BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
The White Star Line of Boston Packets was a highly prolific and successful shipping and passenger line, but its 89 years in service are usually summed up with the name Titanic. The doomed “Ship of Dreams” has infamously gone down in history, taking her sponsoring line with her. But while she may be the focal point of recognition, what many don’t know was that she had two sister ships. The HMHS Britannic, which I mentioned briefly in my last “A Time to Remember” article, had a short but proud stint serving during World War I before a German mine sent her to the ocean floor. The third sister was the RMS Olympic whose time on the waves included longevity, hard work, and a few wild tales that made her a much storied and beloved vessel of the British Empire.
As suggested by her name, the Olympic was the lead ship for the White Star Lines Olympic-class ocean liners, the elder sister to the two subsequent vessels. She was launched at partial completion on October 20, 1910, and fully completed on May 31, 1911. Her maiden voyage across the Atlantic was on June 14, which she successfully completed with an arrival in New York City on June 21. At the time she was the largest vessel plying the waves and she caused quite a stir upon her arrival in port. The ship was opened in NYC for some 8,000 curious visitors who wanted to see the superliner up close. The press loved Olympic, with many articles written and photos taken as she completed her first stay and turned to go back to Southampton. Given that she was something of a media darling, photos of Olympic’s interior are often swapped in when discussing Titanic, who was not in service long enough to have extensive coverage.
Olympic’s first months were a mixed bag of good and bad as she completed multiple successful crossings but also suffered several incidents. On September 20, 1911 she collided with the RMS Hawke just off the Isle of Wight. The Olympic’s wide turning radius caught the warship cruiser off-guard and accidentally pulled them in by the force of the propellers. The bow of the Hawke was designed to ram ships, resulting in two holes being punched in the larger vessel. The Olympic’s watertight compartments were sealed to prevent sinking, while the Hawke nearly capsized from extensive damage to its bow. Despite the intensity of the collision both vessels made it back to dock and no one was seriously injured or killed. The Olympic went in for eight weeks of repairs, and the first voyage of the Titanic was delayed so that parts of the propeller could be taken for the Olympic. She went back into service but suffered another delay soon after with the loss of a propeller on her way back from New York. Despite these incidents, she continued to complete over-all successful trans-Atlantic voyages, finishing more than ten by the time of Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage.
When World War I broke out she remained in commercial service for a time, but with the sharp fall in Europe-bound ticket purchases she was retired until there was need for her services again. The need came in the form of the British governments requisition for troop transport vessels in 1915. Now armed and carrying some 6,000 troops, she set out for Greece as part of the Gallipoli campaign on September 24, 1915. She continued in this capacity until the end of that campaign, after which she was assigned to ferry troops from Nova Scotia to the European battlefields. In 1917 she gained more onboard weaponry and was painted with dazzle camouflage, a swooping pattern which made it more difficult to estimate a vessel’s heading and speed on the open water. When the United States joined the war that year, she began to transport U.S. troops along with the Canadian ones she was still in regular service for. Some of these American soldiers were witness to the wildest event in the liner-turned-transport’s time at sea.
On May 12, 1918, while traveling to France with a group of U.S. soldiers onboard, Olympic spotted a German U-boat surfaced in the early morning hours. Her gunners opened fire and the submarine crash-dived and moved to a parallel course. When Olympic course-corrected, her port propeller sliced through the U-boats pressurized hull, breaching it and forcing the German crew to abandon the submarine. The ship continued on her course and later returned to Southampton with several dented plates and a twisted prow. It was later discovered that the submarine had been preparing to torpedo the Olympic but did not have time to properly flood the tubes before the vessel engaged. Despite the damages, the ship was not breached by the encounter and she continued to serve in the war effort without delay.
She was restored to civilian service in 1919, following extensive retrofitting and updating. During this process a cracked dent was discovered below the waterline that appeared to have been caused by a dud torpedo strike, a last remnant of her wartime service. She officially began to make passenger crossings again in 1920, carrying thousands of people each year from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Her record stood at 38,000 passengers moved during 1921 as people flooded back across the water in the post-war boom. With the uptick in U.S. immigration laws in the mid-1920s, the ship lost a large and lucrative portion of its clientele. They added a tourist third-class option (the style of traveling onboard without the high cost) to fill the gap, and other retrofits were implemented to improve guest experience. However, the Great Depression hit her shipping business hard and newer ships were emerging to challenge her passenger liner appeal. Despite a major overhaul and update in 1932, the demand for her services continued to decline.
The 1934 merger of the Cunard and White Star lines created the means to launch the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth which would take over the trans-Atlantic route, phasing the older liners into retirement. Olympic left New York for the last time on April 5 1935, heading home to wear she would be dry-docked and placed for sale. She was sold to a member of Parliament who sent her to Jarrow where her scrapping would provide jobs in the work-desperate area. Between there and Inverkeithing, she was completely demolished by 1937.
Despite the inglorious ending to the world’s first superliner, she made her mark across the Atlantic and remains a beloved symbol of the early 20th Century. By the end of her 24 years of service, the Olympic had made 257 trans-Atlantic trips, carried 430,000 passengers, and covered 1.8 million miles. During her time in the war she carried up to 201,000 personnel, and traveled some 184,000 miles to and from their home countries. For this impressive service record, most notably during WWI, she was dubbed ‘Old Reliable’ and remains a beloved symbol of British maritime achievement.