top of page

Britannic's Unfulfilled Design: A Closer Look at Her Original Concept

Britannic's intended design, and how she would have looked if Titanic had not have sank.

Imagining Britannic in the capacity for which she was initially designed as an ocean liner, as opposed to her wartime hospital duties, can be difficult. The vessel originally primed for luxury voyages instead of one shaped by war.

We often associate Britannic with her hospital ship role and post-Titanic modifications, but my interest lies in envisioning how she would have appeared if the Titanic had not sunk, and if the world had not been thrust into war. This article delves into her original design concept, examining which alterations she would have retained and which would have remained unrealised.

HMHS Britannic, what she actually looked like in her hospital ship livery 1915

Britannic Conception:

The Britannic was the third ship of the Olympic-class. First being the Olympic then Titanic, Britannic would eventually complete the trio.

Realising they could not compete with the speed of Cunard's new ships, The Mauretania and Lusitania, the Olympic class would offer the height of luxury for passengers as well as providing a new standard of service for the hundreds of thousands of European emigrants on their way to America.

It was decided to build Olympic and Titanic first, with the door open on a third ship if the class performed up to its expectations.

After the very successful maiden voyage of the Olympic on 21st June 1911, Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line and president of the International Mercantile Marine (IMM), had every reason to feel proud of his company's latest technological achievement and telegraphed home straight away saying ' Olympic, a marvel, and has given unbounded satisfaction'

Ismay, despite his elation knew that competition was fierce, in less than a week after Titanic's launch, the first keel plates of Cunard's new ship Aquitania had been laid and the Hamberg America Line also planning an even bigger trio of ships.

Up to this point, a third Olympic class vessel had simply not been an option for the White Star Line, but in the three years since Olympic and Titanic had been ordered the commercial realities had changed dramatically. With the public's reaction to the Olympic being so positive, the need to build a third ship of the class in order to comfortably maintain a weekly Trans-Atlantic service became greater than ever.

It is amongst this background that a third ship was conceived. The contract for the ship's construction was officially ordered on the 28th June 1911, exactly one week after Olympic had arrived in New York.

With the large slipways already occupied, it would not be until after the launch of the RMS Arlanza on 23rd November 1911 that a slipway was available to start construction of the third Olympic-class ship. On 30th November 1911; one week later, the keel of yard number 433, 'Britannic' was finally laid.


Word was starting to spread about the fabulous new White Star Line vessel and rumours were starting to circulate. On 25th November 1911, the New York Times had picked up on a story in the British press, speculating that the new ship - to be called Gigantic - would be 1000ft long and 112ft wide. Intriguingly, the onboard facilities would include a cricket field, a tennis court, golf links, and a ballroom.

In actual fact, references to a White Star liner named Gigantic in the popular press was nothing new, and even be traced back as far back as the last decade of the nineteenth century, when another Gigantic was confidently predicted by the press. Ultimately that ship did come to pass and was actually called Oceanic.

It has however recently been said in an attempt to sensationalise the history of the Titanic that Britannic's name was discreetly changed after the tragedy because the original choice was both portentous and boastful.

A Gigantic advertisment often used to prove Britannic's orginial namesake

The existing documentation just doesn't support that theory. Engineering records from Harland and Wolff show volume lists of all the vessels, all in numerical order as per their yard number, and it can clearly be seen that at no time after the ship had been ordered is there any reference to the name Gigantic.

Name changes were not unusual, many vessels on the same page as Britannic had their names changed during construction but Britannic's name is unaltered.

Another Harland and Wolff record book details the progression of the construction. Again, there is no evidence of a name change.

Harland and Wolff was also not concerened about a vessels nomenclature but more with yard numbers. It was more of a matter for the ship owners to worry about. Harland and Wolff would not have wanted to be involved in such a cover-up nor would they have been able to have kept it quiet.

There is no known official written record to yard number 433 being named Gigantic.

The First Modification:

Olympic was completing successful voyages on the Atlantic and providing valuable insights to the classes performance. Improvements and modifications were already being implemented on Titanic, of which still going through her fit-out process. Olympic's First Class B-Deck enclosed Promenade was proving underused and a dead space. It was decided to use Titanic and Britannic's B-Deck promenade for more cabins and to extend the very successful Restaurant. Other engineering factors were also implemented as reasonable possible on the nearly completed Titanic and with Britannic being designed with further more construction revisions.

During this phase of development, Britannic's design and construction closely mirrored that of the Titanic, with ongoing refinements inspired by the construction of Titanic.

However, as Titanic made changes such as converting her B-deck First Class enclosed promenade into additional cabins and Olympic completing her first winter season, it became apparent that Olympic's B-deck enclosed promenade was a valuable asset during the colder months.

The Second Modification:

In March 1912, just as Titanic was nearing completion, a decision was made to reinstate an enclosed promenade on Titanic by enclosing the forward section of her A-deck promenade. This modification aimed to provide First Class passengers with a year-round usable promenade. This last-minute design adjustment was also incorporated into Britannic's plans in the interim.

In the same month, Olympic was taken back to Belfast to have a propeller blade replaced. while in dry-dock issues were beginning to materialise in the ships riveted seams and small cracks were observed in her superstructure. This gave the opportunity to replace and strengthen a number of seams as well as other structural modifications.

Titanic too received these amendments and also received further riveting alongside the turbine engine room and boiler room 6.

Britannic, only being a completed double bottom at this point had the new structural amendments added in to her design and further strengthening and bracing. Her engineers also thought it necessary to increase the breadth of the vessel by 18in and to incorporate three expansion joints instead of the two Olympic and Titanic had in order to help distribute the top side flexing in her superstructure.

The Titanic Disaster:

Less than two weeks after Titanic departed from Belfast; on 15th April 1912, Titanic sank after striking an iceberg on her maiden voyage and taking 1503 passengers and crew with her.

At the time of the Titanic disaster, Britannic was fully framed and work on her plating was well underway. Its at this point Britannic'c design changed forever!

As soon as word of the disaster hit Belfast, work on the Britannic halted. The American inquiry report was published six weeks after the disaster and the British report published late July 1912. Both highlighting the lack of lifeboat capacity and the concerns over the water tight bulkheads.

Concerns for the Britannic was even greater, with rumours that she would be cancelled altogether. However the commercial realities made such an option unlikely. There was no way the White Star could maintain a balanced service with just Oceanic, the aging Majestic and the Olympic.

Construction work slowly resumed with the designers and engineers working tirelessly in the background to improve safety and structural features on the ship.

What if Titanic never sank?

If Titanic never sank Britannic would have continued with her construction as intended, her designers intriguingly awaiting news of the Titanic and to incorporate new measures learned from Titanic maiden voyage.

It is safe to say no new safety features like a double skin or extra watertight compartments would have ever been added.

Gantry Davits

Designed by William Edward Armstrong, Britannic's davits were of a lattice-girder construction and of a much greater height than normal davits used during the day. The davits were mounted like shear-legs on horizontal pivots making it possible to lower boats at a greater distance from the ship. They also allowed to hold three much bigger lifeboats on them with room for more boats to be stored behind.

It's safe to say that Britannic would have never received her famous giant gantry davits if Titanic had never sank. She would have received the original Olympic-class lifeboat arrangement.

Britannic's huge gantry davits, seen from the Boat-Deck

Philharmonic Organ

The organ was designed into the A-Deck - Boat-Deck entrances of the First Class Grand Staircase on the Britannic. There was a revival tend at the time for the instrument, and would have been a gesture of modernising the post-Titanic Britannic. By incorporating the organ however lost the Boat-Deck landing connecting both sides of the entrance. This wasn't necessarily seen as problem as it created a new double height atrium space under the grand staircase dome, intentionally creating the perfect space to use as a Ballroom.

An organ inclusion was thought about for Titanic but designers couldn't agree of where to place it.

Ballrooms were also popular on other ships and that the Olympic-class did not yet provide such a facility. Olympic was later installed a dance floor to the First Class Dining room in response to demand.

It is likely that the organ and Ballroom would have been installed on the original design and likely the same location as the post-Titanic design.

An illustration of Britannic's Philharmonic Organ creating a ballroom atrium for dancing.

First Class Elevators

On Olympic and Titanic the First Class elevators did not reach the Boat-Deck level, this was because it was thought passengers would not use the Boat-Deck as much with having two large promenades below. However, on Olympic and Titanic the Boat-Deck proved just as popular and the lack of elevator connection would have eventually stood out.

Its very likely the elevators would have been extended up to Boat-Deck level on Britannic just like they were on her post-Titanic design.

The Grand Staircase and Honour and Glory Crowning Time

The Grand Staircase on both Olympic and Titanic was a splendid representation of Ancient Greek mythology, paying homage to the King of Olympus and the son of the Titans. The meticulous attention to detail between naming and design was evident.

However, when Britannic was commissioned as a third member of this 'Olympian' trio, her staircase would diverged from the symmetry of Greek mythology.

This is why Britannic had much more freedom in the staircase design, with the post-Titanic Britannic wanting to differentiate from the old.

It is unlikely however, that the Grand Staircase would have looked much different to that of Olympic and Titanic. The arched A-Deck Balustrades would have never been incorporated and the floor tiles likely the same.

It is possible however because of the Honour and Glory Crowning Time carving being associated with Olympic and Titanic's namesakes, Britannic may have received a new carving design.

An illustration of Britannic's Grand Staircase redesign showing the organ and the arched balustrades.

The Enclosed A-Deck Promenade

Titanic lost her B-Deck enclosed promenade in favour of more first class cabins, this was then hastily reinstalled to Titanic's forward A-Deck promenade in response to Olympics first winter run where her B-Deck enclosed promenade proved useful.

Designers thought about this more on Britannic, and decided to incorporate both promenades from both sisters. A-deck was half enclosed like Titanic and B-deck forward enclosed promenade was kept like Olympic but with the extra cabins like Titanic.

Its likely a similar design process would have happened regardless of the Titanic disaster although may have undergone a few more modifications.

The A-Deck promenade double windows chosen for Britannic was a fashion that was started to be seen on other ships at the time, as well as allowing more light into the promenade. It is likely these would have been installed into the design like on the post-Titanic design.

An illustration showing the A-Deck double window design. Artwork by Oceanliner Designs & Illustrations by Michael Brady.

B-Deck Window Arrangement

Titanic received a new B-Deck window arrangement shortly after her launch. This was to accommodate the new cabins chosen to replace her original B-Deck enclosed promenade.

However, the window arrangement on Titanic didn't match up to the frames of the ship meaning the windows didn't align to the rooms centrally and instead had one of the two windows up against a cabin walls. This arrangement worked on the C-Deck cabins as the other side of the wall would house a large fitted wardrobe that would make the windows appear more central. The B-Deck cabins had new walk-in style wardrobes freeing up the space on the outer wall and making the windows appear off-center.

Britannic also underwent the B-Deck modification; however, from an early stage, the designers had a plan in place to rectify the window imbalance issue. Their solution involved doubling up the windows with the frames and positioning them centrally within the cabins. This design adjustment would have been a definitive feature of the original Britannic, as the designers were committed to the new B-Deck layout and had refined it based on the lessons learned from the Titanic's design.

An illustration of the double B-Deck windows on Britannic. Designed to be more central to the cabins. Artwork by Oceanliner Designs & Illustrations by Michael Brady.

The Interior Redesign

Britannic received a new interior design re-shuffle post-Titanic. This was to shake-up the style of the ship to both modernise and to breakway the connection to Titanic.

A lot was happening at this time and these ships would have started to have naturally dated quickly. It would have been in the White Star Lines best interests to have modernised the interiors and deck plans.

- We know from the Olympic and Titanic that the First class Reading and Writing room was underutilised and its likely Britannic's would have been reduced regardless.

- We also know from Olympic and Titanic that one of the Verandah cafes was being misused as a children's playroom and likely Britannic would have received a dedicated playroom like she did in her post-Titanic design.

- Bathrooms were becoming evermore popular, and were starting to become an expected private facility within cabins especially in First Class. Britannic, post-Titanic was one of the first ships to offer nearly all first class cabins with attached bathrooms. This was seen more on Titanic too, so it's very likely this would have been considered for the Britannic's original design, if not incorporated at some point.

- The First Class Smoke Room onboard post-Titanic Britannic took a whole redesign in shape, style and design. This was likely because of the structural supports needed for the giant davits above. This would have unlikely been altered on the original Britannic, and having the same polished mahogany panels like her sisters. It is possible however that the inlay material would have been different as Olympic's was different to Titanic.

- Third class covered C-Deck well deck and new shade deck on top of the Poop-Deck was incorporated to the post-Titanic design to provide new storage areas for the new gantry davits for third class without using up all their deck space. The shade deck was unlikely to have been designed into the original design, but the enclosure of the well deck may have been utilised. Third class had no sheltered deck space and the enclosure of the aft well deck would have solved this.

Photograph taken from Britannic's launch in 1914 showing the new Shade-Deck over the Poop and new C-Deck enclosed Well-Deck

The Parlour Suites

The Parlour suites on Titanic were revolutionised with the B-Deck suits benefitting from a large private promenade. These were too transfered to Britanninc's original design and were already being worked on and redesigned. Her starboard B-Deck suite was already drawn up by architect Arthur Henry Durand with a different layout and decor style. This suite was to have a smaller private promenade (verandah) with bedrooms on each side. Staff accomodation, seperate bathrooms and a Georgian style sitting room saloon.

The original Britannic concept would have likely had these modified parlour suites as well as keeping the traditional suites on C-Deck.

Swimming Baths

The Olympic-class ships were the first to provide the luxury of a swimming pool facility. Although Olympic and Titanic received very little decoration in these rooms, competition with newer ships providing larger and more lavish swimming baths were becoming ever more expected. Britannic post-Titanic was planned to have a beautifully decorated room within keeping of the changing times.

I see no reason why this would not have also happened on the original Britannic design. Designers would have been aware of what others were doing and taken the opportunity to modernise this space. Its also likely if Titanic had not have sank, both Olympic and Titanic would have received similar refits to their swimming baths too.

Olympic never received any decoration to her baths due to both Titanic and Britannic sinking, the war, and other facilities in need of more attention.

My interpretation of what Britannic would have more likely looked like if Titanic had not have sank as her original concept.

HMHS Britannic

Britannic's design underwent substantial transformations throughout her construction to accommodate various design influences from Olympic, address safety concerns post-Titanic disaster, and adapt to evolving trends and preferences. Her original concept faced continuous scrutiny, and the ultimate design emerged as a result of numerous concurrent factors and events during that era.

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, Britannic, then in the midst of her fit-out phase, was requisitioned by the British government to serve as a hospital ship.

HMHS - His Majesty's Hospital Ship.

(His Majesty being King George V and commanded under the British Royal Navy as a Hospital Ship)

Numerous luxurious interior decorations had already been installed or were in the process of being crafted. To safeguard these opulent fittings from potential damage during her service as a hospital ship, they were either removed or securely boarded up onboard. Many of the fittings that did not accompany Britannic during her wartime service still exist today.

Britannic's panels from the 2nd class Library that survive today

Sadly on 21st November 1916 Britannic collided with an under-water mine in the Kea Channel, Greece and sank in just 55 minutes.

Britannic's history is a tale of continual adaptation and transformation. From her original design to her wartime role as a hospital ship, she navigated a complex journey shaped by various design influences, safety concerns, and the tumultuous events of her time.

Her fateful demise not only in war but in her design shows how fast times were changing and that she bcame in her own right a worthy Olympian.

Written by Chris Walker of RMSTitanic.Design

2,059 views1 comment