Exactly 105 years ago yesterday, on October 20, 1910, the RMS Olympic was launched in Belfast. She was the first of what would become White Star Line’s trio of ocean liners known for their size and elegance. The Titanic was still under construction and would launch in 1912. Until the Titanic was completed, the Olympic held the title of the world’s largest passenger ship. The two were to be joined later by a third ship, the Britannic.
launch of the RMS Olympic
After her launch, Olympic was fitted with her heavy machinery and luxurious interior, then left for Liverpool, her home port, on May 31, 1911. On the same day, the RMS Titanic was launched, but still nearly a year away from her fateful maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.
Olympic’s maiden voyage to New York in June 1911 was successful. A crowd of 8000 toured the ship after docking in New York Harbor. On her fifth voyage to New York, just as she left Southampton, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke smashed into the side of the Olympic. Both ships were badly damaged, but they made it back to port, and Olympic’s New York voyage was cancelled. After temporary repairs, she was sent back to Belfast for more major repairs. This in turn caused Titanic’s completion and maiden voyage to be delayed.
On another voyage to New York in February 1912, the Olympic lost a propeller blade and had to return to Belfast again on her return. It was then the Olympic and Titanic were together for the last time.
Olympic (left) and Titanic
Two months later, on April 14, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The distress signals reached the Olympic 500 miles away, too far for her to reach the Titanic before it sank. When the Olympic asked the Carpathia’s Captain Rostron if the Olympic could pick up survivors from the Carpathia, he refused. Seeing another ship the size of Titanic would only upset the survivors, he reasoned.
Six months after the Titanic disaster, the Olympic was temporarily taken out of service in order to make her watertight bulkheads higher and more lifeboats added. Features that had been present on the Titanic but not on the Olympic were added as well, such as the Café Parisien. For the most part, however, much of the Olympic was identical to her more famous younger sister.
When World War I began, the Olympic came to the aid of the HMS Audacious, a British battleship, when it struck a mine. She rescued the entire crew before the Audacious sank. The Olympic was requisitioned as a troop ship and made ready for war service, including “dazzle” paint, meant to make it harder for another ship to judge its speed. While carrying up to 6000 troops, she was unsuccessfully attacked by submarines several times. In 1918, the Olympic rammed and sank a German submarine, earning her the nickname, “Old Reliable.”
Olympic in "dazzle" paint
The Olympic returned to passenger service in 1920. She was eventually sold and demolished in 1937. Some of her fixtures are still on display at museums in the UK and at the White Swan Hotel, Ainwick, England.
Marble fireplace from the Olympic at the White Swan Hotel, Ainwick, England