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"Titanic's Lost Sister"

PBS Airdate: January 28, 1997
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NARRATOR: Aboard this ship, moored off the island of Crete, an undersea exploration prepares to get underway. Oceanographer Bob Ballard, renowned for his discovery of Titanic in 1985, is setting out to explore an intriguing wreck, Titanic's forgotten sister, Britannic. The expedition will need an impressive array of deep sea technology, and Ballard does not travel lightly. Besides the crew of the support ship Carolyn Chouest, he has in tow three historians, two remotely operated vehicles or ROVs equipped with cameras, and a small U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, the NR-1. The object of his search has a remarkable heritage. Sister to Titanic, a ship whose fate still captures our imagination, Britannic is the last of a formidable trio built by the White Star Line in an effort to dominate the North Atlantic passenger trade. Her history is cloaked in intrigue. Britannic's sinking while serving as a hospital ship during World War I, is still the subject of much debate. Was she the victim of a deliberate German submarine attack, or did she hit a mine intended for a military target? The historians on board, Simon Mills, the only published author on Britannic, and Eric Sauder, an expert on the White Star Line, are hoping this expedition will resolve the mystery. A third expert, Ken Marschall, is the foremost illustrator of Titanic and other notable twentieth century ships. The technical accuracy of Ken's work has made him invaluable to Ballard in past expeditions.

KEN MARSCHALL: This is a painting that I did about five years ago of the Britannic as we think it may have looked. To see a twin sister ship of the Titanic, virtually identical in most respects or dimensions and so forth, to sense the size of that ship on the ocean floor, and particularly in a shallow enough depth where I can actually see the ship with filtered sunlight coming through the ocean. It should be an eerie and awesome experience.

NARRATOR: Ballard is also excited at the prospect of seeing Titanic's sister ship lying on the ocean floor. The discovery of Titanic was the highlight of his career, but since then, thousands of objects have been salvaged from the wreck site. Powerless to stop it, he has explored other wrecks in the pursuit of a personal vision.

BOB BALLARD: I've been really searching for the optimum piece of history to experiment on and try to create the first undersea museum. I thought it might have been the Lusitania, but when we went out there, it was so tragic to see how destroyed it was. There are certain things we must preserve. I mean, the Titanic was incredible, the feelings the power of going there was like going to Gettysburg the day after the battle. Why should I be the only one that gets to go to a place and as soon as I leave, it's leveled? That's what's really brought me here to the Britannic. It has not been pillaged and in very few years, the technology will make it possible for people, in the luxury of their homes, on the information highway, to visit this site live. I would love to protect this ship, set it aside and let people visit it. And I'm going to do it. I'm going to give it my best shot.

NARRATOR: Ballard is gambling that after eighty years under water, Britannic will be in good enough condition to display as the first undersea museum. Before he can determine that, he and David Olivier, the commander of the NR-1, must first locate the wreck. The NR-1 and the Carolyn Chouest make their way to the Kea Channel. Britannic lies four hundred feet below the surface of the Aegean off the island of Kea. Below decks on the support ship, the historians pour over the models of the ill-fated sister ships.

KEN MARSCHALL: The White Star struck out so badly with this, the big three.

NARRATOR: But the work at hand cannot obscure the fact that for explorer and historian alike, the object of their search is not just another shipwreck. Britannic and her sisters possess a mystique. They are powerful symbols that speak to us from another time. The largest and most luxurious of their day, they were among the first of a new breed of super liner that would revolutionize transatlantic travel. While their upper decks catered to the wealthy, the real money was made down below in steerage.

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Immigrants, millions of immigrants by 1905 was the first million passenger year for the North Atlantic liners—wanted to get from the Old World to the New. And the only way they could go was by sea, and that accounts for two things. First, the enormous number of ocean liners that were built for the North Atlantic, and second, their incredible size.

NARRATOR: Belfast, Ireland. In the deserted corners of the modern Harland and Wolff Shipyard are visible reminders of the massive effort it took to build these very special transatlantic steamers. The pride of the White Star Line: Olympic, first of the class; legendary Titanic; and lastly, Britannic, the forgotten sister. The magnificent interiors of these ships have either been lost to the ocean depths or dismantled. This room is all that remains.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: We're in the White Swan Hotel, in the interior of the lounge of the Olympic. It's all that we have left from her. There are bits and pieces of her all over England, but perhaps nothing quite as lovely as the lounge. And it's a splendid reminder of those fabulous days of 1911, 1912, before the war, before all these wonderful ships were swept away. The Guilded Era.

NARRATOR: Despite the attention lavished on decor, it was also an era of technological innovation. Perhaps Harland and Wolff's greatest accomplishment was the simultaneous construction of Olympic and Titanic in just four years. At the time of their launching, their unprecedented size and luxury made headlines. But as we recall their story today, it was the failure of their innovative safety systems that captures our interest. The Olympic-class ships were designed with fifteen transverse bulkheads extending above the waterline creating sixteen compartments separated by massive watertight doors. In the event of flooding, the captain could instantly close those doors from the bridge by means of an electric switch. And innovative backup system allowed the doors to be closed both manually and by a float mechanism. Damage could be sustained to any two adjoining compartments or the first four starting at the bow without endangering the ship. This system of safety features would prompt the most reputable of British shipbuilding magazines to call the Olympic class "practically unsinkable."

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: That word "unsinkable" came, actually, from the great bible of the British shipping industry called The Shipbuilder and Marine Engine Builder. This was the great journal of shipping that every new ship appeared in, and lengthy articles were written about the ship and all the safety systems. And in this article, they talked about the watertight compartments, which every ship had. And it said if these doors were closed, it would render the ship "practically unsinkable." Fair enough. Well, somebody grabbed "unsinkable"—not the White Star Line—out of that report and circulated it on both sides of the Atlantic as though Titanic were unsinkable.

NARRATOR: It was an unfortunate label. As Britannic's keel was laid in Belfast, the greatest maritime disaster of this century would claim Titanic and in the same moment, alter Britannic's fate. Titanic collided with an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank in less than three hours, taking some 1,500 souls with her and making the limitation of her much-touted safety features tragically clear.

KEN MARSCHALL: The iceberg came through here, started scraping along, scraping off rivet heads, buckling the plates, tearing the seams apart. Not a big gash like a can opener, but just a scraping that buckled the plates in. It went from here for about 240 feet or so aft, two feet into the coal bunker of boiler room number five. The bow started to sink. The water eventually, inevitably, came up over that bulkhead and flowed into the next compartment and into the next. And it was just a mathematical certainty, plain and simple. No matter how you sliced it, the ship's going down.

NARRATOR: Titanic was doomed. But why the staggering loss of life? The time it took for the ship to sink should have allowed ample opportunity to evacuate all on board. The disaster reached epic proportion because of a bureaucratic oversight. The Olympic-class ships had far too few lifeboats due to outdated Board of Trade regulations. The regulations had been written in 1894 when the largest ship afloat was considerably smaller than Titanic. Of the more than 2,000 passengers and crew on board, only 705 would survive. The disaster stunned the world. White Star immediately recalled Olympic from service and halted construction on Britannic. Harland and Wolff set about correcting every flaw that might have contributed to Titanic's demise.

CHARLES HAAS: In the case of the Britannic, that was fairly easy to do because the ship had not advanced very far in terms of its construction. In the case of the Olympic, the reconstruction was so extensive that it took the ship out of service for six months.

NARRATOR: The safety features of these two ships were completely overhauled. They were fitted with an inner skin that ran the length of the boiler and engine room compartments. Five of the bulkheads were extended up as far as the bridge deck. These precautions would allow both ships to float with six compartments flooded, two more than Titanic. Belfast, February 1914. Britannic is finally launched. The new passenger liner was hailed by the shipping line and the builders to be "as perfect a specimen of man's creative power as is possible to conceive." As the Britannic slid down the ways, a cataclysm was just around the corner, a war that would engulf not only Europe, but the world. Even as the last of her grand interiors were being installed, Britannic was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and transformed into a hospital ship. She completed five successful missions to the Mediterranean theater of war before sinking mysteriously on her sixth outbound voyage. Today, she lies at the bottom of a sea she was never intended to sail, a casualty of war, her mysteries as yet unsolved. The object of Dr. Ballard's search. Tomorrow, Ballard will make his first dive on the Britannic.

BOB BALLARD: Well, we're at the end of the first day, and we're transiting north from Crete from a sub base we just left, and sometime tomorrow morning, we'll arrive on scene. The ship was traveling northeast. It struck something, whether it was a torpedo or a mine. The captain immediately began to try to save his ship and beach it, so he began a quick turn to starboard, and heading back to Kea, but before he got to the beach, he sank right there. This is where the British say they were sunk, and this is where Cousteau, twenty years ago, said he actually found the ship, so obviously, we believe his position more.

NARRATOR: In 1975, Jacques Cousteau made the first search for the Britannic. His discovery of the wreck was complicated by misleading coordinates reported by the British Admiralty in 1916, which were off by eight miles. Yet another mystery surrounding this enigmatic ship.

BOB BALLARD: But, we're—You know, we've got to relocate it. We don't know exactly where it is. So, that first and foremost, we'll transit over from the support ship, get in the sub, and go down and find it.

NARRATOR: The support ship and the nuclear submarine have arrived in the Kea Channel and are now stationed over Cousteau's coordinates. Ballard boards the NR-1 for the first exploratory dive to locate the Britannic.

BOB BALLARD: All right. Let's dive.

NARRATOR: The NR-1 is a one-of-a-kind submarine, a U.S. Navy ship designed to conduct scientific research and covert missions. Like all other U.S. submarines, the NR-1 has many secrets. What the Navy will acknowledge is a diving depth of 3,000 feet and a submerged speed of 3.5 knots. The NR-1 is only twelve and a half feet in diameter and 145 feet long, half the length of a Navy attack submarine. Two thirds of that space houses its nuclear power plant. The crew of eleven works, eats, and sleeps in the remaining one third. It's a little cramped. The submarine has cameras mounted on the hull, giving the search team many views of the undersea environment. But the real work of detection and navigation is covered by sonar. NR-1 's Deep Submergence/Obstacle Avoidance sonar has a classified range and frequency. Ballard hopes that if the Britannic is even close to this last reported position, this powerful sonar will detect it quickly. Sonar was essential to the 1975 expedition. After weeks of searching, Jacques Cousteau turned to Dr. Harold Edgerton of MIT and his new device, the Side Scan Sonar, for help. Edgerton discovered that by transmitting the sound pulse toward the ocean floor at an oblique angle rather than straight down as conventional sonar does, the signal would reveal much more detail about the ocean floor and anything that might lay on it. With the British Admiralty's coordinates so far off Britannic's true position, Cousteau may never have located the wreck without Edgerton's device. Side Scan Sonar allowed Cousteau to locate Britannic and revolutionized underwater exploration. Over an hour into the dive, and still no trace of the ship.

BOB BALLARD: There! That's the ship!

NARRATOR: The sonar has locked on Britannic.

BOB BALLARD: This looks like the rudder and propeller's right there. That's the sweep of the hull. That would be the bottom. That would be the superstructure. So, it looks like we're coming in on the stern. OK. You're coming in this way. You're coming in from the northeast. That sounds right. Then we'll see whether we see a bow or a propeller. That'll tell us. But it looks like it's believable. Thank you, Mr. Cousteau. Captain.

NARRATOR: These ghostly black and white images from the NR-1 's cameras offer a tantalizing first look at this once-proud leviathan. The second-class smoking room where gentlemen would retire after dinner. The first-class promenade deck where society's elite were meant to stroll. The lifeboat davits, still in position to lower the boats. The individual images are promising, but they fail to give Ballard the overview necessary for an accurate picture of the ship's condition. For that, he will rely on the modern version of Dr. Edgerton's Side Scan Sonar. Printed out on board the Chouest, the Side Scan images are unrolled for all to see.

BOB BALLARD: Look at that! Unbelievable! Oh, wow! Look at that! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! That's a photograph. Look at the bridge. Look at the docking collar—docking bridge—right there. Look at that.

KEN MARSCHALL: Look at this. It even shows cables lying on the hull, the shadow of the cables and every streak in the hull plating, which visually, from the submarine, you can hardly even make out.

NARRATOR: The sonar's sophisticated imaging system reveals an amazing sight. The silhouetted shape of the Britannic in its entirety. Ballard and his team are elated.

BOB BALLARD: Look at this. Every—The slightest little relief. Here's where you see the top of the davits and that's where the compass tower shows up. Right where it's supposed to be. Look at that. You can see through the rudder to the other propeller. Ken, you're out of a job.

NARRATOR: This is the first evidence that Britannic is as well-preserved as Ballard had hoped. Here lies a nearly-intact version of Titanic.

BOB BALLARD: Let's talk about what we're going to do next.

KEN MARSCHALL: So, I would just like to get the NR-1 in position and go and image it for awhile. Put the NR-1 down and approach it, and then try to move down into the boat deck area, or on that boat deck.

BOB BALLARD: Now, these davits are here, though. Those are—

NARRATOR: Tomorrow, Ballard will return to the wreck with the remotely-operated camera platforms for the first in-depth photographic survey of Britannic. The color images of this once-majestic ship should reveal a moment frozen in time: the moment of Britannic's sinking. It was 1916. Fighting had spread from the trenches of Belgium and France to the Mediterranean. The struggle to control the Straits of the Dardanelles, a narrow passage linking the Aegean with the Black Sea, would claim tens of thousands of lives. As the tide of wounded swelled, the British Admiralty was faced with the task of transporting them back to England.

JACK EATON: The ships that had been requisitioned for use, mainly Union Castle ships, were not providing adequate space to remove the sick and wounded.

CHARLES HAAS: The whole system, actually, in the eastern Mediterranean, was on the verge of breaking down. You have these six or eight thousand ton ships and literally thousands of casualties occurring during the course of a given week. So, within a very short time, the largest ships available, Aquitania, Mauritania, and Britannic, are placed into hospital ship service.

NARRATOR: On Britannic's return trips to England filled with wounded, every minute was devoted to patients. But on her outbound journeys, the medical staff had little to do, leaving time to enjoy the amenities of a first-class cruise. The sixth outbound journey started no differently. As they entered the Kea Channel, the mood was relaxed. But a dangerous and unpredictable threat lurked beneath the sea: the submarine. U-boats could strike without warning. They could fire torpedoes or lay underwater mine barrages. In either case, Britannic was defenseless. November 21, 1916. At eight AM, the medical staff had just sat down to breakfast, when, without warning. . .

JACK EATON: There was a shudder that went through the ship. That's the way Sheila Mitchell described it. And she said that everybody froze.

NARRATOR: Britannic had been hit. Had she been returning to England with her full quota of 3,000 patients, the loss of life would have rivaled Titanic's. But thanks to the efficient lifeboat system installed after Titanic's. sinking, most on board would escape. Sheila Mitchell, a nurse on the Britannic, was interviewed by Jacques Cousteau.

SHEILA MacBETH-MITCHELL: Everybody's heart was in their mouths. When she was turning, of course, I was thinking, 'Oh, my trunks will be sliding under the other girl's bed, and all the oranges and lemons and I bought in Naples will be on the floor. And where is my clock?' You know. Things like that.

NARRATOR: The speed with which Britannic sank is one of her great mysteries. This period footage can only simulate the awe-inspiring sight of watching such a massive ship disappear. Britannic,, a ship that was fully redesigned to benefit from the lessons of Titanic, somehow sank in a mere fifty-five minutes.

KEN MARSCHALL: The Britannic was in the very early stages of her construction when the Titanic sank. They stopped the construction and rethought everything in order to make Britannic really, really safe. And they learned from the Titanic. They made the bulkheads much, much higher. They gave her a complete double hull, a double skin. So, it just covered all the bases. And here she went down in less than an hour.

NARRATOR: For Simon Mills and Eric Sauder, the bigger mystery surrounds the cause of the initial explosion, a mine or a torpedo.

SIMON MILLS: At the time of the sinking, everybody thought it was a torpedo. It had to be, you know? They were at war. The Germans, the filthy Hun, they wanted to sort of sink this ship. It was a powerful competitor after the war; they had to sink it, and torpedo was the only way to do it. As time went by, it wasn't quite so clear cut. Even the English officer carrying out the inquiry decided that there was no definite evidence one way or another to say mine or torpedo.

JACQUES COUSTEAU: I propose to drink to the Britannic, to the splendid ship that she had been on board and that has a. . .

NARRATOR: Sixty years after her sinking, Jacques Cousteau gathered together Britannic's remaining survivors in an attempt to uncover what happened that morning.

JACQUES COUSTEAU: What is your opinion? Was the ship torpedoed, or did it hit a mine?

SURVIVOR 1: Oh, torpedoed, without a doubt.

JACQUES COUSTEAU: Without a doubt, torpedoed. Thank you. Now, you, miss.

SURVIVOR 2: Without a doubt, torpedoed.

SURVIVOR 3: At least one, one torpedo, at least.

SURVIVOR 4: My opinion is she got torpedoed.

SURVIVOR 5: I'd say torpedoed.

SURVIVOR 6: It was a mine, without a shadow of doubt.

NARRATOR: The next and most difficult phase of the expedition will attempt to solve these mysteries. It will be the first joint operation involving the support ship, the ROVs, and the NR-1 . Ballard has promised the historians that he will try to explore the area where the explosion occurred. If the ROVs can maneuver into the damaged area, the hidden recesses of the gash might provide clues to Britannic's mysterious explosion and rapid sinking. As the ROVs are lowered over the side, the tension mounts. The NR-1 is in position, the powerful lights illuminating the wreck. Ballard and his team are in the command station on board the Carolyn Chouest. Monitors, connected with the ROV cameras, are the focus of the room. Ballard directs the ROV pilot, who controls the depth, direction, and speed of the robot from a distance of more than 300 feet. All eyes are on the monitors waiting for the first clear image of this once-majestic ship.

BOB BALLARD: There it is. We're at the hull, Tom.

NARRATOR: The Britannic: bigger, safer, more luxurious than her sisters, but destined never to carry a paying passenger.

BOB BALLARD: Think of the millions and millions of hours laborers put into these ships in Belfast, at Harland and Wolff. Years and years of effort on the part of so many people. An iceberg is one thing. That's an act of God. But to have mankind blow up such a wonderful work, that's a waste.

NARRATOR: Britannic's massive propellers, twenty-three feet in diameter, evoke memories of a gruesome incident. Following the explosion, the ship lay motionless. The captain, isolated on the bridge, was unaware that the crew had already begun to load lifeboats. In a last-ditch effort to save the ship, he gave the order to start up the propellers and head for nearby Kea Island.

SHEILA MacBETH-MITCHELL: They wanted to beach the boat where there was sand, the other side of the island. And so, the minute we touched the water, she went on and the propellers were coming up, turning. And at the back, it was whirlpool. The lifeboat in front of me and the one behind were drawn in by the propellers, which cut them to ribbons. If anybody escaped from those boats, it was because they jumped out and perhaps could swim away.

NARRATOR: One near casualty of the propeller incident was nurse Violet Jessop. Her story is remarkable as one of the few known to survive passage on all three White Star sisters.

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Violet Jessop, whom I had interviewed for a book, told me that she was not only on the Titanic when it went down, she was also on the Olympic when it had not a very serious accident, but there was a collision in Southampton water. Then, the hat trick that she was also on the Britannic as a nurse's aid is extraordinary. Violet told me that she got into a lifeboat, which was lowered down, and when it reached the water and was cast loose from the blocks, the descending blocks, she suddenly saw everybody jumping out. So, Violet jumped over the side and thought she was going to sink forever, and finally came up and hit the bottom of the lifeboat. Her head hit it as she came up. Then she groped around in the dark, thinking her end was nigh, and found a hand, a man's hand, which she could tell was alive, and they held hands together and came up to the surface.

NARRATOR: Leaving the propellers behind, Ballard guides the ROVs toward the bow for the first look at the most dangerous part of the wreck, the jagged gash caused by the explosion. The damage, depicted by Marschall based on Cousteau's accounts, gives Ballard reason for concern. The jagged hull plating could easily sever the ROV's umbilical cord.

BOB BALLARD: There's the beginning of the gash. So now, go left, and drive the gash line down and to the left.

NARRATOR: Marschall and Mills have switched to the second ROV monitor for the long-anticipated look at the damaged hull. The images from this ROV, NASA's Voyager, are in stereo, and with the 3-D glasses, the two experts can see much more detail.

SIMON MILLS: It must have been the impact as it hit the deck.

KEN MARSCHALL: The bow is buckled off to the starboard side, and we're just seeing that stubbed toe effect of it, just the bow buckled in and twisted and the rest of the ship just bent apart, buckled and collapsed into the sand. So, we're seeing this thirty-, forty-foot-wide gap down at the keel level, it looked as if it was, at the bilge, it looked about thirty or forty feet wide. And it can't be the damage actually caused by the mine or torpedo, because the ship would have sunk in five or ten minutes with a hole that huge.

NARRATOR: The massive damage caused as Britannic's bow impacted with the ocean floor obscures all traces of the initial hole caused by the explosion. There is no evidence here that can shed more light on the issue of mine versus torpedo. But the gash may hold the answer to a different question. Did Britannic's watertight doors fail to close? A single mine or a torpedo of that era would have damaged no more than one or two compartments. The watertight doors should have contained the flooding, allowing the ship to float indefinitely. Yet, she sank in less than an hour. What went wrong? The evidence is buried deep inside the gash.

BOB BALLARD: Pan right. OK. Go over there in the clean area. Go to clean water. Go back! Kick back now! Now!

NARRATOR: Ballard has pulled the ROV back from the wreck after a close call. The watertight doors the team wants to see are deep inside the wreckage. But Ballard does not want to risk losing an ROV on a second attempt.

KEN MARSCHALL: This side has a large shifted area of hull. It comes down right here and then it comes up on a different plane, and there's this large section that sticks out maybe like that.

NARRATOR: The historians, denied an in-depth investigation, must piece together the disaster with the existing ROV footage and eyewitness accounts.

SIMON MILLS: Here was the Britannic. Effectively, she was a commission ship in the Admiralty in a war zone, and she was traveling with the doors open. It should never have happened. The only thing we can assume is that 'round about eight o'clock in the morning, when the damage occurred, the explosion, the watertight doors must have been open so that the firemen could change their watch. Now, the firemen normally bunked in the forward end of the ship and maybe some aft, and to get to their boiler rooms, they would walk down a fireman's tunnel into these specific compartments, all six along here. Now, come eight o'clock in the morning when the watch changes, the doors would have been open so that they could get through with a minimum of fuss, which is fine, no problem. But unfortunately, the Britannic happened to hit whatever she hit at the exact wrong moment.

NARRATOR: But even if the doors were open when the flooding began, they should have closed automatically.

ERIC SAUDER: Maybe when the explosion occurred, the bulkhead that the watertight door was in shifted slightly so the jamb went out of alignment so the door couldn't be forced closed.

NARRATOR: Ballard's ROVs reveal another possible clue to Britannic's rapid sinking. Many of the lower portholes were wide open.

SIMON MILLS: A number of the portholes along this particular deck here should not have been open, but they were. Now, strictly speaking, they should not have been. But it was a case of, they were arriving at Mudros later that morning, they were airing the ward for the patients who would be going in there.

ERIC SAUDER: As the ship settled by the bow and listed to starboard, it brought the portholes under water, which let water into the undamaged compartments.

NARRATOR: If these theories are correct, then all of the carefully-designed safety features installed after Titanic were undone by human error. Operating in a war zone, Britannic was an accident waiting to happen. The final and most dramatic mystery remains. Was Britannic's sinking accidental or deliberate? As a hospital ship, Britannic was protected by the Geneva Convention. Would a German U-boat commander deliberately torpedo a Red Cross ship? Cousteau's team suggested that Britannic might have been carrying an illegal cargo of armaments and munitions. If true, this would account for the British Admiralty's desire to obscure the exact location of the wreck.

SIMON MILLS: Why was the wreck so, so badly misplaced? I mean, eight miles is quite considerable when you consider there are very easily-identifiable landmarks in sight. Basically, the theories that are coming up are the Admiralty deliberately misplaced the ship so that there could be no exploration. Had divers gone down, they may have found that the Britannic was, indeed, carrying weapons, which she should not have been.

NARRATOR: But in the many hours surveying the wreck, Ballard found no trace of armaments. With no evidence of a motive, does the torpedo theory still make sense?

SURVIVORS: I'd say torpedoed. Torpedoed. Torpedoed. Torpedoed. Torpedoed.

NARRATOR: To the survivors, it certainly did.

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: One thing we mustn't forget about the First World War, in Britain, particularly, was the absolutely rabid paranoia about what the Germans would do. So, the consensus was when the Britannic went down, which not many people knew, you see. Don't forget, this was cloaked in wartime secrecy. This was not something that was as publicized as the Titanic was. The perception was that it was somehow a German torpedo. Now, beastly as they used to say the Germans could be, I don't think they would have torpedoed a hospital ship.

NARRATOR: Yet, in February, 1915, the hospital ship Asturias was attacked with torpedoes in the English Channel. The ship took evasive action, but in this case, the markings of a hospital ship were no defense against an overzealous U-boat commander.

SIMON MILLS: It was after the war that things began to be a little bit clearer. Among the captured German papers, there was evidence that the U-73, a German long-range mine-laying submarine, had laid mines in the Kea Channel at the end of October. Now, that was a full month before the Britannic was in the area, but it would appear that this particular barrage was in exactly the same place that the Britannic was sunk.

NARRATOR: The German submarine logbook provides the strongest piece of evidence to counter the torpedo theory.

CHARLES HAAS: The U-73 belonged to a class consisting of U-71 through U-80. And these were relatively small submarines, and they were mine layers. They were not really known for their torpedoing capabilities, although they did have some.

NARRATOR: Commander Gustav Zeis's logbook, made public after the war, gave precise coordinates for the placement of twelve mines in the Kea Channel. The U-boat dove to a depth of sixty-five feet to avoid detection.

CHARLES HAAS: We also have the interview done by British Intelligence Services of a prisoner of war. He said, without any doubt, the Britannic had hit a mine that had been laid by the U-73.

NARRATOR: If Britannic were sunk by a mine, then evidence should remain on the ocean floor in the form of an anchor and chain that were used to hold the mine in place.

BOB BALLARD: This is the mine, the type of mine that the U-73 laid just before the Britannic passed through this Channel. This is what the Germans claim the ship hit. And the British naturally said it was torpedoed. And so, if we find this, and around it debris, particularly from the bow, then it'll pretty well ice it that it hit a mine.

NARRATOR: In pursuit of this physical evidence, Ballard will rely on a method of undersea investigation that enabled him to find Titanic when so many before him had failed: the Debris Field Theory.

BOB BALLARD: Everyone sees ships sink, and they see the World War II movies and the torpedo and the ship goes up in the air, it goes down. You never think about what happens after it goes glub-glub. And so, instead of just falling straight to the bottom which most people would assume, what happens is the ship breaks up, and in the case of the Titanic, it broke in half, and all of these objects went into the water. Some were very heavy, like a safe, and some were very light: deck chairs, gloves, and shoes.

NARRATOR: Ballard found that the underwater current created a systematic trail of debris stretching for more than a mile. This breakthrough enabled him to try a new approach in searching for Titanic.

BOB BALLARD: I realized that I don't want to look for the Titanic. It's only ninety-four feet wide. I want to look for its debris trail, and it fell 12,000 feet. In other words, could I be looking for something that was a mile long instead of ninety-four feet wide? Well, that's a totally different strategy.

NARRATOR: Ballard's decision to search a wide area for this fallout rather than a narrow one for the ship itself led to the Titanic. In the case of her sister, the logic will be reversed. Since Britannic traveled some fifty-five minutes after the impact, there should be a clear trail of debris leading from the wreck to the anchor chain. The U-boat commander's coordinates and Britannic's last recorded position are added to the equation to help determine the search area. The next step is to send the NR-1 around the wreck to find the start of the debris field. The ROVs are ready to photograph anything the NR-1 might find. An hour passes, and then an exciting discovery. The NR-1 finds Britannic's gigantic funnels virtually intact, strewn in a distinct path leading away from the ship. Funnels are a rare find at a wreck site. The ship's smokestacks. Their enormous size belie their fragility.

KEN MARSCHALL: Funnels have been known to just be swept away in strong winds and heavy seas, sometimes, on ships. So, they're not like the hull itself that's really strong. It's very thin metal. I'm amazed that they're still intact, that they're not corroded away. I'm amazed, yeah. Very rare. Four Britannic funnels, still virtually intact.

NARRATOR: But are they the start of the debris trail?

KEN MARSCHALL: We looked at these two, and then we went out and saw a single funnel. If we go back through the, you know, sight along from the center of the rack to this funnel and this bunch of funnels and then the next one out there, that that would start us on the trail toward the course the ship was taking and could lead us back through the debris trail to the spot where the mine—we think it was a mine—actually blew up.

NARRATOR: With the Carolyn Chouest due back in port, time is short to follow this promising lead. Ballard gives the NR-1 instructions to follow the funnels and head toward the U-boat commander's coordinates. The submarine sets off on what Ballard and his team hope will be the Britannic's debris field. The NR-1's cameras are trained on the ocean floor, searching for tell-tale pieces of hull plating. The hours pass. The NR-1 returns with disappointing news. The search has revealed no trace of an anchor chain. In the command station of the Chouest, the historians review the hours of videotape brought back by the submarine, hoping to find some clue that might have been overlooked.

EXPERTS: Now, there's another one of those cylindrical things. . . But see, look at this. . . I mean, you've got a perfectly square. . . Perfectly rectangular. . . Maybe it's a frame. . .It's just like the thing we saw before. . . All these things, nothing has to do with mines, nothing has to do, really with. . .

SIMON MILLS: That's the interesting thing. We've not found one trace yet of anything to do with the submarine, which we know was there. We know she laid the mines. We know she laid two barrages of six mines. And yet, all the scans we've done so far indicate nothing at all.

KEN MARSCHALL: To my mind, it's a simple matter of taking a compass and drawing one-mile radiuses, or radii, out from the wreck site, and we may be just looking too close to the wreck. I mean, it's got to be at least two miles away to the south or to the southwest where these mines were.

SIMON MILLS: The only conclusion we can come to is that the German captain, Gustav Zeis, probably got his position wrong. I have a feeling that they were a bit further to the southwest, somewhere down there.

NARRATOR: No anchor chain, no debris field, and no more time to search. Without conclusive evidence, the question of whether or not Britannic was the victim of a vicious attack or an unlucky casualty must remain open to speculation. But Ballard is far from disappointed. His vision extends beyond this expedition.

BOB BALLARD: There is something mystical about a great ship like this, that's sort of like, to—To solve everything is to make it no longer important. No, I'm real happy. Having been disappointed by the Lusitania, having gone out to find this perfect ship and to find something that was far worse than the Titanic, far worse, just destroyed, a pile of junk on the bottom of the ocean, to then come and find that perfect ship. I mean, this is the most perfect ship of this vintage. I mean, certainly, you sink one tomorrow and it'll look prettier. But this is the most perfect ship I've ever seen. I think the Britannic, when everyone sees how well-preserved it is, it'll lead the way, and then I will move into the next phase.

NARRATOR: Of all the wrecks Ballard has explored, none have offered as much potential for his plan to create an undersea museum as Britannic.

BOB BALLARD: In the memory of those who perished in the sinking of the H.M.H.S. Britannic, November 21, 1916, and dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the war of 1914. . .

NARRATOR: This commemorative plaque is a point of honor for Ballard, who firmly believes that wreck sites should be left undisturbed. The only mark of his passage will be this token of respect for those who perished here. For all of our technology, the oceans of the world remain largely unexplored, their dark floors littered with forgotten relics of human history. And even those clues that are brought to light keep a jealous hold on their secrets. If Britannic someday offers us a virtual window into her past, it will be the lure of those secrets that will keep us coming back.

______: Is there an unsinkable ship? From Titanic to today's luxury liners, NOVA investigates blueprints for safety at sea. Dive into NOVA's website at To order this show for $19.95, plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos. NOVA is a production of WGBH, Boston. NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to the needs of an aging society. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine. And by Prudential.

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______: Next time, on NOVA, a stonemason and an archeologist travel to Egypt to find out for themselves how the great pyramids were built. With an Egyptian crew and ancient methods, they worked to solve one of the world's oldest mysteries by reconstructing This Old Pyramid. Next time on NOVA.


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