November 21, 1916: What was the Largest Ship Sunk During World War I?

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A Brief History

On November 21, 1916, in the waters of the Aegean Sea near the Island of Kea, the British hospital ship HMHS Britannic struck a naval mine and sank, becoming the largest vessel sunk during World War I.  A sister ship of the RMS Titanic and the third ship in the Olympic Class of ocean liner, Britannic is the largest ship on the floor of the sea (being slightly larger than the Titanic).

Digging Deeper

Incredibly, although Britannic sank quickly, only 55 minutes after striking the mine, only 30 people lost their lives of the 1065 that had been aboard the ship.  After the sinking of the Titanic, modifications had been made to RMS Olympic and those modifications were incorporated into the building of the Britannic.  The increased safety measures included making the ship 2 feet wider to accommodate a double hull around the engine compartments, more lifeboats arranged to be deployed by electrically controlled davits, and a more powerful steam turbine engine to compensate for the additional beam and weight.  Watertight bulkheads were also made much higher than those on the Titanic.

Under construction when World War I began, Britannic was completed and commissioned in December of 1915 as the HMHS Britannic, a hospital ship serving the British military, shuttling patients from the Mediterranean War Zone to England and back.  The mighty ship was intended to assume her original design mission as an ocean liner after the war, but never got the chance.  In spite of her massive size (892 feet long with a 94 foot beam and displacing 53,200 tons) Britannic was not the largest ship afloat during World War I, as the German ship SS Vaterland (950 feet long, 100 foot beam, and 54,282 gross tons) was larger.  (Vaterland was confiscated by the US Navy when the US entered the war in 1917 and was put into service as the troop ship USS Leviathan, serving until 1919, when she was later bought by United States Lines and modified for service once again as the largest and fastest liner afloat, until taken out of service in 1934.)

The sinking of the Britannic was caused by a then unknown means, assumed to be either a torpedo from an enemy submarine or a naval mine.  Since no enemy submarines claimed credit for torpedoing the ship, it is assumed a mine, perhaps one laid by German sub SM U-73, which had mined those very waters a few weeks earlier, had been responsible for the blast that took the big ship down.

The wreck of the Britannic was found 400 feet beneath the surface by oceanographer and film maker Jacques Yves Cousteau in December of 1975.   The wreck has been visited several times since, and no definitive cause for the rapid sinking of the ship has been arrived at.

The British White Star Line, owners of Britannic, were compensated for her loss after the war by the confiscation of 2 German ocean liners, the Bismarck (not the famous battleship) which was renamed Majestic, and the Columbus, which was renamed Homeric.  The name Britannic was reused on another liner from 1930 to 1960, and since that ship retired there has not been another Britannic.  In 2000 a fictionalized movie about the Britannic was made, called aptly enough, Britannic.  In that film, a German saboteur sinks the hospital ship.  The BBC aired a documentary in 2016 called Titanic’s Tragic Twin- The Britannic Disaster.

Of the 3 Olympic class liners built, Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic, only the Olympic survived to serve a normal career at sea, commissioned in 1911 and serving until being taken out of service in 1935 due to a dramatic drop in ocean liner traffic during the Great Depression.  By 1934 the White Star Line and Cunard, the British shipping giants, had merged.

Note: The current largest passenger ship in the world is the MS Harmony of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, a massive 1188 feet long, 156.6 feet wide, and displacing 120,000 metric tons, more than double that of the Britannic.  Normal passenger load is 5479, with a surge maximum of 6780!  She has a crew of 2300, nearly as many people as all the passengers of the Britannic.

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.