For Nurse Sheila Macbeth, the sixth voyage of his Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, on November 12, 1916, began as both a homecoming
The Britannic during its stint as a hospital ship. Credit
and a kind of holiday before the real work ahead. “Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate,” wrote the unmarried, 26-year-old Scot in her diary, “and to see how homely it is now looking, with my chintz cushions and our nice jar of brown beech leaves. Everything is much nicer on this voyage — as there are no passengers (these were always medical officers and nurses-going out to different hospitals in India, Egypt, Salonica or Malta…) and in consequence we are allowed to wander all over the ship, and do not find the deck roped off at every turn with a notice saying: ‘Officers Only’ or ‘Passengers Only.'”
Nurse Macbeth’s wanderings must have been fascinating, since the ship she was traveling on was the Titanic’s younger sister. Only the outbreak of war had prevented the Britannic from joining White Star’s fleet as the largest, the most luxurious — and the safest — passenger ship flying the British flag. Instead her fancy fittings sat in storage, her promenade decks were crowded with hospital beds and her first-class dining room had become the intensive care ward where the most seriously wounded would stay before and after surgery in the operating theater next door, formerly the grand reception room. The public rooms on the upper decks housed the majority of the wounded — close to the boats, should they need to abandon ship. The first-class staterooms provided accommodation for the hospital elite — the doctors, the nursing matron, the medical corps officers and the chaplains-while the lesser nurses and orderlies made do with cabins originally intended for lower classes.
The ship’s surgeon, Dr. J.C.H. Beaumont, called her “the most wonderful hospital ship that ever sailed the seas.” And she was indeed an amazing floating infirmary. With every hospital
The Britannic. Credit
bed full, the Britannic could transport 3,309 patients. Only the Aquitania could carry more: almost 4,200 wounded. But until the Britannic reached the port of Mudros on the Aegean island of Lemnos, the gathering point for casualties from all the Mediterranean theaters, she would be relatively empty, her nurses, doctors and orderlies with nothing to do except to make sure the hospital was ready to receive its patients. Nurse Macbeth spent much of the first leg of the trip making beds, but still found time each day for a morning gymnastics class given by one of the sergeants and an afternoon swim in the first-class swimming pool, followed by tea and then perhaps a game of cricket out on deck.
It was a pleasant enough interlude before what would be the very serious business of tending victims of a conflict that had long since lost any aura of romance and adventure. By November 1916, the war that was to be “over by Christmas” of 1914 looked as if it might last forever. On the Eastern and Western Fronts, the opposing troops were locked in bloody stalemate. The recent Battle of Jutland, the greatest naval engagement ever, had failed to break the British naval blockade of Europe, increasing pressure on the Germans to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk it might draw the United States into the war. And while the Allies had finally abandoned Gallipoli the previous January, hundreds of thousands of troops were now tied up in Greek Macedonia, Palestine and Mesopotamia, making hospital ships in the Mediterranean as vital as ever. On the Britannic’s most recent trip she had returned with almost every bed full, and it had taken 15 hospital trains to transport the casualties from Southampton.
In theory, the Britannic had nothing to fear from enemy submarines. As a hospital ship she was protected from attack under the Geneva Convention, but this was never a guarantee. The Germans suspected hospital ships of secretly transporting troops — a charge that would be laid against the Britannic after she sank. (No evidence to support this charge has ever appeared.) And while the majority of German submarines were occupied in trying to break Britain’s Atlantic blockade, a number were active in the Mediterranean, laying mines along routes heavily traveled by troopships and torpedoing enemy targets when the opportunity arose.
Mines, of course, did not distinguish between warships and noncombatants. The many narrow sea passages along the main Mediterranean shipping routes were natural areas for mine laying. And at least one mine-laying submarine had recently been active along the course the Britannic would soon be following. This was U-73, under command of Kapitänleutnant Gustav Siess. Late in October, he had been scouting out the Kea Channel between the Greek mainland and the island of Kea just east of Athens. Noting that most ships passed close to the island, he laid two barriers of six mines each at right angles to the shipping lane.
Despite these dangers, those traveling aboard the Britannic had reason to feel confident. At a service speed of 21 knots — faster if necessary — she could outrun any U-boat. And her builders had designed her to withstand the sort of disaster that had sunk the Titanic. A watertight inner skin, running for almost two-thirds of the ship’s length and making her 18 inches wider than her two predecessors, protected her engines and boiler rooms. Five of her 17 watertight bulkheads extended as high as B deck, also known as the bridge deck, fully 40 feet above the waterline. The rest rose as high as E deck. All the bulkheads had the latest in electrically operated watertight doors, and the pumping system allowed any watertight compartment to be drained by means of a valve placed well above the waterline. The higher bulkheads were meant to keep her afloat with any six of her compartments flooded. In theory, it would take more than one torpedo to sink her.
And in the unlikely event that she sank, there would be a lifeboat seat for everyone. No one admiring the Britannic’s massive profile could doubt that lifeboats had become a priority. Five sets of huge gantry davits towered over the boat deck, while two more graced the poop deck, each responsible for launching six of the largest lifeboats ever carried on a ship and, where a funnel did not block the way, capable of reaching across the superstructure to pick up boats from the other side of the ship if it became impossible to launch them there. (The original plans called for eight of these new davits, but the Admiralty needed the ship before all could be installed; instead, smaller Welin davits like those used on the Titanic made up the difference.) Each new gantry davit was powered by a special auxiliary electric motor and had its own electric illumination to facilitate nighttime loading. (As an added benefit, this new lifeboat would help make the Britannic more attractive when she finally entered commercial service after the war.)
Britannic had one further safety feature in her skipper, Captain Charles Bartlett. A White Star veteran, Bartlett had a reputation for caution. According to his daughter, he was known among his peers as “Iceberg Charlie” because of his ability to “smell” an iceberg and his willingness to travel long distances to avoid it. He also knew his ship and her safety features intimately, having kept a watchful eye on the ship’s construction in his prewar role as the company’s marine superintendent at Belfast. At the outbreak of the conflict he had undertaken patrolling duties in the North Sea and so was no stranger to the hazards presented by the increasingly aggressive German U-boat fleet.
Five days out of Southampton, on November 17,
Some of the survivors of the Britannic. Credit
the Britannic arrived at Naples for coaling. This was the standard practice for hospital ships, which wanted their stokeholds full so they could make a nonstop dash home with their cargo of wounded. Mudros was less than a two-day sail from Naples.
Sheila Macbeth and seven of her friends took advantage of the stopover to make an excursion into the Italian countryside with a guide in two rented cars. The trip quickly veered toward slapstick — the tires were full of holes and the cars kept breaking down — but nothing seems to have dampened this woman’s youthful high spirits and infectious good humor. The highlight of the day was “lunch at a little country inn — where I could not eat for watching the natives shoveling in spaghetti by the yard — a wonderful sight!” Back in Naples, she did some Christmas shopping.
By evening, the refueling had been completed, but bad weather kept the ship at the wharf for two more days, riding out the storm with the help of her three huge bow anchors. On Sunday evening, the 19th, Captain Bartlett took advantage of a break in the weather to set sail, but the storm picked up again and during the night the ship fought her way south through the Bay of Naples. Monday morning found the Britannic in calmer weather, steaming through the picturesque Straits of Messina, always Nurse Macbeth’s “favorite bit of the voyage.”
Anyone watching from the shore as the great ship passed through those famous narrows between the “toe” of Italy and the island of Sicily, would have seen an impressive sight. Four buff-colored funnels towered over a white-painted hull bisected lengthwise by a broad green stripe that ran from bow to stern, interrupted by three huge red crosses. Two more giant crosses affixed to the superstructure were lit at night when the promenade deck was outlined by a line of green lights. Whether the ship was more beautiful by day or darkness was debatable. Her nighttime appearance so impressed the Presbyterian chaplain, Reverend John A. Fleming, that he later described her as like “a picture from fairyland.” Day or night, however, there was no mistaking the Britannic for anything but a hospital ship.
All hands were busy that Monday in final preparations. “From breakfast time until our afternoon swim, we worked like factory hands,” wrote Sheila Macbeth, “tying up all the kits for the next evening so that we might rest the day before the patients came on board.” But there was still the time for her cherished afternoon swim. Tuesday promised to be one final holiday before the hard and often gruesome work ahead. That night the ship’s company gathered in the main mess hall for the daily church service, “the best since the boat had been in commission,” according to Private Percy Tyler of the medial corps, closing with the singing of the familiar hymn, “There Is a Green Hill.”
Tuesday morning dawned as perfect a day as November in the Mediterranean can offer. Reverend Fleming rose early to observe “the quietest and loveliest sunrise of the voyage” as the ship followed her easterly course across the mouth of the Gulf of Athens. “The waters were as glass, and the sun shone on them with dazzling brilliance.” The long morning light caught the windmills and varied hues of a closely packed Greek village “built high up the steep side of an island, hiding itself cozily between two shoulders of the hill,” and he became completely absorbed in the play of light and color, losing all track of time.
By 8:00 a.m., the orderlies of the army medical corps had finished breakfast in their mess, located aft on C deck, and returned to their quarters in the stern, but the nurses, sea scouts and officers were still tucking in to their morning fare in the dining room, almost certainly the space intended for the third-class dining room on F deck. (The sea scouts were sea-going boy scouts who performed mostly menial jobs, such as operating the elevators and carrying messages.) From the boiler rooms and engine rooms to the bridge, meanwhile, a watch change was under way and most of the watertight doors were open to allow for the crew transfer. Just before the watch changed, Captain Bartlett had ordered a course alteration, turning the ship northeast on a line that would take her through the Kea Channel. As he surveyed the glorious morning scene from the bridge, his mind must already have been projecting forward to a midafternoon arrival at Mudros. No sixth sense warned Iceberg Charlie that his peace of mind was about to be shattered.
Nurse Macbeth had slept a trifle late and, having just settled into her place in the dining room, “only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bangg! and a shiver right down the length of the ship.” Reverend Fleming, having finally torn himself away from the passing scene, was leaving his cabin “when there was a great crash, as if a score of plate-glass windows had been smashed together; the great ship shuddered for a moment from end to end.” Private Percy Tyler was back in number two barrack room following breakfast, cleaning the buttons on his uniform, “when there was a violent bump, which sent me forward a few paces and back again, then the boat regularly danced.” None of his mates took the bump seriously, some joking that they were very sorry for the boat the ship had run into.
If the seriousness of the situation was not yet clear to those amidships or farther aft, the very few men who happened to be near the bow at this hour instantly knew the Britannic was in deep trouble. They felt a violent explosion, then water began pouring into the ship, washing one man from his quarters on G deck all the way up to E deck. Another barely outraced the flood, making it through a watertight door just before it closed. But miraculously, although an area of the forward part of the ship was in ruins, no one seems to have been killed or even seriously injured in the explosion.
On the Britannic’s bridge, Captain Bartlett assumed the ship had struck a mine on the starboard bow. Neither he nor any lookouts had spotted a torpedo track, which should have been obvious on such a calm, clear day. But he reacted coolly and on the assumption that he could still save the ship, ordering the watertight doors closed and requesting an immediate damage report. He had felt only one explosion, so surely the flooding could be contained in the forward compartments. But he was taking no chances. Via the pneumatic tube that linked the bridge to the radio room — another post-Titanic safety improvement — he directed the radio operator to send out an immediate distress call. Then he ordered the crew to uncover the boats and that the ship’s siren sound the general alarm.
In the dining room, Major Harold Priestly had taken charge of the situation, ordering everyone to remain seated and to go on eating their breakfasts. But the suspense killed every appetite. According to Nurse Macbeth, “there was only a most unnatural silence.” Only when the siren sounded did Priestly give the nurses, sea scouts and junior officers permission to leave, but under his watchful eye the evacuation was quiet and orderly.
Sheila Macbeth made straight for her cabin, where she grabbed a coat and her eiderdown pillow and put on her life belt. But she left her dispatch box, which contained most of her “small treasures.” And she doesn’t seem to have given even a passing thought to the Christmas gifts so recently purchased in Naples. With one last glance at her homely little home away from home, she headed for the boat deck.
There seems to have been no sense of panic as nurses, crewmen and members of the medical corps collected essential belongings and then proceeded to their boat stations. As on the Titanic, the engineers remained at their posts. But the most remarkable case of sang froid must surely be that of Nurse Violet Jessop, who had been in a couple of tight spots before. She had been a stewardess on the Olympic at the time of its nearly disastrous collision with the Hawke. The following year, she served in the same capacity on the Titanic during its maiden voyage. When she felt the explosion, however, she calmly continued preparing a breakfast tray for a nursing sister too sick to eat in the dining room, even though she had no doubt the ship was in danger. When she reached the ailing nurse’s cabin, she first insisted that breakfast be eaten, then helped the woman get dressed and assisted her to an elevator and thence onto the boat deck. Only then did Jessop dash to her own cabin for a few essentials, above all a toothbrush, an item she had sorely missed after being rescued by the Carpathia four and a half years earlier. By the time she reached the boat deck this second time, none of the lifeboats had yet left the ship.
During Jessop’s odyssey, the Britannic’s condition worsened from serious to grave. The explosion had occurred on the starboard side of the bow, roughly where the bulkhead separated the second and third cargo holds. But it had also punctured the bulkhead, sealing off the forespeak and had wrecked the watertight doors in the fireman’s passage that led aft into boiler room number six. This meant the forward five compartments of the ship began to rapidly fill with water, including the forwardmost boiler room, boiler room six.
But Captain Bartlett had given the order to close the watertight doors and the electrically operated mechanism started to shut the door between boiler room six and the next boiler room aft, boiler room five. Being well aft of the point of the explosion, the door should have operated properly, but failed to close all the way and water poured through. Soon both boiler rooms were flooded and inoperable. Now the ship’s first six forward compartments were filling rapidly, in theory the maximum number that could flood for the ship to survive.
The next bulkhead aft, that separating boiler rooms five and four, still held, but the ship soon developed a serious list to starboard, causing the forward portholes on E and F decks to sink beneath the waterline. As on the Empress of Ireland, many of these were open — an unconscionable breach of standard safety procedures in a war zone, hospital ship or no — adding to the volume of water flowing into the vessel.
Captain Bartlett now made his one real mistake of the day, thereby increasing the risk for those on board and certainly hastening the sinking. He turned his ship toward the island of Kea, lying tantalizingly close to his position, and ordered the engines full ahead. He desperately hoped to ground the Britannic in its shallows, but only succeeded in accelerating the flooding of the forward compartments, increasing the ship’s list. Furthermore, as long as the ship was in motion, it was unsafe to lower any of the boats. Quickly realizing he was only making the situation worse, Bartlett ordered the engines stopped.
Before the Britannic slowed, two lifeboats left the port side of the ship without permission. These were sucked into the still-turning propellers, which were now just breaking the surface. Violet Jessop was one of those who leaped into the water before the two tiny craft were wrecked, but at first she thought her luck had finally run out. Suction drew her inexorably down. As she struggled upward, her head hit the keel of a wrecked boat and she began to sink again. But a hand reached out and drew her gasping into the air. Eventually she was pulled into another lifeboat, having swallowed seawater but otherwise seeming none the worse for wear. (Only years later did she discover that she had fractured her skull when it hit the bottom of the lifeboat.) Over 70 others, killed or badly wounded, were not so fortunate.
On board the now severely listing Britannic, the loading of the remaining boats had been a mostly orderly affair. The nurses and the army corps orderlies assembled on the promenade deck and quietly awaited their turn. Matron E.A. Dowse, a veteran of the Boer War, oversaw the female evacuation with military precision, waiting until every single one of her charges was off the ship before seeing to her own safety. Major Priestly, who had taken charge of the orderlies, kept his troops in line, only allowing 50 men up on the boat deck at any one time.
Only a few elements of the ship’s crew exhibited any lack of discipline. A group of fireman commandeered one of the boats on the poop deck and rowed it away half empty, but were persuaded to return to pick up swimmers from the water. A small phalanx of seamen and stewards rushed to port side boats that had just been swung out, but an officer managed to calm them down and restore order. Perhaps these lapses can be blamed on the less-seasoned crews that manned merchant ship in wartime. Whatever the reason, many of the lifeboats left the Britannic without any seamen to steer or row them. In Sheila Macbeth’s boat, several nurses took the oars. It would seem that the ship’s officers overseeing the loading and launching fell down on their responsibilities.
One way or another, however, the ship was soon all but empty, her bow completely underwater, her starboard list increasing and her propellers slowly turning in thin air. Major Priestly took one last turn around the deck then joined the ship’s purser in the final boat to leave. The purser carried a precious cargo, the ship’s log. The chief engineer and the crew that had remained with him to the last escaped through the funnel casing of the dummy fourth stack, actually a ventilator shaft for the reciprocating engine room, and jumped into the water. Captain Bartlett, who stayed on the bridge to the last, directing the evacuation with a megaphone, sounded the final order to abandon ship — one long blast on the ship’s whistle — then stepped off the starboard bridge wing into the water.
From crowded lifeboats or paddling in the cool Aegean, more than a thousand people watched their ship’s last moments. Under a perfect blue sky with land so archingly close, the scene took on a surreal quality. Hauling himself into an empty collapsible boat, Captain Bartlett stood alone and watched his command disappear.
Reverend Fleming, who had left in the second-last boat, described the final plunge. “Gradually the waters licked up and up the decks — the furnaces belching forth volumes of smoke, as if the great engines were in their last death agony; one by one the monster funnels melted away as wax before a flame, and crashed upon the decks, till the waters rushed down; then report after report rang over the sea, telling of the explosions of the boilers. The waters moved over the deck still, the bows of the ship dipping deeper and deeper into the sea, until the rudder stood straight up from the surface of the water, and, poised thus for a few moments, dived perpendicularly into the depths, leaving hardly a ripple behind. A sense of the desert overwhelmed my soul.”
However evocative, Reverend Fleming’s description is inaccurate in at least one important detail. The Britannic sank in only 395 feet of water, a depth less than half her length. Therefore the ship could not have reached a perpendicular before it made its final plunge.
The time was 9:07 a.m., roughly 45 minutes after the single deadly explosion that had interrupted a routine morning. In less than an hour, the largest British-built ship afloat had vanished, leaving behind 35 lifeboats and a scattering of flotsam on an empty sea.
Fortunately, help was close at hand. The auxiliary cruiser Heroic, the first of several British warships that responded to the Britannic’s distress call, soon arrived on the scene, as did a Greek fishing boat from nearby Port St. Nikolo. Both began picking up survivors. The destroyer Scourge arrived only minutes later. The destroyer Foxhound turned up just before noon, in time to relieve the first two ships, now full to overflowing.
To Sheila Macbeth, it seemed like hours before she was rescued by the Scourge, although it must have been much less. The destroyer took on a total of 339 survivors before turning toward Piraeus. Already the sinking seemed a distant fact. “The sailors seemed very pleased to speak to their country-women again,” she wrote, “as they had not been home since War began and are never allowed on land. They gave us all the food they had-tea, dog biscuits and oranges out of sacks. Several of them gave us their cap ribbons as souvenirs.”
By nightfall, most of the survivors had been safely distributed among the British and French ships lying anchored in the Bay of Salamis; the nurses and most of the officers were put up in two local hotels. And when the final accounting of lost and saved was done, the result seemed little short of miraculous. Of the more than 1,000 on board, only 30 had died, most of them passengers in the two boats dashed to pieces by the ship’s propellers. Had the explosion occurred at any time other than breakfast, the casualty list would likely have been much longer. Had the sinking occurred on the homeward trip from Mudros, with more than 3,000 sick and wounded on board, it would have been a Titanic-scale catastrophe.
The subsequent naval inquiry, conducted in haste over the next couple of days, shed little light on the sinking or how it could have been avoided. The limited evidence seemed to suggest that in all probability, the ship had not been sunk by a deliberate German act of aggression. “The effects of the explosion might have been due to either a mine or a torpedo,” the report concluded. “The probability seems to be a mine.”
On the more vexing question of why a ship designed to float with up to six compartments flooded had sunk — and sunk so quickly — when only her first five bulkheads had been compromised, the inquiry report drew no conclusions, but noted that open portholes had contributed to the volume of water entering the ship. Lesser vessels had survived a single mine or torpedo. The Britannic’s sister ship the Titanic, which suffered analogous damage along her starboard bow, took more than twice as long to sink. Was there an act of sabotage or an accidental secondary explosion, caused by a contraband cargo of munitions, or perhaps the ignition of highly inflammable ether among the ship’s medical supplies? There was no concrete evidence to support any of these theories. Perhaps the open portholes made the fatal difference.
As for the survivors, most of the men faced a far more arduous journey home than any could have imagined, transferred from ship to shore to ship and finally offloaded at Marseilles. From there they traveled for 40 hours with little or no food in unheated train carriages to Le Havre, and thence to England. Sheila Macbeth and her fellow nurses fared somewhat better, biding their time on Malta until a hospital ship could take them home. They arrived just after Christmas, more than a month after the sinking. Most quickly and most comfortably home was Captain Bartlett, whose status earned him a seat in a scheduled train from Marseilles. He turned up on his doorstep wearing a Greek suit and Greek shoes he had acquired to replace his ruined uniform.
After a brief outcry in the English papers, the Britannic was all but forgotten. For the next 60 years the Britannic lay undisturbed in shallow water off the shore of an unimportant Greek island. Although the largest ship to sink during World War I, she left no clear cause for outrage, as had the Lusitania, no legacy of tragic symbolism, as had the Titanic. It appeared she had been sunk by bad luck, not by an act of deliberate enemy immorality. Most of those on board had survived.
Exploring the Britannic
by Robert Ballard
In the almost 80 years since its sinking, ours was only the second expedition to explore the wreck of HHM Britannic, but the first to see her clearly. Jacques Cousteau visited the wreck on 1976, but — not surprisingly,
The wreck of the Britannic. Credit
given the relatively primitive state of underwater cameras then — the images he brought back provided murky evidence of the ship’s condition. The Britannic seemed to be one piece, but he thought he’d found evidence of a major secondary explosion that had blasted a huge hole in the forward part of the hull. He also believed the bow had been twisted up at right angles to the hull, so that it jutted toward the surface.
Our plan in late August 1995 was to survey the wreck with the help of the navy’s nuclear-powered NR-1 submarine, small by navy sub standards but far more spacious and comfortable than the research submersibles I’m accustomed to. (You can actually stand up!) Once we had a clear picture of the layout of the wreck site, we would take still and video footage of the ship with our two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), Voyager (provided by Perry Tritech, Ltd.) and Phantom (provided by the University of Connecticut’s National Undersea Research Program). Using NR-1 primarily as a second light source, Voyager was hooked up to a 3-D imaging system that allowed those of us in the control room to feel as though we could reach out and touch the ship. In 3-D the propellers looked monstrous.
Because the wreck likes just two miles from shore, I expected it to resemble the nightmarish tangle of fishnets we’d encountered on the Lusitania. Instead, as we made our first pass over the hull, I began to realize we were in for something special. Not only was the ship in virtually one piece, but it was also almost completely free of these menaces. By the time NR-1 resurfaced after a day underwater, I was elated. Our exploration over the next six days would fill in important details, but the big picture was already clear.
The Britannic lies on its starboard side at a list of about 85 degrees except for the tip of the bow, which sits slightly more upright, having almost wrenched free when it hit the bottom. From the well deck, a gaping tear extends down the visible port side of the hull and disappears into the bottom sediment. Along this tear some of the hull plating is bent upward, raising the question whether an internal explosion — possibly of coal dust from the forward reserve bunker — contributed to the sinking. But it seems most likely that the force of the impact is to blame. In fact, the tear occurs in roughly the same place where the Titanic’s bow buckled. The hull plating along the first 60 feet of the bow, which bore the brunt of the collision with the bottom, is horribly twisted and contorted. But the rest of the ship remains in remarkable condition, retaining its full 94-foot width and much of the original superstructure, including deckhouses, cargo cranes, lifeboat davits, ventilators, capstans and railings. Were it not for the damage forward and the encrustations of marine life that blanket much of the wreck, the ship would look almost ready to rise up and continue its voyage. And only at the almost perfectly preserved stern, with those massive propellers still in place, did we run into one of those treacherous fishnets. It was draped over the rudder.
Because the ship sank intact and lies so shallow, the yield from the tiny debris field was scanty — except for the four funnels (Cousteau spotted only one of these). Observers saw three of them fall off the sinking ship as it rolled over, and their positions on the seafloor reinforce this assertion. The longer the distance to the bottom, the more time there is for a ship to break apart and the more time there is for the submarine current to distribute the debris. The number-one funnel lies only a few feet from its original position just aft of the bridge; presumably it fell off only on impact. The other three are spaced away from the ship, the farthest roughly 500 feet away. Though flattened, they retain some of their elliptical shape and most of their original accoutrements, including ladders, steampipes and whistles. All in all, the funnels are in an amazing state of preservation.
Neither the main wreck nor the debris field shed any light on the continuing controversy over what sank the ship. Despite strong circumstantial evidence that a mine did the initial damage, some survivors swore they saw a torpedo track before the explosion. Perhaps we could find the mine anchor left behind when — and if — a mine exploded. An anchor would provide conclusive physical evidence of mines in the area. With only a few hours to spare from our investigation of the wreck, we followed the direction pointed by the debris trail — composed primarily of three funnels that fell off as she sank — leading to the northwest of the wreck site. Presumably this was the path taken as Captain Bartlett briefly attempted to beach his ship. But our short search turned up no evidence of a mine anchor. The strong likelihood that a mine sank the ship cannot yet be called a certainty.
Nor can the visible evidence on the seafloor shed much light on why the ship sank as fast as she did, in only 55 minutes. I’m convinced that the tear in the hull at the well deck is the result of structural failure, not an internal explosion. We did see open portholes, certainly a contributing factor, but could these alone explain the swift demise of a ship expressly designed to survive such limited damage? Perhaps someday, if we return to send a robot vehicle inside the bow, we can learn more.