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A Brief History of the Olympic-class Ocean Liners

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With new German and Cunard ocean liners setting Blue Riband records, White Star required a new class of ocean liners to bolster its fleet. These would be the Olympic-class ocean liners that would eclipse all others in terms of size and scale. White Star constructed a triumvirate of Olympic-class ships in Belfast, Ireland from 1908 – 1914.

The first of the Olympic-class liners, which was subsequently White Star's flagship, was RMS Olympic. White Star added the Olympic to its fleet in 1910, and the liner made its maiden voyage in 1911. The ship had a gross tonnage of about 45,000 tons, making it the largest ship constructed when it first sailed.

Of course, that was until its sister-ship the Titanic was ready for transatlantic crossings in 1912. This was a marginally larger ship than the Olympic.[1] The ship had extravagant interior décor, such as the Grand Staircase, which was similar to that of the Olympic. Today Titanic museums include some of the Olympic's interiors. The Titanic's cabin décors ranged from Renaissance to Victorian. The Titanic included the Café Parisien on a sunlit veranda, which was not added to the Olympic until further refitting in 1912.

Most are familiar with demise of theTitanic during its maiden voyage as it has been included in numerous films.[2] Despite its water tight compartments, the Titanic still went down after it struck an iceberg in the Atlantic. The Titanic might have remained afloat had only four of its watertight compartments been flooded, but the loss of the fifth compartment ensured the loss of the ship within a couple of hours. On its decks the crew evacuated only a limited number of those aboard with only a small number of open boats available. The rest were left to swim in icy Atlantic waters before any 'nearby' ocean liners could reach them, and alas they were too late.

Historical debate has remained as to potential factors that lost the ship. Had Ismay urged the captain to set a Blue Riband record? Ismay did concede that he had discussed such things with the captain. Could the Titanic have been constructed more effectively without sub-standard iron rivets? Possibly, and the watertight compartments might have also been raised.

After the demise of the Titanic, White Star delayed construction of the third Olympic-class ocean liner. This third ship was theBritannic, which was not commissioned until 1914.[3] The Britannic was the largest of the Olympic-class ocean liners. It had to accommodate a larger number of open boats, and was further refined before the outbreak of war in 1914. Its maiden voyage was delayed until 1915.

The war ensured the ocean liner was converted to a troop transport ship. It was dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea where it made its first voyage to Mudros in Greece. These Mediterranean trips continued into 1916.

In November 1916, an explosion triggered by an underwater mine shattered the Britanic off the coast of Kea. The Britannic's cargo holds were penetrated, and they soon flooded with sea water as the ship listed to starboard. The closing of watertight doors could not halt the flooding, and the orders were given to abandon ship. The ship's engines shuddered to a halt as the ocean liner was abandoned.

The Britannic
Nearby ships soon began to arrive at the scene. They picked up most of those who had been aboard the Britannic, including the captain. As it had not been a transatlantic voyage there were far fewer aboard the ship than the Titanic. But the ship itself quickly slipped to the bottom of the Mediterranean, the second Olympic-class liner lost at sea.

The loss of two Olympic-class liners had substantial financial repercussions for White Star Line. However, the RMS Olympic remained very much intact even though it too had been a troop transport ship, and thus a potential target for German U-boats. It had even sunk a German U-boat during the war!

In the postwar period White Star refitted and modernized the Olympic. With oil replacing coal,  White Star converted its engine rooms and boilers for oil. The ship was also marginally expanded so that it could accommodate a greater number for its for voyages.

It continued regular crossings until 1934, when White Star merged with Cunard. The economic decline of the period, combined with the losses of former Olympic-class liners, ensured the merger which Cunard dominated. Now more modern ocean liners were required, so the RMS Olympic was laid up in 1935.

Cunard White Star abandoned the first, and subsequently last, Olympic-class ocean liner. Had the others been retained then Olympic-class liners would surely have remained at sea for a little longer, and some may even speculate that the Cunard White Star merger might not have happened. That much is debatable, but few will doubt that the Olympic-class liners were among the grandest ships constructed.

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Bibliography

  1. "RMS Olympic ." Atlantic Liners. 19/06/2015 <Web >
  2. "Titanic ." Atlantic Liners. 19/06/2015 <Web >
  3. "Britannic." Atlantic Liners. 19/06/2015 <Web >

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