HMHS Britannic
The unfortunate fate and rediscovery of the RMS Titanic has fascinated the world for over a decade. No other disaster at sea has ever had such an enormous impact on the imagination of the public as did the Titanic, resulting in a number of cinematic interpretations and books. The loss of the Titanic becomes even more fascinating when taken together with her two sister ships Olympic and her even larger and more enigmatic sister, the HMHS Britannic.
Not until Jacques Cousteau rediscovered the Britannic in 1975 did the slow process of unveiling the facts of the disaster begin. Since then interest in the Britannic has been massive. The White Star ocean liner, turned British hospital ship, which went down in the waters off of the Greek island of Kea during WW I is now one of the most famous shipwreck in the world.
Almost all major ships that sink generate speculation and rumor, and in some cases spectacular conspiracy theories. These theories likely evolve out of the official inquiries into the disaster which, sadly, often raise more questions than they give answers. In the case of the Britannic, the British navy marked the wreck site in the charts far from the actual site. This is odd
due to the fact that even a novice sailor would be able to pinpoint the position using clearly visible land marks as a reference. This have led a few to speculate that the government had something to hide, and that perhaps weapons and munitions were being transported on the hospital ship. One of the more popular theories is that a German sub torpedoed the clearly marked hospital ship. Althought not the first, this would indeed be a serious war crime. These speculations are supported by the fact that German subs had already attacked hospital and passenger ships. The most infamous attack is the sinking of the Lusitania which actually prompted the hesitating USA to enter the first world war. Interviews of survivors conducted by the late underwater pioneer Jacques Cousteau reveal that most believed that the ship was in fact deliberately torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Germany defended her actions claiming that the allies used the ships as weapon, soldier and munitions transports in the disguise of protected ships, thus making them fair targets. In the case of the Britannic, Germany has not assumed responsibility for sinking her, neither have any of her U-boat captains. The only evidence that Germany had anything to do witht the sinking of the Britannic is that a German sub laid a mine barrier in the Kea channel a month before she sank.

Expeditions to the wreck sites of such famous ships as the Bismarck, Lusitania, Britannic, and Titanic are extremely expensive, and their costs can only be recovered by heavy subsidies and grants. Another significant source of revenue to fund these expeditions is the sale of books, videos, etc., which is driven by the vast public interest in shipwrecks. Ocean Discovery has participated in two of the now three exploration projects ever made on the Britannic since Jacques Cousteau located the Britannic in 400 feet of water in 1975. Ocean Discovery divers now have more hours on the actual wreck site than any other organization, making our explorers the most experienced with respect to science of the Britannic. Only additional exploration of this gigantic wreck can determine whether a torpedo or a mine caused her descent to the bottom of the Aegean Sea. And, only careful study can determine if, in fact, a second explosion hastened her sinking. These questions still motivate Ocean Discovery divers to play an active part in finding clues to this intriguing mystery. For a number of years, rights to the wreck of the Britannic have been owned by author Simon Mills. The Greek Government has also exercised a strict policy on visiting the wreck site. Permission to explore the wreck must be granted by the Greek government and Mr. Mills. Since the Britannic was a British naval auxiliary at the time of her loss, her wreck has been declared a military grave site. This means that artifacts cannot be removed from the wreck, unless there is prior permission. The local Greek authorities strictly enforce this edict.
Summary of previous Britannic projects
In 1975, underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau located the Britannic in 400 feet of water. Closer inspection the following year revealed the wreck to be lying on its starboard side with a large hole visible on the port side. Interestingly, the steel plate around this hole was bent outward, despite the fact that the mine had reportedly detonated to starboard, leading to speculation that a secondary explosion from an unknown cause had occurred. Controversy persists as to whether this hospital ship was secretly carrying munitions or whether she was the innocent victim of a secondary explosion from another source. Although limited by the technology at that time Cousteau made a remarkable effort that even today stands out

in the diving community. Jacques Cousteau was a true explorer and his gifts to the world are invaluable.

On August 28, 1995, Dr. Ballard and his team, along with a NOVA crew, departed from Hania, Crete, to begin their search for Britannic. Having discovered the wreck-sites of both Titanic, Bismark and Lusitania only to find virtually destroyed remains of what were once mighty ships, Dr. Ballard was more than thrilled with the condition of the Britannic. The team had substantial economical resources and all the toys one could dream of, including the U.S. Navy sub NR-I, remotely operated vehicles (ROV) Voyager (owned by Peri Tri Tech) and Phantom (owned by University of Connecticut's Avery Point Undersea Research Center), and command boat SSV Carolyn Chouest (owned by Edison Chouest Offshore) that all played a part in the search. Dr. Ballard did not use divers and relied heavily on the remotely operated vehicles with cameras to produce both pictures, video and evidence of the cause of sinking.

In September 1997, Ocean Discovery divers were involved as videographers on the first project utilizing divers on the wreck since Jacques Cousteau in 1975. The project involved a international dive team led by the English diver Kevin Gurr. Great effort was made to discover remains or evidence of mines in the area using state of the art side scan sonar equipment and personnel from the British navy, DERA. A complete side scan sonar mosaic was also produced over the wreck site and debris field.

In 1998 some of the UK's leading technical divers organized an expedition to the HMHS Britannic. The Main objectives were to find further evidence of what actually sunk the Britannic, (mine, torpedo or internal explosion) and to see if any evidence to support the allegation that she was running military supplies could be found. The expedition conducted in excess of 1600 minutes of bottom time on the wreck over the duration of the trip.

On August 20, 1999 Global Underwater Explorers, GUE, in cooperation with Ocean Discovery divers initiated the most complete and well-documented effort ever attempted to explore the mysterious circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Britannic - the world's largest passenger liner resting at the bottom of the sea. GUE and Ocean Discovery divers canvassed the Britannic with hours of video documentation to insure that the condition, damage, location, and details of the Britannic can be evaluated for years to come.Every diver was equipped with at least one 250 watt video light, and each team consisted of at least one diver with a video camera. The footage obtained with this concentrated effort was breathtaking. While
GUE and Ocean Discovery divers were documenting the Britannic itself, Brentwood Communications was on-site documenting the effort, providing technical advice, and actively documenting the exploration of this unique wreck.
Producer Bud Brutsman and director Steve Beebe ensures that the documentation of Britannic 99 is sure to prove fascinating to a wide range of enthusiasts with several unique discoveries and a significant array of never before seen footage. A documentary film is under production.

Historical overview

In the early days of the 1900:th century a tremendous competition existed for the lucrative passenger transportation over the ocean, from Europe to America. Many nations was involved, USA, England, Germany, Italy and France, in this prestigious race. Two English companies, Cunard and White Star Line, were in a league of their own and claimed numerous Blur Ribbon Bands, an award given to the fastest ship steaming from Southampton to New York.

Cunard ships Aquitania, Mauritania and Lusitania were the fastest passenger ships on the ocean and the popular choice for travellers. White Star Lines had to come up with something to gain the publics interest. They started building three sister ships with a size, speed and luxury previously unheard of at that time. New technology was incorporated and the newspapers speculated that they were unsinkable. The race was on and RMS Olympic, the first finalised ship, soon made a reputation of being the most comfortable and luxurious ship on the oceans. When Titanic shortly after was launched people was lining up to join her maiden voyage. As we know this maiden voyage was to become one of the most tragic ones in history. Titanic steamed in full speed, maybe in a attempt to claim the Blue Ribbon on her first run, even though warnings of ice bergs was issued. As fate not was on RMS Titanics side that evening she hit an iceberg in high speed which sealed her fate abruptly. She sank in less than three hours inspite of her modern technology claiming more than 1500 souls.

Due to the tragic and surprising loss of the famous Titanic work was halted on keel 433, the last and largest of the three Olympic class ships, to await the outcome of the inquiry into the Titanic disaster. The third sister was named Gigantic but after the fate of the Titanic White Star Line seams to have become more humble and renamed her Britannic. When work was restarted many changes to the design were incorporated in the final plans.These included a double skin, the space between the inner and outer bottoms was separated into compartments to minimise flooding in case of rupture, watertight bulkheads was extended, four rows
of rivets on plating where stress would be greatest and giant sized lifeboat davits. These modifications made her the largest in gross tonnage of the three at 48,158 tons. The White Star Line became obsessed with safety following the disaster of her sister ship and made their best effort to reclaim the publics trust in regards to safety concerns.

Britannic was launched on February 26th 1914 and was to commence service between Southampton and New York in the spring of 1915. Fate once more intervened with the Outbreak of World War One. On November 13th 1915 she was requisitioned by the admiralty and officially completed as a hospital ship, HMHS His Majesty's Hospital Ship. Her interiors were converted into dormitories and operating rooms.

On December 12th 1915 she was ready for war service. She arrived in Liverpool on December 12th, 1915 under heavy armed escort. She was outfitted for her duties as a hospital ship with 2034 berths and 1035 cots for casualties. A medical staff of 52 officers, 101 nurses, 336 orderlies, and a crew of 675 men and women were stationed on the mighty liner.

The ship was under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett when Britannic departed Liverpool for her maiden voyage on December 23, 1915. She was bound for Mudros on the isle of Lemnos in the Greek archipelago. She was joining the Mauretania, Aquitania, and her sister, Olympic, in the "Dardanelles Service." Together these ships were capable of carrying 17,000 sick and wounded or 33,000 troops. Britannic served with pride and helped numerous wounded soldiers and military personnel during several missions.

A perfect day, Tuesday November 21, 1916 she was steaming through the Kea Channel in the Aegean during her sixth voyage as a hospital ship. She was on her way to the field hospital and thus not loaded with wounded and sick. Shortly after 8:00am she was struck by a tremendous explosion and quickly began to sink by the bow. Captain Bartlett tried unsuccessfully to beach her on Kea Island but in 55 minutes, Britain's largest liner had gone, and not quite a year from trials to sinking. The explosion apparently occurred at the watertight bulkhead between holds 2 and 3, and the bulkhead separating holds 2
and 1 were also damaged. At the same time, boiler rooms 5 and 6 began taking water. This was roughly the same damage as that sustained by her sister the Titanic four and a half years earlier. In spite of all the modifications to the hull and advanced watertight bulkheads she sank faster than her sister had done. But most important, there were far less casualties due to the improved lifeboats and a hard drilled and efficient crew. Only about 30 souls were lost in the whole event when their lifeboats were sucked into the mighty and violently turning propellers.

Why she sank has never been totally resolved, some say she was torpedoed but it seems more likely that she struck a mine. The only hard fact evidence existing is the crewmembers interpretations of the event and the witnesses of a tremendous explosion. She is the largest liner on the ocean floor today and still in a remarkable good shape.

"As a strange footnote to the tragedy, one of the crewmembers, Violet Jessup, had been a member of the Titanic crew and she survived and was aboard the Olympic when it had the collision with HMS Hawke. She served as a nurse on the Britannic and survived her violent fate. This makes a remarkable and tragic hat trick surviving all the White Star Lines sisters ill fated adventures."

" All the Olympic class ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic had four smoke stacks. Only three was actually intended and serving as such. The forth one was merely a fashion statement and was used as a firemen escape."

HMHS Britannic Main Particulars (as registered in Liverpool on December 8, 1915)

Length o.a. 882 ft.
Length b.p. 852.6 ft.
Gross tonnage 48,158
Displacement 78,950 tons
Beam 94 ft.
Depth (molded) 64.3 ft.
Draft (loaded) 34.7 ft.
No. of decks 9
No. of bulkheads 16
Engines (2) sets and one turbine
No. of shafts 3
Speed 21 knots

Project results Overview


In September 1997 Ocean Discovery divers was involved as videographers on the first project utilizing divers on the wreck since Jacques Cousteau in 1975. At that time no other wreck as deep as the Britannic had been dived to that extent using technical diving techniques. The following results have so far been published or released from the findings during the 1997 expedition:

In regards to the massive amount of damage visible in the bow structure documented by the 1997 project it is of significant importance to be able to separate the damage done by the explosion and the damage that occurred when the ship sank and settled on the seabed. This is a tremendously difficult process that relies on calculations of super computers in conjunction with detailed survey of the damaged areas. So far the lack of detailed surveying results limits this process. We know from the 1997 and Ballard expeditions that the ship is resting on the seabed, but not pointing in the direction of her last reported heading toward Kea Island. The angle of the rudder was also documented giving information about the ships final
maneuvering actions. Of outmost importance is to locate where the mine exploded, remains of it or in fact if there ever was a mine. A search of the seabed with side scan sonar was preformed in order to locate evidence of a mine and its base. None was ever found despite the use of high tech side scan sonar and sub bottom profilers from the British navy

What the 1997 team discovered using the side scan sonar was more details from the debris field, its direction and also a large part of a hull resting approximately 300 feet off the side of the wreck. This was new information and quite intriguing since this might suggest a secondary explosion. This new evidence have so far been neglected and ought to be considered.

Video was produced by Ocean Discovery and the 1997 team of which some of the material have been used in the History channels documentary film "Doomed sisters of the Titanic", and also in the end of the feature movie "Britannic", by Reginet productions, which hit cinemas around the world in late 2000 and now is released on video.


On August 20, 1999 Global Underwater Explorers in cooperation with Ocean Discovery initiated the most complete and well-documented effort ever attempted to explore the mysterious circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Britannic - the world's largest passenger liner resting at the bottom of the sea. A sample of results from this highly successful exploration project follows.

Steel and rivets from the hull were retrieved for metallurgical testing to determine their micro-structure and chemistry. The intention was to compare the steel and rivets from Britannic with similar material retrieved from her sister Titanic. The steel used on all the sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, was the "best available" for shipbuilding at the time. Iron rivets recovered from the Titanic wreck site have tested with a high iron-silicate slag content up to four times that recommended for wrought iron of that period. The rivets micro-structure also is suspect. Further testing is needed to confirm if these facts have contributed to their poor performance under impact forces such as have been observed in the riveted seams of the Olympic and Titanic.

Coal was recovered from the Britannic to determine its chemistry or ability to form coal dust. Since GUE and Ocean Discovery divers were able to actually penetrate the interior of the Britannic all the way to the coal storages new information was gathered. Video and impressions of this remote area of the wreck suggest without a doubt that no explosion or damage was done in the coalbunkers.

The Official inquiry held after her loss leads to the conclusion that the ship struck a mine in a vulnerable location, the bow section. However, examining information about the type of mine laid by the German u-boat suggest that the mine used was too small to
have caused the fatal damage that led to the

sinking. This suggest that there might have been a secondary explosion within the ship that was of sufficient intensity to contribute to the flooding of the Britannic.

A theory is that compressed gases, ether and gasoline could have been stored in the two cargo holds in front of the bridge. Since the cargo manifest has been lost there is no evidence that this was the case but its seams likely since Britannic was a hospital ship and needed supplies for the wounded. Ocean Discovery and GUE divers made several penetrations into each of the Britannics cargo holds. The cargo holds were all virtually empty and no evidence supporting this likely theory were found. The debris field around the huge damaged bow section did not reveal any of such remains either, no gas, ether or gasoline storage tins. These supplies must have been stored at different locations. Anyway, preliminary calculations indicate that a vapor explosion alone would not produce the hull damage seen on the wreck.

Because no traces of munitions could be found around the wreck site or in the debris field by any of the three expeditions cited before, the question of their presence as cargo has to be finally settled. In 1999 divers penetrated every cargo hull and there was no munitions to be found nor did the debris field reveal any elements of munitions. This does not rule out the possibility however since a huge sized ship like the Britannic have ample of space to conceal and store munitions in different locations if desired.

Exact measurement of the damaged bow section was made for the first time giving more hard evidence for scientists to compute with.

New information about the present state of the interior of the Britannic was revealed during massive penetrations deep inside the wreck. Even the funnels were subject for penetration by Ocean Discovery and GUE divers in the hunt for a passage down to the very bottom of the engine rooms in the quest for finding the watertight doors. The grand staircase, the command bridge and every cargo hold were videoed and documented.

Not only did the 1999 expedition provide new information which in its own made the project a success, it also produced stunning new video from the well preserved and beautiful wreck. Never before have the interior and hidden areas of the Britannic been explored and filmed in such a profound manner. Stunning high quality video will be edited and produced by Bud Burtsman, Brentwood Communications in Hollywood, USA

Diving The Britannic

Ocean Discovery member Richard Lundgren probably has more hours on the Britannic than anybody else in the world. He has participated in two expeditions to the wreck, the first in 1997 and the second in 1999. The following is a report of his impressions after the first dive on this majestic shipwreck.

The mother ship turns towards the down line where the RIB is moored. We are sitting on the railing fully equipped in dry suits, the weights and heat making us fatigued. Finally order comes, "Go, go, go!" and we hit the water simultaneously. The current is strong so we start the descent immediately and the team meets up and performs the safety check at 20 feet (6m). The ripping current makes us use our hands to pull down the line.

Water starts to leak into one of my dry suit cuffs. Back home in Sweden this would have been reason enough to turn the dive due to cold water, but quickly I decide that here in this 64° F (18° C) environment it won't be a problem, either for me or for the overall safety of the team. We shift to our travel gas at 100 feet (30m) and go on to our bottom mix of trimix 11/60.

At 215 feet (65m) I think I see something deep down there. The visibility is awesome, at 240 feet (70m) we can just make out the wreck so I start shooting video. We are still descending and finally hit the wreck at 300 feet (90m), just in front of the bridge. The Britannic rests on her side, beautifully lit by the ambient light and we can actually see the bottom down at 400 feet (120m), unbelievable! I feel as though I am on the Titanic, and while not completely true, it's close enough! I recognize every line and the shape of the bridge from old titanic movies and pictures.

Time passes quickly, already seven minutes of the planned 20 minutes of bottom time have passed. We swim toward the damaged section in front of the bridge and pass down through the 330 feet (100m) mark. I notice that one of my bottom timers has stopped working - it can't handle the pressure. My Suunto computer is still along for the ride and the video camera keeps rolling. My brother Ingemar, who holds the video lights, and Kirk Kavalaris the "model" for this shoot, begin their work. We keep on swimming through the damaged bow section, a disaster zone with bent plates, metal and the ship's inventory everywhere. It looks as if a giant violently ripped something out of the very heart of the Britannic.

We now turn the dive and swim up towards the bridge again. The shelter deck looks appealing so we swim in and follow it some distance before we turn up and follow the side of the hull towards the shot line. We see the open portholes that Dr Ballard had indicated during his earlier expedition. (The Britannic had steamed with open portholes to let fresh air out) just before picking up her new patients and some think this may have contributed to her rapid demise.

We have now reached the time limit set for this dive and begin our ascent. We have earned some serious decompression time and now face a total of almost three and a half hours "on the hang". Vivid impressions and deep feelings about the wreck comes up. We read some books, drink fluid and play "Game Boy", which all was provided by our ever present safety diver. Finally we get out of the water and up into the boat. Everybody chatters simultaneously. Life can't get better than this!

Text Richard Lundgren. Pictures from the 1999 GUE/Ocean Discovery project.