If ever the long and successful career of an outstanding ship was overshadowed by the ghastly demise of a younger sibling, then that ship was surely the Olympic. She made a triumphant debut in the summer of 1911, a full ten months before the disaster to her sister ship, Titanic, that changed sea travel forever.
It was the Olympic that was, in fact, the giant leap forward in terms of sea travel. She was half as large again as her nearest rivals, the record breaking rival Cunard twins, Lusitania and Mauretania. She was also graceful, sleek and- in first class at least- fabulously opulent. Her arrival created a media sensation across the world at the time, one only overshadowed by the tragic events of the following year.
On the night of April 14-15th, 1912, the eastbound Olympic made a desperate, always doomed attempt to reach her sinking sister, some five hundred miles away to the north. The two ships kept in close touch throughout the disaster- there was a genuinely strong bond between Olympic and Titanic- and it was her powerful radio transmitter that helped to marshall the rescue operation. In an appalling irony, it was also the wireless on the Olympic that first told the world officially about the loss of her sister, the Titanic.
Following an almost complete rebuild over the winter of 1912-13, the Olympic was well on her way to regaining her former star role on the Atlantic when the Great War erupted. In October 1914, she took the crippled battleship HMS Audacious in tow. The battleship eventually sank, but even the Admiralty was forced to admit the heroic role played by the Olympic. It was merely the start of her long and eventful war career.
Her enormous size and carrying capacity made her a natural troopship. It would also lead to a pair of encounters with the Kaiser’s navy.
On the first of these, German torpedoes literally bounced off her hull. And on another occasion in 1918, it was Olympic that caught and rammed a German U-boat on the surface. The horror on the faces of the surprised German sailors can only be imagined as they saw that huge bow bearing unstoppably down on them. One of the liner’s propellers also slashed clean through the sub; it sank like a stone.
The war record of the Olympic was exemplary; the thousands of troops that she carried to the battlefields of Western Europe shortened the war by several months. And, in honour of her heroics, she was nicknamed ‘Old Reliable’ by the scores of Canadian soldiers that she carried there and, eventually, back as well.
Following the war, the Olympic went back to her builders for a complete reconstruction over the winter of 1919-20, when she was also converted to oil burning. She emerged as virtually a new ship in the summer of 1920. Following this, the Olympic settled into several years of long, profitable service on the Atlantic crossing.
It was an incredible time; an age of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition, and jazz. The Olympic was one of the great ‘stars’ of the ocean, carrying such famous passengers as Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie, Dame Nellie Melba and Edward, Prince of Wales. With the ghost of the Titanic at last fading away, the ship was very popular and successful.
An intimation of her mortality came in 1924, when she suffered minor damage in a collision in New York harbour with the liner Fort St. George. But, even before the Titanic disaster, the Olympic had been rammed by a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke, An eighty foot gash had been torn in her hull. Ironically, her survival of this damage went a long way towards affirming the so called ‘unsinkability’ of the Titanic- with disastrous results the following year.
Advancing age combined with the Great Depression of 1929 to put the pre war generation of Atlantic liners on borrowed time, and the Olympic was no exception to this. In the summer of 1934, she proceeded to sign her own death warrant when she rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship in thick fog off the coast of America. Seven men were lost on the lightship. The Olympic was only slightly damaged, but the negative publicity from the incident doubtless accelerated her inevitable demise.
Only months before, White Star had merged with its great rival, Cunard. The new company was a fragile operation, one hoping profoundly that the imminent debut of the new Queen Mary would restore its fortunes and prestige. Instead, as a result of the Nantucket lightship sinking, it found itself slapped with a half a million dollar lawsuit. For the proud old Olympic, it was the final straw.
She was sold for scrap in October of 1935, and arrived in Jarrow, on the River Tyne, for demolition. Two years later, what remained of the hull was towed up to Inverkeithing, Scotland, for final scrapping. It was a singularly sad end for such a fabled and illustrious ship.
Despite those three collisions over the course of her career, the Olympic was seen as a uniquely lucky and successful ship. She was the template for the modern, state of the art ocean liner and, but for the tragedy that befell the Titanic, she would have been much more remembered than was the case. Her war record was nothing less than incredible and, over many years of peace, she carried literally tens of thousands of happy passengers between Europe and New York in style, safety and comfort.
The Olympic did everything ever asked of her and, indeed, far more. She was the absolute epitome of style, beauty and grace, and became the benchmark for all rival lines to aspire to, both before and after the Great War. With her four great black and buff smoke stacks, graceful prow and gently curved counter stern, the Olympic was the very apogee of the classic western ocean steamship.