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Book sets out to solve the mystery sinking of Britannic

The wreck of the Britannic lies on the ocean bed
The wreck of the Britannic lies on the ocean bed
The Britannic during its use as a hospital ship in 1915
Violet Jessop, the woman who survived the sinking of sister ships the Titanic and the Britannic
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

She was the Titanic's sister ship and she met a similar, tragic fate.

But few people are familiar with the story of the Belfast-built Britannic.

That's about to change, courtesy of a new book about a vessel that was even bigger than the Titanic - and sank in half the time.

Mystery of the Last Olympian: Titanic's Tragic Sister Britannic, was due to be released next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, but demand for it among Titanic aficionados has been so intense that pre-publication sales have already started.

Britannic, which was nearing completion at the Harland and Wolff shipyard when World War I erupted, never got the chance to replace her ill-fated White Star Line sister on the Southampton to New York route.

Instead, she was converted into a hospital ship but sank within an hour on just her fifth voyage, following a massive explosion on November 21, 1916.

Despite the catastrophe in the Aegean Sea, all but 30 of the 1,065 people on board - including stewardess Violet Jessop, who had survived the Titanic disaster - were rescued. The vessel, the largest ship to be lost during World War I, had been en route to pick up 3,000 ill and wounded soldiers.

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Co-author Richie Kohler - the world renowned diver and maritime historian, and the only man who has explored both the Titanic and Britannic wrecks - said the demise of the largest of White Star's Olympic class trio has been a mystery for nearly 100 years.

"I had two objectives when I dived to see the Britannic," said Kohler.

"The first was to see if Harland and Wolff had quietly made design changes to the ship's expansion joints, which would indicate that both Harland and White Star had reason to believe the Titanic had broken apart on the surface - a claim refuted at the time and not realised until the wreck was discovered.

"The second was to penetrate deep into Britannic and try to ascertain why that ship, which had higher watertight compartments and a double hull, sank nearly twice as fast as her more famous sister. But you'll have to read the book to see what was discovered."

Britannic was launched into Belfast Lough on February 26, 1914. The book begins with that launch and moves forward in time through multiple expeditions, beginning with the legendary undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, who located Britannic in 1975.

Apart from being intrigued by why Britannic sank so fast, Kohler and co-author Charlie Hudson try to unravel whether the vessel was, as the British press at the time reported, torpedoed by the Germans - which shouldn't have happened to a hospital ship - or whether it was ineptly steered into a minefield, as claimed by Berlin.

They also touch on the story of the remarkable Ms Jessop. "In descending on the silent Britannic, you see the promenade deck where pretty Violet Jessop once walked - Violet, a young woman serving as a stewardess, whose destiny was oddly linked to the tragedies of the Olympian ships," said Kohler.

Ms Jessop, who died in 1971, aged 83, served on all three of the great Belfast ships, and was on the Olympic when it collided with HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight in 1911. Both vessels were badly damaged, but they survived and no-one was seriously injured.

Violet, the daughter of Irish immigrants who settled in Argentina, was one of the Titanic survivors rescued by the Carpathia following the 1912 tragedy.

Belfast Telegraph


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