Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.
The Older Sister
She had many nicknames: Old Reliable, Titanic's Sister, The Lead Ship of the Class. But the one thing the RMS Olympic never was, was a shipwreck. In fact, quite the opposite.
When J Bruce Ismay first envisioned a new generation of superliners in the early 1900s, three ships were to transform that dream into reality. Yet, of the three, only one, the Olympic herself would achieve that dream. For three decades, she carried it, achieving milestone after milestone until retirement.
RMS Olympic rose, deck by deck, rivet by rivet, from the keel up in Belfast, Ireland. Built by Harland & Wolff from 1908 to 1910, the Olympic was the World's Largest Liner when she was launched.
The lead ship in a trio of superliners intended to crush rival Cunard in the trans-Atlantic shipping market. Lusitania and Mauritania, the fastest liners on the ocean, had set a new standard for luxury travel. A standard that White Star was determined to pass. So Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic would be nearly 100 feet longer, 10,000 tonnes bigger and stuffed with even more luxurious features. This class ultimately set even higher standards in both luxury and steerage travel. The vessels were also more economical to fuel than their Cunard rivals and sleeker appearance.
Her younger sister's maiden voyage would be forever immortalized in tragedy and death, Olympic's came and went without incident or historical value. While garnishing fanfare for the times and even world headlines in 1911, the voyage would set the stage for Olympic's very normal career. Her first year in service generated changes to the remaining ships of the class, Titanic and Gigantic. The B-Deck promenade decks, for example, were replaced with additional cabins on the younger sisters. When she arrived in New York City, she was opened to the public, and more than 8,000 visitors explored her lavish accommodations.
The HMS Hawke Incident - 1st Collison
Five voyages into her career, under the command of Captain E.J. Smith, Olympic suffered a collision with the British naval cruiser HMS Hawke, the worst in the ship's entire life. Running parallel in the Solent Straight, the HMS Hawke suddenly veered into the side of Olympic, sucked in by the ship's huge propellers. The damage left the Hawke's bow completely crushed, and two of Olympic's compartments flooded.
In the wake of a government investigation, the Olympic was blamed for the collision, sighting that its enormous displacement caused the smaller Hawke to be sucked into its side. The legal battles that would ensue in the coming months left White Star with huge legal bills and a damaged liner that would sit for six weeks in drydock. The collision also delayed the Titanic's completion as parts were cannibalized from her to repair Olympic. In an attempt to regain public confidence, White Star used the collision as proof of the Olympic Class's watertight compartment design and unsinkability.
That infamous night, April 14, 1912, Olympic was on a return voyage from New York when she received a distress call from her sister. Olympic turned around and drove full speed towards her. 500 miles away, the Olympic would not arrive at the disaster site until sometime the following night. In the morning hours, the rescue attempt was aborted. RMS Carpathia successfully rescued all survivors two hours after Titanic sank and her captain feared that the sight of a near clone of Titanic would be a bit too traumatic for the survivors.
In the weeks following the disaster, Olympic found herself at the center of government investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. Agents combed the ship, inside and out, inspecting lifeboats, watertight doors, emergency systems. The British Government rigorously tested her turning radius at various speeds attempting to duplicate the conditions in which Titanic hit the iceberg.
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Until her doomed sister perished, The 46,000 ton Olympic only had the regulation sixteen lifeboats on board. Four more collapsable ones were added bringing the total to twenty for 1,100 people barely covering half of Olympic's 2,400 maximum capacity for passengers and crew. These outdated regulations, enacted in the final years of the 19th Century, were never amended to support ships larger than 10,000 tonnes.
After both inquiries found this to be a catastrophic failure, the regulations were promptly updated sending Olympic all other large ships back to the shipyard. Less than a month after the disaster, the Olympic was fitted out with a quick fix of used collapsable boats taken from various vessels in order to make her in compliant with the new regulations. The problem is these boats were far from adequate. Many were old, rotten and unusable. This prompted outrage amongst workers and sailors and lead to a mutiny of sorts. 54 sailors were arrested, charged and later released.
Pulled from service and returned to the shipyard in October 1912, Olympic began her first major refit to implement major changes in the wake of the Titanic Disaster. She would now carry sixty-eight boats, up from twenty. The watertight bulkheads were extended from their original height at E-Deck to B-Deck. Finally an inner skin, a double hull of sorts, was installed around the entire ship, a feature originally considered too costly during the ship's original construction. A double hull would have saved the Titanic from sinking.
In addition to safety features, Olympic's redundant B-Deck Promenade was filled in with parlor sweet cabins and a Cafe Parisian nearly identical to the one lost on Titanic. Ultimately all these changes increased Olympic's girth to just over 46,359 tons, larger than her famous sister by 31 tons. For a few short months, Olympic regained the title of World's Largest Liner. The "new" Olympic rejoined White Star's fleet in March 1913.
World War I
1914 brought the world to war in one of the most inhuman conflicts in recorded history. While most ships of her size and stature were pressed into the military as troop transports, Olympic originally remained in commercial service. Painted a dark grey, her portholes sealed and exterior lights removed to minimize her appearance. For her first voyages after war broke out, she was filled with Americans fleeing Europe as the continent descended into chaos. Passenger service to and from Europe would soon all but vanish as the german U-Boat threat rose in the shipping lanes.
On her final voyage before being withdrawn, while carrying less than 200 passengers, Olympic would come to the rescue of British battleship HMS Audacious. Distress calls from the sinking ship hit the airwaves after the battleship hit a mine. Olympic responded and pulled 200 of the Audacious' crew from lifeboats. Destroyer HMS Fury attempted to tow the Audacious several times but failed. After the remainder of the crew abandoned ship, the vessel sank. When the Olympic arrived in Belfast with survivors aboard, she was not allowed to leave as the British Admiralty attempted to suppress the news of the Audacious' sinking. After more than a week, the passengers were finally allowed to leave and the Olympic was officially laid up.
In May 1915, the Olympic was summoned by the British Navy to join the ever-growing troop transport fleet. Alongside fellow four funnel liners Mauritania and Aquatania she was stripped of her lavish fittings and armed with several 4.7-inch guns. Designated 'HMT 2810', she could now carry 6,000 troops at a time and began duties in September 1915.
Her first voyage as a transport began on Sept. 24, 1915, carrying 6,000 troops to Greece for the Gallipoli Campaign. Less than two weeks later Olympic would rescue survivors from the foundered French vessel Provincia which had been sunk by a U-Boat. Olympic would make several voyages across the Mediterranean until the Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned.
From 1916 to 1917, Olympic would cross the U-Boat poisoned North Atlantic carrying troops from Canada to the European Theater. In an attempt to protect her from patrols, she was painted in dazzle camouflage. These brightly colored swirls and shapes make it difficult for U-Boats to determine her speed, direction and even size. All troop ships gained these flamboyant paint schemes, a common practice during the first world war.
Her frequent visits to Canada made her a favorite symbol of Halifax and the ship even earned a building named after her, The Olympic Gardens. When the United States finally enter the war in 1917, Olympic began transporting American troops to war.
Normally playing the role of peaceful troopship, the HMT Olympic turned the tables to aggressive warship on one unfortunate U-Boat.
In May 1918, Olympic's commanding officer spotted a U-Boat surfacing and immediately opened fire with her six-inch guns and turned the liner to ram the german boat. U-103 did an emergency crash dive and resurfaced parallel to Olympic. The liner turned and rammed the U-Boat just aft of its conning tower, the ramming shoved the boat into the path of Olympic's port propellor which sliced into it, breaching the hull. The boat was abandoned and sculled but Olympic did not pick up its survivors, instead continuing on its way.
It was later discovered that U-103 was preparing to torpedo Olympic when it was spotted but due to mechanical problems was not able to flood its torpedo tubes saving the liner from certain disaster and a fate that claimed RMS Lusitania three years earlier.
Ninety years later, in 2008, the wreck of U-103 was surveyed for the first time. The damage caused by Olympic is still visible.
By war's end, Olympic had gained her famous nickname, "Old Reliable". In total the transported over 200,000 troops over 184,000 miles. She burned 300,000 tons of coal during those voyages and her commanding officer, Bertram Fox Hayes was knighted by King George V for his services. In 1919, Olympic was returned to Belfast for conversion back to civilian service.
Her restoration refit would include some major improvements. Her wooden interiors were modernized with a new color theme. Her boilers were converted to burn oil instead of coal, improving refueling time and carbon emissions. It also reduced the number of boiler crew from 350 to just 60. This refit increased her gross tonnage a bit and allowed Olympic to very briefly recapture the title of World's Largest Liner once again. Olympic would reenter civilian service in 1920.
The 1920s were Olympic's golden years and would clock over 38,000 passengers in 1921, the peak of her career. During that time she would enter express service alongside several german liners awarded to Britain after the war. Throughout the decade, she would attract the rich and famous, names like Charlie Chaplin and the British Royal Family. Olympic's nearly identical appearance to Titanic allowed the ship to bank on her famous sister, a trend that would continue until the end of her career.
In 1924, Olympic would suffer her third collision of her career. While reversing out of her berth in New York harbor, Olympic would collide with smaller vessel Fort St. George. The collision sent both ships to dry dock with sever damage. Olympic's entire stern frame had to be replaced.
True to her nickname, 'Old Reliable' returned to service after repairs, better than ever.
The Immigration Act of 1924 would have resounding effects in the shipping trade that would set the stage for the downfall of RMS Olympic and her fleet mates.
1st Class travel, while lucrative, was not the primary source of profit for passenger lines. For nearly half a century, the 3rd Class steerage trade was the bread and butter of all trans-Atlantic shipping companies. Unlike upper classes, expenses, expendables and maintenance costs for 3rd-Class travel were extremely low, and tickets were near total profit. The more one-way passengers they could stuff into these large liners, the bigger the profits per voyage and better the bottom line. Now the 1924 Immigration Act greatly restricted the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States annually by over 80%. Strict quotas were established per country and shipping companies were left to rethink their business models in order to survive.
The only answer was a complete refocus on tourism. This 4th Tourist Class would be added to all vessels and would eventually replace 2nd and 3rd Class entirely by the 1930s. All liners, including Olympic, were sent back to the shipyard for additional public rooms and accommodations to suit this new purpose. In addition, Olympic's 1st Class areas were updated again with private bathrooms, an enlarged Dining Saloon, a dance floor and additional B-Deck cabins.
Life aboard Olympic in the 1920s
The Great Depression
The fallout of the Great Depression had its effects in nearly every industry worldwide. The shipping trade all but dried up. A stable one million travelers and tourists a year predating the depression now dropped to barely 500,000. Newer super liners such as the SS Bremen, SS Europa were winning favor with passengers that could still afford to travel leaving aging Olympic and her running mates with fewer passengers still. Olympic's official running mate, RMS Homeric was permanently pulled from service in 1932, a combination of aging infrastructure and loss of market.
Olympic was sent back to the shipyard one last time in an attempt to keep the ship profitable. In a four-month refit, the vessel was cleaned and repainted inside and out. Facilities were modernized further and when the refit was complete, Olympic was hailed as "Just Like New". Her engines set a new speed record for the ship at 23 knots. Unfortunately it did little to improve Olympic's profits and for the 1933-34 fiscal year, Olympic ran a loss for the very first time.
1934 saw Olympic striking a fourth vessel. While on approach to New York harbor, heavy fog caused Olympic to collide with lightship Nantucket. The collision cut the lightship clean in two and nearly all of its crew perished either in the sinking or as the result of injuries. This was the final time Olympic would collide with a ship and would mark one of its final milestones before retirement.
In order to survive the Depression Era, the British government forced the White Star Line to merge with longtime rival Cunard in 1934. It was a move to save both companies from financial ruin now that passenger service had all but disappeared. On the positive upswing, it secured government financing for the completion of RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. These two new super liners would be the cornerstone of Cunard White Star's express service for the next 30 years. The downside is that the merger left this new Cunard White Star with a fleet of aging surplus liners the oldest of those being Mauritania and Olympic. Despite their historical significance, there was little hope for a future with these two once majestic liners.
Mauritania, which had to be converted into a cruise ship at the start of the decade was pulled from service first in 1934. Olympic was pulled one year later in 1935 and sold. Her new owners briefly considered converting her into a summer cruise ship but the lasting effects of the Depression rendered this plan infeasible and she was placed up for sale again. Potential buyers included those who considered converting her into a floating hotel much like the RMS Queen Mary would become forty years later. These plans also went nowhere. The Olympic would spend the last five months of her existence berthed alongside longtime rival Mauritania who's fate remained equally as bleak.
Finally in an attempt to generate some much needed short term work, Olympic was purchased by Sir John Jarvis, a member of Parliament, for the sole purpose of scrapping. In 1936, she set sail one last time to Jarrow with huge fanfare. Upon arrival, Olympic's engines powered down for the last time and the scrapping process began. It would take a year to completely breakup the hull, ending the career of one of the most revered four-funneled liners ever.
© 2016 Jason Ponic
Boat on August 15, 2020:
It would be nice if we got a remake lik titanic 2 britannic 2 and Olympic 2
Philip on July 12, 2020:
Olympic would have served well during WWII, as a troop and armed Auxiliary Merchant Ship. A few more years in service, the British Government of the day would have spared her and Mauretania for wartime service.
Especially the Mauretania, she would have been a fast oil-fired troopship, having formerly held the Blue Riband Of The Atlantic, which is the trophy only held by the fastest Passenger ships on the Atlantic Crossing. Close to 30kts would have been attainable for Mauretania, lightened for war duty, coupled with zig-zagging, to make her a near-impossible target for U-Boats.
Olympic on the other hand at 24-25kts, would have been more vulnerable, due to being naturally slower of the two ships. However, her increased weight over Mauretania, some 20,000 gross tonnes heavier, well over 100 feet longer, and safer in the event of a collision due to better watertight integrity, and a double bottom-double sides, added in the wake of the Titanic disaster.
Both ships would have come out of WWII successful, alive, while most likely shortening the conflict world-wide, perhaps as much as a year. The pair would have doubled the number of troops which could be transported then deployed in any active theater of war globally.
The Great Depression shortened the life of many pre-WWII liners globally, even stalling the building of new liners to replace the aging fleet. It was also responsible in no small part for WWII itself, as for a matter of survival economically, nations such as Japan, Germany, and Italy needed to secure oil and other necessities to allow them to continue to survive and grow, while remaining protected from invasions from other more financially secure nations nearby.
The loss of SS Normandy, due to fire and sinking pierside NYC harbor in 1942, reduced the number of available large fast troopships available, lengthening the war, which is where Olympic and Mauretania would have fit in perfectly, with Ile De France, Aquitania, Queen Mary and the then new Queen Elizabeth.
Each troop ship could have carried anywhere from 10,000-17,000 troops per ship per trip, to anywhere on the globe, at speeds anywhere between 24kts and 33kts. The latter was as fast as the then current American Essex Class Fast Attack Aircraft Carriers, as well as the later in the war Midway Class carriers.
ADAM on June 20, 2020:
I think is a big mistake for them to scrapped the Olymipc.You see if she can rammed a U Boat,it would be prefect for the navy to use her during WW2 if she was not scrapped .And if she did not sank in WW2 she would around 109 yaers old! Plus she would be a very old realible ship if they did noy scarped her
ADAM on June 20, 2020:
I think they should not scrapped the Olymipc .You see, the Olymipc have been sailing the sea for 3 decades.and it is for them to use in World war 2 if they did'nt scrapped her . what i mean is that if the Olymipc rammed an u boat .Plus if she would be 109 years old by now! So it is very big mistake for the White Star Line to scrapped the Olymipc!
Mike on June 02, 2020:
I remember going to The Titanic bar /restaurant in Cobh Ireland which was the White Star Line office back in the day. It seems that the owner purchased some of the Oak panels and bathroom fittings from the Olympic to feature in the bar.
z on May 16, 2020:
she gave work for unemployment.
Kenny on April 13, 2020:
This piece of history should have been saved :( It was the last piece of the great Olympic Class liners.
Chris r on February 17, 2020:
I am lucky enough to have inherited a letter with Olympic headed notepaper supposedly written by a relative onboard would have liked to have traced him and maybe given the letter to a museum but I can’t find one
Warren G Wonka on January 28, 2020:
A nurse survived both the Titanic and Britannic sinkings.
TINK1918 on January 13, 2020:
My uncle was a Private in the army heading to war in France and was on the Olympic when it rammed the German U-boat. Sadly, that was probably the first and last time he ever traveled on a ship alive...he died in France four months later trying to rescue troops who had been cutoff from their platoon. He had made the rank of Cpl.
Mike on December 29, 2019:
Davis on December 08, 2019:
I can’t believe the old reliable was scrapped and I’m very disappointed in those who have scrapped it.I really wanted to go on it if the Titanic and Britannic are gone and people really wanted to sail on them they could just sail on the old reliable it’s so stupid to scrap such a famous piece of steel they have made a wrong choice
Davis on December 08, 2019:
I wish I could have been on the Olympic Titanic and the Britannic all those ship’s are stuck in my head
Elsa loves history on December 04, 2019:
I’m a fan of all the ships that white star line made
Mario dab on November 06, 2019:
love it helped
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on June 15, 2019:
To Tommy: I agree with you Tommy. The Olympic was one of 4 troop transport vessels to ram and sink U-Boats (WWI and WWII together) All in all 63 known U-Boats were rammed and sunk by allied warships, mostly American and British ships.
Tommy on June 13, 2019:
I think that the RMS Olympic and during the war years of (WWI HMT Olympic ) should not have been scrapped! I think they made a big mistake. After all you are talking about Titanic's identical sister and they were bout side by side at Harland and Wolff . They have long history and I think The Olympic is really a time piece. Even the most famous and richest people in the day sailed on her. Why would you want to get rid of something that really had a very fine reputation? We will never know the answer.
The other thing is that it sunk a German UBoat .what ships do you know of that ever sunk an enemy UBoat? Hmmmm...I don’t know any, except the HMT Olympic.
Peter Wonker on May 07, 2019:
I was pleased that the Olympic was scrapped. Rip it to pieces with cutting torches and melt down the scrap.
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on April 03, 2019:
To Jeff: It was Olympic, not Olympia. To us it was piece of history with an interesting military career, but to the owners in 1937 when it was scrapped, it wasn't considered a "piece of history." It was nothing more than a tired worn out ship that had lived it's life span and was costing too much money to operate. Same fate as all the US WWII battleships.
chris fenn on March 31, 2019:
That's tragic would they
Jeff Frazier on March 19, 2019:
Why would you scrap a piece of military and world history just for money that's just stupid I am very disappointed the Olympia was a amazing piece of history
Alliedterrytory on December 28, 2018:
I want RMS Olympic to be alive she's great like the RMS Titanic
oof on November 27, 2018:
no comments. yeet
Anonymous on October 25, 2018:
The Olympic lived a happy sailing life, besides the collisions
Yago on September 22, 2018:
So sad... She didn't sank at least
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on June 12, 2018:
That myth (which originally began in late 1912) was finally debunked and put to rest when Dr. Bob Ballard found the wreck site in 1985. Oly and Titanic were in fact twins, but not identical twins. Despite the fact that the Titanic's hull number (401) was discovered at the wreck site on the engine mounts, the engines themselves, the propellers, and the fresh water tanks, the "B" deck configuration on the two ships were completely different. Additional staterooms rooms were added to Titanic, and Titanic's promenade deck was enclosed with glass; Oly was not. Ballard confirmed all of this when he discovered the wreck site.
Duncan Garrah on May 28, 2018:
Too many people refuse to objectively look at all the coincidences surrounding the Olympic and Titanic. IF the Olympic would have been saved they may have found some real evidence that could have proved that the twins had been switched.
Ethan Singleton on April 22, 2018:
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on April 02, 2018:
Gabriel, they did give Olympic some "extensions." She was converted from coal to oil on one of her refit's, but her popularity had begun to die down and she was plagued with multiple electrical fires barely passing her last inspection. She had just gotten old and it was cheaper to scrap her than to modernize her. Unfortunate.
Gabriel buchkowski on April 01, 2018:
Who would dare to scrap the Olympic sister ship of the titanic that set sail in 1912. Why did they not give the Olympic a few more times out in the middle of the ocean
Marielle on March 21, 2018:
I love the titanic and her sisters the Olympic and Brittanic
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on January 10, 2018:
The author refers to the 1924 Immigration Act as well as the onset of the Depression which together really put a hurting on the future of the transatlantic crossing trade. Technology was the third undoing. 1939 brought on Pan Am's Yankee clipper flights from New York to London. Why take 5 days to cross when you could do it in 8 hours? The newly formed TWA and Pan Am airlines took the passenger and mail trade away from the great liners.
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on January 10, 2018:
Randall, there have been several maritime disasters in both peacetime and wartime equal to or greater than Titanic. Southeast Asia 1987, the passenger ferry MV Doña Paz overturned. Over 4,000 people went down with the ship. Close to twice the amount of fatalities on Titanic.
Randall jolley on January 09, 2018:
It's amazing how a hundred+years later people are still fascinated by the Titanic's story...thankfully with technology a disaster like Titanic hasn't happened since
Incognito on December 07, 2017:
Amazing article love the extra details you put in it it just made it better!
SClemmons from the Carolina Coast on November 27, 2017:
Great article, I enjoyed it. I acquired several items from Olympic for my White Star Line collection including floor tiles, silverware from first class as well as the engineer's mess, some woodwork and some dishes.
Dino Thompson on October 06, 2017:
My dad came to America in 1929 on the Olympic. Seeing the Statue of Liberty as they steamed into NY Harbor was he said, "The greatest day of my life."
Elsie on September 29, 2017:
This is crazy!!!
HARRY BUNS on September 17, 2017:
Grandfather Bun's was on the ship as well. He didn't survive but he made it off of the boat, he died in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. we never found his body but it was quite amazing about how he had the experience. His journal is in a museum in New York because somehow it was taken care of and it was not ruined. It was quite the extraordinary though. Great article.
Jarrod on September 16, 2017:
Well at least she didn't sink but i wish thay didn't scrap her
Darwisy on September 07, 2017:
I Wish Olympic Stayed. :(
cao huu khanh on August 26, 2017:
spoiler alert: there is no happy ending
Heather Meserve on July 13, 2017:
Great article I just don't like that the Olympic was scrapped
Johannes Bols on June 23, 2017:
6 days ago
How did the Olympic sink and how did the britannic sink
Olympic never sank but was retired from service. Britannic struck a mine in the Aegean sea and sank in 55 minutes.
Casey on June 19, 2017:
Great Article! I have always been fascinated by The Olympic class ships. I even did my Senior Paper for my History Degree on the 3 ocean liners and argued that they were all built very well contrary to popular belief. The Olympic herself was overwhelming evidence that all the ships were in fact very strong and seaworthy.
Arabella on June 17, 2017:
How did the Olympic sink and how did the britannic sink
Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on May 20, 2017:
Thats amazing! Do you have any photos of your grandfather while onboard the Olympic?
Helen Nelson on May 19, 2017:
Awesome article . Grandfather was on this ship which left Halifax Aug 31 1916 heading to vimy ridge .What a great ship she was.
Robyn on March 10, 2017:
Amazing article! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
Kaili Bisson from Canada on December 09, 2016:
As a student of WWI, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Well done!
Readmikenow on November 25, 2016:
This was great! I really enjoyed reading it. What a career this ship had during the time it was in service. Excellent work.
StormsHalted from Pullman, Washington, United States on November 25, 2016:
Absolutely brilliant. What an Ecstasy to read. I really loved the dazzling war camouflage of Olympic.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on November 24, 2016:
Tremendous article. Learned a lot. Sharing everywhere.