RMS Olympic; Old Reliable

(For a summary, go to the bottem of page)

The long life of the first sister

In 1907, the Cunard Line, the arch-rival of the White Star Line, released two new ships, Lusitania and Mauretania. Both ships could carry a large number of passengers and had a top speed of 24 knots. The White Star Line was losing people to Cunard. The fact was that the two new Cunarders were very luxurious, very fast, and steady. People would rather sail on these ships than any others. So, that same year, superintendent of the White Star Line and son of Thomas Ismay, J. Bruce Ismay went to the house of Lord Perrie, who was a member of the Harland & Wolff firm that built ships. Over a few cigars, they planned to build some huge and luxurious ships of their own.

Around 100 feet longer than the Cunard ocean liners, they would be very fast, big enough to carry 3500 people, and as luxurious as could be. Their overall length would be 882.5 feet, their beam or width would be 92.5 feet, they would be 60.5 feet from water line to boat deck, and 100.5 feet from the keel to the boat deck. The tops of each of the funnels would be 75 feet above the boat deck, and the masts would be almost twice as tall as the funnels. They'd be driven by three propellers that used two reciprocating engines that drove the wing-propellers (Three bladed, 24 ft (about 8 meters) in diameter) with a low pressure turbine in the middle
driving the center propeller (Four bladed, 16 ft (about 5 to six meters) in diameter). Each reciprocating engine would develop 15,000 horsepower, which meant that it would make thesame amount of energy as 15,000 horses. This would turn the propellers 75 times per minute.
The turbine would make about 16,000 horsepower which would turn the propellers 165 times per minute. They'd be able to travel at a top speed of 23 knots. If you don't know what a knot is, one knot equals 1.150779 miles (1.852 kilometers) per hour. The heat needed to run all this would come from 29, three story high boilers. Each engine would be four stories high. They would be the largest steamers, and the largest moving objects, in the world!

The first two of these ships were build next to each other in a specially constructed building slip in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Although the original plans for the ships had them with three funnels, a dummy funnel was added simply for show. It served as a ventilator. On December 16, 1908, the keel of Olympic, the first liner, was laid in slip No. 2 on the North Yard of Harland & Wolff Ship-yards. Three months later, the keel for the second ship, Titanic, was laid next to it in slip No. 3. Over the next two years, the two "Olympic-class" ocean liners began to take shape. Although Titanic would end up being slightly bigger, for now, all eyes were on Olympic.

The two ships were virtually identical. The only major way to tell the exteriors of the two liners apart, is the promenade on A-deck, just under the boat deck. On Olympic, the deck is open it's entire length. On Titanic however, the deck was only open half of it's length. The other half was covered with large windows.

The Olympic-class liners were more luxurious in many ways. For example, although the Cunarders and the Olympic-classers had elevators, Olympic and Titanic had three elevators (or "lifts") in first class and one lift in second class. This was a huge luxury second class. Second class also had a very nice dinning saloon. There was also the second class lounge or library as they called it, which was just as nice as the first class lounge. There was also a second class barber shop, as well as one in first. Other features for passengers were the squash courts, the Turkish Bath (which was a steam room), the Verandah Cafe, the A la Carte Restaurant, even a swimming pool. Perhaps the most famous features onboard Olympic and Titanic were the first class stairways. There were actually two of them. The forward stairway was between the first and second funnels. The first class elevators were located here. The aft grand stairway was between the third and fourth funnels.

First class stewardess, Violet Jessop, described Olympic in her memoirs. "I got a fresh thrill every time I went through Olympic's beautiful state-rooms, the Adam's room, the Regency room, the Dutch, Georgian and so on, with there exquisite wood work and sumptuous silk furnishings. I have always maintained that never before or since have such materials of so perfect a quality been used to fit any ship. The names of all the 'best families' appeared on the passenger list, eager as all Americans are 'to be there'."

Accommodations in third class were very good too. The third class had a general room, which was basically a lounge, and they had a smoking room. Although there's wasn't as luxurious as the one in first class, steerage had a very nice dinning saloon. On the Olympic-class liners, third class accommodations were very good, compared to the "coffin ships" of the 1800's.

On June 14, 1911, the Royal Mail Ship Olympic, left Great Britain on her maiden voyage under the command of Captain Edward John Smith. The ship's 1,313 passengers included some of the world's richest and most famous people. Although Olympic could carry 2600 to 2700 passengers, she wasn't completely filled because it was her first crossing. On board her, was J. Bruce Ismay. During the voyage, he spent his time wandering the ship. He noticed that the B-deck promenade was hardly used by the passengers. Most of them used the A-deck promenade. Before Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage ten months later, he made sure that some changes were made to that ship. On B-deck, he added first class cabins. They
included two huge state-rooms (one on each side). Each room was accompanied by a 60-foot, private promenade. Ismay also added two new cabins on A-deck, an enclosed forward promenade on B-deck, and a restaurant just off the B-deck aft grand stairway called the Cafe` Parisien. Although Olympic would also get these features added to her in a few years, for now, only Titanic had them, and they would be the only internal differences between the ships.

Olympic's maiden voyage was a complete success. She had flawlessly crossed the Atlantic at an average of 21.7 knots. The ship's next few voyages were just as good. But disaster struck at the beginning of the fifth crossing. It was just after noon on the twentieth of September, 1911, when Olympic left Southampton and proceeded down the Spithead Channel, the water between the British mainland and the Isle of Wight, on her way to the English Channel and Cherbourg, France to pick up her next load of passengers. Suddenly, the Edgar-class cruiser, HMS Hawke, of the British Royal Navy, was seen in the fog. The war ship began to get sucked in to the Olympic by her huge propellers. Collision was unavoidable and the Hawke rammed into Olympic's starboard side. The Hawke nearly capsized before she broke away. In
the end, Olympic was left with a triangle shaped gash in her side and a damaged propeller. The Hawke was left with a badly damaged bow. Luckily, no one was killed. Both ships limped to
the nearest port.

This disaster led people to wonder if the huge Olympic-class liners were as safe as people thought they were. However, other shipping lines were already announcing that they were planning to built ships bigger that the Olympic. The risk of these giants was more to smaller ships that got to close. When Olympic returned to service a few months later after extensive repairs in Belfast, she was still the most popular ship around. In fact, this accident helped her career in that, it supported the idea that she was "unsinkable".

Sadly, the glory of Olympic lasted only a year. It ended suddenly when her sister, Titanic, struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank. About 1500 of the 2220 passengers and crew on her at the time, died. Although Capt. Herbert Haddock tried to help, Olympic was more than 500 miles from Titanic's position and couldn't do anything. As soon as Olympic reached England, White Star quickly added twenty-four collapsible lifeboats in addition to the twenty boats already on her, in hopes to make her passengers and crew feel safer. However, at the last minute, the crew deserted because they wanted standard boats that were properly installed. Quickly, a new crew was put together. However, passengers disliked them because of their inexperience.

White Star realized that they needed to do more that just put extra lifeboats on the ship. So, they pulled Olympic out of service for six months to put in better safety features. They extended bulkheads up and gave the ship a double skin. This increased her width by two feet. Now, she could stay afloat with her first six water-tight compartments flooded, unlike Titanic which could only stay afloat with her fist four damaged. They also extended the lifeboat row along the entire length of the boat deck. Inside each boat was two to three smaller ones. Two
boats were installed on the poop deck in the aft part of the ship, plus extra collapsibles. The Olympic then had a total of sixty-eight lifeboats.

While White Star was putting better safety features in their flag ship, they also added the first class cabins and the huge staterooms on B-deck with the private promenades. The enclosed promenade and the Cafe` Parisien, which had proved very popular on Titanic, was also added.
She re-entered service in 1913.

However, on June 28 of 1914, terrorist group member Gavrilo Princip (who happened to be Serbian), shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Imperial throne, Archduke Ferdinand, and his wife, Archduchess Sophie, in Sarajevo, the capital of what was then the Austrian province of Bosnia. Since the Austria-Hungarian Empire (now the countries of Austria, Hungary, Slovokia, the Czech Republic, and the former Yugoslavia) hated Serbia, they used this incident to declare war on the small country a month later.

However, Serbia and Austria had many alliances with other nations of Europe. An alliance is an agreement made between two countries saying that if one country is in trouble, the other will help out. Within a few short months, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) had sided with Austria. They're called the Central Powers. Russia, France, Great Britain, and many others, had sided with Serbia. They're called the Allies. Had there been no alliances, there would have been a small war between Serbia and the empire and Austria probably would have won. But now, many countries were drawn in. The "Great War" as they came to call it, had begun.

The Olympic remained in commercial service after the beginning of the war. However, the British Admiralty began pulling commercial ships out of service and using them for war duties
shortly after the beginning of the war. White Star decided to let Olympic make one more round trip from England before sending her to Belfast to be laid up. On the way to New York, the ship was packed with Americans and Canadians who wanted to get out of Europe and away from the war. On the way back, she was filled with Europeans who were eager to get home to their

It was 10:30 am off the coast of Ireland on her way back to England, when Olympic was spotted by the British cruiser, HMS Liverpool. The captain of this ship ordered her to help evacuate the crew of the battleship, HMS Audacious, which had struck a mine and was now sinking. The Liverpool could not do very much because she was too small a ship. Olympic's Capt. Haddock began helping at once. By 12:30, most of the damaged battleship's crew had been evacuated.

Arrangements were now made to try to tow the Audacious to shore. Unfortunately, every time Olympic tried to tow her, the towing cable snapped. After a few hours, it was decided that the remaining crew members of Audacious should be taken off. By 6:30, the entire crew had been evacuated. This was a good thing because shortly after that, Audacious suddenly capsized and quickly foundered, stern first.

After dropping off the sunken battleship's crew and her passengers, Olympic went to Belfast, Northern Ireland were she was laid up. After the ship spent ten months sitting and doing nothing here, the British Admiralty sent this message to the White Star Line:
"SS Olympic required for urgent Government service. Owners had been requested to prepare her and you should render any assistance required."

So, after spending almost a year in Belfast, Olympic was finally commissioned as a naval
transport in September of 1915. She was painted in very dazzling colors, with very bright geometric shapes on a yellow background, to confuse enemy submarines. On September 24, 1915, the newly designated HMT (His Majesty's Transport) Olympic, transport ship No. T2810, left Liverpool on her first trooping voyage, bound for Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos. She was put under the command of Capt. Bertram F. Hays, who replaced Capt. Haddock who was appointed to a special position in Belfast.

During her first voyage, she rescued the survivors of the French liner, Provincia, which had been sunk by and enemy submarine. On her second England to Mudros trips, she joined her younger sister Britannic, which was serving as a hospital ship. After her next few voyages, the Olympic was assigned to transport Canadian troops across the Atlantic and to the war fronts. By the end of 1916, she had completed ten Canada / Europe voyages.

In early 1917, Olympic was re-fitted for war service. During this time she was given five inch guns for submarine defense. Two days after she re-entered service in April of that year, America declared war on Germany. In December, the ship was assigned to carry American troops to Europe. It was in May 1918 during her twenty-second troop carrying voyage that the
Olympic was attacked by the German submarine U-103 in the English Channel. The torpedo shot at her luckily missed. It was then that Olympic turned on the U-boat and rammed it! U-103 quickly began to sink and some of her crew managed to escape and were picked up by the passing American destroyer, USS Davis.

In November of 1918, the last Central Power, Germany, surrendered to the Allies and the war ended. During the First World War, Olympic had transported 41,000 civilian passengers, 66,000 troops, and12,000 members of Chinese labor battalion. She had gone 184,000 miles and burned 347,000 tons of coal. Because of her outstanding war record, she earned the nick-name "Old Reliable".

Unfortunately, the war was not as good as Olympic's record. A casualty is a person in the military that is killed, hurt, or taken prisoner. In Great Britain alone, there were more than three million casualties. Russia, which had left the war in 1917, had more than triple that. The total casualties for the Allies, which was made up of more than ten countries, was more than twenty-two million. The Central Powers had more than fifteen million. The total casualties for the First World War was more than thirty-seven million people. This meant that of all the troops sent
to fight in the war, 57.6 percent were either killed, hurt, or taken prisoner.

With the "Great War" now over, Olympic was returned to the White Star Line and the HMT Olympic was re-designated, RMS Olympic. Converted to oil and modernized by and interior renovation, she was still one of the most marvelous and luxurious ships. In 1921, actor Charlie Chaplain went to England on her. That same year, she carried Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII of Great Britain). In 1922, Capt. Alec Hambleton was put in command of the liner. Of all the Olympic's captains, Hambleton's command was one of the best. Not a single bad incident of any kind occurred under his command. Twelve months later, Capt. Huge David was installed. David's command was also good, with the exception of a minor fire in one of the 1st class state-rooms.

By 1923, Capt. David had been replaced by Capt. J. Howarth. Also by that time, the United States had passed laws restricting the amount of immigrants allowed to enter the country. This meant that there were less passengers traveling in 3rd class (because a large portion of passengers in this class were immigrants). The Olympic's career was entering one of it's lowest ebbs. In 1924, as she was backing out of Pier 59 in New York City, she collided with the smaller ship, Fort St. George. Also, many newer ships where threatening to take Olympic's rank with the line.

Under the command of the ship's next captain, William Marshall, a bunch of new problems came. The Olympic was an old ship. She had to adapt to stay in business. The classes of second and third were changed to become Tourist Cabin and Tourist Third Cabin. Accommodations in these new classes were different from what they had been originally. The line also added new features like a cinema and a children's room. After these hassles were completed, Capt. Marshall was put in command of the more modern ship, Majestic, so Capt. Walter Parker was now placed in command of the ship.

Unfortunately, a member of the crew died on Parker's first voyage as commander of Olympic. A few voyages later, another crew member fell from the bridge and died of a fractured skull. However, besides these unfortunate mishaps, Parker's command was overall good. He retired in late 1929, and Capt. E.R. White assumed command. By now however, Olympic's days were numbered. Many cracks were found in the hull of the now, twenty year old liner. Also, the White Star Line was beginning to crumble due to problems caused by The Great Depression. Shortly before that, the White Star Line's parent company, the International Mercantile Marine (IMM), folded. This meant that the White Star Line, along with all the other companies owned by the IMM, was on it's own for the first time since it was bought in 1902.
The directors of the line now had to run in without the support of their parent company.

On May 15, 1934, Olympic rammed the Nantucket lightship in heavy fog and seven of the eleven crew members were killed. That same year, the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line. The new name of the company became Cunard-White Star. Years after that, Cunard bought White Star's remaining shares and took over it's assets. The name then went back to Cunard.

In March of 1935, the Royal Mail Ship Olympic made her final trip to New York before being sold, stripped, and in 1937, completely scrapped. Many of her artifacts were sold and are now in private homes, museums, and hotels. The Olympic was truly a great ship. She didn't deserve the demise that she got. She is one of the largest ships ever to sail the sea, and one of the greatest.


RMS Olympic on a White Star Line post card in the 1920's.


Another picture of Olympic at the end of a trans-atlantic crossing. Notice the open promanade deck (A-deck), that distinguishes Olympic from Titanic. Click here to see a picture of Titanic so that you can compare.

Summary:The Royal Mail Ship Olympic was the first Olympic-class ship to be build by the White Star Line. Work began on her in 1908 and ended in 1910. She left England on her maiden voyage in mid-1911 and reached New York City a few days later. During World War One (1914-1918) she served as a troop transport. After the war she was returned to the White Star Line and served once again as a passenger liner until 1934, when the line merged with another company. In 1935 she was sold and scrapped. Many of her funtishings were sold and are now in private homes, museums, and hotels.

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