Remembering Britannic’s Violet Jessop
100 years ago today ‘Miss Unsinkable’ – Violet Constance Jessop – survived the sinking of HMHS Britannic.
On 20 September 2011 Jessop was on board when the Olympic sailed from Southampton. The first Olympic class liner collided with the British warship HMS Hawk. Luckily there were no fatalities and the ship made it back to port without sinking.
Just over six months later Jessop joined the crew of the second Olympic class liner on her maiden voyage: RMS Titanic. The loss of this supposedly ‘unsinkable’ ship during the early hours of 15 April 1912 had a huge impact on the owners of the White Star line and the British maritime industry. Harland and Wolff – the Belfast shipbuilder – quickly adopted a ‘safety-first’ approach, and amended the design of their third Olympic class liner.
Britannic was born at the wrong time because she was launched on 26 February 1914 – five months before the outbreak of WWI. She therefore did not see service as a transatlantic passenger liner. Instead the British Government requisitioned the last Olympian, refitted her and repainted her. Her hull was painted white complete with large red crosses. Britannic’s role was to carry sick and injured troops home from Gallipoli. Violet Jessop joined the crew as a nurse.
On 21st November 1969 Britannic was steaming along the Kea Channel in Greece. At approximately 08.12 a violent explosion rocked the ship. The ship had hit a German mine. Despite Harland and Wolff’s major modifications, Britannic sunk within 57 minutes.
“The white pride of the ocean’s medical world … dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths.” Violet Jessop
In September 2006 I joined a HMHS Britannic expedition led by Richie Kohler and John Chatterton. During the expedition I was asked to play the role of Violet Jessop for a re-enactment.
It was already a hot afternoon before I donned woollen stockings, a long dress, a big black woollen coat, long scarf and hat. The ensemble was topped off by a very bulky cork life jacket.
We quickly realised that the life jacket worked. A good thing you would think. However I had to be pulled underneath the surface to re-create the struggle that Jessop had gone through to survive the sinking. The solution. I wore my 20lb shot belt beneath the long dress.
Jumping into Kea Harbour was a blessed relief from the intense Greek sun. But the respite was short lived. Film work tends to be a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ interspersed with some intense action. There was a lot of hanging around in the water, and I began to get cold.
And it was literally hanging around for me. I had to hold onto something solid for surface support as my weight belt proved to be most effective at pulling me under water.
This particular shoot took at least a couple of hours – I was filmed from all angles performing a variety of moves such as my feet kicking in the blue water. I was also shot from topside and underwater being pulled beneath Kea Harbour.
Evan asked that I jump into the water a number of times. He wanted to film me from below the surface as I replicated Jessop leaping out of the lifeboat and into the Aegean Sea.
“To my horror, I saw Britannic’s huge propellers churning and mincing up everything near them – men, boats and everything were just one ghastly whirl.” Violet Jessop
The lifeboat that Violet Jessop was in was being pulled into Britannic’s still rotating propellor. The only way to survive this giant mincing machine was to jump from the lifeboat. In doing so Violet struck her head on the keel and suffered a fractured skull.
All in all it was a great experience working with Evan and Joe on this shoot. When it was complete I climbed out of Kea Harbour with new respect for Violet Jessop. She must have been a remarkable lady.
There have been a number of documentaries and books about HMHS Britannic. The latest book – ‘Mystery of the Last Olympian‘ – has been co-authored by Richie Kohler. Richie has dived this Olympic class liner in 2006, 2009, 2015 and 2016. He answers the century-old question as to why all the engineering solutions built into the mighty Britannic could not save her from sharing the same fate as Titanic.