To Hell and Back, The Maiden Voyage of Britannic

Simon Mills, a long time friend and member of the Titanic Historical Society has written a special chapter for his latest book “To Hell And Back, The Maiden Voyage of Britannic” exclusively for The Titanic Commutator. We will be offering you a taste of the article here and the complete article will appear in the February/May 2003 issue of The Titanic Commutator.

Her first voyage was a far cry from that originally planned for the ship.

Early on the frosty morning of Tuesday 22nd December 1915, a taxi from the London & NorthWestern Railway Hotel pulled up alongside Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock carrying a passenger who, although by no means a novice, had every reason to be particularly excited.

 At thirty-nine years of age Dr. Harold Goodman was already more than familiar with life’s trials. After leaving school at the age of seventeen, and started his medical training at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and after qualifying in 1899 he moved to Beckett’s Hospital in Barnsley. Shortly afterwards he took a locum at Hemsworth, where he would eventually take over the medical practice, and throughout this time he would use the Warde Adlam Cottage Hospital, adjacent to the Frickley Colliery, to operate on his surgical cases.

His experience of this hardened industrial background was now about to pay dividends, for Dr. Goodman’s latest assignment was to His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, the largest, if not quite the most luxurious hospital ship in the world.

In fact, both doctor and vessel were new to the military lifestyle. After lying dormant for the first fifteen months of the war, the value of the incomplete leviathan lying at Belfast could no longer be overlooked by the Military Transport Division. Britannic was finally requisitioned for service on 13th November, and throughout the ensuing four weeks the workforce at Harland and Wolff, Belfast, had worked around the clock to transform the hollow shell into the finest hospital ship afloat. By the time Britannic was ready to depart on her trials on 8th December the cavernous interiors had been fitted out with over 3,300 cots, mostly of the permanent two decker type, although there were also the slightly more comfortable camp beds for the more fortunate. The neglected hull paintwork had also undergone a total transformation from a shabby grey to the internationally recognized colours of a hospital ship a glistening white hull, with a green band running from stem to sternpost, broken by three large red crosses. As a finishing touch, the ship’s four giant funnels were painted yellow, thus helping to ensure that the enemy would have no difficulty in identifying Britannic as a hospital ship.

After an overnight crossing from Belfast, Britannic, under the command of Captain Joseph Ranson, finally arrived at Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock early on the morning of 12th December to complete the fitting out and to take on the medical staff and supplies, being officially commissioned as a hospital ship that same day. Two days later Captain Charles Bartlett arrived from Scotland to assume command and with his arrival the command structure was all but complete.

Dr. Goodman’s call to the colours was even more recent, having only been appointed as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on 14th December. The ensuing week and after spending the last in England at the NorthWestern Hotel was, at last, ready to “do his bit.”

Unfortunately, it seemed that everybody would have to wait a little bit longer. At 11.00 a.m. Britannic pulled out into the Mersey, only to promptly drop anchor and remain strangely immobile. For all the effort to get the ship ready, two hundred RAMC orderlies had still not arrived from Aldershot and were not liable to be onboard for another twelve hours. To pass the time, after settling into cabin 51, a two-berth stateroom that he was to share with Lieutenant Anderson, Goodman spent the rest of the day going over the ship. In that Britannic was a vessel of such a colossal size it was to be time well spent, because the missing orderlies would not finally arrive on board until midnight, but twenty minutes later the order was given to raise the anchor as the fully illuminated Britannic finally headed westward into the Irish Sea.

The devil makes work for idle hands, and on board Britannic it was to be no exception. Throughout the day rumours were rife as to where the ship was actually headed. For some curious reason Australia seemed to be the leading contender, but Goodman wasn’t convinced. The monotony was briefly interrupted by the morning parade at 10.30, after which Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stewart Anderson, the Senior Medical Officer, made his daily round of the ship, and by the time it was over, Goodman and four others had been allocated the 426 beds of F, L, M, N and V wards, located in the starboard forward part of the ship on F and G decks. The fact that they were so low in the ship, however, also brought its problems, as two of the wards were already under water from a leaking porthole and the back pressure from a faulty valve in ship’s tank, which was allowing water to pump back through the sink.

To further add to the problems, practically everyone on board was feeling the effects of a strong squally half gale from the southwest so it was just as well that few on board had very much to do. The following morning proved no different, with the conditions being so rough that breakfast was very thinly attended. The midday lecture by Professor Squires and Dr. Risk on the virtues of urea as antiseptic proved beneficial, but, more importantly, Colonel Anderson’s comment that the medical staff would only have six days only to treat the wounded once they were on board provided the first positive hint that Britannic was actually bound for the Mediterranean. At midday the daily run of 426 miles was published and when it was learnt that the ship had passed Cape Finisterre it was clear that they were headed for Gibraltar.

That night the ship continued to roll so badly that one of the tables in Goodman’s cabin even overturned. Christmas morning was equally squally, but following the 11.00 a.m. Church of England service in the saloon, which had been decorated with holly and mistletoe for the occasion, Colonel Anderson took the opportunity to advise his assembled staff of their embarkation duties. For Dr. Goodman and his colleagues in F, L, M, N, and V wards it would be a relatively straightforward matter as they were well served by the forward lifts.

And so the voyage continued. The daily run to midday on 25th December amounted to another 443 miles and there was at least a little excitement when three small tramp steamers hove into view as the ship was passing Cape St. Vincent, as they were the first vessels that had been sighted in days. Early the next morning, Britannic, illuminated by huge searchlights from the shore, slipped quietly through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of the calmer sea conditions, at 11.30 a.m. Captain Bartlett called all hands to boat stations and just after lunch the latest daily run was published, confirming that in the last twenty four hours Britannic had clocked up another 455 miles. The engines were working themselves up nicely. The next day was not so encouraging, covering only 416 miles, but during the afternoon Britannic skirted the southern coast of Sardinia and that evening the first official ship’s concert was held in the R.A.M.C. mess.

The morning of 28th December was a hazy one, but by 8.30 a.m. Goodman was already up on deck gazing at the distant island of Capri just as Britannic was entering the Bay of Naples. He could clearly see the ruins of Tiberius’ palace and the 700 ft. into sea where the Roman emperor had had the playful habit of dropping his victims to feed the lobsters. The views of Vesuvius from the harbour were no less awesome, which was just as well because very few were being allowed ashore. Instead all they could do was watch the activities of the coaling lighters that were lying alongside all day.

The following day was set to be equally dull, but after lecturing the orderlies and overseeing the wards, which were getting straighter by the hour, Doctors Goodman, Urwick, Anderson and Bachelor were given passes to go shore in the motor launch. After landing at the Arsenal step at 10.30 a.m. they walked through park to the Aquarium, thence to Cooks to change their money (owing to prohibition of export of bullion the exchange rate came as a rather unpleasant surprise), but a stroll to the Bertholmi lift and lunch at the hotel at the top were worth the sacrifice. Unfortunately it could not last forever; their orders were to be back on board at 2 p.m. because two hours later Britannic was once again outward bound.

For the early risers the next twenty-four hours would be memorable. By 5.00 a.m. the glowing volcanic island of Stromboli could be clearly seen on the starboard horizon and two hours later the snow-capped Mount Etna was in sight. Britannic finally entered the Straits of Messina at 8.00 a.m. where the ruins of the 1908 earthquake could still clearly be seen, and for Colonel Anderson this had to be one of the most poignant moments of the voyage because in January 1909 it had been he who instigated the British earthquake relief party while serving on Malta. As Scylla and Charybdis drew astern it was back to business as usual. 9.00 a.m. brought with it another embarkation drill which was to keep everyone busy in the wards until lunch, but already it was clear that the tempo on board had noticeably changed. Mudros was now barely thirty hours away and with the Eastern Mediterranean crawling with enemy U-boats the sudden increase in speed was quite obvious, so to take their minds off the looming peril that evening the medical staff were treated to an informal lecture in the lounge by Professor Squires on Virgil’s Aeneid.

The following morning, and with Mudros now only hours away, the orderlies were finally allocated to their duty watches, while Colonel Anderson and Captain Bartlett made their final two-hour tour of the wards to ensure that everything was in place. Four hours later Britannic was finally passing through the defensive nets which guarded the Bay of Mudros and the enormous quantity shipping of all descriptions in the harbour. The ship anchored inside the boom in 13 fathoms of water, with the hospital ships, Dunluce Castle, Grantully Castle, Egypt, Gloucester Castle and Assegai already lying nearby.

To Dr. Goodman the whole aspect of Lemnos appeared to be very hilly and utterly barren, with the shore and slopes covered with tents and encampments. It was actually quite bleak, but in truth there was little time to appreciate the surroundings anyway because at 7.00 p.m., without any apparent warning, the P&O hospital ships Assegai and Egypt arrived alongside and immediately began to discharge their patients. For the first time Goodman began to appreciate just how large the White Star liner really was, as the funnels of the other two ships, which seemed like lighters alongside, only came up to Britannic’s boat deck. To get around the problem the wounded came aboard onto D deck by gangways from the other vessel’s upper decks, which were about level, but it was hard going nevertheless. For Dr. Goodman there would be no dinner until 11.00 p.m., by which time the 94 beds of V ward were full, ten stretcher cases had been taken to F ward and several others were allocated to L and M. There was, however, one fly in the ointment; the unscheduled evening transfer had taken everyone completely by surprise and with Colonel Anderson and Captain Bartlett both on shore the arrangements were probably not in accordance with their ideas.

But that was a matter for tomorrow. With all the patients given either chicken broth or cocoa before bed, by 11.00 p.m. the work was done, and just in time too, because at midnight Mudros exploded in a cacophony of sound as the hundreds of vessels sounded their sirens and eight bells, and continued to ring them as they saw in 1916. By the time he was ready for bed some two hours later, the war had been forgotten for a few hours at least, but Goodman’s hope that the New Year might end differently was doubtless a wish shared by everyone in the world.

New Year’s Day, however, was to prove no different from the last. Throughout the morning the patients continued to come aboard from the Egypt and Assegai, with Britannic a hive of activity throughout the day. The following day found the Asturias and Killman Castle alongside, with the first evacuated wounded from the shore, numbering approximately 1000, also being towed out on barges by a paddle tug. At 5.30 p.m. the hospital ship Aberdmain tied up along the portside and later that evening another barge arrived alongside carrying another batch of evacuated wounded officers from the shore.

As the transfer of invalids went on, the experiences of those who came on board proved varied. For Private R.E. Atkinson of the 29th Divisional Cyclist Company, who had arrived from Cairo on board the Dunluce Castle after being evacuated from Suvla Bay (Gallipoli), having contracted pleurisy several months earlier.

Like Dr. Goodman, Atkinson was amazed by the sheer size of Britannic. He finally got aboard at 10.00 a.m. on 1st January, but although he had departed from Dunluce Castle’s well deck, he still had to go up five flights of stairs before emerging at the level of Britannic’s boat deck. He was equally struck by the enormous width of the ship and the immense dining saloon like the Crystal Palace, with the ship’s stewards looking just as white and sickly as on the other boats. Looking down the Dunluce Castle appeared no bigger than a trawler, and the S.S. Egypt on the other side looked equally small, while Britannic¹s on board facilities, such as telephones, lifts, and swimming baths made the vessel seem more like a small town. Within four hours Atkinson had been placed in H ward, had been “marked up” by his allocated doctor, issued with his hospital suit and given a good dinner. As a result, all seemed well with the world or was it?

As the patients continued to come aboard the following day, Atkinson’s first impressions had been cruelly shattered, an he was rapidly beginning to change his mind, as he recorded in his truncated diary:

“Grub is rotten, starvation, two slices for breakfast, dinner, stew in a basin, thought it was soup first course, but nothing else came up. Patients get nearly frozen waiting to get on from trawlers, some stretcher cases get douched with water from ship’s side. Cocoa and hard biscuit for supper. Church in evening, gilt edge prayer books W.S.L. Cocoa and biscuits for supper.”

by Simon Mills

Continued in Titanic Commutator No 160 Feb-April 2003

A complete biography of Britannic, including her war service, is presented in the book “Hostage to Fortune” available now in the Museum Shop.