The destination for history

Q&A with Simon Mills, owner of the HMHS Britannic wreck


In August 1996, the wreck of HMHS Britannic was bought by renowned maritime historian, Simon Mills. Simon is a long-standing camera technician in the UK film industry. During his career he has also researched numerous documentaries on historical and maritime subjects, and is a published author on all three Olympic-class ships.

What does it feel like to own one of the most iconic ships in history?

‘Owning’ can be such a sensitive word! Some people find it amazing that anyone can own a shipwreck (it rarely occurs to them that just because it has sunk that there isn't still someone with rights to a ship or its cargo) and maritime law can be a real minefield if you consider potential pollution issues. Fortunately the Britannic was a coal-burner so there is no chance of any oil leakage, unlike the HMS Royal Oak, but aside from the kudos of owning the wreck there are also legal and technical issues. Shipwrecks in Greek waters are usually the property of the Greek Government, but because the HMHS Britannic is an ex-warship, paid for by the British Government as the ultimate war risks insurer, this means that they effectively owned the wreck. (On a point of information the wreck of any warship always remains the property of the state that paid for it, no matter where it is located) The fact that this legal title is currently held by a private individual has created a somewhat unique legal situation in Greece, but following discussions at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs it was agreed that I do have rights which cannot be obstructed, but that any activities on the wreck have to be conducted within the bounds of Greek law. My rights only really kick in when it comes to entering the wreck or the possible retrieval of artefacts; otherwise I am generally happy to leave it in the hands of the Ephorate of Marine Antiquities (Greek Ministry of Culture), who take the issue of conservation very, very seriously. 

Why did you decide to try and restore the ship?

We have to be careful with using words like ‘restoration’. In 1995 Bob Ballard made a passing comment that the Britannic looked to be in such good condition that you could almost clean off the marine growths to find the hull in pristine condition. Unfortunately quite a few people took him literally and as a result you would be surprised at just how many people have suggested that the wreck should be raised, restored and opened to the public. Some have even suggested putting her back into service! The logistical practicalities of raising 40,000 tons from the seabed are mind-boggling enough, to say nothing of the subsequent ruinous maintenance and conservation costs which will probably ensure that this never happens – I'm not sure that I would want it to anyway – but that would be for the next owner to ponder. Even so the Britannic is a fascinating and easily accessible link to her sister-ship Titanic, and a long term study of the two wrecks in their individual environments by marine archaeologists, engineers and micro biologists can provide valuable insights into the manner in which surviving artefacts become encapsulated within concretions. By monitoring these events at selected sites around the world it may even help to develop better protocols for the effective recovery of compromised artefacts. 

What is your ideal vision for the restoration project?

The current proposal is really just getting up and running and as such there is still so much to discuss. The project will be based in Belfast, right where the Britannic was built, but currently most of the discussions are at the diplomatic level between the British Government (DETI in Northern Ireland are backing the project) and the Greek Ministry of Culture. When the UK Ambassador (effectively the representative of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) communicates with the relevant Government Minister of any country then mere mortals like me have to wait quietly in the background, but the vibes from Belfast and Athens look to be encouraging. It's quite possible that the project will expand in time, but the immediate intention is to conduct a full mapping of the wreck and conduct the controlled retrieval of selected artefacts for conservation and public display. The initial proposal is to have permanent displays in Belfast and Athens, with a view to also arranging a number of travelling exhibits, but the key emphasis has to be on control and making sure that we don't damage the archaeological integrity of the wreck site in the process. Otherwise we would have nothing…

What has been the most interesting thing about owning the wreck?

Owning the Britannic has been full of surprises and at times something of a double-edged sword. When I first acquired the British Government's legal title I rather naively thought that it would all be relatively straightforward. I originally wanted to leave the ship exactly as it was and keep people from interfering with it, but gradually over the course of time I began to cooperate with dive groups who I had previously tried to keep at a distance; as a result over the years we have between us created a far more detailed and credible analysis of the wreck, which have also clarified details of the ship's last hour afloat, and also the wreck's prospects for the future. I virtually had to be dragged kicking and screaming into opening up to the divers, but on balance I am probably glad that I did. Perhaps the most frustrating thing has been liaising with officialdom, in both London and Athens, but with the two governments currently talking with each other on the wreck's future perhaps the lesson learned was to have got everybody talking at an earlier stage. 

How did it feel when you first visited the wreck?

My first visit to the wreck was an unexpected bonus. In August 1995 I was one of the historical advisers for the American broadcaster NOVA during Bob Ballard's expedition, which was the first time that anyone had been back there since Jacques Cousteau in the autumn of 1976. The twenty-year interval had left everyone feeling very apprehensive as to how much the wreck might have deteriorated since it was last seen almost twenty years ago, but we were delighted to find that not only was the ship still almost completely intact, but that there was no indication that she was likely to deteriorate any further in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately I was the only Brit on the production team and because I was not a US national I was told that the US Department of Defense would not allow me to dive on the US Navy's NR-1 submarine, but courtesy of Rear Admiral Richard Mies (USN) they waived the rules and my moment finally came. My first glimpse of the Britannic was on the afternoon of 3rd September 1995 (it was the port bridge wing cab) but while it was wonderful to finally be seeing the ship for real, it occurred to me that Ken Marschall had been right when he said that the view from the submarine viewport was very limited and that the topside video was far better - not to mention far more comfortable! As I recall we were down there for about twenty-four hours, but the whole experience had quite an impact on me and it's just possible that I may be the only person who has ever bought a shipwreck ‘as seen’. 

What surprised you most about the wreck?

Up until 1995 I had actually given the wreck itself very little thought. My principal focus had really been on the story of the ship and her crew in the years between 1911 and 1916, but that all changed in the early (very) hours of Thursday 31st August 1995, when I was given the dubious honour of keeping the dive log for the ROV (Phantom) during our first look at the Britannic in almost twenty years. Having seen the footage of the Titanic's twisted and broken hull, the most pleasant surprise was to find that the Britannic, far from having crumbed into nothingness, looked to be as intact as the day she had sunk - not necessarily the impression given in the 1977 Cousteau documentary. In spite of the technology at our disposal we only began to appreciate the full extent of the scale of the wreck over the next few days as we set about analysing the footage in more detail in the comfortable environment of the support vessel Carolyn Chouest's lab; it was here that the true magnitude of what we had filmed really became apparent.

Why do you think it is important to preserve history?

Studying the story of the Britannic really opens the door to so many other aspects of history. For years there were certain truths that people believed about the ship simply because it was written in a book, but these authors were not always writing from personal experience and hardly any of them would have had access to the level of archival information that we now enjoy. There is a tendency to criticise revisionist historians, but the simple fact is that with the level of information that is available today it would be very rash to regard any book written twenty or thirty years ago as definitive on any subject. The same goes for my histories of the Britannic; they are based on information that is currently in the public domain and who is to say what will turn up in another twenty years? The ongoing study of any subject can never be a bad thing, and in the case of the Titanic and Britannic we not only have the opportunity to give the archival files the closest scrutiny, but also the technology to visit their last resting places and analyse the events as they actually happened on the day. If all of these techniques combined can help us to re-write history in a meaningful way then I don't think anyone can say that is a bad thing.

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