The Titanic Historical Society

To Hell And Back

The Maiden Voyage of Britannic

Part Two

by Simon Mills

the ship on F and G decks. The fact that they were so low in the ship, however, also brought its problems, as two of the wards were already under water from a leaking porthole and the back pressure from a faulty valve in ship's tank, which was allowing water to pump back through the sink.

To further add to the problems, practically everyone on board was feeling the effects of a strong squally half gale from the southwest so it was just as well that few on board had very much to do. The following morning proved no different, with the conditions being so rough that breakfast was very thinly attended. The midday lecture by Professor Squires and Dr. Risk on the virtues of urea as antiseptic proved beneficial, but, more importantly, Colonel Anderson's comment that the medical staff would only have six days only to treat the wounded once they were on board provided the first positive hint that Britannic was actually bound for the Mediterranean. At midday the daily run of 426 miles was published and when it was learnt that the ship had passed Cape Finisterre it was clear that they were headed for Gibraltar.

That night the ship continued to roll so badly that one of the tables in Goodman's cabin even overturned. Christmas morning was equally squally, but following the 11.00 a.m. Church of England service in the saloon, which had been decorated with holly and mistletoe for the occasion, Colonel Anderson took the opportunity to advise his assembled staff of their embarkation duties. For Dr. Goodman and his colleagues in F, L, M, N, and V wards it would be a relatively straightforward matter as they were well served by the forward lifts.

And so the voyage continued. The daily run to midday on 25th December amounted to another 443 miles and there was at least a little excitement when three small tramp steamers hove into view as the ship was passing Cape St. Vincent, as they were the first vessels that had been sighted in days. Early the next morning, Britannic, illuminated by huge searchlights from the shore, slipped quietly through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of the calmer sea conditions, at 11.30 a.m. Captain Bartlett called all hands to boat stations and just after lunch the latest daily run was published, confirming that in the last twenty four hours Britannic had clocked up another 455 miles. The engines were working themselves up nicely. The next day was not so encouraging, covering only 416 miles, but during the afternoon Britannic skirted the southern coast of Sardinia and that evening the first official ship's concert was held in the R.A.M.C. mess.

The morning of 28th December was a hazy one, but by 8.30 a.m. Goodman was already up on deck gazing at the distant island of Capri just as Britannic was entering the Bay of Naples. He could clearly see the ruins of Tiberius' palace and the 700 ft. into sea where the Roman emperor had had the playful habit of dropping his victims to feed the lobsters. The views of Vesuvius from the harbour were no less awesome, which was just as well because very few were being allowed ashore. Instead all they could do was watch the activities of the coaling lighters that were lying alongside all day.

The following day was set to be equally dull, but after lecturing the orderlies and overseeing the wards, which were getting straighter by the hour, Doctors Goodman, Urwick, Anderson and Bachelor were given passes to go shore in the motor launch. After landing at the Arsenal step at 10.30 a.m. they walked through park to the Aquarium, thence to Cooks to change their money (owing to prohibition of export of bullion the exchange rate came as a rather unpleasant surprise), but a stroll to the Bertholmi lift and lunch at the hotel at the top were worth the sacrifice. Unfortunately it could not last forever; their orders were to be back on board at 2 p.m. because two hours later Britannic was once again outward bound.

For the early risers the next twenty-four hours would be memorable. By 5.00 a.m. the glowing volcanic island of Stromboli could be clearly seen on the starboard horizon and two hours later the snow-capped Mount Etna was in sight. Britannic finally entered the Straits of Messina at 8.00 a.m. where the ruins of the 1908 earthquake could still clearly be seen, and for Colonel Anderson this had to be one of the most poignant moments of the voyage because in January 1909 it had been he who instigated the British earthquake relief party while serving on Malta. As Scylla and Charybdis drew astern it was back to business as usual. 9.00 a.m. brought with it another embarkation drill which was to keep everyone busy in the wards until lunch, but already it was clear that the tempo on board had noticeably changed. Mudros was now barely thirty hours away and with the Eastern Mediterranean crawling with enemy U-boats the sudden increase in speed was quite obvious, so to take their minds off the looming peril that evening the medical staff were treated to an informal lecture in the lounge by Professor Squires on Virgil's Aeneid.

The following morning, and with Mudros now only hours away, the orderlies were finally allocated to their duty watches, while Colonel Anderson and Captain Bartlett made their final two-hour tour of the wards to ensure that everything was in place. Four hours later Britannic was finally passing through the defensive nets which guarded the Bay of Mudros and the enormous quantity shipping of all descriptions in the harbour. The ship anchored inside the boom in 13 fathoms of water, with the hospital ships, Dunluce Castle, Grantully Castle, Egypt, Gloucester Castle and Assegai already lying nearby.

To Dr. Goodman the whole aspect of Lemnos appeared to be very hilly and utterly barren, with the shore and slopes covered with tents and encampments. It was actually quite bleak, but in truth there was little time to appreciate the surroundings anyway because at 7.00 p.m., without any apparent warning, the P&O hospital ships Assegai and Egypt arrived alongside and immediately began to discharge their patients. For the first time Goodman began to appreciate just how large the White Star liner really was, as the funnels of the other two ships, which seemed like lighters alongside, only came up to Britannic's boat deck. To get around the problem the wounded came aboard onto D deck by gangways from the other vessel's upper decks, which were about level, but it was hard going nevertheless. For Dr. Goodman there would be no dinner until 11.00 p.m., by which time the 94 beds of V ward were full, ten stretcher cases had been taken to F ward and several others were allocated to L and M. There was, however, one fly in the ointment; the unscheduled evening transfer had taken everyone completely by surprise and with Colonel Anderson and Captain Bartlett both on shore the arrangements were probably not in accordance with their ideas.

But that was a matter for tomorrow. With all the patients given either chicken broth or cocoa before bed, by 11.00 p.m. the work was done, and just in time too, because at midnight Mudros exploded in a cacophony of sound as the hundreds of vessels sounded their sirens and eight bells, and continued to ring them as they saw in 1916. By the time he was ready for bed some two hours later, the war had been forgotten for a few hours at least, but Goodman's hope that the New Year might end differently was doubtless a wish shared by everyone in the world.

New Year's Day, however, was to prove no different from the last. Throughout the morning the patients continued to come aboard from the Egypt and Assegai, with Britannic a hive of activity throughout the day. The following day found the Asturias and Killman Castle alongside, with the first evacuated wounded from the shore, numbering approximately 1000, also being towed out on barges by a paddle tug. At 5.30 p.m. the hospital ship Aberdmain tied up along the portside and later that evening another barge arrived alongside carrying another batch of evacuated wounded officers from the shore.

As the transfer of invalids went on, the experiences of those who came on board proved varied. For Private R.E. Atkinson of the 29th Divisional Cyclist Company, who had arrived from Cairo on board the Dunluce Castle after being evacuated from Suvla Bay (Gallipoli), having contracted pleurisy several months earlier.

Like Dr. Goodman, Atkinson was amazed by the sheer size of Britannic. He finally got aboard at 10.00 a.m. on 1st January, but although he had departed from Dunluce Castle's well deck, he still had to go up five flights of stairs before emerging at the level of Britannic's boat deck. He was equally struck by the enormous width of the ship and the immense dining saloon like the Crystal Palace, with the ship's stewards looking just as white and sickly as on the other boats. Looking down the Dunluce Castle appeared no bigger than a trawler, and the S.S. Egypt on the other side looked equally small, while BritannicĀ¹s on board facilities, such as telephones, lifts, and swimming baths made the vessel seem more like a small town. Within four hours Atkinson had been placed in H ward, had been "marked up" by his allocated doctor, issued with his hospital suit and given a good dinner. As a result, all seemed well with the world or was it?

As the patients continued to come aboard the following day, Atkinson's first impressions had been cruelly shattered, an he was rapidly beginning to change his mind, as he recorded in his truncated diary:

"Grub is rotten, starvation, two slices for breakfast, dinner, stew in a basin, thought it was soup first course, but nothing else came up. Patients get nearly frozen waiting to get on from trawlers, some stretcher cases get douched with water from ship's side. Cocoa and hard biscuit for supper. Church in evening, gilt edge prayer books W.S.L. Cocoa and biscuits for supper."

Continued in Titanic Commutator No 160 Feb-April 2003

A complete biography of Britannic, including her war service, is presented in the book "Hostage to Fortune" available now in the Museum Shop.

Simon Mills
Simon Mills on Carolyn Chouest in the Aegean at the wreck site of the former White Star liner, His Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic.

Cathy Offinger, Eric Sauder and Dr. Robert Ballard
Cathy Offinger, Eric Sauder and Dr Robert Ballard on board Carolyn Chouest near Kea Island in the Aegean; underwater cameras are in the foreground.

Third class promenade on the poop deck looking aft
The third class promenade on the poop deck looking aft. The docking bridge can be seen at the top of the Welin davit fitted to the upper deck.

Underwater section of Britannic's stern
Underwater section of Britannic's stern showing the port wing propeller and center propeller.