AT 269 METRES AND 48,000 TONS, Britannic is the world’s biggest passenger shipwreck, and this November marks 100 years since the liner sank off Greece’s Kea Island in the Aegean Sea.
She was one of three ships built by the White Star Line to compete with its rival Cunard not in terms of speed but of scale and luxury – unlike the earlier Titanic and Olympic, however, she would never set sail as a passenger vessel.
Instead, she was requisitioned as a hospital ship in WW1, and one of the long-running controversies about her was whether she was sunk passively by a U-boat-laid mine or actively by a U-boat-fired torpedo.
More than 1000 people were aboard when Britannic sank in under an hour in 1916. All but 30 survived – the loss of life came because the captain kept the engines going even with the props out of the water, shredding lifeboats in the process.
But the liner’s rapid sinking left questions. A system of isolating watertight compartments was supposed to makes the Olympians unsinkable, so what happened?
Exactly what changes had been made after the Titanic disaster of 1912, apart from providing more lifeboats? And how far had the original interior design been modified in moving from luxury liner to hospital ship?
Divers love questions; “mysteries” provide reasons to dive. Jacques Cousteau’s team was first to visit the wreck in 1975 and Bob Ballard followed 20 years later, but it was clear that certain answers would be obtained only through penetrating the wreck, which submersibles and ROVs couldn’t do.
Advances in technical diving, particularly rebreathers, were making it more realistic for divers to spend time on a wreck like Britannic, which posed big challenges.
It lay 120m deep in an area with often-fast surface currents, though perhaps toughest of all the obstacles was Greek bureaucracy.
But expeditions led by British divers such as Kevin Gurr, Nick Hope and Carl Spencer enjoyed success around the turn of the century.
New Yorker Richie Kohler came later to the Britannic party – partly because he came later to rebreathers.
He was already a well-known technical diver as a result of his work with John Chatterton on U869, immortalised in the book Shadow Divers (soon to be out as a film), and later as presenter of the long-running TV series Deep Sea Detectives. Today he is one of the few men to have visited Titanic and been inside Britannic.
Kohler led a Britannic expedition in 2006, took part in the 2009 venture on which he and Rich Stevenson penetrated further into the wreck at 60m than anyone had been before (and nearly came to grief in the process), and returned last year on a Russian ship, when use of a diving bell proved an eye-opener as a technical-diving resource.
All this is neatly wrapped up in Mystery of the Last Olympian, co-written with author and recreational diver Charlie Hudson and a terrific read. It makes allowance for the mainstream audience the book deserves by including clear and non-intrusive explanations of diving terms and procedures, although by the end, with the entire standard operating procedure of the 2006 expedition reproduced in an appendix, it does seem to have become much more of a diver’s book.
The ship’s history is engagingly covered but not in over-much depth – it has been well documented before, and this book is about diving the Britannic. Kohler comes over as likeable and self-deprecating, and makes it easy to share his joy when things go right and feel his pain when they don’t.
The low point was of course the death of Carl Spencer in 2009, the only diving fatality on the
Britannic in an incident that overtook Kohler’s triumph on the same dive.
Spencer’s ghost hovers over the second half of the book but the writers explain how lessons were learnt from the tragedy – not least separation of duties to avoid expedition leaders stretching themselves to breaking point.
The book is good at bringing to life the many personalities involved over the years, not least the normally unsung fixers who against the odds turn ambitious expedition plans into reality.
I found the typeface slightly odd at first, with its outsize capital letters, but it turns out that it was used on White Star literature aboard the Olympic-class ships, so I suppose it lends an authentic period feel.
Keen wreck-divers may know a fair bit about Britannic, but Mystery of the Last Olympian fills in gaps, frames questions that remain, and is an eminently readable pull-together by a diver who has been there.
Steve Weinman

Best Publishing
ISBN: 9781930536869
Softback, 228pp, $19.99