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RMS Olympic

RMS Olympic

RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Olympic was a British ocean liner and the lead ship of the White Star Line's trio of Olympic-class liners. Olympic had a career spanning 24 years from 1911 to 1935, in contrast to her short-lived sister ships, RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic. This included service as a troopship during the First World War, which gained her the nickname "Old Reliable". She returned to civilian service after the war, and served successfully as an ocean liner throughout the 1920s and into the first half of the 1930s, although increased competition, and the slump in trade during the Great Depression after 1930, made her operation increasingly unprofitable.

Olympic was the largest ocean liner in the world for two periods during 1910–13, interrupted only by the brief tenure of the slightly larger Titanic (which had the same dimensions but higher gross register tonnage) before the German SS Imperator went into service in June 1913. Olympic also held the title of the largest British-built liner until RMS Queen Mary was launched in 1934, interrupted only by the short careers of Titanic and Britannic.

Olympic was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap on April 12, 1935 and was the real unsinkable ship ever existed.


Olympic Arrol Ganty

Olympic being constructed in the Arrol Gantry with Titanic's keel being laid down next to it (1909)

Olympic was Built in Belfast, Ireland, Olympic was the first of the three Olympic-class ocean liners – the others being Titanic and Britannic. They were the largest vessels built for the British shipping company White Star Line, which was a fleet of 29 steamers and tenders in 1912. The three ships had their genesis in a discussion in mid-1907 between the White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, and the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who controlled the White Star Line's parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. The White Star Line faced a growing challenge from its main rivals Cunard, which had just launched RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania – the fastest passenger ships then in service – and the German lines Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd. Ismay preferred to compete on size and economics rather than speed and proposed to commission a new class of liners that would be bigger than anything that had gone before as well as being the last word in comfort and luxury. The company sought an upgrade in their fleet primarily in response to the largest Cunarders but also to replace their largest and now outclassed ships from 1890, RMS Teutonic and RMS Majestic. The former was replaced by Olympic while Majestic was replaced by Titanic. Majestic would be brought back into her old spot on White Star's New York service after Titanic's loss.

The ships were constructed by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, who had a long-established relationship with the White Star Line dating back to 1867. Harland and Wolff were given a great deal of latitude in designing ships for the White Star Line; the usual approach was for the latter to sketch out a general concept which the former would take away and turn into a ship design. Cost considerations were relatively low on the agenda and Harland and Wolff was authorised to spend what it needed on the ships, plus a five per cent profit margin. In the case of the Olympic-class ships, a cost of £3 million for the first two ships was agreed plus "extras to contract" and the usual five per cent fee.

Harland and Wolff put their designers to work designing the Olympic-class vessels. It was overseen by Lord Pirrie, a director of both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line; naval architect Thomas Andrews, the managing director of Harland and Wolff's design department; Edward Wilding, Andrews' deputy and responsible for calculating the ship's design, stability and trim; and Alexander Carlisle, the shipyard's chief draughtsman and general manager. Carlisle's responsibilities included the decorations, equipment and all general arrangements, including the implementation of an efficient lifeboat davit design.


Olympic's Launch

Olympic being launched on October 20, 1910

On 29 July 1908, Harland and Wolff presented the drawings to Bruce Ismay and other White Star Line executives. Ismay approved the design and signed three "letters of agreement" two days later authorising the start of construction. At this point the first ship – which was later to become Olympic – had no name, but was referred to simply as "Number 400", as it was Harland and Wolff's four hundredth hull. Titanic was based on a revised version of the same design and was given the number 401. Bruce Ismay's father Thomas Henry Ismay had previously planned to build a ship named Olympic as a sister ship to Oceanic. The senior Ismay died in 1899 and the order for the ship was cancelled.

Construction of Olympic began three months before Titanic to ease pressures on the shipyard. Several years would pass before Britannic would be launched. To accommodate the construction of the class, Harland and Wolff upgraded their facility in Belfast; the most dramatic change was the combining of three slipways into two larger ones. Olympic and Titanic were constructed side by side. Olympic's keel was laid on 16 December 1908 and she was launched on 20 October 1910, without having been christened beforehand. By tradition, the White Star Line never christened any of their vessels and for the launch the hull was painted in a light grey colour for photographic purposes; a common practice of the day for the first ship in a new class, as it made the lines of the ship clearer in the black-and-white photographs. Her launch was filmed and the footage still survives. The launches of Titanic and Britannic were later filmed too, though only Britannic's survived. Her hull was repainted black following the launch. The ship was then dry-docked for her fitting out.

Olympic was driven by three propellers. The two three-bladed side propellers were driven by two triple-expansion engines, while the four-bladed central propeller was driven by a turbine that used recovered steam escaping from the triple-expansion engines. The use of escaped steam was tested on the SS Laurentic two years earlier.


Following completion, Olympic started her sea trials on 29 May 1911 during which her manoeuvrability, compass, and wireless telegraphy were tested. No speed test was carried out. She completed her sea trial successfully. Olympic then left Belfast bound for Liverpool, her port of registration, on 31 May 1911. As a publicity stunt the White Star Line timed the start of this first voyage to coincide with the launch of Titanic. After spending a day in Liverpool, open to the public, Olympic sailed to Southampton, where she arrived on 3 June, to be made ready for her maiden voyage. Her arrival generated enthusiasm from her crew and newspapers. The deep-water dock at Southampton, then known as the "White Star Dock" had been specially constructed to accommodate the new Olympic-class liners, and had opened in 1911.

Her maiden voyage commenced on 14 June 1911 from Southampton, calling at Cherbourg and Queenstown, reaching New York City on 21 June. The maiden voyage was captained by Edward Smith who would perish the following year in the Titanic ship disaster. Designer Thomas Andrews was present for the passage to New York and return, along with a number of engineers with J Bruce Ismay and Harland and Wolff's "Guarantee Group" who were also aboard for them to spot any problems or areas for improvement. Andrews would also lose his life in the Titanic disaster.

Olympic Hawke Boat Crash[]

Olympic's first major mishap occurred on her fifth voyage on 20 September 1911, when she collided with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. The collision took place as Olympic and Hawke were running parallel to each other through the Solent. As Olympic turned to starboard, the wide radius of her turn took the commander of Hawke by surprise, and he was unable to take sufficient avoiding action. Hawke's bow, which had been designed to sink ships by ramming them, collided with Olympic's starboard side near the stern, tearing two large holes in Olympic's hull, above and below the waterline, resulting in the flooding of two of her watertight compartments and a twisted propeller shaft. Olympic settled slightly by the stern,  but in spite of the damage was able to return to Southampton under her own power; no one was killed or seriously injured. HMS Hawke suffered severe damage to her bow and nearly capsized; she was repaired, but sunk by the German U-boat SM U-9 in October 1914.

Captain Edward Smith was in command of Olympic at the time of the incident. Two crew members, stewardess Violet Jessop and stoker Arthur John Priest, survived not only the collision with Hawke but also the later the 1912 sinking of Titanic and the 1916 sinking of Britannicwhich is known to be the third ship of the class.

At the subsequent inquiry the Royal Navy blamed Olympic for the incident, alleging that her large displacement generated a suction that pulled Hawke into her side. The Hawke incident was a financial disaster for Olympic's operator. A legal argument ensued which decided that the blame for the incident lay with Olympic, and although the ship was technically under the control of the harbor pilot, the White Star Line was faced with large legal bills and the cost of repairing the ship and keeping her out of revenue service made matters worse. However, the fact that Olympic endured such a serious collision and stayed afloat, appeared to vindicate the design of the Olympic-class liners and reinforced their "unsinkable" reputation.

It took two weeks for the damage to Olympic to be patched up sufficiently to allow her to return to Belfast for permanent repairs, which took just over six weeks to complete. To expedite repairs, Harland and Wolff was obliged to replace Olympic's damaged propeller shaft with one from Titanic, delaying the latter's completion. By 20 November 1911 Olympic was back in service, but, on 24 February 1912, suffered another setback when she lost a propeller blade on an eastbound voyage from New York, and once again returned to her builder for repairs. To return her to service as soon as possible, Harland & Wolff again had to pull resources from Titanic, delaying her maiden voyage by three weeks, from 20 March to 10 April 1912.


On 14 April 1912, Olympic, now under the command of Herbert Haddock, was on a return trip from New York. Wireless operator Ernest James Moore received the distress call from Titanic, when she was approximately 505 miles west by south of Titanic's location. Haddock calculated a new course, ordered the ship's engines to be set to full power and headed to assist in the rescue.

When Olympic offered to take on the survivors, she was turned down by Rostron under order from Ismay, who was concerned that asking the survivors to board a virtual mirror-image of Titanic would cause them distress. Olympic then resumed her voyage to Southampton, with all concerts cancelled as a mark of respect, arriving on 21 April.

Over the next few months, Olympic assisted with both the American and British inquiries into the disaster. Deputations from both inquiries inspected Olympic's lifeboats, watertight doors and bulkheads and other equipment which were identical to those on Titanic. Sea tests were performed for the British enquiry in May 1912, to establish how quickly the ship could turn two points at various speeds, to approximate how long it would have taken Titanic to turn after the iceberg was sighted.

Olympic Bomb Incident[]

On November 25, 1916, Olympic was travelling from Kea, Greece, to Southampton, United Kingdom. The went through a flock on bombs which were known to be mines but hadn't hit any of them. The ship came to a close stop and was under the command of Herbert Haddock as well. The ship incident took place just 3 days after Britannic sank. Another ship came 10 minutes later. The ship was known to be so close to hit the bomb. The people on the rescue ship found a direction for the ship to go and Olympic safely travelled to Southampton.

Among the survivors of the incident was Sanjeev Pinjala who is an infamous (not famous) survivor of the Titanic, Lusitania, and Britannic. He stated that he had faced the horror against the ship and was in his cabin at that time of the incident.


Olympic Audacious

Olympic at the location of Audacious's sinking and was the rescue ship of Audacious as well.

On the sixth day of her voyage, on October 27, 1914, as Olympic passed near Lough Swilly off the north coast of Ireland, she received distress signals from the battleship HMS Audacious, which had struck a mine off Tory Island and was taking on water. HMS Liverpool was in the company of Audacious.

Olympic took off 250 of Audacious's crew, then the destroyer HMS Fury managed to attach a tow cable between Audacious and Olympic and they headed west for Lough Swilly. However, the cable parted after Audacious's steering gear failed. A second attempt was made to tow the warship, but the cable became tangled in HMS Liverpool's propellers and was severed. A third attempt was tried but also failed when the cable gave way. By 17:00 the Audacious's quarterdeck was awash, and it was decided to evacuate the remaining crew members to Olympic and Liverpool, and there was an explosion aboard Audacious, and she sank.

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander of the Home Fleet, was anxious to suppress the news of the sinking of Audacious, for fear of the demoralizing effect it could have on the British public, so he ordered Olympic to be held in custody at Lough Swilly. No communications were permitted, and passengers were not allowed to leave the ship. The only people departing her were the crew of Audacious and Chief Surgeon John Beaumont, who was transferring to RMS Celtic. Steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab, who was travelling aboard the liner, sent word to Jellicoe that he had urgent business in London with the Admiralty, and Jellicoe agreed to release Schwab if he remained silent about the fate of Audacious. Finally, on 2 November, Olympic was allowed to go to Belfast where the passengers disembarked.

Olympic Nantucket Boat Crash[]

In 1934, Olympic again struck another ship. The approaches to New York were marked by lightships and Olympic, like other liners, had been known to pass close by these vessels. On 15 May 1934 (11:06 AM), Olympic, inbound in heavy fog, was homing in on the radio beacon of Nantucket Lightship LV-117. Now under the command of Captain John W. Binks, the ship failed to turn in time and sliced through the smaller vessel, which broke apart and sank. Four of the lightship's crew went down with the vessel and seven were rescued, of whom three died of their injuries – thus there were seven fatalities out of a crew of eleven. The lightship's surviving crew and Olympic's captain were interviewed soon after reaching shore. One crewman said it all happened so quickly that they did not know how it happened. The captain was very sorry it happened but said Olympic reacted very quickly lowering boats to rescue the crew, which was confirmed by an injured crewman.



RMS Olympic (left) and RMS Mauretania (right) being scrapped in Southampton, United Kingdom

In 1934, the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line at the instigation of the British government, to form Cunard White Star. This merger allowed funds to be granted for the completion of the future RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. When completed, these two new ships would handle Cunard White Star's express service; so, their fleet of older liners became redundant and were gradually retired.

Olympic was withdrawn from the transatlantic service, and left New York for the last time on 5 April 1935, returning to Britain to be laid up in Southampton. The new company considered using her for summer cruises for a short while, but this idea was abandoned, and she was put up for sale. Among the potential buyers was a syndicate who proposed to turn her into a floating hotel off the south coast of France, but this came to nothing.

After being laid up for five months alongside her former rival Mauretania, she was sold to Sir John Jarvis – Member of Parliament – for £97,500, to be partially demolished at Jarrow to provide work for the depressed region. On 11 October 1935, Olympic left Southampton for the last time and arrived two days later in Jarrow. The scrapping began after the ship's fittings were auctioned off. Olympic's superstructure was demolished in 1936, and then on 19 September 1937, her hull was towed to Thos. W. Ward's yard at Inverkeithing for final demolition which was finished by late 1937. At that time, the ship's chief engineer commented, "I could understand the necessity if the 'Old Lady' had lost her efficiency, but the engines are as sound as they ever were".

By the time of her retirement, Olympic had completed 257 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean, transporting 430,000 passengers on her commercial voyages, travelling 1.8 million miles.