It’s been over a century since the Titanic sunk to the deep, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and we all know that tragic story. It was the biggest ocean disaster, causing 1,500 deaths, and the sad reason why the Titanic remains the most famous ship to this day. However, what is far less known these days is that the Titanic had two almost identical sister ships: the Olympic and the Britannic.
Although their fate wasn’t as catastrophic as the Titanic’s, their stories and short careers were hardly less dramatic. All three ships, intended to be leading ships of the century, were met with terrible luck. Despite being dubbed “unsinkable,” their time on the ocean was short-lived.
Business Tycoon J.P. Morgan invested a ton of money into White Star Line to create a new line of luxury boats, the Olympic class ocean liners. These luxury boats were supposed to be the new fancy way of traveling, and the White Star Line shipping company was in fierce competition to land the title of the leading boating company on the planet.
The first of the three Olympic class ocean liners was the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Olympic. In December 1908, construction on her started, about three months before the building of the Titanic began in Belfast (Northern Ireland) – where the other two ships would later be built as well. Here is the true story of the “cursed sisters.”
Seven other ships had already held the title of “the biggest ocean liner” before the RMS Olympic snagged the title an 8th time from the RMS Mauretania of the Cunard line. But contrary to popular belief, the Olympic class liners weren’t the fastest ships and were never intended to be.
Instead, their main attraction was their size, style, and comfort. Because of this, the blue ribbon for the fastest ship stayed with the MRS Mauretania until 1921.
The determination to construct the first ship over 40,000 GRT (Gross Register Tons) and build several of them was a huge financial risk, even for an established shipping company like White Star Line. Much of the necessary funds came from famed business mogul J.P. Morgan, one of the wealthiest and most powerful bankers of his time. He indirectly bought White Star Line in 1902 with his massive investment.
On October 20, 1910, the Olympic launched. The White Star Line tradition meant there was no christening ceremony performed beforehand. Thousands of workers began to transform the empty haul into a working ship over the next few months.
After finishing, the Olympic took her maiden voyage from South Hampton to New York on June 21, 1911. The luxurious ship’s maiden voyage attracted worldwide attention from both the press and the public.
In New York alone, tens of thousands of people showed up to see the biggest ship on the planet. Things appeared to be going as planned until… disaster struck. On September 20, 2011, only three months into her service under the command of Captain Edward Smith, the Olympic was involved in a collision with a cruiser ship, the HMS Hawke.
As the two ships sailed by each other in the Osborne Bay, the Hawke was sucked into the side of the Olympic near the stern, most likely caused by the suction produced by the much bigger Olympic as she started to turn.
The Hawke’s bow, which was created to sink ships by striking them, made a huge hole in the Olympic and flooded two of her watertight compartments. She didn’t sink despite the accident, reinforcing the Olympic class liners’ “unsinkable” reputation.
The Olympic returned to Belfast for an expensive repair that took over three months. While the boat was being fixed, the Titanic was still under final construction, and her construction was delayed by weeks. It was never definitively proven whether the Olympic or the Hawke were to blame for the collision.
Nevertheless, the Royal Navy blamed the Olympic for the incident, and since the court verdict was in its favor, insurance didn’t cover the damages, leaving White Star Line to pay for the ship’s repair by itself. It cost the company more than 25,000 dollars (not calculating inflation), which was equivalent to the amount of money of the predicted profits of the first two years of the Olympic’s service.
After the Titanic disaster in 1912, the Olympic had to go through various safety improvements, including installing the double hull, reinforced bulkheads, and 44 additional lifeboats. The RMS Britannic – the third of the Olympic class ships – had some similar changes while it was still under construction in Belfast.
Despite these expensive improvements, the company’s reputation dropped, which resulted in ticket sales falling short of expectations in the following years. On top of that, in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, submarine attacks were a real danger, and booking decreased further. White Star Line was forced to withdraw the Olympic from commercial service by the end of the year.
Due to ship shortages, in May 1915, the Olympic was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and was used for moving troops. They armed the ship with 12-pounders and 4.7-inch guns. With up to 6,000 troops on board, the Olympic made multiple journeys to Greece, Turkey, and other eastern Mediterranean countries.
On one occasion, the Olympic picked up 34 survivors near CAPA Matapan from the French ship Provincia, which was sunk by a German U-boat on October 1, 1915.
Since the Olympic’s best defense against U-boat attack was her speed, Captain Hayes was highly criticized by the Admiralty for stopping the ship and risking the lives of 34 people. The French, on the other hand, awarded him a medal of honor.
Canada charted the Olympic in 1916 to transport troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Britain. For that, she earned a dazzling camouflage to make it harder for the enemy to identify her size and speed. The next year, with her many safe trips, the Olympic a favorite symbol in Halifax, where places like the Olympic Garden and the Olympic Hall Community Centre are named after her.
The United States joined the war in 1917, and the Olympic transported many American troops to Europe. In May 1918, Captain Hayes noticed a surfaced German submarine that tried to torpedo them during one of these runs but appeared to have technical difficulties.
He immediately ordered them to ram the submarine, which sank before it could fire. Captain Hayes was later given the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) award, a military honor of the United Kingdom for his quick thinking in successfully sinking the submarine.
The Olympic reportedly carried up to 200,000 troops and other personnel throughout the war, which helped restore her reputation and gave her the nickname “Old Reliable.” In 1918, once the war ended, she returned to Belfast for touch-ups and was restored and modernized before returning to civilian service.
After the war, the Olympic became a popular ship, taking thousands of passengers annually on the transatlantic route. These passengers included some famous names like Charlie Chaplin and Prince Edward. However, this didn’t mean that the Olympic wasn’t a massive financial disaster for White Star Line and the company never recovered.
During the Great Depression, White Star Line finally agreed to merge with Cunard Line – their biggest competitor, so that both companies could receive very much-needed subsidies from the British Government. Thanks to the merger and with the new flagship, the RMS Queen Mart, almost completed, the older liners gradually retired.
But the Olympic’s bad luck returned for a final time. On May 15th, just one year before she was withdrawn from her last transatlantic service, the ship met with heavy fog and rammed a lightship named Nantucket, one of the boats that marked the path into New York harbor. It broke apart and then sank.
The collision ended the lives of 7 out of 11 crew members. The very next year, on April 5, 1935, the Olympic left New York to sail to Britain for the last time. Her final demolition happened in 1937, 26 years after her maiden voyage – alongside the RMS Mauretania, her main competitor early on in her career.
The Olympic transported approximately 430,000 passengers on all her commercial voyages, totaling 257 round trips across the Atlantic. This meant she traveled a total of 2.8 million kilometers.
As we mentioned, after the Olympic’s collision with the HMS Hawke, an international investigation was launched. However, they found that Captain Edward Smith’s actions were not to blame. White Star Line appointed him to command their newest ship on her maiden voyage as a gesture of trust.
The Titanic famously set sail on April 10, 1912. At the time, this trip was rumored to be Captain Smith’s last trip before his retirement… and, technically, it was. Unfortunately, he never got the chance actually to retire.
As we know, he died during the Titanic tragedy on April 15, 1912, along with 1,500 passengers. Considering 70% of those on board lost their lives, the Titanic catastrophe became one of the deadliest commercial peacetime maritime disasters in modern history. The dreadful story is still talked about to this day.
Costing 1.5 billion pounds (almost 150 million USD in today’s money), the sinking of the Titanic ultimately became the second financial disaster White Star Line endured in just half a year. When the ship famously hit the iceberg, the Titanic was 930 km southwest heading back to England.
After receiving distress calls, the Olympic immediately changed their course toward the Titanic to help. Unfortunately, they were still 190 km away by the time all the survivors were rescued. Captain Rostron of the RMS Carpathia, who was on the scene, refused the Olympic’s offer to take on survivors.
He believed it would cause massive panic among the survivors to see a mirror image of the Titanic telling them to board. As we know, the Titanic and Olympic were virtually identical, and after the trauma the victims had just endured, the last thing they needed was to feel like they were boarding the Titanic once again.
But the Olympic wasn’t the only connection between Halifax and the Titanic. Halifax is just 1100 km west of the spot where the Titanic sank. Many bodies were later found and brought there so that their families could identify them and bury them. That’s why Halifax became the final resting place of more Titanic victims than anywhere else.
Out of the 150 dead bodies buried in Halifax, one of them was named J. Dawson. Sound familiar? That’s because Leonardo DiCaprio played J. Dawson in the 1997 movie Titanic. However, Jack Dawson was a fictional character and not based on Joseph Dawson’s victim, who was buried there.
Since Joseph’s gravestone simply reads J. Dawson, many people believe that the character in the movie was at least partly based on him. But that wasn’t the case at all. Joseph was just a coal shipper who happened to be on board during that fateful voyage.
But because of this misunderstanding, Joseph Dawson’s grave is the most visited out of all the Titanic victims. After the movie came out, numerous fathers reportedly brought their grieving daughters there to leave love notes and flowers.
The third and final vessel of White Star Line’s Olympic class of steamships was the HMHS (His Majesty Hospital Ship) Britannic, designed to begin its service as a transatlantic passenger liner. But before she was completed, the war had already begun, and she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and turned into a hospital ship in 1915.
Therefore, she was repainted white with big red crosses. The Britannic completed five successful voyages to the Mediterranean Sea and back to the United Kingdom, transporting the sick and wounded. But in November 1916, the Britannic struck a mine in the Kea Channel, Greece.
This was another disaster for White Star Line. After the Titanic tragedy, the company installed the same new and improved safety features to the Britannic as they did to the Olympic. But despite all that, the Britannic started sinking even faster than the Titanic.
In less than just one hour, she disappeared into the bottom of the ocean, sharing the same fate as her big sister, making the Britannic the largest ship lost in World War I. But thankfully, because of the higher water temperature, more lifeboats available, and faster help, 1006 out of the 1036 people on board were saved.
Furthermore, most of these 30 deaths resulted from two lifeboats being launched without permission, which were sucked into the propellers that were still running. One of the few passengers on those lifeboats who survived was a nurse named Violet Jessop. Luckily, she managed to jump out of the lifeboat just in time.
What makes Violet’s story even more amazing is that she was also on board the Olympic when she collided with the HMS Hawke, and she was also one of the few survivors of the Titanic. That’s right; she was on board when all the Olympic class liners crashed.
As a requisitioned ship that was in the service of the Crown as it sank, the Britannic shipwreck was owned by the British Government for the next eight decades until 1996, when it was sold to Simon Wills, a British Maritime historian, for 15,000 pounds.
Despite her 24 years in service, the RMS Olympic and the youngest sister of the Olympic class liners, the Britannic, are much less famous than the renowned RMS Titanic. As for Violet Jessop, she is considered either the luckiest woman in the world or the unluckiest, depending on how you look at it.
Significant events tend to attract myths and conspiracy theories, and the sinking of the Titanic is no exception. Whether it’s a curse, legend, coincidence, or terrible accident, there is something eerie about three of the world’s “unsinkable” ships falling to the bottom of the ocean.
Other than Violet Jessop’s unbelievable story of the most “unsinkable” woman, many fascinating stories surround the disaster. Many people believe White Star Line was haunted or even cursed. Put on your tinfoil hats because these are some of the conspiracy theories and craziest legends about White Star Line’s Titanic.
This theory claims that business mogul and banker J.P Morgan planned the Titanic disaster to kill off his millionaire rivals, Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus, and Benjamin Guggenheim, all of whom lost their lives on board. We know Morgan was the main investor in the Titanic and the rest of the White Star Line’s Olympic class liners.
But this theory stems from the fact that although Morgan originally planned to sail the Titanic on her maiden voyage, he changed his mind at the last minute. However, it doesn’t explain how he caused the ship to hit an iceberg and kill more than 1,500 people when just three men were supposedly intended to die.
This theory claims that Morgan wanted them to die because they opposed the creation of the Federal Reserve, even though Astor and Guggenheim didn’t seem to take a position on it, and Straus actually supported it. There are alternative versions of this theory that claim that the Rothschild baking family or the Jesuits were really the ones who planned for Astor, Straus, and Guggenheim to die on the Titanic.
While referring to the Rothschilds as international conspirators, the Washington Post wrote: “a centuries-old anti-Semitic trope… the Rothschild family founded banking houses across Europe in the early 1800s, and they have been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists ever since.”
Everyone loves a good insurance fraud story, so it’s no surprise that this is the most popular conspiracy theory about the Titanic. This theory insists that the Titanic was switched with her identical sister ship, the RMS Olympic.
We know that the Olympic was damaged after its collision with another ship, the Hawke, sailing from England to New York in 1911 and was sent to Harland and Wolff’s shipping guard in Belfast for repairs. After she was fixed, the Olympic sailed to New York and returned to Belfast in March 1912 for more repairs, weeks before the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
As we know, the RMS Olympic’s collision was a huge financial disaster for White Star Line. The conspiracy theory suggests that Olympic was far too damaged to be a profitable asset to the company. The ship was purposely switched with the perfectly safe, undamaged, and “unsinkable” Titanic to collect the insurance money that White Star Line didn’t receive from the Olympic, as she was blamed for the collision.
However, 1,500 people weren’t meant to die in the process. They planned for another ship called the Californian to rescue the passengers, but that ultimately failed miserably. Vice president and curator for the Titanic Museum Attractions in Missouri and Tennessee, Paul Burns, noted that this theory “just doesn’t make any sense.”
There are many holes in this theory, the main one being that the Titanic’s insurance money wasn’t enough to cover the Olympic’s loss. In his book Conspiracies at Sea, J. Kent Layton writes that “the switch conspiracy founders – quite literally on its financial merits alone.”
Despite all that, there is also evidence suggesting that there might be some truth to this theory. Even if it didn’t cover the full loss, it gave them some money for the financial problems White Star Line was dealing with. There is a lot of detail and evidence surrounding this theory, and at this point, I’m not surprised to see the lengths people go to for money.
William Stead was one of the passengers who went down with the Titanic. As a British editor, Stead subscribed to the early 20th-century spiritualism and spent the past few years claiming that a cursed mummy was causing disaster and mysterious destruction in London.
Like other myths involving “Egyptian curses” and “Native American burial grounds,” this theory plays off the anxiety of colonialists about the people whose land they had stolen. While onboard the Titanic, Stead happily told the tale of his mummy’s curse to other passengers.
After the Titanic sank, one of the survivors told Stead’s story to The New York World, and the media picked it up. One month later, The Washington Post ran the headline: “Ghost of the Titanic: Vengeance of Hoodoo Mummy Followed Man Who Wrote its History.”
Burns said that some people associated the “mummy curse” with Egyptian artifacts that survivor (and notable hero) Margaret Brown brought on the Titanic to bring to a museum in Denver. According to a report from Snopes, other versions of the story claim that the mummy was actually aboard the Titanic because the British Museum had sold it to an American who was taking it home.
People are the most skeptical when it comes to this theory. I mean, a cursed mummy sank the ship? As it turns out, this so-called “unlucky mummy” is still at the British Museum, and there is no evidence of a mummy ever being loaded on the Titanic.
I love a good ghost story as much as the next guy, but this one seems like a fictional legend that is fun to talk about but has no truth. I’m not usually a skeptic, but the reality of the situation was that an iceberg sunk the Titanic, not a curse.
This next myth suggests that Catholic workers of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast company that constructed the Titanic, were concerned that the ship’s number was 3909 04. The reason they were troubled by this seemingly random number was because when viewed in a mirror, it reads “NO POPE.”
Could this unsettling number be a sign of bad luck that predicted the ship’s fate? Was it doomed from the start? The answer is no. Titanic historian Walter Lord said that he received multiple letters from people in Ireland saying that this “NO POPE” story started in the mid-1950s, decades after the ship sunk.
Yet, in his 1986 book, The Night Lives On, Burns pointed out that there was no such number even attached to the Titanic. The hull number painted on the ship was 401, the same as its yard number at Harland and Wolff, and its Board of Trade number was 131,428. \
Furthermore, even if one of its numbers did read “NO POPE,” there weren’t any Catholic employees working at Harland and Wolff to be upset over it. That’s the biggest hole in this theory.
It turns out that in the late 1800s, the company had driven Catholic employees, and “by the twentieth century, Harland and Wolff had a reputation for only employing Protestants,” according to Annie Caufield’s book, Irish Blood, English Heart, Ulster Fry.
Despite all these facts, Paul Burns of the Titanic Museum Attractions in Missouri and Tennessee says that sometimes visitors come in and still ask about this myth. Do you believe there is any truth to any of these legends or conspiracy theories?