The Sinking of the Britannic (1916)

Introduction

During the First World War, Scouts across the country helped with the war effort. In 1916, Scouts from Southampton and Liverpool volunteered to serve on the hospital ship HMHS Britannic as orderlies and messengers. On November 21st, during a voyage in the Aegean Sea, the ship hit a mine 3 miles of the coast of Greece. Here we tell the incredible stories of survival from the view point of the Scouts and the local papers who recorded the disaster.

The Britannic was the largest in the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels and the final one of its type to be built. She was also the sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic which lost more than 1,500 passengers and crew. Lessons learned from that tragedy prevented the Britannic from suffering a similarly huge loss of life; 1035 people survived and 30 people lost their lives.

Who were the Scouts?

O. B. Coe (In charge of the Scouts, but not listed among Britannic’s crew)

H. Cooke (Assistant Instructor)
Freemantle, Southampton

V. Bowles (PL)
Freemantle, Southampton

R. Boulter (King’s Scout)
11th St Mary’s, Southampton

Percy Dickson

Edward Ireland (PL)
22nd Liverpool

Victor Mackenzie
20th St Laurence, Southampton

Henry Pope

J. Price

George Perman
2nd Freemantle, Southampton

James Vickers (PL)
2nd Freemantle, Southampton

Leslie C Waters
Gravesend, Kent

Southampton Pictorial 13-12-16 - V Mackenzie EnlargedSouthampton Pictorial 29-11-16 - George PermanSouthampton Pictorial 29-11-16 - R Boulter

Southampton Pictorial 29-11-16 - W CookeSouthampton Pictorial 29-11-16 J VickersSouthampton Pictorial 29-11-16 - V Mackenzie and V. Bowles

What Happened?

The exact number of scouts on board is unclear but most reports say there were either 16 or 17. They had various jobs on board such as signallers, messengers and lift boys.

The voyage set off from Southampton on November 12th and completed a short stop in Gibraltar and a refuel in Naples. On the morning of November 21st, the ship passed through the Kea Channel (off the coast of Athens).

At 8:12am the boat was rocked by an explosion; a mine had collided with the ship and ‘blew in’ the Scouts’ quarters. Luckily, they were already at their posts at the time. Here are 2 accounts of what happened next from George Perman (Scout) and J. Vickers (PL)

Extract from George Perman’s Obituary. – Source titanic-model.com

“As a boy scout with the Southampton 2nd Freemantle Troop, one of George’s more important tasks, once war had been declared, was to guide the soldiers around Southampton and to the dock area, but when he heard that Captain Bartlett wished to include a troop of scouts in Britannic’s crew, he duly applied for the position.

As a fifteen-year-old boy scout, George’s duties aboard Britannic, when not being instructed in signalling or PE, ranged from acting as a messenger to operating one of the ship’s lifts, a task which he was performing on the morning of 21st November 1916, when the ship was suddenly rocked by a mysterious explosion. He immediately went up on deck, where, fortunately, he was handed a spare life belt by a passing member of the ship’s crew; his own life belt was still in his quarters near the bow of the ship, which had been completely obliterated in the explosion. George’s greatest misfortune that day was that he happened to be in one of the lifeboats which was pulled into the turning port propeller, but luckily he was able to grab hold of a hanging davit line and hold on until the propellers had stopped, before lowering himself into the water. Aside from a few rope burns to his hands, George was uninjured physically, although the memories of the blood-red water and the ship’s white flanks splattered with blood probably left unseen emotional scars for years to come. Some members of his family even believed that the experience shocked him so much that it [affected] his growth, for although George came from a reasonably tall family, he remained on the short side for the rest of his life.

Once in Athens he and other scouts were royally entertained by the Greek branch of the boy scout movement, [before returning back to Southampton].”

Press Cutting: Southampton Echo, 25 Nov 1916
“Coolness of the Scouts on the Liner.

The Boy Scouts on the Britannic came chiefly from Liverpool and Southampton and were employed as signallers, officers and captains servants. and lift boys. The local Scouts who were engaged on the liner were six in number.

Mr J. N. Jefferies, the “Mail” correspondent at Athens says that after the explosion each lad went calmly to their allotted post to assist a ship‘s officer.

A thirteen year old boy named Pope not only remained on the ship for half an hour after she had been struck but also collected many small articles belonging to passengers. Scout Perman of Southampton worked the lift, bringing many passengers to the upper deck. Victor Mackenzie, when ordered to sound certain steam whistles, knew exactly which handles to pull. Scout Percy Dickson remained so long at his post that he had to let himself down from the ship, which then had a heavy list, hand—over—hand on a rope to the lifeboat.

The boys, whose ages vary from 12 to 16 years, have since visited Athens where they were warmly praised by the British Minister and entertained by some Greek Scouts.”

Rescued Britannic survivors including Scouts aboard British battleship Lord Nelson at Salonika in November 1916 en route to England.
Britannic Survivor's Return
J Vickers Account of the sinking of the Britannic
R Boulter Account of the sinking of the Britannic. 31 Mar 1917 HQ Gazzette

Newspaper Reports

Within a day of the disaster, reports started to come in back to England with heavy press coverage from November 23rd onwards. Initially, papers reported around 60 deaths although this turned out to be a lot less. A feature of many of the reports were the grim stories of how the ships propellers caused problems for the lifeboats and a number of papers discussed whether the ship struck a mine or was torpedoed.

Southampton Echo 25 Nov 1916
Boy Scout Survivors. Liverpool Echo 25 Nov 1916
Southampton Echo 24 Nov 1916
First Report: Southampton Echo 23 Nov 1916
List of Casualties . Southampton Echo 24 Nov 1916
Scouts tour Athens. Liverpool Post 25 Nov 1916
Scouts tour Athens. Liverpool Post 25 Nov 1916
How they behaved. Derby Daily Telegraph 6 Dec 1916
Account in 'Scouting Achievements' 1937

The Story of Edward Ireland

Patrol Leader Edward Ireland was singled out by the captain of the ship, Charles Bartlett, for his courage during the disaster:

I have specially to commend Scout E. Ireland of the Liverpool Scouts. He was attached to the Bridge at the time of the explosion, and he remained at his post until I sent him away finally with the Quartermaster (who left the wheel to save his life), although on several occasions I told him to go to the boats. He was of great service in telephoning my orders, and I have great admiration for the pluck that he showed in standing by with a prospect In front of him of going down with the Ship.•

Despite surviving the Britannic disaster, Edward Ireland’s story ends sadly. He joined the RAF and served as an observer with the Airship Training Wing at RAF Cranwell but he was killed in a flying accident in July 1919.

Edward Ireland
Press Clipping of E. Ireland Death 1919

Recognition and Awards

After their return to the UK, the Scouts received high praise for their conduct from the Ship’s captain who said:

Without exception all the boys behaved splendidly throughout.

A personal letter from Robert Baden Powel was sent to the local commissioner (see left) which reads:

I should like to congratulate the scouts in your district who were saved from the hospital ship ‘Britannic’ when she sunk in the Aegean Sea recently, on their splendid behaviour on that occasion… All accounts agree that the whole of the scouts showed the greatest coolness and discipline in the face of danger. Their conduct reflects the highest credit on them and will gain the admiration of their brother scouts throughout the empire.

All of the scouts were presented with a certificate and pocket compass and Edward Ireland was awarded the Cornwell Badge for Courage

Jan 1917: Letter of congratulations for splendid behaviour and coolness from Baden Powell to 2nd Southampton Scouts Shirley.
1917: A special certificate signed by Robert Baden—Powell was presented to A.S.M Herbert Cooke. The citation reads: For coolness and bravery displayed during the sinking of HMHS “Britannic”.
Presentation to Scouts - 9 Mar 1917