The Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, had two sister ships almost identical in size and luxury: the Olympic and the Britannic. The White Star Line hoped to conquer its rivals in the booming transatlantic passenger trade with this state-of-the-art trio.
All three were built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast, but the stories of the Olympic and Britannic were overshadowed by their middle sister’s legend. Here’s what happened to the Titanic’s two less-famous siblings.
The RMS Olympic: The White Star Line's "Old Reliable"
The RMS Olympic launched on October 20, 1910, and was the oldest of the three ships. Like the Titanic, it held a contract with the British government to carry mail (“RMS” stands for royal mail ship), and it would follow the same route from Southampton, UK, to Cherbourg, France; Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland; and New York City. The Olympic could carry more than 2300 passengers at the very height of luxury. Its first voyage took place on June 14, 1911, without incident.
The Titanic’s shocking sinking on April 15, 1912, suggested that the Olympic could suffer the same fate. White Star executives brought the ship back to the yard for extensive safety modifications, including raising the height of the watertight compartments and adding more lifeboats. The Olympic resumed transatlantic service a year after the Titanic disaster.
During the First World War, the refurbished Olympic served as a British troop transport vessel, earning the nickname “Old Reliable,” and even sank a German U-boat off the coast of Cornwall. After the war ended in 1918, the ship went back into service as a luxury passenger liner until the mid-1930s, when greater competition among shipping companies and the economic impact of the Great Depression made it unprofitable. In 1935, the ship was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap.
Some portions were auctioned off before demolition, though. The Olympic’s dining room—featuring beautifully carved wood paneling, mirrors, and skylight ceiling—was purchased by the then-owner of the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, UK, and installed in the inn. Today the room is known as the Olympic Restaurant.
The HMHS Britannic: The Workhorse of World War I
Like its older sisters, the Britannic was built to serve as a transatlantic passenger liner, similar in dimensions and accommodations. White Star modified the Britannic’s architecture extensively to ensure greater safety. The outbreak of World War I intervened, however, and instead of ferrying well-heeled passengers between New York and Europe, the Britannic began service as a floating British military hospital. Starting in 1915, the vessel housed sick and wounded troops as HMHS (his majesty’s hospital ship) Britannic.
Just a year later, after several successful trips between the UK and the Mediterranean, the Britannic struck a German mine in the Aegean Sea on November 21, 1916. The explosion punctured the starboard bow of the ship, allowing water to gush inward, and sank within an hour. Most of the passengers and crew made it safely into the ship’s lifeboats or were picked up by rescuers.
Because of White Star’s safety improvements, only about 30 of the more than 1100 people aboard lost their lives (some deaths occurred when lifeboats were sucked back into the vortex of the ship’s moving propellers). One of the survivors was White Star Line stewardess Violet Jessop, who had survived a collision aboard the Olympic and the sinking of the Titanic.