Seeing Her Off

The Titanic’s Sister Ship Olympic


By James Donahue


Everybody knows about the fate of the White Star Liner Titanic. What they may not remember is that the Titanic was one of a trio of four-stacker luxury liners built by Harland and Wolff at about the same time to carry passengers on an Atlantic route between New York and the UK.


The Olympic was the first of the three, and it was followed by the Titanic and then the Britannic. In their day these were the largest liners in the world, and unsurpassed in grandeur. For example, the Olympic was fitted with the first swimming pool on a transatlantic liner. It also boasted a Turkish bath, seven different styles of décor for first class cabins, and lush greenery in the Palm Court. Her forward grand staircase was said to have been “something beyond beautiful.”


Launched in the fall of 1910, a few months ahead of the Titanic, the Olympic was completed and preparing for its maiden voyage the day the Titanic was launched. Viewers of the Titanic’s spectacular launch were then treated to a grand tour of the Olympic, moored nearby.


During her years at sea, the Olympic was involved in four ship collisions. The first occurred on its maiden trip as the big liner, under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith, was entering New York harbor. A tug was accidentally sucked in under the Olympic and severely damaged. There was no damage to the liner.


On her fifth voyage, on Sept. 20, 1911, the Olympic collided with the British Cruiser HMS Hawke. The Hawke’s bow was smashed and the Olympics’ hull was punctured in two places, one above the waterline and one below. Two of the ship’s watertight compartments were flooded. She put off her passengers by tender at Cowes and steamed to the Harland and Wolff shipyard for repairs.


The third collision was done intentionally. While serving as a troop ship during the First World War the German submarine U-103 fired a torpedo at Olympic and missed. The captain turned his liner on the sub and successfully rammed and sank it.


Finally, in 1934, only weeks before her retirement, the Olympic rammed and sank the Nantucket Light Ship, killing seven of the lightship’s crew.


The Titanic disaster had an effect on the Olympic. Because of all of the stories, many of the Olympics’ passengers and even some crew members refused to board her until there was sufficient lifeboat capacity for all. There were not enough davits to hold so many lifeboats so the decks were littered with all sorts of life rafts and boats until more permanent modifications could be made. When she returned to the shipyard, she not only was redesigned to carry the extra lifeboats, but her double bottom was extended up her sides to a point above the water line. Also her bulkheads were extended higher and strengthened.


During the war the Olympic was seized with all of the other British liners for trooping. She survived the war, although was involved in the sinking of a German U-Boat, as told above. Also she rescued the crew of the steamer Audacious after that vessel struck a mine. The Olympics’ crew even attempted to tow the Audacious to shore, but the attempt was unsuccessful and the Audacious was lost.


After the war the Olympic was converted back for service as a passenger liner and she was converted from a coal burner to an oil-burner. Now she was put into service with two former German liners, the Majestic and Homeric, both seized during the war. The Olympic remained a popular passenger liner and earned the nickname “Old Reliable.”


The Great Depression marked the beginning of the end of the Olympic, as it did for many fine liners of that era. As passenger numbers dropped and profits declined, the ship’s maintenance was neglected. It was said that only the port side of the ship was being maintained and that was the side the passengers saw on arrival and departure.


When the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line in 1934, a number of the older ships were sold and scrapped. The Olympic was among the vessels that were retired.


In April, 1935, the Olympic was laid up next to the Mauretania, her former rival, in Southampton. The two great liners were both scrapped.


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