Brief History Of Olympic


I found the challenge of doing justice to Olympic was so great that I just wasn't sure where to start. I began by asking myself what made Olympic special. It's true she was a beautiful ship; in fact her lines were amazingly clean for her time. She was the largest ship in the world and the first of a new and exciting class of liners. She was exceedingly comfortable and well decorated; the most luxurious ship yet built. Yet much of the same could be said for most new ships on the highly competitive Atlantic route.

It cannot be denied that Olympic had that quality that endeared crew and passengers to her throughout her life. Not all ships have this quality. For example, many say the Queen Mary had it and the Queen Elizabeth did not. This is not something that can be properly explained; it just seemed like Olympic was a happy ship. In fact it is that quality that drew me to her in the first place. Her life was far more upbeat than that of her younger sisters.

Olympic, first of a trio of liners which included Titanic and Britannic, was built at Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Ireland. Her keel was laid on 16 December, 1908 in slip number 2. Launch followed on 20 October, 1910. Olympic was completed, at a total cost of US$7,500,000, on 31 May, 1911, a special day for White Star in that it was also her sister Titanicís launch day.


Olympic entering the water, painted white on her launch day.

After a two-day gala visit to Liverpool, her official port of registry, Olympic sailed to Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage on 14 June. The first major occurrence in her service came that very summer and involved the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke. The Hawke collision occurred on 20 September, 1911, the height of Olympicís sailing season. Despite a capacity load, the voyage had to be canceled. The Hawke collision is especially interesting because the repairs to Olympic delayed Titanicís maiden voyage.

After the sinking of her unfortunate sister, Olympic was refitted at huge cost with a double hull and lifeboat capacity for all. For the next two years Olympic sailed successfully and uneventfully. At the outbreak of war Olympic was westbound one day short of New York. Speed was increased and a blackout was observed that night.


While still making commercial voyages in October 1914 Olympic happened upon and rescued the crew of the sinking British battleship Audacious. Olympic attempted to tow Audacious but the weather kicked up and parted the line. Olympicís passengers were held onboard for a week while the admiralty attempted to figure a way to spin the incident. Later in the war Olympic served as a troop ship carrying thousands of Canadians to the front. It was during this service that Olympic obtained her nickname "The Old Reliable," for her good and trustworthy service on these trooping voyages.

Olympicís most notable achievement during the war was the ramming and sinking of German submarine U103 on 12 May, 1918. Olympic was the only merchant ship to sink an enemy warship during the war. Post-war, Olympic returned to service by July 1920, refitted, cleaned and notably converted to oil fuel. Due to Britannic's loss during the war, Olympic was now the last remaining ship of the original trio. She was joined two years later by Homeric and Majestic thus forming a new trio, one that would last for the next ten years.

One of the dazzle paint patterns Olympic sported during the great war.

The 20s were a terrific decade for the ship as she returned to popular, profitable, and reliable service. This period was not without incident however. On 22 May, 1924 Olympic was again involved in a collision. This time on the other side of the pond, New York City. The other ship involved was the Furness Bermuda liner Fort St. George. The collision required Olympicís entire stern frame be removed and replaced, an operation that had never been done on a ship of her size.

Olympic undergoing repairs in Southampton late 1920s. (From the collection of Rob Ottmers)

In 1929 Olympic was involved in perhaps the most unusual incident of her career. On 18 November, Olympic was steaming just a few degrees from Titanicís last known position when the ship was shaken continuously for two full minutes. Olympic happened to be traveling 2.5 miles above the large Grand Banks Earthquake of that year. Despite the unusual experience she was unaffected.

By the early 1930s Olympic had begun to show her age, as mechanical and structural problems started to surface. Still, Olympic sailed on, now in her third decade. She was destined for another collision, this time with the Nantucket lightship on 15 May, 1934. The lightship was demolished taking 7 men out of her 11-man complement to the bottom with her. The accident came just a few weeks after the announcement that White Star would merge with archrival Cunard. 


Olympic shortly after ramming the Nantucket lightship.  Notice her flags are at half mast.  (From the collection of Rob Ottmers)


The merger signaled the beginning of the end for Olympic and almost all the ships in the White Star fleet. In fact Olympic's end came the following year, and her summer sailing schedule for 1935 was canceled after 257 round trips to America.


Olympic and Mauretania spent much of 1935 tied up at Southampton's western docks as seen here awaiting their fate. 

(From the collection of Rob Ottmers)


Olympic sat quietly at her berth in Southampton for the next six months. In September of 1935 she was sold for $500,000 to Sir John Jervis a member of the British parliament who, concerned about job loss due to the Depression, immediately re-sold her to Thomas Ward and Sons Ship Breakers in Jarrow, Scotland (in his constituency).

On October 11, Olympic departed Southampton for the last time, arriving at Jarrow for scrapping two days later. Auctioneers Knight, Frank and Rutley of London auctioned off 4,456 lots of Olympic's interior fittings. Her dismantling took two years and was completed at Inverkeithing.

Olympic's longest serving commander, Sir Bertram Hayes, summed her up well: "The finest ship in my estimation that has ever built or ever will be".


Make sure to visit the gallery for many more images of Olympic



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Sources: Simon Mills, RMS Olympic The Old Reliable; Sir Bertram Hayes, Hull Down; John Maxtone-Graham, Ocean Liners of the Past, Epilogue.  Images from the author's collection and that of Rob Ottmers.  Thanks should go  to Jeff Newman for space on his servers.  Special thanks to Mike Choi for editing assistance and advice. 

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Copyright 2002  by Brian Hawley.  All materials published here are from the Brian Hawley collection unless otherwise noted. This site and its related contents are published strictly for educational purposes.  Do not steal the images from this site for your own web projects!  If you ask nicely I will be glad to share images as long as proper credit is given.