Monday, May 4, 2009
A Casualty of War
The Britannic was the Titanic's younger sister ship. She took her older sisters place as the biggest, the safest, and the most luxurious ship flying the British flag. Only the outbreak of World War 1 had prevented her from joining White Star Line's fleet of luxury liners. Her fancy fittings were put into storage, the promenade deck was crowded with hospital beds and the first class dinning room was made the intensive care ward.
Nurse Sheila Macbeth stayed in an unfinished first class cabin. This next voyage was to be her sixteenth. Hospital ship or passenger liner her wanderings must have been fascinating this being Titanic's younger sister.With every bed full, the Britannic could carry 3,309 patients. Only the Aquatania could carry more, almost 4,200 more. The Britannic would remain empty until she reached the Mediterranean theaters. The nurses and doctors had nothing to do but make sure the hospital was ready for its patients. Nurse Macbeth spent the first part of the voyage making beds but still found time for a morning gymnastics class and an afternoon swim in the first class pool. On the Britannic’s previous voyage she returned with every bed full and it took fifteen hospital trains to transport the casualties from Southampton.
In theory, the Britannic was safe from attack under the Geneva Convention. But the Germans suspected hospital ships of secretly transporting troops, a charge that would be laid against the Britannic after she sank.
Tuesday morning dawned as perfect a day as November in the Mediterranean could offer. Reverend Fleming rose early to admire the sunrise. The water was as glass and the sun shone on it with a dazzling brilliance. At around 8:00 a.m., the Army Medical Corps had finished breakfast in their mess hall. But the nurses, doctors, and officers were still eating in the dinning room which was meant for the third class passengers. On the bridge, a watch change was under way. Most of the water tight doors were left open to allow the crew to transfer.
Nurse Macbeth had slept in late. As she seated her self for breakfast, there was a loud bang and the ship shuttered from one end to the other! The Britannic had just struck a German mine.
The seriousness’ of the situation was not clear to the people in the middle or stern of the ship, but for those in the bow it was obvious the ship was in deep trouble. The water gushed from G deck to E deck in a matter of minutes. Already the forward part of the ship was in ruins. Captain Bartlett nosed the ships bow to the island of Kea. As the ships engines started the, the Britannic began to sink even faster. Quickly he ordered an all stop. In the dinning room everyone was ordered to remain in their seats. According to nurse Sheila "there was only a most unnatural silence."
Once the alarm was sounded they were aloud to leave, but the evacuation was quiet and orderly. Sheila headed strait for her cabin. Quickly she grabbed a coat, pillow, and lifebelt. Before she left she took one last glance at her homely cabin. As she headed down the hall, the chatter of other nurses and doctors was the only thing the that kept her from noticing how bad the ship was leaning. In the time Sheila took to get up to the Boat deck, the Britannic's condition grew from serious to grave. The mine had blown up the bulk head, sealing off the forepeak and wrecked the water tight doors in the fireman’s passage that led aft to boiler room No. 6, the maximum amount before a ship sinks. ( The Germans were evil in both World Wars. They were like the Devil a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. If every German were like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the world would never have gone to war).
Since boiler room No. 5 was well aft of the explosion, the water tight doors should have worked properly, but they failed to close. Soon boiler room No. 6 was flooded and inoperable. On the Boat deck two life boats were lowered without permission. They were caught in the propellers that were just breaking surface. Seventy people were either killed or wounded.
The Britannic was now severely listing, her bow was almost under water. The nurses and army medical corps were assembled on the Promenade deck, quietly waiting their turn. Major Priestly took charge of the orderlies. He kept his troops in line only allowing five men out on deck at a time.
A group of firemen took over a lifeboat on the poop deck and rowed it away half empty. they were persuaded to pick up swimmers after the ship went down. A lot of boats were launched without seamen on board. In Sheila's boat most of the nurses took the oars. However, the ship was soon empty. Her bow completely under water, her starboard list increasing, and her propellers slowly turning in thin air. Captain Barlett stayed on the bridge to the last, directing the evacuation with a megaphone. He sounded the abandon ship alert, and one long blow on the ships whistle, then stepped off the starboard bridge wing into the water. As he pulled himself into a collapsible boat, he turned to watch his command disappear.
Slowly the water drowned the deck. Each of her four funnels crashed into the water. The boilers let out death defying explosions. Then, like a giant leviathan, the Britannic reared up until she was somewhat vertical, then disappeared beneath the Mediterranean waves at a 395 ft depth.
The time was 9:07 am. roughly 55 minutes after the single deadly explosion had interrupted a routine morning. In less than an hour, the largest British built ship afloat had vanished, leaving behind 35 lifeboats on an empty sea