Simon Mills: “Interest in the Britannic is now a lot bigger than it was 20 years ago”

Simon Mills, Britannic









U-Boat Navigator expedition to Britannic in 2013 opened new horizons for the research team agenda. Explorers are planning to get back to the famous wreck during the 2014 to broaden perspectives for camera shooting. Meanwhile, we have a talk with the Britannic’s owner, renowned maritime historian Simon Mills.

 - Do you remember the moment you decided to buy the wreck?

As it happens I remember it very clearly. It was actually July of 1996 that I first heard that the UK Government’s former title to the wreck of the HMHS Britannic was up for sale; at the time I was working at Pinewood Studios on a television version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which seemed doubly appropriate.

I had been researching the Britannic for the better part of ten years and although it had never occurred to me that one day I might actually buy the British Government’s title to the wreck, back in those days buying the rights to a government shipwreck was surprisingly straightforward, although I am not sure if it is still the case. After a couple of weeks the paperwork was signed and on 20th August 1996 the title was officially transferred to my company, Governcheck Ltd.

 - Had you been keeping in mind the plan of a restoration project from the very beginning, or it sprang up later on?

- Not at first. The original idea had actually been to keep people away from the wreck in order to protect it, but a year or two later it occurred to me that if we were to make any real progress in researching the story of the Britannic then it would be necessary to be a little more adventurous. In any event, the Greek cultural authorities also take great care when it comes to protecting sites of archaeological interest in their territorial waters, so with hindsight I knew it was unlikely that anything bad would happen to the wreck.

 - Could you, please, outline some of your plans on Britannic for the nearest future?

- There are currently discussions ongoing between the British Government and the Greek Ministry of Culture regarding a long term conservation project that will be based in Belfast, Northern Ireland (where Britannic was built), with part of the collection being housed in Greece if the Greek authorities want it. It is a little too early to say what will happen and when, but if the diplomats can get things sorted in the relatively near future then I would like to think that we could still begin work this year. In the meantime everything has to go through the office of the British Ambassador in Athens.

 - What’s the most unexpected historical fact you’ve discovered while investigating the Britannic case?

- Britannic was one of a trio of ships and in order to understand the wreck you also have to fully understand her two sister ships, Olympic and Titanic. There were numerous design changes to the original specifications of the Olympic with the result that when Titanic entered service, although she looked similar she was actually a very different ship. The design changes to the Britannic after the Titanic disaster, as well as the post-Titanic modifications to the Olympic have proved to be very illuminating, and an analysis of the changes in all three vessels over a period of several years has also gone a long way to clarifying what may have happened to the Titanic.

With regard to the wreck of the Britannic, the open watertight doors in the forward boiler rooms have been of particular interest and are leading us to speculate on all manner of causes that led to the loss of the ship, while the scientific analysis carried out by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (Elkethe) in August 2008, combined with earlier scientific work carried out in 2003 by National Geographic, have revealed much about Britannic’s current condition. Of course, there is still much more to do…

 - How big is the interest in the Britannic nowadays, and what are the prospects and horizons?

- Very big, and I’m pleased to say that the new book is currently doing very well. Interest in the Britannic is now a lot bigger than it was twenty years ago. February of this year also saw the centenary of the ship’s launch and 21st November 2016 will see the centenary of the ship’s sinking. In 2012 the public fascination with the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic was huge, but although Britannic is unlikely to obtain the same degree of near-hysteria (at least I hope it doesn’t) there is no doubt that interest in the Britannic is growing and will continue to grow as we get closer to the Centenary and beyond.