“Titanic was called the ship of dreams…and it was. It really was!”
Okay, I apologise straight away for having quoted from that terribly scripted, big-budget film, where the dialogue throughout consists of little more than “Rose!”, “Jack!”, “Iceberg!” and “Surely this ship can’t sink?!”
In case you haven’t already caught on to all the commemorative programmes, articles, 3D film, and recently released underwater pictures, it’s the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.
The fact is, RMS Titanic wasn’t meant to sink. It’s all in the name – the Titans, the Greek mythological super deities, capable of mass strength and power (who were eventually overthrown by the Olympians). Yet, on 14th April 1912, four days after it set sail on its maiden voyage, the ship was sinking.
At the time, White Star Line was running against its main competitor, Cunard, which had launched the fastest passenger ships in service, the Lusitania and Mauretania – hence, the clunk of a line delivered by Kate Winslet in Titanic,
“It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania.” Well done, James Cameron, for getting that historical reference point in there. Well done.
So, White Star Line presented its three members of the Olympic-class liners: RMS Olympic (launched in 1910), RMS Titanic (launched in 1911), and after that, HMHS Britannic (launched in 1914). RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer, because as well as being a passenger ship, it also delivered post. HMHS means His/Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship – more on that later.
So, why did the Titanic sink – apart from the most obvious reason which is that it crashed into an iceberg?
If you say that a ship can’t sink, then you’re asking for it, especially if you don’t equip it with enough lifeboats for everyone to leave safely. It is widely suggested that J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line, was one of the top officials to suggest this, though Thomas Andrews, the naval architect and head of Titanic’s plans, knew very well that the ship was capable of sinking. As is anything on water, if it gets a bit of a hole in it.
Andrews knew this so well, in fact, that he tried to make Titanic even more steadfast, by suggesting that the liner carry 36 more lifeboats, a double hull and water tight bulkheads that would go up to the B deck. But, probably due to money, weight and arrogance, this was not allowed. Still, even Andrews was highly confident the ship would never sink.
Another occurrence that jeopardized the lives of those onboard was the fact that the lifeboat drill, which was due to be carried out on April 14th – the day of the crash, was cancelled for one reason or another. I would hazard a guess at it being for an arrogant reason: someone thought there was no need to do a drill on an unsinkable ship.
A new novel Good as Gold has now appeared, written by Louise Patten, whose grandfather, Charles Lightoller, was the sole surviving senior officer on the ship. This book has made many claims as to the reality of the sinking, including its covered up secrets. One of Patten’s claims is that J. Bruce Ismay, who we met above and who was on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, ordered the captain to keep the liner moving onwards in his arrogant determination to get to New York on time. Instead, this made it even less likely for the ship to ever arrive at the dock – if it was going to at all, and in fact caused Titanic to sink hours before it would have done had it been stationary. Inevitably, other ships didn’t arrive in time to rescue the people onboard.
Of course, Titanic may have been its own lifeboat, as was suggested at the time, because of its watertight compartments…if they had worked as planned. If the watertight bulkheads had gone further up, or no more than four had been damaged then it may not have sunk. But as the water leaked into the fifth compartment, the Titanic was no longer able to stay afloat, and so began to tip forward, nose first, eventually breaking in two due to the extreme weight at the front. Hey, even lifeboats can sink.
The other technological weakness of the Titanic was the fact that the rivets that were used to secure the 1.5 inch thick steel hull were made of a weaker iron than was standard. In those times, steel was used for rivets, a much stronger material. Not only was iron a weaker option, but the iron itself was of a lower class – “class 3” – compared to the class of iron used on other vessels – “class 4”. Needless to say, this class 3 iron could not stand the amount of stress that was applied to it, that other metals would have been able to stand.
3. Bad Decision Making
To an extent, all of these issues could be attributed to bad decision making. But here are some specifics.
The bad decision making of various morse code telegram operators also had a part to play. In those days, ships relied on each other for warnings of icebergs in places like the Atlantic, and these messages were relayed through morse code. Due to earlier warnings, Titanic had already altered its course to avoid icebergs.
The morse code operators Harold Bride and John Jack Phillips, were actually employed by a wireless company, and not by the Titanic as “crew members”. One of the ways they made money on commission, was to send personal messages from the passengers to land. They ignored several iceberg warnings from other ships such as the Californian (and other warnings were lost in translation), because they were concentrating on delivering the commercial messages, of which there was a backlog due to the lack of signal range earlier that day. Finally, Phillips told the operator on the Californian to “Keep Out! Shut up! Shut up!”.
This standard order of “Keep Out” was intended to stop other operators from sending messages so that the airways were clear for Phillips to send his commercial messages to the coast station. However, the rude “Shut up!” meant that he missed the important iceberg warning that Cyril Evans was sending from the Californian vessel. The Californian switched off its radio and the operator went to bed.
During the late night, the crew of the Californian told their captain that a ship in the near distance – within ten miles away – appeared to be firing rockets. They assumed the ship was having a party, and when it was noticed that it had disappeared, they believed it had moved on. Later, they realised another ship – the Carpathian – was now in the spot where the previous ship had been. Although survivors of the Titanic testified that there was another ship only six miles away, there is no knowing whether this was the Californian and that it was the Titanic that had been seen firing rockets or another ship, as the Californian maintained that it had been 19 miles from the Titanic. This probably would have been known if the operator had left his radio on.
It’s also a well known fact that when the ship hit ice, other vessels did not take the Titanic’s – the unsinkable Titanic’s – messages seriously. Up until that point, CQD was the standardised distress signal, and SOS had only just been brought in. The operator on the Frankfurt, 170 miles away, did not respond to the distress call of “CQD CQD SOS” until half an hour later, and at that point treated it as pretty much a joke. Phillips was frustrated, and ordered him to “Keep Out” so that he could continue to make distress calls to other ships that would take him seriously. The only other ship to respond was the Olympic, which was 500 miles away and the Carpathia which would arrive too late. You can read the correspondence here.
The final message sent from the Titanic before the power failure was:
“SOS SOS CQD CQD. Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.”
This was the fist time the SOS signal was used by a British vessel. By the time the Carpathia reached the Titanic’s last given coordinates, there was nothing there. Just water.
In terms of the hit itself, many aspects could have been avoided…
The look-out, Frederick Fleet (below), in the crow’s nest had no binoculars.
Second Officer David Blair sailed with the Titanic in the first leg of the voyage from Belfast to Southampton. Yet, at Southampton he was ordered to step down for the RMS Olympic’s Henry Wilde to take his position, and was greatly disappointed. When he left, he accidentally took the keys to his locker with him – the keys to the locker that held the look-out’s binoculars.
Frederick Fleet later explained that if the binoculars had been available, he would have been able to spot the iceberg sooner and it would probably have been avoided. If Fleet and his colleagues had said at the time that there were no binoculars, someone would have been able to point them in the direction of the second set of binoculars on the bridge.
On sight of the iceberg, First Officer Murdoch ordered the engines to be reversed and for the quartermaster to swing the wheel hard to starboard, causing the Titanic to glance its side off the iceberg. Some suggest that the front of the ship was designed to withstand head on collisions, and that in fact if the Titanic had slowed down and stayed on course, the damage would have been less significant. Others suggest that the ship’s front would have collapsed, causing it to sink in no time at all, as it was only designed to withstand a collision with another boat, not something with the size and stability of an iceberg. Many also don’t understand why the order was given to reverse engines, because if the wheel had been turned and the engines had kept their pace, the ship would have turned away from the iceberg more quickly. This debate may never be resolved.
However, there is an emerging factor to add to all this:
In Louise Patten’s book, the biggest blunder of the White Star Line, which has been hidden until now, was the confusion between port and starboard, and ultimately the action that made the difference between life and death. Patten suggests that her grandfather was sworn to secrecy over this matter, concerning the direction that the quartermaster, Robert Hitchens, turned the ship due to the confusion between Tiller and Rudder orders.
Tiller orders were old school and referred to the tiller – a lever attached to the rudder post. Rudder orders were becoming the trend in the steam age. The crucial difference between the two is that under Tiller orders, “hard a starboard” meant turn the wheel to the left so that the tiller swung to the right which is starboard. Under Rudder orders, the same command means exactly the opposite. Strangely enough, Titanic was one of many North Atlantic vessels to still use the older Tiller orders. However, Hitchens was used to the newer Rudder orders, and when he was given the order “Hard a starboard”, he turned the wheel the new school way – to the right – through panic. This was the opposite direction to which First Officer Murdoch had intended to move. Evidently, the ship turned to the right, the opposite of which is suggested here and in most well known accounts. This could be one of the central factors as to why the Titanic sunk.
Today, the RMS Titanic continues to fascinate people – from it’s rediscovery on the seabed in 1985, to the conspiracy theory suggesting it was swapped with the Olympic in the dockyard. In the immediate aftermath, the people could only learn from the catastrophe, and safety measures, such as an increased number of lifeboats onboard vessels, were taken more seriously. Of the 2,229 passengers only 713 survived, though these statistics waver from source to source.
After the Carpathia’s rescue mission, hundreds of people stood and waited in the New York dock to see if their friends and relatives had survived.
The crew of the Mackay-Bennet had to return to the site to recover the bodies. As they couldn’t take them all back, they buried many of the steerage passengers at sea. It was up to John Henry Barnstead to think of a way to keep every body with its possessions so that it could be later identified. He did this by numbering the bodies, and their bags of possessions with the same number – a rational system that is still used today.
Today, computer technology has allowed a combined image mapped from the various wreckage parts of the Titanic as printed in the National Geographic magazine:
I recently watched a programme called Saving the Titanic, a period drama that describes the often untold battle that the firemen, electricians and engineers fought to keep the ship afloat for as long as possible – an extra 1.5 hours in fact. If you want to know what it really felt like to be there, forget Titanic 3D and the Julian Fellowes’ Titanic series and watch this. No amount of solemn violin and bagpipe music can compete with the dreaded gulps and pale faces of the characters – all based on real life people such as Joseph Bell – in this programme. None of the senior engineers, that helped it stay afloat for that additional 1.5 hours, survived.
And what of the Titanic’s sister ships?
The Olympic became a troopship during World War One and lived a long life until 1935 when it was withdrawn from service, and parts of it were auctioned off and used as fittings in various halls and homes.
The Britannic also became involved in World War One as a hospital ship.
On 21 November 1916, there was an explosion onboard which damaged some of the watertight doors. History began to repeat itself as the ship began to sink and the lifeboats were ordered to be deployed. This time, after only ten minutes, the Britannic was already at the same stage of sinking as the Titanic was an hour after it hit the iceberg. The rush was on to get everyone off the ship, into lifeboats, and two of the lifeboats and its occupants were dragged into the wrath of the propellors. Violet Jessop, a VAD nurse, was onboard at the time. She had also been a survivor of the Titanic.
Again, she survived to tell the tale. This time, the warmer temperature, the closer proximity of rescue vessels and the greater number of available lifeboats meant that only 30 men lost their lives, and 1,036 survived…
Lessons were learnt from the RMS Titanic.
Please view this great project that colourises black and white photos connected with the Titanic.