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Maritime tales: old reliable

29 October 2007 by stepheng

black and white photo of four men in naval uniform on the deck of a ship

The senior crew of the Titanic

It is a constant source of fascination to me, Stephen Guy, how some people and things seem to pick the short straws in life. Take White Star’s Titanic and Olympic liners, for example. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Titanic on that terrible night but her sister Olympic just went on and on with hardly a hitch. She successfully completed 257 round trips across the Atlantic between 1911 and 1935.

Four of the leading characters in the Titanic drama are pictured here on the deck of Olympic just weeks before they transferred to Titanic. They are (l to r): Officer William Murdoch, Chief Officer Henry Wilde, Third Officer Joseph Boxhall and Captain Edward Smith. Only Boxhall survived the sinking.

Olympic’s maiden voyage was on 14 June 1911 and from then on she gave stalwart service both as a troopship in the First World War, often sailing to and from Liverpool, and as a luxury liner. However, during her long years of service Olympic did have her share of dramas.

On 20 September 1911, commanded by Captain Edward Smith later of Titanic, she collided with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke. Olympic was carrying a capacity load and the voyage had to be cancelled.

The Titanic disaster revealed weaknesses on board Olympic, not least the shortage of lifeboats. This was rectified and the ship also refitted with a double hull in case the unthinkable happened again.

The next notable incident took place in October 1914 when Olympic neared New York during the First World War. She encountered the sinking British battleship HMS Audacious and rescued her crew. Olympic later served as a troopship carrying thousands of Canadians to the Western Front. It was during this period that she was nicknamed ‘Old Reliable’ because of her trustworthy service. But her most memorable achievement during the war was ramming and sinking the German submarine U103 on 12 May 1918. Olympic, with her vast bulk of 46,000 tons, has the distinction of being the only merchant ship to sink an enemy warship during the war.

In 1934 Olympic was involved in a tragic accident when she hit and sank the Nantucket lightship on the approaches to New York. Seven of the 11 lightship crew died.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum, as well as the 20ft builder’s model of Titanic, there is a single bed from cabin C-97 of the Olympic. Other items in the museum’s collections include leather-bound timetable lists the sailings of Olympic in 1912 – plus the ones Titanic would have made if disaster had not struck.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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