Star Line decided to withdraw Olympic from commercial service. On 21 October 1914, she left New York for Glasgow on her last commercial voyage of the war, though carrying only 153 passengers.
On the sixth day of her voyage, 27 October, as Olympic passed near Lough Swilly off the north coast of Ireland, she received distress signals from the battleship HMS Audacious, which had struck a mine off Tory Island and was taking on water.
Olympic took off 250 of Audacious's crew, then the destroyer HMS Fury managed to attach a tow cable between Audacious and Olympic and they headed west for Lough Swilly. However, the cable parted after Audacious's steering gear failed. A second attempt was made to tow the warship, but the cable became tangled in HMS Liverpool's propellers and was severed. A third attempt was tried but also failed when the cable gave way. By 17:00 the Audacious's quarterdeck was awash and it was decided to evacuate the remaining crew members to Olympic and Liverpool, and at 20:55 there was an explosion aboard the Audacious and she sank.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander of the Home Fleet, was anxious to suppress the news of the sinking of Audacious, for fear of the demoralising effect it could have on the British public, so ordered Olympic to be held in custody at Lough Swilly. No communications were permitted and passengers were not allowed to leave the ship. The only people departing her were the crew of Audacious and Chief Surgeon John Beaumont, who was transferring to RMS Celtic. Steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab, who was travelling aboard the liner, sent word to Jellicoe that he had urgent business in London with the Admiralty, and Jellicoe agreed to release Schwab if he remained silent about the fate of Audacious. Finally, on 2 November, Olympic was allowed to go to Belfast where the passengers disembarked.
Following Olympic's return to Britain, the White Star Line intended to lay her up in Belfast until the war was over, but in May 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty, to be used as a troop transport, along with the Cunard liners Mauretania and Aquitania. The Admiralty had initially been reluctant to use large ocean liners as troop transports because of their vulnerability to enemy attack, but a shortage of ships gave them little choice. At the same time, Olympic's other sister ship RMS Britannic, which had not yet been completed, was requisitioned as a hospital ship. In that role, she would strike a mine and sink the following year.
Stripped of her peacetime fittings, and armed with 12-pounders and 4.7-inch guns, Olympic was converted to a troopship, with the capacity to transport up to 6,000 troops. On 24 September 1915 the newly designated HMT (Hired Military Transport) 2810, now under the command of Bertram Fox Hayes left Liverpool carrying 6,000 soldiers to Mudros, Greece for the Gallipoli Campaign. On October 1st she sighted lifeboats from the French ship Provincia which had been sunk by a U-boat that morning off Cape Matapan and picked up 34 survivors. Hayes was heavily criticised for this action by the British Admiralty, who accused him of putting the ship in danger by stopping it in waters where enemy U-boats were active. The ship's speed was considered to be its best defence against U-boat attack, and such a large ship stopped would have made an unmissable target. However, the French Vice-Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet took a different view and awarded Hayes with the Gold Medal of Honour.
Olympic made several more trooping journeys to the Mediterranean until early 1916, when the Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned.
In 1916, considerations were made to use Olympic to transport troops to India via the Cape of Good Hope. However, on an investigation, it turned out she was unsuitable for this role, because her coal bunkers, which had been designed for transatlantic runs, lacked the capacity for such a long journey at a reasonable speed. Instead, from 1916 to 1917, Olympic was chartered by the Canadian Government to transport troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain.
In 1917 she gained 6-inch guns and was painted with a "dazzle" camouflage scheme to make it more difficult for observers to estimate her speed and heading. Her dazzle colours were brown, dark blue, light blue, and white. Her many visits to Halifax Harbour carrying Canadian troops safely overseas, and back home after the war at Pier 2, made her a favourite symbol in the City of Halifax. Noted Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer made several paintings of her in Halifax. A large dance hall, "Olympic Gardens" was also named in her honour. After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, HMT Olympic also transported thousands of U.S. troops to Britain.
In the early hours of 12 May 1918, while en route for France with US troops under the command of Captain Hayes, Olympic sighted a surfaced U-boat 500 m (1,600 ft) ahead. Her gunners opened fire at once, and she turned to ram the submarine, which immediately crash-dived to 30 m (98 ft) and turned to a parallel course. Almost immediately afterwards Olympic struck the submarine just aft of her conning tower and her port propeller sliced through U-103's pressure hull. The crew of U-103 blew her ballast tanks, scuttled and abandoned the submarine. Olympic did not stop to pick up survivors, but continued on to Cherbourg. Meanwhile, the USS Davis had sighted a distress flare and picked up 31 survivors from U-103. HMT Olympic returned to Southampton with at least two hull plates dented and her prow twisted to one side, but not breached.
It was subsequently discovered that U-103 had been preparing to torpedo Olympic when she was sighted, but the crew were not able to flood the two stern torpedo tubes. For his service, Captain Hayes was awarded the DSO. Some American soldiers on board paid for a plaque to be placed in one of Olympic's lounges to commemorate the event, it read:
|This tablet presented by the 59th Regiment United States Infantry commemorates the sinking of the German submarine U103 by the Olympic on May 12th 1918 in latitude 49 degrees 16 minutes north longitude 4 degrees 51 minutes west on the voyage from New York to Southampton with American troops...|
During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel, burning 347,000 tons of coal and travelling about 184,000 miles. Her impressive World War I service earned her the nickname Old Reliable. Her captain was knighted in 1919 for "valuable services in connection with the transport of troops".
In 1934, the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line at the instigation of the British government, to form Cunard White Star. This merger allowed funds to be granted for the completion of the future RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. When completed, these two new ships would handle Cunard White Star's transatlantic business, and so their fleet of older liners became redundant and were gradually retired.
Olympic was withdrawn from the transatlantic service, and left New York for the last time on April 5th, 1935; returning to Britain to be laid up. Her new owners considered using her for summer cruises for a short while, but this idea was abandoned and she was put up for sale. Among the potential buyers was a syndicate who proposed to turn her into a floating hotel off the south coast of France, but this came to nothing. After being laid up for five months alongside her former rival Mauretania, she was sold to Sir John Jarvis – Member of Parliament for £97,500, to be partially demolished at Jarrow to provide work for the depressed region.
Her superstructure was demolished in 1936, and in 1937, Olympic's hull was towed to Inverkeithing to T.W. Ward's yard for final demolition.
By the time of her retirement, Olympic had completed 257 round trips across the Atlantic, transporting 430,000 passengers on her commercial voyages, travelling 1.8 million miles.
Olympic's fittings were auctioned off immediately before she was scrapped; some of her fittings, namely those of the first-class lounge and part of the aft grand staircase, can be found in the White Swan Hotel, in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The rest of her fittings found homes in scattered places throughout Great Britain.
In 2000, Celebrity Cruises purchased some of Olympic's original wooden panels and created the RMS Olympic restaurant on board their newest cruise ship at the time, Millennium. According to Celebrity Cruise Line, this wood panelling once lined Olympic's à la carte restaurant.
The clock depicting "Honour and Glory Crowning Time" from Olympic's grand staircase is on display at Southampton's SeaCity Museum.
Official number and code letters
Official Numbers were a forerunner to IMO Numbers.
Olympic had the UK Official Number 131345 and used the code letters HSRP.
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