As emigration from Europe to the Unites States increased prior to World War One, White Star laid down the plans for a new class of ocean liners in 1908 that would be unmatched in scale. They were a triumvirate of ocean liners that each eclipsed 45,000 tons. Those ocean liners were the RMS Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, which had extravagant interior designs that few other ships could match.
The RMS Olympic
The RMS Olympic was the first Olympic-class ship built at the Harland and Wolf shipyards in Belfast alongside the Titanic. Construction commenced in December 1908, and it began with the laying of the ship's keel. Once the keel had been laid, the framing of the ocean liner followed.
By October 1910, the Olympic's hull was complete and ready to leave its slipway. After a brief ceremony, the Olympic slipped down the slipway and entered the water. Construction of the ocean liner's upper decks and fitting out commenced.
White Star fitted 16 watertight compartments and 29 boiler rooms to the Olympic. The boiler rooms consisted of 24 double and five single-ended boilers. The double-ended boilers had six furnaces, and the single-ended alternative consisted of three furnaces. The hull included triple-expansion engines that gave the Olympic an average speed of 21 knots.
There were four funnels added to the ocean liner's deck instead of three. Most of the ocean liners of the period had three, but German shipping companies such as Norddeutscher Lloyd added four funnels to some of their liners. White Star included a fourth funnel to add greater symmetry to the Olympic.
The Olympic had a total of nine decks from the Boat Deck to the orlop below the waterline. Several of those were open to the passengers, but White Star reserved the promenade deck for those with first class tickets. The orlop deck included cargo space and the Tank Top filled with engine and boiler rooms.
The Grand Staircase was the central hub of the RMS Olympic that connected a number of decks. The ship's architect designed the Grand Staircase in the William & Mary style. It included the Honor and Glory clock panel by Charles Wilson. The staircase had solid oak banisters, and its bottom posts held spectacular 21 light electroliers. Cut glass bowl beaded chandelier lights hanged from the ceilings above the Grand Staircase around its elevator foyers.Credit: Public Domain
The A Deck housed many of the Olympic's first-class cabins and lounges. It included the first-class lounge decorated in the Louis XV style. As the room housed a bookcase, it also served as a first-class library. A spectacular ormolu oval electrolier, with cut-glass bead dressings and engraved glass panels, hanged from the room's ceiling. The Olympic's shipbuilder said of the lounge: "The walls are covered with finely carved boiseries in which, without interfering with the symmetry of the whole, the fancy of the carver has shown itself in ever-varying detail. At one end is a large fireplace, and at the other a bookcase from which books can be borrowed."
The Verandah Café consisted of two rooms on the A Deck. That was an elegantly furnished café filled with various outdoor plants. It included windows of considerable scale, and the café was
similar in style on both the Olympic and Titanic.
The first-class smoking room was also located on the A Deck. That room had walls panelled with the finest mahogany. It also included large windows of considerable scale with landscapes and ships painted on them.
The Bride Deck was below the A Deck and included the À La Carte Restaurant at the aft end. That restaurant was later extended to the full width of the deck to match the Titanic's configuration in 1913. The architect designed the room in a Louis XVI style. French walnut panelled the room from floor to ceiling, and the restaurant also included leaf and ribbon ornamentation.
On the C Deck there was the second-class library. The second-class passengers didn't have a lounge, but the library was something comparable. It included finely carved sycamore panels, and half-pillars aligned the walls of the library.
On the lower decks were squash courts and a cooling-room. The cooling-room included Victorian Turkish baths. In addition, there was an indoor swimming pool on the G Deck just above the Orlop.
After its sea trials, the RMS Olympic made its maiden voyage on 14 June, 1911. When it departed Southampton for America, it was the largest ocean liner ever built with a tonnage of 45,324 tons. That was almost 50% higher than the Mauretania's 31,938 tonnage figure. The Olympic could transport about 2,764 passengers in total.
In September 1911, the RMS Olympic collided with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke. The Hawke collided with the side of the ocean liner, but both ships were able to return to port. Nevertheless, White Star cancelled the Olympic's transatlantic crossing; and the ocean liner underwent repairs in Belfast. Those repairs ensured the delaying of the Titanic's completion and its maiden voyage.
After the demise of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the Olympic was once again the largest ocean liner afloat. White Star added a full set of lifeboats to the Olympic's decks. White Star installed a total of 64 reliable lifeboats along the ship's Boat Deck.
White Star also gave the Olympic a minor overhaul. That included the raising of bulkheads higher than before. White Star added the Titanic's Café Parisien to the Olympic's B Deck. The B Deck's first-class cabins were also extended to the sides of the ship. The ocean liner returned to transatlantic crossings in March 1913.
In 1914, Britain declared war with the German Empire. The outbreak of war left the Admiralty in need of troop transport ships. As such, the Royal Navy requisitioned the Olympic as a troop transport ship. The Admiralty refitted the ship in Belfast, where they equipped it with a 12-pounder gun and a couple of 4.7-inch guns. A new coating of dazzle paint camouflaged the Olympic from German U-boats.Credit: Public Domain
The Olympic transported thousands of troops to various fronts during the war. However, it did not just transport soldiers. In May 1918, the Olympic sailed into English waters where it met up with four U.S. cruisers. One of the lookouts aboard Olympic spotted a German U-boat in the English Channel. The crew fired a few shots at the U-boat, but they were too close to hit it. As such, the ocean liner rammed and halved the submarine. The U-boat quickly sank, and the Olympic became the first ocean liner to sink a submarine.
The war ended after November 1918. Thereafter, White Star gave the RMS Olympic a postwar refit.Then White Star converted the Olympic to an oil fuelled ship. The refit also expanded the RMS Olympic to 46,439 tons. The ocean liner resumed transatlantic crossings in 1920.
After the war, the Olympic was the sole remaining Olympic-class ship at sea. As such, it had entirely new transatlantic running mates. White Star replaced the Britannic with the RMS Majestic, a former German ocean liner handed to Britain, which was a 56,551-ton vessel. The Columbus was another German ship handed to White Star line that became the Olympic's other running mate. That triumvirate of ocean liners became White Star's three-ship service to the United States.
The Olympic continued its transatlantic voyages into the '30s. By then cracks along the ocean liner's superstructure had emerged. In 1932, White Star gave the Olympic an overhaul that would last for about four months. Then the ship returned to transatlantic voyages.
However, White Star merged with Cunard in 1933. Cunard dominated the merger as it acquired a 62 percent stake in Cunard White Star Line. Then Cunard White Star Line began to modernize its fleet with new ocean liners such as the RMS Queen Mary, so the company scheduled the Olympic for scrapping. The Olympic made its final transatlantic voyage in March 1935, and the ship later sailed to the River Tyne where it was broken up.
Before Cunard White Star scrapped the ocean liner, the company sold many of the ship's interior fittings of interest. Consequently, a variety of its interior fittings remain intact today. For example, its Honor of Glory panel is on display in the SeaCity Museum. Banisters from the Grand Staircase are found in hotels, and its chandeliers were also sold off. Light globe fittings from the Olympic's first-class smoking room went to cinemas and hotels. The electrolier ceiling light fitting from the first-class lounge is found at the Cutler's Hall. They remain the last remnants from the great RMS Olympic.
The RMS Titanic
White Star built the RMS Titanic at about the same time as the Olympic. It was the second Olympic-class ocean liner built, and was slightly larger than the original sister ship when it first sailed. However, the Titanic is perhaps the most famous of the Olympic-class ships largely due to it sinking in the Atlantic during its maiden voyage.
The Titanic had much the same layout and design as its sister ship. As a 46,328-ton ship it eclipsed the Olympic's original tonnage. It could accommodate 2,435 passengers aboard along with additional crew.
One notable new addition to the Titanic, not originally included on the Olympic, was the Café Parisien. This café replaced some of the Olympic's Promenade Deck that was seldom used. White Star added the café to the starboard side of the B Deck, and it connected directly with À la Carte Restaurant. The Shipbuilder magazine stated:
A Café Parisien, which is an entirely new feature on board a ship, has been arranged in connection with the restaurant; and here lunches and dinners can be served under the same excellent conditions and with all the advantages of the restaurant itself... It will be seen that this café has the appearance of a charming sun-lit verandah, tastefully decorated in French trellis-work with ivy and other creeping plants, and is provided with small groups of chairs surrounding convenient tables.
Much the same as the Olympic, the Titanic had a notable shortage of lifeboats. White Star added 14 wooden lifeboats to the ocean liner that could carry about 65 persons each. As such, they could carry about 1,186 persons from the Titanic. That was not nearly a full amount of lifeboats, but still met the Board of Trade's regulations. As the ship housed 16 strong watertight compartments, four of which could be flooded, most doubted the Titanic could sink.
The Titanic began its maiden voyage from Southampton in April 1912 with Mr Smith as captain. The ocean liner made its first port of call at Cherbourg, France to pick up more passengers and cargo. Then it sailed to Cobh in Ireland, where it departed Europe for the United States.
As it sailed to the United States, other ocean liners duly informed Captain Smith of icebergs in the Atlantic. On 14 April haze was setting in, and the weather wasn't ideal for spotting icebergs. Nevertheless, the Titanic maintained speed as it sailed nonchalantly on in the Atlantic.
Some historians have suggested the Titanic maintained speed to go for a Blue Riband transatlantic speed record. However, the Titanic could never have clinched such a record because it did not have the engines. The Mauretania had steam turbine engines that made it a few knots faster than all the Olympic-class ships. Consequently, the RMS Olympic never went close to clinching the Blue Riband on any of its transatlantic crossings.
An iceberg then became visible on the horizon. However, the Titanic approached with little time to turn around it. As the Titanic turned, the iceberg scrapped along the liner's starboard side. It scrapped along 300 feet of the Titanic's hull, tearing a hole in the front of the ship. As a result, water quickly flooded into the front of the ocean liner.
Thereafter, the Titanic's architect Mr Andrews and captain inspected the damage. It became clear that water had flooded five of the ocean liner's watertight compartment. The Titanic could have remained afloat with the loss of four watertight compartments. The loss of the fifth ensured that water flooded the rest of the ocean liner. As such, the ship's architect informed the captain that the ocean liner would sink within a few hours.
The captain gave the orders to abandon ship, and the evacuation began. Captain Smith contacted other ocean liners telling them that the Titanic was going down by the head and required immediate assistance. The SS Californian was the nearest ship to the Titanic, and it was close enough for distress flares from the Titanic to be visible on its decks. However, the ocean liner did not receive the distress signals from the Titanic; and never picked up any survivors from the Titanic. No other liners were near enough to reach the Titanic in time.
The ship's evacuation began with first-class passengers boarding the lifeboats. However, the Titanic's crew did not fill the lifeboats up. Many of the lifeboats left the ocean liner with less than half the number they could carry. As a result, about 31.8% of the 2,223 aboard the Titanic were rescued.
As the Titanic filled with water, the front of the ship went under. This left the back half of the ocean liner in the air. The weight of the back half of the ship ensured that it split in two as it sank.
So the Titanic was lost at sea, and numerous films have covered its sinking. This left a considerable gap in White Star's fleet for other ocean liners to fill. Its new sister ship was among the ocean liners left to fill the gap.
The HMHS Britannic
The HMHS Britannic was White Star's third Olympic-class ocean liner. Construction of the ship was under way before the Titanic sank and abruptly halted afterwards. A few design alterations followed so that more lifeboats could be added to the Britannic. White Star added an extra bulkhead, an altered stern that enclosed the Shelter Deck and a new second class gymnasium to the Britannic.
The Britannic's construction had a few delays until White Star floated the ship's hull in February 1914. There was very little ceremony and no champagne to celebrate the launching of the latest addition to White Star's fleet. Fitting out of the vessel continued before the outbreak of World War One.
As the Admiralty placed no orders with Harland and Wolf, Harland continued with civilian contracts; but at a somewhat reduced pace. The Britannic remained unfinished in Belfast by the summer of 1915.
As the war continued, the Admiralty requisitioned the Britannic as a hospital ship. The Britannic was duly converted to a hospital ship by December 1915. With a tonnage of 48,158 tons, it was the largest Olympic-class ship built; and it carried a total of 58 lifeboats. By the end of the year, the ship was ready to make its maiden voyage into the Mediterranean.
The HMHS Britannic made its maiden voyage to Mudros, a port on the Greek Island of Lemnos. Before arriving at Mudros, the ship stopped off at Naples to refuel. Voyages into the Mediterranean continued into 1916 as the Triple Entente stepped up its advances in the region.
The ship left port in November 1916 for another trip into the Mediterranean. The primary destination for the voyage was once again Mudros. Before it reached Mudros, the Britannic stopped in Naples to refuel. The weather delayed its departure from Naples for a few days.
German U-boats didn't just torpedo ocean liners during the war. One U-boat placed mines in the Kea Channel. After departing Naples, the Britannic sailed into the minefield laid Kea Channel.
Then an explosion shattered the Britannic between cargo holds two and three. The blast destroyed the bulkhead between the forepeak and hold no 1. Captain Bartlett quickly closed all the watertight compartments, but the doors between boiler room five and six did not close correctly. Soon after the explosion water flooded the ship, which began to list to starboard.Credit: Public Domain
The Britannic was not far from Kea, but the list to starboard ensured that the ship could not make it to the coast. As such, the captain ordered the ship's evacuation. Nearby British cruisers promptly rushed to the Britannic.
The Britannic sank within one hour, and its crew did not have enough time to fill the lifeboats up. British cruisers and destroyers quickly arrived to pick up those who had been aboard the Britannic. The Scourge alone picked up 494 persons aboard. The ships picked up most of the 1,125 aboard the Britannic when it sank.
The sinking of the Britannic was not comparable to the loss of the Titanic, but White Star had still lost another of its largest ocean liners at sea. When the war was over the Germans handed White Star the SS Bismarck as compensation for the loss of the Britannic sank by their mines. White Star retitled that ocean liner as the RMS Majestic, which sailed alongside the RMS Olympic during the postwar period.
The Britannic's sinking left the Olympic as the one remaining Olympic-class liner. The Britannic and Titanic never completed a single transatlantic crossing. Although White Star was compensated for Britannic, the loss of two Olympic-class ocean liners still had considerable impact for the company's budget. White Star eventually merged with Cunard with a minority stake in the new company.
Few people will doubt that the Olympic-class ocean liners were among the grandest White Star ships ever built. White Star built those ships to unprecedented scales that outmatched alternative ocean liners until the postwar period. Their exquisite interior decors also further raised the bar for naval architecture. As such, the legend of those great ships lives on.