The lead ship of the “Olympic class” liners, the Olympic has been eclipsed, understandably enough, by her doomed sister, the Titanic. Yet when she was launched in 1910 and entered service in 1911, it was the Olympic, not the Titanic, which was the subject of all the attention of the press–entire special editions of magazines and newspapers, the only mass media of the day, were given over to her construction, launch and early career. It was in the Olympic that all of the innovations and novelties–including the much-ballyhooed and controversial “unsinkable” construction–were introduced. It was the launch of the Olympic on October 20, 1910 which was the brass-banded, bunting-behung, speechifying Auspicious Occasion that legend would later claim marked the launch of the Titanic.
Likewise, the interiors, and in particular the public rooms and lounges, of the Olympic, which were virtually identical to those of the Titanic, legend nothwithstanding, which were extensively photographed and rendered in color illustrations in periodicals, publications, and White Star publicity brochures on both sides of the Atlantic. Later most of these same photographs and illustrations would be presented as being from the Titanic herself, for decades the public never being the wiser. (The only areas where the Olympic and Titanic significantly differed were on B-Deck and C-Deck, where the Titanic had special First Class luxury suites built into her that her older sister never acquired.) The Olympic made her maiden voyage in June of 1911, departing Southampton on the 14th.
A few months later, on 20 September 1911, the Olympic suffered a major mishap just as she was entering the English Channel, having just departed Southampton. She collided with HMS Hawke, a Royal Navy light cruiser, off the Isle of Wight. The resulting damage flooded two of her sixteen watertight compartments and bent her starboard propeller shaft, necessitating an immediate return to Southampton, followed by two months of repairs in Belfast; the bow of Hawke was badly mangled. (A Royal Navy inquiry into the incident discovered a hitherto unknown hydrodynamic principle through which the Olympic’s immense displacement caused the much smaller cruiser to be inexorably drawn into the liner’s side.)
In order to expedite repairs, the Titanic‘s starboard propeller shaft was used to replace the Olympic‘s damaged shaft, though not her starboard screw, which was pitched differently from that of the Olympic, could not be used by the older ship. In February 1912, while returning to Southampton, she lost a blade from her port propeller, which necessitated another trip to Harland and Wolff for repairs. The White Star Line was anxious to get the Olympic back into service as quickly as possible, and so authorized Harland and Wolff to pull workers off the incomplete Titanic, delaying the new liner’s debut by three weeks.
After the Titanic disaster, when the Olympic returned to Southampton for the first time, the incident that became known as “the 1912 Mutiny” took place. In an attempt to reassure a suddenly apprehensive traveling public, forty collapsible lifeboats were hastily acquired by the White Star Line and conspicuously mounted on the Olympic‘s Boat Deck. When the ship reached Southampton, the entire “Black Gang” walked off the ship in protest over the condition of these collapsible boats. The men asserted that the boats were unseaworthy, some of them being downright rotten. White Star replied that the boats were sound, having been passed by a Board of Trade inspector. Eventually it was shown to the men’s satisfaction that the majority of the boats were indeed safe, and those that were not were replaced, but before the affair had run its course some fifty-four stokers and trimmers were charged with mutiny for their part in the work stoppage, a charge which a Portsmouth magistrate quickly dismissed as unfounded. By mid-May the Olympic was back in transatlantic passenger service.
When the Great War swept across Europe in early August 1914, the Olympic was initially kept in commercial service, although her newer sister, the Britannic was almost immediately requisitioned by the Royal Navy to serve as a troopship or hospital ship. In October of that year the Olympic was involved in yet another adventure. Diverted to Glasgow to avoid a German U-boat trap, she came to the aid of the British dreadnought HMS Audacious. The warship had struck a mine and was in danger of sinking; the Olympic took 250 crewmen off the stricken battleship, and then, together with two Royal Navy destroyers, attempted to tow Audacious to safety in nearby Lough Swilly, not far from the Olympic‘s birthplace of Belfast. After more than four hours of work, it became clear that Audacious was going to sink before she reached shallow water, and the Olympic quickly took off the remainder of the dreadnought’s crew before Audacious went under. The passengers and crew of the Olympic were kept aboard the ship, which remained in Lough Swilly, for five days after the incident, in an (ultimately futile) effort to prevent the Germans from learning of the loss of Audacious.
The Olympic was then laid up in Belfast for nearly a year, until, in September 1915, she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to be used as a fast troop transport. Most of her interiors were taken out and stored ashore, and 12-pounders and 4.7-inch guns were mounted about her decks and superstructure. For the next three years she would serve first in the Mediterranean Sea and later in the North Atlantic, carrying over 200,000 British, Canadian, and American soldiers without the loss of a single life. On May 12, 1918, the Olympic became the only troopship ever to destroy an enemy submarine when she was attacked by a German U-boat. U-103 had spotted the Olympic a few hundred miles from the French coast and and tried to move into an attack position. When the Olympic‘s gunners began shelling U-103, the submarine attempted a crash-dive but while she was still submerging she was run down and rammed by the Olympic. Escorting Royal Navy destroyers were able to rescue thirty-one survivors from U-103 while the Olympic, having suffered no more damage than a couple of bent hull plates, continued on to Cherbourg.
The Olympic went back to Harland and Wolff after the Armistice, where her interiors were restored and her boilers converted to oil-firing. She returned to passenger service in 1919, becoming one of the best-loved ships on the North Atlantic. Her impressive World War I service earned her the nickname “Old Reliable,” and she became popular with passengers who would stroll her decks and vicariously relive the Titanic disaster. But she was aging rapidly, and the costs of keeping her in service began to escalate; the end came in 1934 she rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship, killing all seven crewmen aboard that hapless vessel. Taken out of service, she was broken up in 1935, many of her interior fixtures and decorations finding their way into houses and pubs in Liverpool, Southampton, and London.