J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, and William Pirrie, the chairman of Harland and Wolff shipyard, intended the Olympic-class ships to surpass rival Cunard’s largest ships, Lusitania and Mauretania, in size and luxury. Construction of theOlympic began three months before Titanic to ease pressures on the shipyard. Several years would pass before Gigantic(renamed Britannic after Titanic‘s sinking) was constructed with post-Titanic modifications.
In order to accommodate the construction of the class, Harland and Wolff upgraded their facility in Belfast; the most dramatic change was the combining of three slipways into two larger ones. Olympic‘s keel was laid in December 1908 and she was launched on 20 October 1910. For her launch, the hull was painted in a light grey colour for photographic purposes (a common practice of the day for the first ship in a new class, as it made the lines of the ship clearer in the black and white photographs). Her hull was repainted following the launch.
World War 1
In World War I, Olympic initially remained in commercial service under Captain Herbert Haddock. She sailed from New York on 20 October 1914 for Britain, though carrying very few passengers, as Germany had announced that her U-boats would sink the Olympic on sight and most of the passengers had cancelled.
In the early hours of 12 May 1918, while en route for France with US troops under the command of Captain Bertram Fox Hayes, Olympic sighted a surfaced U-boat 500 m (1,600 ft) ahead. Her gunners opened fire at once, and she turned to ram the submarine, which immediately crash dived to 30 m (98 ft) and turned to a parallel course. Almost immediately afterwards Olympic struck the submarine just aft of her conning tower and her port propeller sliced through U-103‘s pressure hull. The crew of U-103 blew her ballast tanks and scuttled and abandoned the submarine. This is the only known incident in World War I in which a merchant vessel sank an enemy warship. Olympic returned to Southampton with at least two hull plates dented and her prow twisted to one side, but not breached.
Olympic did not stop, but continued on to Cherbourg. The USS Davis sighted a distress flare and picked up 31 survivors from U-103. It was discovered that U-103 had been preparing to torpedo the Olympic when she was sighted, but the crew could not flood the two stern torpedo tubes.
During the war, Olympic is reported to have carried up to 201,000 troops and other personnel, burning 347,000 tons of coal and travelling about 184,000 miles. Her impressive World War I service earned her the nickname Old Reliable.
Demise of the Olympic II
At the end of 1932, with passenger traffic in decline, Olympic went for an overhaul and refit that took four months. She returned to service in March 1933 described by her owners as “looking like new.” Her engines were performing at their best and she repeatedly recorded speeds in excess of 23 knots, despite averaging less than that in regular transatlantic service. Passenger capacities were given as 618 first class, 447 tourist class and only 382 third class after the decline of the immigrant trade. 1933 was Olympic‘s worst year of business – carrying under 10,000 passengers in total.
In 1934, Olympic again struck a ship. The approaches to New York were marked by lightships and Olympic, like other liners, had been known to pass close by these vessels. On 15 May 1934, Olympic, inbound in heavy fog, was homing in on the radio beacon of Nantucket Lightship LV-117. Now under the command of Captain John Binks the ship failed to turn in time and sliced through the smaller vessel, which broke apart and sank. Four of the lightship’s crew went down with the vessel and seven were rescued, of whom three died of their injuries – thus there were seven fatalities out of a crew of eleven. Three of the lightship’s surviving crewmen were interviewed by the newsreels immediately after the accident.
In 1934 the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line at the instigation of the British government. This merger allowed funds to be granted for the completion of the future RMS Queen Mary. Cunard White Star then started retiring its surplus tonnage, which included the majority of the old White Star liners. Olympic was withdrawn from service in 1935. In May 1935 British Movietone broadcasted news about saving the Mauretania and Olympic from the ship breakers. In May 1935 she was purchased by a France millionaire, but of hes depression he had to re-sold it to Sir John Jarvis for £100,000 to be partially demolished at Jarrow, providing work for the region. In 1937, Olympic was towed to Inverkeithing to T.W. Ward’s yard for final demolition.
Alternate ending for Olympic
In May 1935 she was purchased by a France millionaire to lay for many years as a floating hotel in France. In 1938 she would have been completed as a floating hotel and many changes in her design to prevent the weak structure of her funnels and hull. In World War 2 she could have been bombed by the planes of Nazi-Germany. In 1946 to 1980 she would have proved her self as the last four-stacker ship ever build with a long-life still. In 1990 she would have been delivered to the breakers for scrap. Even the Queen Mary 1 in Long Beach will soon give away if she would never be renovated.