H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
With the danger of stating the obvious, Britannic is a very important wreck from a historic as well as from an archaeological perspective. The mammoth ship was built at 'Harland & Wolff Ltd' of Belfast in 1915 on order of the ‘Oceanic Steam Navigation Co Ltd’ (White Star Line). She had a registered length of 259.8 meters and a gross registered tonnage of 48,1581. Her propulsion plant consisted of two 4-cylinder triple expansion engines and a LP steam turbine driving three screw propellers to give her a service speed of 21 knots. She was the third of White Star Line’s mammoth transatlantic liners, the first two being Olympic and Titanic. Britannic never ran on the North Atlantic as her Owners planned. The ship was launched on 26 February 1914 and was still under construction when the war broke out in August. In 1915 the Admiralty ordered her completion as a hospital ship2 and she was commissioned on the 8th of December of the same year. She was thereafter used for the needs of the Dardanelles campaign until her loss.
Britannic sunk after hitting a mine during a voyage from Southampton to Mudros. On 21 November 1916 she was steaming northbound in the Kea Channel, when at 08:12 in the morning there was an explosion on her forward starboard side between holds No2 and No3. At first, her Master Cptn Bartlett RNR thought that she could be saved by beaching her in the nearby coast of Kea, so he gave orders to make way in that direction. Soon however, it became obvious that the ship would not stay afloat long enough, so she was abandoned. She finally sunk moments after 9 a.m. Survivors were picked up by British and French ships as well as boats from the island of Kea. Some lifeboats made it to the island on their own. The weather was calm and the evacuation was conducted in an orderly way. Despite that, thirty lives were lost, twenty one of her crew and nine of the RAMC complement. While at first there was some confusion whether the ship was torpedoed or hit a mine, at the end of the day however, the Admiralty concluded that she was mined. German official records state that the mines were laid by U 73 (Kptlt Siess) during the boat’s patrol from 22 October to 07 November 1916. U 73 laid in total 12 mines in the Kea Channel which also claimed the French auxilliary cruiser Burdigala.
Britannic’s wreck was discovered in 1975 by Jacque-Yves Cousteau whose teams were also the first to explore her. At this point it is worth mentioning that following’s Cousteau’s expedition, Kostas Thoctarides was the first Greek to dive her in 1995. Since then numerous expeditions were conducted to the wreck with varying objectives3.
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On October 2012 together with Kostas Thoctarides and with the support of his facility, Planet Blue Diving Center, we dived the wreck of the HMHS Britannic. The object of the venture was to photograph parts of her, the first in a series of expeditions with the ultimate goal to photo document the wreck as fully as possible.
A total of four dives was made in the course of the expedition. During the first three we visited the forward part of the wreck and during the fourth her stern area. Our primary task was to do some introductory photo shooting and get acquainted with the site, depths, conditions, current, visibility, etc. We were also asked to investigate a particular spot on the wreck which we did during the second dive.
Contrary to popular belief, diving the Britannic was demanding but not that much. Despite she lying at a depth of 117 meters logistics were relatively easy. That is mainly due to the fact that the wreck site is only a short distance from Athens and even closer to Lavrion and Planet Blue Diving Center - the expedition’s base. Easy accessibility granted us the option to keep bottom times relatively short – twenty minutes down at the wreck for a total dive time of about two and a half hours and to dive mainly on OC avoiding the complications of rebreathers (although pSCRs were also used). The weather once again proved to be the critical factor. Overcast skies did not exactly help with taking photos in that depth, while during some days diving was out of the question due to strong winds. Having gained valuable knowledge about the wreck and the site, we aspire to return in subsequent expeditions and proceed with the task in hand.
Due mention must be made to the fact that the wreck of the Britannic is now a protected site. The dives were done with the permission of the Greek Ministry of Culture (Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Dr Aggeliki Simosi) and Mr Simon Mills. Both have been very helpful and accommodating and we wish to thank them for that. Our thanks also go to Michail Michailakis for his assistance in mounting this expedition in a relatively short notice.