HMHS Britannic 21st November 1916

The largest man-made object on the ocean floor - she never carried a fare-paying passengerLaunched: 26th February 1914

Builders: Harland &Wolff, Belfast

Port of Registry: Liverpool

Passengers Lost: 0 (0%)

Crew Lost: 30 (3%)

Total Lost: 30 (3%)


Charles Alfred Bartlett (1868-1945) Would 'Iceberg Charlie' have made a difference?

Captain of the Britannic

    Charles Alfred Bartlett was born in London on 21st August 1868, the illegitimate son of Captain Sir John Sydney Webb and Miss Ellen Bartlett, who came from a family of Brixham trawlermen. From these inauspicious beginnings rose a man who would become one of the most respected sea-captains of his time, who nearly became captain of the Titanic, and who was in command of her sister, Britannic, when she too met an untimely end.

    Apprenticed aboard the barque Airlie, of Messrs. D.Bruce & Co., he began his sea-career in the Australian trade and later with the British India Line.

    In 1894 Bartlett joined the White Star Line as 4th Officer of the Germanic (an ironic name considering what was to occur 22 years later!), serving also on the Doric, Gothic, Teutonic, Oceanic and the Georgic, rising later to be Chief Officer of the Celtic. In 1898 he married Edith Kate Ellis and they were blessed with two children, Charles and Eileen.

    In 1900 the Bartlett family settled in Crosby, and so began an association with the town that lasted for the rest of Captain Bartlett's life. Their first address was 7 Thorpes Lane, Crosby (now called Coronation Rd), and they are recorded here in the recently-released 1901 census.

    In 1903 Charles Bartlett was given his first command as captain of the Armenian(a cargo vessel, run by White Star's subsidiary company, Leyland Line), but he was quickly promoted and given command of a number of White Star's premier passenger liners including Germanic, Gothic, Republic, Cymric, Romanic and Cedric. During this time the Bartlett family lived in a variety of houses in the Crosby area:- 5 Winstanley Road, Waterloo; "Prospect Villa" 13 Regent Road, Crosby; "Montclair" Rabbit Road, Blundellsands.

    Although a strict disciplinarian, Bartlett was well-loved by crew and passengers alike, and his safety record was second to none. He was renowned for his cautious seamanship, always preferring to sail a few extra miles to avoid the merest hint of danger. In particular, his ability to "smell" ice was uncanny, earning him the sobriquet "Iceberg Charlie" from thankful crew and passengers alike.......

    In early 1912 Bartlett was offered a management position, becoming the White Star Line's Marine Superintendent at Liverpool. Here, he oversaw the Titanic's maiden voyage, including the selection of her officers. It is very possible that had the Titanic safely completed her maiden voyage and Captain Smith retired as planned, then Captain Bartlett himself might have been the next to command the ship. During this time Bartlett resided at "Deepdene" 15 Victoria Road, Waterloo, and it was in this house on the morning of 15th April 1912 that he received the telegram bringing the appalling news that the "unsinkable" Titanic had foundered on her maiden voyage.

    If we could rewrite history to place "Iceberg Charlie" on the bridge of the Titanic on the night of 14th April 1912 would the Titanic have sailed on unscathed into faded obscurity? We'll never know, and instead the Titanic became a byword for disaster. Representatives of the White Star Line, including Bartlett were left to face some very awkward questions on why the largest and "safest" ship in the world had sunk on her maiden voyage with huge loss of life. Lord Mersey's investigation began almost immediately, and amongst the many witnesses called, Marine Superintendent Charles Alfred Bartlett was not spared the Wreck Commissioner's searching and sometimes caustic inquiry.......

        SCANLAN (Counsel for the Seamen's Union):
                                You heard Mr. Sanderson in his evidence say he thought you should have two seamen in each boat?
        BARTLETT: Not necessarily seamen as long as they are accustomed to boats - as long as they know anything about a boat, it is not necessary that they should be sailors.

        SCANLAN: Would you desire any sailor?
        BARTLETT: Yes.

        SCANLAN: One?
        BARTLETT:  At least one.

        SCANLAN: At least one?
        BARTLETT: Yes.

        SCANLAN: Does that mean two?
        BARTLETT: No.

        LORD MERSEY: Are you an Irishman?
        BARTLETT:  I am not, my Lord.

    No scintilla of blame was attached to Captain Bartlett for any aspect of the Titanic disaster and shortly afterwards the First World War broke out. As a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, Bartlett was quickly back at sea, in command of the armed yacht Verona, on trawler patrol in the North Sea. For this work Captain Bartlett was promoted to Commodore R.N.R. and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath. However, personal tragedy struck on 13th May 1915 with the loss of his only son, Charles, a 15 year-old midshipman aboard HMS Goliath, when the battleship was sunk by Turkish torpedoes in the Dardanelles.

    Meanwhile, the White Star Line attempted to recover from their terrible disaster, and in 1914 launched, as planned, the third sister to the Olympic and the ill-fated Titanic. Charles Bartlett was in Belfast to witness the launch. As well as dropping the intended name Gigantic for the less hubristic Britannic, major safety-modifications were carried out on the new vessel. A double-skin was added and the bulkheads extended all the way up to the Bridge deck. The Britannic was specifically designed to survive the unusual unforeseen damage sustained during her hapless sister's encounter with the iceberg. One of Captain Bartlett's principal duties was to monitor these improvements. Most obviously, there would now be lifeboats for all, and no fewer than 48 were stacked on Britannic's deck, with huge new davits to allow ease of loading and launching of the boats. The redesign brought Britannic's weight up to nearly 50,000 tons, more even than Titanic. Once more the White Star Line would be the operators of the largest, grandest vessel afloat, and credit where credit's due, this time they had also done everything possible to make her the safest.......

    However, before the Britannic could be fully fitted-out as the world's grandest passenger liner, the Great War commenced, and the British became bogged down in the disaster that was Gallipoli. The casualties were horrendous and on 13th November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned by the government as a hospital ship to sail to this war zone. Passenger fittings were removed and operating theatres and wards installed in their place, with a capacity for 3,309 casualties. The ship was painted white with a green band from stem to stern, punctuated by three large red crosses - the international colours for a hospital ship. Her tonnage was 48,158, making Britannic the world's largest vessel.......

    To command this latest addition to the war effort, White Star selected none other than "Iceberg Charlie" Bartlett, and on 23rd December 1915, without ceremony, His Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic sailed on her maiden voyage out of Liverpool, bound for Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos - the Allied collection point for casualties from the Dardanelles. After only 2 voyages the failed Dardanelles campaign was over, and Britannic was released from war-service, to be converted back to a passenger liner. Scarcely had this work begun when the government U-turned, and decided that the Britannic was required again for hospital duties, this time for the Salonica campaign. In her short life, she was to make just 5 complete voyages, bringing over 10,000 British wounded back to England, landing at Southampton. On each uneventful voyage Captain Bartlett was in command.

    The Britannic's fateful sixth and final voyage began on 12th November 1916 when, again under Bartlett, the ship left Southampton for Mudros. On the morning of November 21st the Britannic was steaming at full speed(21 knots) off the Gulf of Athens, near the island of Kea. The 8 o'clock watch was coming on and the watertight-doors were opened temporarily to allow the crew easier passage around the ship.......

    Suddenly, at 8.12 am, a violent explosion shook the Britannic and she shuddered and quivered throughout her length. On the bridge, Captain Bartlett assessed the situation, and ordered the closure of the watertight doors and the sending of a distress signal. What had struck the Britannic? A mine?... A torpedo?... Speculation was cut off when the damage reports reached the bridge. The explosion had occurred between Hold Nos. 2 and 3, destroying the bulkhead, but it had also damaged the watertight-door between Hold No.1 and the forepeak. The first four compartments were hopelessly flooding. To make matters worse the fireman's tunnel leading from the bow to Boiler Room 6 was also seriously damaged, allowing water to enter there. Finally, the open watertight-door between Boiler Rooms 5 and 6 had been jammed by the force of the explosion and could not be shut properly. In total, the first six compartments had lost their watertight integrity. Six compartments! The damage to the Britannic was massive, and far worse than that suffered by the Titanic.

    Amazingly, the Britannic was designed to survive precisely the catastrophic damage she did in fact sustain! Due to the redesign of the bulkheads in the wake of the Titanic disaster, the Britannic could survive(just) with the loss of her first six compartments, whereas her sister had been doomed by the breach of more than four. Britannic was therefore 50% safer than the "unsinkable" Titanic. Could she stay afloat?

    While Bartlett pondered his best move, the crew carried out his orders to make ready the boats. Captain Bartlett then made his decision. He would try and beach Britannic on the shores of the island of Kea, only 3 miles distant. This risky action would seal Britannic's fate, for unknown to the captain, a simple human-error had tipped the already finely-balanced scales against Britannic's survival.......

    Down in Britannic's lower decks, the nursing staff had that morning thrown open many portholes in order to air the huge wards, in preparation for receiving the thousands of wounded soldiers from Mudros later that day. With the massive flooding in the first four compartments, the bow was pulled down with a starboard list to such an extent that some of these portholes sank beneath the waterline. Tons of water now poured into the ship through these openings, fatally into the seventh compartment. And by restarting the engines and attempting to head for Kea island, Bartlett unwittingly accelerated the by-now inevitable demise of Britannic.......

    At this point a terrible scene unfolded. Some of the crew and medical staff panicked and tried to launch lifeboats without orders, while the Britannic was still underway. While the officers could only watch in horror, two boats were inexorably drawn towards the Britannic's thrashing propellers and turned to matchwood, their desperate human cargo dismembered by the scything blades.......

    On the bridge, Captain Bartlett sensed his vessel was lost, and at 8.35 am he ordered "Stop Engines" and officially gave the order to abandon ship. The starboard list was now huge and the crew struggled to launch the boats although no fewer than 35 boats eventually managed to leave the stricken liner. Captain Bartlett was the last to leave the ship, and still dressed in his pyjamas, he stepped off the bridge during the final plunge. The time was 9.07 am, just 55 minutes after the loud explosion. The Britannic was indeed 50% safer than the Titanic, but she had gone to the bottom in barely a third of the time!

    This time things were different though:- the plentiful boats, the calm, warm Aegean Sea, the proximity of rescue ships all combined to keep the death-toll to a minimum. Amazingly, out of 1,125 people aboard, only 30 lost their lives, and the majority of these were killed needlessly during the accident with the propellers. However, Britannic was on her outward journey when struck, and almost empty. Had she been on the return leg, loaded with wounded men, the disaster would probably have exceeded the scale of the Titanic.......

    Controversy still rages about the fate of the Britannic. No German submarine ever claimed the credit for her sinking, although many survivors swore they were hit by a torpedo. The hastily-convened Admiralty enquiry concluded that the ship probably struck a mine. In 1975 the French explorer Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreck lying on her side in 400ft of water. The Britannic is the largest man-made object on the ocean floor. Quickly forgotten as just another casualty of war, during her short life she never carried a fare-paying passenger.......

    Captain Bartlett returned to Crosby and his shore-job as Marine Superintendent. For a time he served as aide-de-camp to King George V.  In 1921, Bartlett was made a Commander of the British Empire. At his investiture, King George V, an old sea-dog himself - and a wag - commented that it was not often he gave a CBE to a man who had lost his ship! Commodore Bartlett was a founder of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and Vice-President of the King George Fund for Sailors. During the 1920s and 30s he lived at 22 Marine Terrace, Waterloo and later in a large house "Lynwood" The Serpentine South, Blundellsands.

    He retired as Marine Superintendent of the White Star Line on 31st December 1931 and spent his last years living at 31 Warwick Avenue, Crosby.

    Commodore Charles Alfred Bartlett C.B., C.B.E., R.D., R.N.R. died in Park House Nursing Home, Waterloo on 15th February 1945 aged 76. His estate came to 2,971 11s 11d.

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