Whatever Happened to Olympic, Titanic's Sister?
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, a shipwreck. In fact, quite the opposite. When J Bruce Ismay first envisioned a new generation of superliner in the early 1900s, three ships were to transform that dream into reality. Yet, out 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 heavier and stuffed with far more luxurious features. This class ultimately set even higher standards in both luxury and steerage travel. The vessels were also more economic to fuel than their Cunard rivals and sleeker in 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 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.
Olympic's Maiden Voyage
The HMS Hawke Incident - 1st Collison
Five voyages into her career, under the command of Captain E.J. Smith, Olympic suffered a collision with 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 propellors. 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 huge legal bills and a damaged liner that would sit for six weeks in drydock. The collision also delayed 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 virtual 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 from 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. Afterwards she was quickly sent back to the shipyard.
Until her doomed sister perished, Olympic only had the regulation sixteen lifeboats on board. These regulations enacted in the final years of the 19th Century were never amended to support ships more than 10,000 tons.
After both inquiries found this to be a catastrophic failure, the regulations were promptly updated sending Olympic and other large ships back to the shipyard. Less than a month after the disaster, the Olympic was fitted out with 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 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 changes in the wake of the Titanic Disaster. She would now carry sixty-four 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 weight to just over 46,359 tons, heaver than her famous sister by 31 tons. For a few short month's 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. 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 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 entered service 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.
The wreck of U-103 was surveyed for the first time in 2008. The damage caused by Olympic is still visible.
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 disaster.
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 briefly recapture the title of World's Largest Liner. 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. During 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.
For nearly half a century, the 3rd Class steerage trade was the bread and butter of all trans-Atlantic shipping companies. The more one-way passengers they could stuff into these large liners, the bigger the profits. Now the 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 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 worldwide 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 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 still traveling 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 it 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 his 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 scrapped it. 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.