Monday, 21 November 2016

Aegean reveals secrets of Titanic’s doom

This article was published by Al Jazeera International under the title: The Titanic and the Britannic: a story of two ships

The Britannic's vast hull takes shape and the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast (Courtesy Simon Mills)

KEA, Greece - A hundred years after she sank in the Aegean, Titanic’s sister-ship is shedding light on what sent the doomed ocean liner to the bottom of the Atlantic and creating a new diving industry in Greece.

Britannic was serving as a World War One hospital ship when she struck a German mine five kilometres off the island of Kea, 60km southeast of Athens, in November 1916. She sank in just 55 minutes.

As the centenary of that sinking approaches, applications for diving permits have soared and the Greek government wants the 49,000-tonne wreck, the largest in the world, to become the centerpiece of a series of marine museums across the country.

“[It] will be the first underwater historical museum in Greece with international importance,” says Angeliki Simosi, head of Greece’s underwater antiquities department.

The reason for this is that Britannic may hold the key to how and why Titanic sank four years before her. Britannic’s keel was laid just five months before Titanic was launched at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast. She was barely taking shape when her older sister went down, and the disaster threw the shipyard into a crisis of confidence.

“These were technological firsts. They were the first ships ever this big,” says Richie Kohler, who has made two documentaries about Britannic. “They were extending the known abilities of engineering, given their ability to understand tensile strength and things like that.”

Kohler and his team started diving on Britannic ten years ago, “to chase down a theory that the builders were afraid the Titanic had a failure; that they were correcting that failure on Britannic; that they were trying to cover up the possibility that Titanic was a weak ship. The only way to do that was to go down and see the design changes that were made on Britannic.”

Some of those design changes are well known. Titanic’s double hull only extended across the bottom of the ship, defending the deep-drafted vessel against scraping the sea bed. The iceberg cut her just below the waterline where her skin was vulnerable. Britannic was widened by half a metre so that a double skin could be installed along two thirds of her length, protecting her boilers and engine rooms.

As Titanic flooded, the water rose to overwhelm the bulkheads separating her compartments, spilling into one compartment after another. Britannic’s bulkheads were raised all the way to the bridge deck.

Most important of all, Britannic rectified the lack of lifeboats on Titanic. Four enormous gantry davits were added to her decks capable of launching 44 lifeboats on both sides of the ship simultaneously.

“Britannic would have survived the damage which the iceberg inflicted on the Titanic,” says historian Simon Mills, who bought the wreck of Britannic 21 years ago; but Kohler and his team discovered an additional, more subtle improvement, which may suggest that the builders had deeper concerns that Titanic may have been doomed due to a design flaw.

During British and American inquests into Titanic’s sinking, the question was raised whether she had broken up at the surface. The reports were inconclusive. In 1986, oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic on the Atlantic sea floor, and found that she was indeed broken in two. “Where did Titanic crack in half? Right at an expansion joint,” says Kohler, who was on Ballard’s expedition.

Naval engineer Roger Long has since suggested that the joints, which absorbed metal expansion due to heat and stress from high seas, were poorly designed. If true, the Olympic, Titanic’s predecessor, and Britannic, her successor, also suffered from the same fatal flaw. “Roger Long’s theory is that if any of the Olympians had got into a storm with 40ft waves, they would have broken in half on the surface,” says Kohler, who in 2009 discovered that, “Britannic’s expansion joints were different.”

The design change may suggest that while Titanic and Britannic were meant to stay afloat with six compartments flooded, Harland & Wolff may have suspected that their expansion joints couldn’t withstand the stress of having one half of the ship flooded and the other buoyant. “At about 15 degrees [Titanic] went from being intact to breaking apart,” believes Kohler.

Further mystery

Given Britannic’s design improvements, why she sank remains a mystery. It is understood that the German mine she hit caused much more massive damage than the “pokes and stabs” the iceberg inflicted on Titanic. “They worked out that the hole that sank the Titanic amounted to about 1.5 square metres,” says Mills. “On Britannic the scale of the damage was much, much bigger.”

The admiralty’s official report of the sinking says, “There seems to have been a period of one to two minutes from the time of the explosion until the water in the stokeholds was too deep for work to be performed.” In other words, the massive boilers in forward holds 5 and 6, an area measuring 10.6m x 27.4m, were overwhelmed almost instantaneously.

Sketches showing how Britannic sank in 55 minutes (Courtesy Neil Egginton)

"The mine hit in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. All those watertight doors down below were open because they were changing watch at eight o’clock in the morning. Those doors should have been closed,” says Mills.

In his own report of the incident, captain Charles Bartlett says orders were “rung below to close water tight doors.” This should have prevented the cross flooding of the holds.

“For some reason, the doors in the forward part of the ship didn’t close,” says Mills. Even if electrical switches failed, the doors had manual levers. Failing that, a float mechanism should have triggered them.

Captain Bartlett reports that after the explosion, the ship started “trembling and vibrating most violently fore and aft, continuing for some time.”

Mills, who plans to simulate the sinking at the University of Southampton, has an inkling as to what may have happened. “We are speculating that while that shudder was going on something was twisted in the forward part of the ship, which meant the doors couldn’t close properly. Had the bulkhead been twisted to the point where the door couldn’t come down?”

Underwater museum

The idea of an underwater museum was mooted as early as 1963, but was only legislated in 2013. More than a thousand wrecks have been mapped in the Greek seas and some are already designated museums, but Kea dreams of becoming a global underwater World War One museum with three wrecks. The Burdigala, a French steamer that sank while serving as a troop carrier just a week before Britannic, lies at a depth of 75m. “It is intact. It was discovered eight years ago,” says diver Yiannis Tzevelekos. “It really is like being in an underwater museum. You can see the telegraph, Marconi, ship’s bell and chandeliers all in place… It’s also upright, as though a human hand has placed it in a sailing position.”

Between the Burdigala and Britannic, at just 35 metres, lies the Patris, a Greek storm-sunk steamer with one of its paddle wheels still in place. All are to become part of Kea’s network of underwater galleries.

“Mass tourism isn’t interested in small destinations. If a place can show that it has a different profile, then it can claim a piece of the market,” says mayor Yiannis Evangeliou, who has spent four decades in the tourism industry. He plans to go further, and create a marine wildlife park for less experienced divers.

The beauty of Britannic

Technical divers who have braved her 120 metre depth to see Britannic’s hulk stretching almost a third of a kilometre in the gloam, speak of her with awe. Jacques Cousteau, the first to visit her in 1976, apparently said that, “diving across Britannic is like being a flea on the back of an elephant.”

“What takes your breath away is the sheer size of the shipwreck,” says Leigh Bishop, one of the world’s most experienced deep-sea wreck divers. “You’re physically in touch with one of the Olympic Star liners. Where else can you effectively dive down to the Titanic?”

“On Titanic you’re painfully aware that 1500 people died. It is a dark, barren, lifeless ship,” says Kohler. “When you go to Britannic it is bathed in beautiful light, it is such a comfortable, warm, blue-green… covered with growth and corals and sponges and fans and everything is striving for light and life.”  

Britannic had her own tragedy. As she evacuated a thousand crew members, Captain Bartlett tried to beach her on Kea. The ship had already begun to list to starboard, and the port propeller hung half out of the water as it roared to life. “Two boats were pulled into the turning propeller and they were smashed to matchwood. 30 people were killed and 30 or 40 were very seriously injured,” says Mills.

A giant crane lowers a 490-tonne boiler – the largest ever made - into Britannic’s hull (Courtesy Simon Mills)

Britannic is important beyond her casualties and the light she sheds on what happened to Titanic. The ultimate Olympic class liner, she carried the largest boilers and steam-driven engines ever made. Her speed of 20 knots was unprecedented for her size. She was then the safest passenger vessel afloat. The Harland & Wolff launch booklet called her “both in design and construction, as perfect a specimen of man’s creative power as it is possible to conceive.”

Yet this pinnacle of Victorian technology was rapidly overtaken by events. She never served as a passenger liner. Her life as a hospital ship lasted a mere 11 months. Britannic, perhaps more than any other physical thing, lies as a testament to how shockingly and irreversibly the Great War changed the world.

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