History and Construction
J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, and William Pirrie, the chairman ofHarland and Wolff shipyard, intended the Olympic-class ships to surpass rival Cunard's largest ships, Lusitania and Mauretania, in size and luxury. Construction of the Olympic began three months before Titanic to ease pressures on the shipyard. Several years would pass before Gigantic (renamed Britannic after Titanic's sinking) was constructed with post-Titanic modifications.
The launch of the Olympic. In order to accommodate the construction of the class, Harland and Wolff upgraded their facility in Belfast; the most dramatic change was the combining of three slipways into two larger ones. Olympic's keel was laid in December 1908 and she was launched on 20 October 1910. For her launch, the hull was painted in a light grey colour for photographic purposes (a common practice of the day for the first ship in a new class, as it made the lines of the ship clearer in the black and white photographs). Her hull was repainted following the launch.
Her maiden voyage commenced on 14 June 1911. Designer Thomas Andrews was present for the passage to New York and return, along with a number of engineers, as part of Harland and Wolff's "Guarantee Group" to spot areas for improvement. Olympic had a cleaner, sleeker look than other ships of the day: rather than fitting her with bulky exterior air vents, Harland and Wolff used smaller air vents with electric fans, with a "dummy" fourth funnel used for additional ventilation. For the powerplant Harland and Wolff employed a combination of reciprocating engines with a centre low-pressure turbine, as opposed to the steam turbines used on Cunard's Lusitania and Mauretania. White Star claimed the Olympic class's engine set-up to be more economical than expansion engines or turbines alone. Olympic consumed 650 tons of coal per twenty four hours with an average speed of 21.7 knots on her maiden voyage, compared to 1000 tons of coal per twenty four hours for both the Lusitania and Mauretania.
Olympic's first major mishap occurred on 20 September 1911, when she collided with a British warship, HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight. Although the incident resulted in the flooding of two of her compartments and a twisted propeller shaft, Olympic was able to return to Southampton under her own power.
At the subsequent inquiry the Royal Navy blamed Olympic for the incident, alleging that her large displacement generated a suction that pulled Hawke into her side. In command during this incident was Captain Edward Smith, who was lost at sea a year later onboard Titanic. One crew member, Violet Jessop, survived not only the collision with the Hawke but also the later sinking of Titanic and the 1916 sinking of Britannic, the third ship of the class.
World War I
Olympic in dazzle camouflage while in service as a troopship during World War I. In World War I, Olympic initially remained in commercial service under Captain Herbert Haddock. She sailed from New York on 20 October 1914 for Britain, though carrying very few passengers, as Germany had announced that her U-boats would sink theOlympic on sight and most of the passengers had cancelled.
On the sixth day of her voyage, the Royal Navy alerted Haddock that four U-boats were pursuing his ship and ordered him to head north for Glasgow instead of continuing into the English Channel. On 27 October, as the Olympic passed near Lough Swilly, she received distress signals from HMS Audacious, which had struck a mine off Tory Island and was taking on water.
The Olympic took off 250 of the Audacious crew, then the destroyer HMS Fury managed to attach a tow cable between Audacious and Olympic and they headed west for Lough Swilly. However, the cable parted after the Audacious steering gear failed. A second attempt was made to tow the warship, but the cable became tangled in HMS Liverpools propellers and was severed, and a third attempt also failed when the cable gave way. By 17:00 the Audacious quarterdeck was awash and it was decided to evacuate the remaining crew members to Olympic and Liverpool, and at 20:55 there was an explosion aboard the Audacious and she sank.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander of the Home Fleet, was anxious to suppress the news of the sinking of Audacious, for fear of the demoralizing effect it could have on the British public, so ordered Olympic to be held in custody at Lough Swilly. No communications were permitted and passengers were not allowed to leave the ship. The only people departing her were the crew of the Audacious and Chief Surgeon John Beaumont, who was transferring to RMS Celtic. Steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab, who was travelling aboard the liner, sent word to Jellicoe that he had urgent business in London with the Admiralty, and Jellicoe agreed to release Schwab if he remained silent about the fate of Audacious. Finally, on 2 November, Olympic was allowed to go to Belfast where the passengers disembarked.
Following Olympic's return to Britain, the White Star Line intended to lay her up in Belfast until the war was over, but in September 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty to be used as a fast troop transport. Stripped of her peacetime fittings, and armed with 12-pounders and 4.7-inch guns, the newly-designated HMT (His Majesty's Transport) 2810 left Liverpool on 24 September 1915, carrying soldiers to Mudros, Greece for the Gallipoli campaign. On 1 October she sighted lifeboats from the French ship Provincia which had been sunk by a U-boat that morning off Cape Matapan and picked up 34 survivors.
From 1916 to 1917, Olympic was chartered by the Canadian Government to transport troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain. In 1917 she gained 6-inch guns and was painted with a "dazzle" camouflage scheme to make it more difficult for observers to estimate her speed and heading. After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Olympic transported thousands of U.S. troops to Britain.
Sinking of U-103 In the early hours of 12 May 1918, while en route for France with US troops under the command of Captain Bertram Fox Hayes, Olympic sighted a surfaced U-boat 500 m (1,600 ft) ahead. Her gunners opened fire at once, and she turned to ram the submarine, which immediately crash dived to 30 m (98 ft) and turned to a parallel course. Almost immediately afterwards Olympic struck the submarine just aft of her conning tower and her port propeller sliced through U-103's pressure hull. The crew of U-103 blew her ballast tanks and scuttled and abandoned the submarine. This is the only known incident in World War I in which a merchant vessel sank an enemy warship. Olympic returned to Southampton with at least two hull plates dented and her prow twisted to one side, but not breached.
Olympic did not stop, but continued on to Cherbourg. The USS Davis sighted a distress flare and picked up 31 survivors from U-103. It was discovered that U-103 had been preparing to torpedo the Olympic when she was sighted, but the crew could not flood the two stern torpedo tubes'
During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel, burning 347,000 tons of coal and travelling about 184,000 miles. Her impressive World War I service earned her the nickname Old Reliable.
Olympic in 1934In August 1919 Olympic returned to Belfast for restoration to civilian service. Her interior was modernized and her boilers were converted to burn oil rather than coal. Oil was more expensive than coal, but it reduced the refuelling time from days to hours, and allowed the engine room personnel to be reduced from 350 to 60 people. During the conversion work and drydocking, a dent with a crack at the centre was discovered below her waterline which was later concluded to have been caused by a torpedo that had failed to detonate.
Olympic emerged from her refit with an increased tonnage of 46,439, allowing her to retain her claim to the title of largest British built liner afloat, although the Cunard Line's Aquitania was slightly longer. In 1920 she returned to passenger service, on one voyage that year carrying 2,403 passengers. She was joined by two former German liners, Majestic and Homeric, for an express service from 1922, operating successfully until the Great Depression reduced demand after 1930.
At the turn of 1927-28, Olympic was converted to carry tourist third cabin passengers as well as first, second and third class. Tourist third cabin was an attempt to attract travellers who desired comfort without the accompanying high ticket price. New public rooms were constructed for this class, although tourist third cabin and second class would merge to become 'tourist' by late 1931.
One year later, Olympic's first class cabins were again improved by adding more bathrooms, a dance floor was fitted in the enlarged first class dining saloon, and a number of new suites with private facilities were installed forward on B-deck. More improvements would follow in a later refit, but 1929 saw Olympic's best average passenger lists since 1925.
One of the attractions of the Olympic was the fact that it was nearly identical to the Titanic, and many passengers sailed on the Olympic as a way of vicariously experiencing the voyage of the Olympic's ill-fated sister ship.
Olympic (left) and Mauretania (right, painted white) laid up in Southampton prior to their scrapping.At the end of 1932, with passenger traffic in decline, Olympic went for an overhaul and refit that took four months. She returned to service in March 1933 described by her owners as "looking like new." Her engines were performing at their best and she repeatedly recorded speeds in excess of 23 knots, despite averaging less than that in regular transatlantic service. Passenger capacities were given as 618 first class, 447 tourist class and only 382 third class after the decline of the immigrant trade. 1933 was Olympic's worst year of business - carrying under 10,000 passengers in total.
In 1934, Olympic again struck a ship. The approaches to New York were marked by lightships and Olympic, like other liners, had been known to pass close by these vessels. On 15 May 1934, Olympic, inbound in heavy fog, was homing in on the radio beacon of Nantucket Lightship LV-117. Now under the command of Captain John Binks the ship failed to turn in time and sliced through the smaller vessel, which broke apart and sank. Four of the lightship's crew went down with the vessel and seven were rescued, of whom three died of their injuries - thus there were seven fatalities out of a crew of eleven. Three of the lightship's surviving crewmen were interviewed by the newsreels immediately after the accident.
In 1934 the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line at the instigation of the British government. This merger allowed funds to be granted for the completion of the future RMS Queen Mary. Cunard White Star then started retiring its surplus tonnage, which included the majority of the old White Star liners. Olympic was withdrawn from service in 1935 and sold to Sir John Jarvis for £100,000 to be partially demolished at Jarrow, providing work for the region. In 1937, Olympic was towed toInverkeithing to T.W. Ward's yard for final demolition.