The tragedy of the Titanic is well-known today. Thought to be an unsinkable titan, she was destroyed by an iceberg and brought down in the Atlantic Ocean. But what’s less well-known is that the Titanic had a twin sister – the RMS Olympic. The two were even built side by side, but thankfully the Olympic didn’t share its sister’s fate. Let’s take a closer look at the vessel that was, for 20 years, the largest passenger ship in the world.
Design and Construction
In the late 1800s, the shipping company White Star Line was looking to expand its fleet. Its 29 ships were mostly used to transport cargo between the UK and Australia, and profits were booming, especially after gold was found in Australia. But the owners of White Star Line, following an expensive loss of large ships like the Tayleur, were concerned about staying in the public image, and followed shipping trends across the world, like to Canada for the Klondike gold rush.
One of the founders, Henry Wilson, thought that the best way to build up profits was to build bigger and bigger ships, the types that generate press coverage in the newspapers, and attract wealthy clients. The first of this kind were the Oceanic class, which transported passengers across the Atlantic, generally between Liverpool and New York. These ships were often packed with hundreds of European immigrants looking to start a new life in North America, and they brought White Star Line good business for decades.
At the turn of the century however, the company was running into financial trouble again. Some failed cargo routes through the Suez Canal left the company with some debt, and another one of their passenger ships sank near Nova Scotia, killing 535. White Star Line needed something spectacular to bring them back into the competition, and the Olympicclass was born.
The Olympic class was to be three ships: The Titanic, the Britannica, and the Olympic. Yes, Olympic was in the Olympic class… creative. The three ships were similar in design, but the Titanic and the Olympic were almost identical to each other, some estimated that the Olympic was only 3 inches shorter, or just 7 centimeters.
The Olympic was built in Belfast by the construction company Harland and Wolff, who put their best designers in charge of the project. In 1908 managers at White Star Lines approved the designs, and it was decided that the Olympic would begin construction a few months ahead of the Titanic to not overwhelm the shipbuilders. 2 years later in 1910 the Olympic was finished, and the footage of her being launched into the Atlantic survives to this day. After the ceremonial launch, the ship was pulled back onto shore for the hull to be painted solid black.
The length of the Olympic was 882 feet, or 269 meters. It pushed through the water with three large bronze propellers at the back of the ship: two of them had three blades, and the central, four- bladed propeller was powered by a new steam engine. To power the engines on these propellers, the ship burned through 650 tons of coal every single day, the smoke from this was then vented through the four large smokestacks. The whole ship weighed over 52,000 tons and had 9 separate decks, one for the crew and 8 for passengers.
The passenger decks were divided into first, second, and third class. A traveler staying in the third class would sleep in a large room shared with up to 10 other people, and have access to a smoking area, dining room, and a common lounge. The second class was accommodated in private cabins and shared a library and a lavish dining hall with other members on the same deck. Members of the second class could also travel between the decks using an elevator, something unavailable to the third class.
But the real attraction, of course, was the first class. Passengers with a first-class ticket were given private, expensive rooms to stay in, many of which even had private bathrooms. Three separate elevators took the guests between their rooms, several restaurants, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a sauna, a café decorated with real palm trees, and the elaborately carved Grand Staircase. It was all you dream of on the newest, fanciest superliner.
The Olympic’s career began with its maiden voyage on June 14, 1911, sailing from Southampton to New York in just 7 days. Just as the company was hoping, this journey was announced in newspapers all over Europe and North America, and more than 10,000 people came to the shore to watch the departure for the return trip.
With the maiden voyage being a huge, public success, she began regularly taking passengers back and forth between the continents without any problems. Well, there were no problems for about three months.
In September of 1911, the Olympic crashed into the HMS Hawke, a British warship. The Olympic was fortunate to have no major damage or injuries, especially considering the fact that the Hawke had been designed to ram into other warships. The Hawke was severely damaged, though, and the trial pronounced the Olympic responsible for the crash and the subsequent repairs for the Hawke. It’s not exactly known what caused the crash, but the theory proposed during the trial was that the Olympic displaced an immense amount of water as she moved near the Hawke, which disturbed her course and pulled her into the Olympic. The Hawke was eventually repaired and returned to duty. It was eventually sunk in WWI by a German submarine.
Being rammed by a warship and emerging with easily repairable damage strengthened the opinion that the Olympic and the Titanic were unsinkable, which was unfortunately proven to be completely wrong when the Titanic sank the following year.
When the Titanic sank, the Olympic was trailing behind at a distance of about 120 miles, or 190 kilometers. After the rescue missions were finished picking up the survivors, the Olympic offered to help transport them back to shore, but the other ships decided it would be best if the survivors didn’t get plucked out of the water just to be traumatized again by boarding an identical version of the ship that had just sunk. Learning from the loss of the Titanic, the Olympic increased its number of lifeboats and tested its watertight compartments. The Olympic was also used by crash investigators to determine how quickly the Titanic would have turned and where it likely struck the iceberg.
There are also several modern-day conspiracy theories about the sinking of the Titanic, such as a mummy’s curse and attempted murder, but one of the theories actually involves the Olympic.
Conspiracy theorists claim that the Olympic and Titanic were swapped prior to the trip, and the Olympic was actually the one that went down that day, intentionally for that matter, because it was too
damaged from its earlier collision with the Hawke to continue service. Staging a destruction by an iceberg would at least grant the company some insurance money. It’s interesting for sure but there’s really not much to back it up.
Soon after the sinking of the Titanic, just before departing from Southampton, almost 300 of the Olympic’s workers went on strike out of fear that the new lifeboats, added in the wake of the Titanic disaster, weren’t seaworthy and couldn’t be trusted to save the crew. An inspection of the lifeboats showed that many were rotten and couldn’t even be opened, though executives at White Star Line claimed that they had been passed by the Board of Trade inspector, who found no issues with them. The company refused to comply with the workers’ demands of new wooden lifeboats. Following this, more than 50 of the workers quit and returned to shore, where they were apprehended and charged with mutiny. Fortunately, they were all released without even a fine, and were allowed to return to work, likely out of fear of that the public would take their side if the scandal got to the press.
In autumn of 1912, about 6 months after the sinking of the Titanic, White Star Line pulled the Olympic out of the water and made some improvements. They added 48 lifeboats (that were actually inspected this time), added more watertight compartments in the hull, and strengthened the entire front of the ship so that it could survive an impact similar to what sank the Titanic. At the same time, more cabins and a new restaurant were added, and when the renovations were completed the Olympic was now more than a hundred tons heavier than the Titanic was.
Once she was placed back in the water, the Olympic resumed her trips as normal for the next year or so until the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.
During the war, many civilian ships were adapted for wartime use, such as the other remaining Olympic class vessel, the Britannica, who had been converted into a hospital ship, but the Olympic remained a commercial ship, mainly transporting Americans that were eager to get out of a Europe suddenly at war. But as the threat of German U-boats increased, fewer and fewer people were buying tickets to cross the ocean, and White Star Line decided to pull the Olympic from the commercial scene. During its last trip with passengers, it received a distress call from the HMS Audacious, who had hit a mine and were starting to sink. The Olympic and another vessel, the HMS Liverpool, were able to evacuate all of the sailors once it was determined that the ship could not be saved.
After the rescue, White Star Line decided they didn’t want to risk losing the Olympic, so they announced their intentions to keep it grounded until the end of the war. The next year, however, she was commandeered by the Royal Navy, who converted her into a troopship. Stripping the deck, they lined the Olympic with guns for self-defense, reinforced the hull, and made room for up to 6000 soldiers on the ship. Throughout the war her consistency earned her the nickname OldReliable.
While on a routine transport voyage to Greece, the Olympic spotted lifeboats and stopped to pick up the survivors. The lifeboats were from Provincia, a French ship that had just been sunk by U boats. The captain of the Olympic was criticized in England for his actions to save the French sailors, as the Olympic stopped in the water was a sitting duck for U boats. The French Vice-Admiral, on the other hand, was grateful for the rescue and awarded the captain with a medal of honor.
Nearing the end of the war, in 1918 the Olympic was transporting American troops to the coast of France when it spotted a U boat close by. The gunners immediately trained their weapons on it, and
the Olympic turned and rammed the U boat, causing the German submarine crew to abandon ship. The Olympic didn’t stick around to pick up any survivors and continued on with its journey. Later it was revealed that the U boat was preparing to torpedo the Olympic and was interrupted when it was spotted.
By the time the war was over, the Olympic had burned through almost 350,000 tons of coal and carried over 200,000 men in the service of her country.
After the war, she was given back to her owners who remodeled her once again for civilian use. Engine technology had improved significantly during World War 1, and the Olympic swapped out its old coal burning rooms for oil burning ones. These not only had the benefit of improved fuel efficiency, but they also reduced the number of engine crew from 350 to 60 and made the refueling process a matter of hours instead of a matter of days. During renovations, a suspicious dent was found on the hull of the boat, which Historian Mark Chirnside deduced was an impact from a torpedo that failed to detonate, likely launched from U boat U-53, which spent a lot of time in the English Channel in 1918.
The Olympic returned to transporting passengers across the Atlantic, and in 1925 a dance floor was added for first class passengers, and with this and other luxuries the ship even hosted some famous figures such as Charlie Chaplain, Marie Curie, and the British Royal Family. Throughout the 1920s, the Olympic was carrying tens of thousands of passengers per year. But that all started going downhill in the 1930s.
The End of an Era
The Great Depression dealt heavy blows to the Olympic. With money scarce, fewer people were traveling, and those who continued to travel preferred faster, newer ships that were built after World War 1. With numbers declining every year, the Olympic continued to sail its routes, reaching an all-time low in 1934 when the total number of passengers for the whole year was a little more than 9000. The list of reasons to retire the Olympic was growing longer with every money-losing voyage.
The final straw was when the Olympic collided with another ship. It wasn’t a warship this time though, it was a much smaller lightship – a boat that was used to guide larger ships into harbor. Coming into New York in thick fog, the Olympic was trying to follow a radio beacon when it turned at the wrong time, plowing straight into Nantucket Lightship LV-117. The Olympic tore straight through the smaller craft and cut it nearly in half, sinking it almost immediately. Seven men were killed in the accident, and 4 more were injured. The Olympic was pulled from the water the following spring.
She was sold to a member of parliament for £97,000 pounds, which would be about 7 million in today’s money. Dismantling and scrapping took nearly two years, and today all that remains of the ship is some furniture and wood panels that have been installed on newer cruise liners in memory of the Olympic. By the end of her career, she had crossed the Atlantic 514 times, carried more than 400,000 passengers, and sailed almost 2 million miles.