Incredible Story Of The Rms Olympic

The incredible story of the RMS Olympic

The RMS Olympic, the lead ship of the White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class liners, stands as a significant yet often overshadowed part of maritime history.

Unlike her more infamous sister ship, the Titanic, the Olympic enjoyed a long and successful career, earning the nickname “Old Reliable.” This article explores the history of the RMS Olympic, delving into her construction, service life, and lasting legacy.

The genesis of the Olympic-class liners

In the early 20th century, the transatlantic passenger shipping industry was highly competitive, with major companies like Cunard Line and White Star Line vying for supremacy. Cunard’s RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906 and 1907 respectively, were fast and luxurious, setting new standards for ocean travel.

In response, the White Star Line, led by J. Bruce Ismay and with financial backing from J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company, conceived the Olympic-class liners. These ships aimed to prioritize size, luxury, and safety over speed.

Construction and design

The construction of the RMS Olympic began in December 1908 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Olympic-class design, created by Harland and Wolff’s naval architect Alexander Carlisle and his team, emphasized grandeur and opulence.

At 882 feet 9 inches long and 92 feet 6 inches wide, the Olympic was the largest ship in the world at the time of her launch. Her gross tonnage was 45,324, making her a behemoth of the seas.

The Olympic’s design featured numerous innovations, including a double hull and 16 watertight compartments equipped with electric watertight doors. These features were intended to make the ship “practically unsinkable.”

The ship’s interiors, designed by the acclaimed architect Charles Fitzroy Doll, were a marvel of Edwardian elegance. Lavish staterooms, grand dining halls, and opulent public spaces adorned the ship, ensuring that passengers traveled in unmatched comfort and style.

Maiden voyage and early service

The RMS Olympic was launched on October 20, 1910, and embarked on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City on June 14, 1911, under the command of Captain Edward Smith.

The journey was a success, marking the beginning of Olympic’s illustrious career. Passengers marveled at the ship’s luxurious accommodations and smooth, stable passage across the Atlantic.

However, Olympic’s early years were not without incident. On September 20, 1911, she collided with the British warship HMS Hawke near the Isle of Wight.

The collision caused significant damage to both vessels, and Olympic had to return to Belfast for extensive repairs. This accident led to a temporary reassessment of the ship’s watertight compartments and safety features.

The Titanic disaster and its aftermath

The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, profoundly impacted the maritime industry and the future of the Olympic. As Titanic’s near-identical sister ship, Olympic underwent numerous safety upgrades following the disaster.

These included the addition of more lifeboats, extending the height of her watertight bulkheads, and installing improved fire protection systems.

The RMS Olympic and WWI

The RMS Olympic played a significant and heroic role during World War I. Known for her luxurious peacetime voyages, the Olympic demonstrated remarkable versatility and resilience in wartime for her dependable service.

Transition to a Troopship

When World War I broke out in 1914, the RMS Olympic was quickly repurposed from a transatlantic passenger liner to a troopship.

This transition was part of a broader strategy by the Allied forces to utilize large ocean liners for transporting troops and equipment across the Atlantic. The Olympic’s size, speed, and capacity made her an ideal candidate for this crucial role.

In May 1915, the Olympic was officially requisitioned by the British Admiralty and refitted to accommodate thousands of soldiers. Her luxurious interiors were stripped down to create barracks-like accommodations.

The ship’s dining rooms, lounges, and staterooms were converted into mess halls and sleeping quarters. Despite these changes, the Olympic retained some of her elegance and comfort, providing a relatively pleasant environment for the troops.

Notable Missions and Contributions

Throughout the war, the RMS Olympic undertook numerous missions, transporting troops, medical personnel, and supplies between Europe and North America.

Her maiden voyage as a troopship took place in September 1915, when she sailed from Southampton to Mudros, a strategic port on the Greek island of Lemnos, carrying over 6,000 soldiers to support the Gallipoli Campaign.

One of Olympic’s most notable contributions came in May 1918, when she played a pivotal role in rescuing survivors of the troopship SS Burdigala, which had been torpedoed by a German U-boat.

The Olympic’s quick response and efficient rescue operations saved hundreds of lives, further cementing her reputation as a reliable and heroic vessel.

The Olympic’s speed and maneuverability were also put to the test during her wartime service. In May 1918, she famously evaded an attack by the German submarine U-103.

In a daring and dramatic maneuver, the Olympic’s captain, Bertram Fox Hayes, steered the ship directly at the submarine, forcing it to dive to avoid being rammed. This aggressive tactic allowed the Olympic to escape unscathed and continue her mission.

Camouflage and Protection

To protect against enemy attacks, the RMS Olympic was painted in a distinctive dazzle camouflage. This bold and irregular pattern of contrasting colors was designed to confuse enemy submarines and make it difficult for them to accurately target the ship.

The dazzle camouflage was a common practice during the war and proved effective in reducing the risk of torpedo attacks.

War’s End and Post-War Service

By the end of World War I, the RMS Olympic had transported over 200,000 troops and steamed more than 184,000 miles. Her contributions were widely recognized, and she was celebrated as a vital asset to the Allied war effort.

After the war, the Olympic was returned to civilian service and underwent extensive refitting to restore her to her former glory.

Legacy of Heroism

The RMS Olympic’s service during World War I is a testament to her adaptability, resilience, and the bravery of her crew.

From a luxurious passenger liner to a dependable troopship, the Olympic demonstrated that she could adapt to the demands of wartime and perform her duties with distinction.

Her wartime legacy remains an enduring chapter in the history of maritime service, showcasing the critical role that ocean liners played in global conflicts.

Despite the tragedy, Olympic continued to serve with distinction. She played a crucial role during World War I, serving as a troopship and hospital ship.

The vessel transported thousands of troops across the Atlantic; Olympic’s wartime contributions were recognized with honors and commendations after the war.

Post-war service and the Roaring Twenties

Following the end of World War I, the RMS Olympic returned to civilian service. The post-war years marked a period of renewal and modernization for the ship.

In 1919, she underwent a major refit to convert her from coal to oil-burning engines, significantly improving her efficiency and reducing operational costs.

The 1920s were a golden age for the Olympic. She enjoyed immense popularity among transatlantic travelers, attracting celebrities, politicians, and wealthy individuals.

The ship’s luxurious accommodations, impeccable service, and reliable schedule made her a preferred choice for many. Among her notable passengers were Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Edward, Prince of Wales.

The Great Depression and decline

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought significant challenges to the transatlantic shipping industry. The economic downturn led to a decline in passenger numbers and revenues.

Despite efforts to maintain her prestige, the RMS Olympic faced increasing competition from newer and more modern liners, such as the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie.

In 1934, the White Star Line merged with its longtime rival, Cunard Line, forming Cunard-White Star Line. This merger marked the beginning of the end for the Olympic.

The ship, now over two decades old, was becoming increasingly obsolete in the face of advancing technology and changing passenger preferences.


In 1935, after 24 years of distinguished service, the RMS Olympic was retired from active duty. She made her final voyage from Southampton to Jarrow, where she was laid up before being sold for scrap.

The ship was dismantled in 1937, bringing an end to an era of maritime grandeur.

Despite her eventual fate, the RMS Olympic left an indelible mark on maritime history. She was a testament to the engineering prowess and visionary ambition of the early 20th century.

The Olympic’s enduring legacy

Today, the legacy of the RMS Olympic lives on in various forms. Artifacts and memorabilia from the ship are highly prized by collectors and maritime enthusiasts. Her grand staircase, a symbol of Edwardian elegance, was salvaged and is now displayed in the SeaCity Museum in Southampton.

The Olympic’s story also serves as a poignant reminder of the Titanic disaster. The safety improvements made to Olympic following the tragedy helped shape modern maritime safety standards.

Her contributions during World War I highlighted the critical role that ocean liners played in global conflicts, transporting troops and supplies across treacherous waters.


The RMS Olympic was more than just a ship; she was a symbol of an era marked by innovation, luxury, and resilience. Her journey from the shipyard in Belfast to the scrapyard in Jarrow is a tale of triumphs and challenges, reflecting the broader narrative of early 20th-century maritime history.

As we look back on the legacy of the RMS Olympic, we are reminded of the enduring allure and significance of these great ocean liners that once ruled the waves. “Old Reliable” may no longer sail the seas, but her memory continues to inspire and captivate those who cherish the golden age of ocean travel.

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