What Sank The Titanic?

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

On the night of April 11, 1912, a mighty ocean liner steamed straight into an iceberg in the icy north Atlantic. Passengers were thrown from their chairs and rushed in terror to the decks. Although her bow was badly buckled, however, no one was hurt, and the ship limped onwards, to reach New York in safety.

The clue there is in the date, for the ship in question was a French liner, the Niagara. It was three nights later that the Titanic met her fate near the same spot.

So why did the Titanic, despite warnings of ice ahead, hit an iceberg herself, and why did she fail to survive the collision? The basic answer is clear: she was going too fast. The conclusion of the official British inquiry remains self-evident. However far away the iceberg was when the lookouts saw it – their testimony was evasive to say the least – there was too little time to avoid it.

It’s often suggested that Captain Smith was trying to set some sort of speed record. He could never have captured the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing; the Titanic simply wasn’t built to outpace sleek rivals like Cunard’s Mauretania. Smith knew however that for the Titanic to arrive ahead of schedule would attract favourable publicity, and the presence on board of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay may well have spurred him on. In fact, though, it was standard practice for liners to race at top speed through the night, and only take evasive action if confronted by an obstacle.

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

Not that it was freakish bad luck for an iceberg to be in the Titanic’s path. While icebergs were not usually expected that far south, the sea that night was full of them. When the sun rose the next morning, “dozens and dozens” were in sight. Even more to the point, barely three miles ahead the ocean was covered by a colossal unbroken ice field, seventy miles long by twelve miles wide. And the Titanic had been warned, by wireless messages from nearby ships.

When First Officer Murdoch, on duty on the bridge of the Titanic, did take evasive action, he did entirely the wrong thing. His attempt to steer around the iceberg, while throwing her engines into reverse, producing the nautical equivalent of a skid. As the leading manual on seamanship, Austin M. Knight’s Modern Seamanship, advised, “this course is much more likely to cause collisions than to prevent them”. On top of that, there’s plausible evidence that the helmsman initially turned the ship’s wheel the wrong way, losing crucial seconds.

Had the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, she would probably, like the Niagara, have survived. Instead, she scraped along the side of the berg, which had the twin effects of slicing her open, and weakening the rivets that joined the plates of her hull, which effectively “unzipped”. Her much-vaunted watertight compartments had been designed to protect her against sharp impacts; no one had considered the effects of a prolonged scrape.

J. Bruce Ismay.

So what was to blame? Rather than the very existence of the iceberg, or the unusual conditions that made it hard to spot – hazards the world’s greatest liner should have been able to cope with – it seems fair to blame the design of the ship, and the inadequate response of her crew. And to add a special word of condemnation for J. Bruce Ismay, the man who decided not to equip the Titanic with enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

All text © Greg Ward.

This post also appears as an article on the Rough Guides website, www.roughguides.com.

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Julian Fellowes’ Titanic – the Blogtanic preview

I went last night to a BAFTA preview, at the BFI, of the first two episodes of Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic TV series. Attended by many of the cast and crew, it was followed by a panel discussion featuring Fellowes himself.

In their quest to find a fresh way to re-tell the familiar tale, Fellowes and his producers have squared up to the crucial issue that audiences feel they already know the story – and they certainly know the Titanic is going to sink. As Fellowes put it in the Q&A, rather than have three episodes of characters worrying about their marriages and their mortgages, followed by one devoted to the actual disaster, they’ve decided to show the climax in every episode. That means we get to see the ship sink not once, but four times.

It’s a daring move, particularly in terms of episode 1, when the Titanic crashes into the iceberg before we’ve had time to get to know, or care about, the characters. Our first sight of the collision, and the loading of the lifeboats, seems strangely flat, and there has to be a chance some viewers will give up after the first episode. As the series unfolds, however,  each subsequent episode throws new light on the scenes we’ve seen before, repeatedly showing the same incidents from different perspectives.

The idea of the Titanic as a microcosm of the Edwardian world is hardly new, and yes, some of the emblematic figures whom Fellowes has placed aboard the great ship may seem familiar from his previous work. The flawed-but-decent Lord Manton, for example, is strongly reminiscent of the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, while the various servants might have stepped straight out of Gosford Park. Fellowes’ deft touch at revealing their thoughts and motivations, however, from the millionaires in first class down to the impoverished emigrants in steerage and the grimy stokers in the boiler rooms, makes for compelling viewing.

Fellowes’ fictional characters share deck space with many of the Titanic’s real-life passengers and crew. His fellow “Titanoraks” will be fascinated to see his take on certain enduring controversies. Here, for example, it’s Captain Smith, rather than the usual villain J. Bruce Ismay, who dices with death by racing the Titanic ever faster towards the ice field.

While the fates of the genuine historical figures have long since been cast, the lives of the invented characters remain poised in the balance until the fourth and final episode. According to Fellowes, he didn’t decide who would live and who would die until he’d already written the first three instalments. I’m looking forward to finding out who makes it  – if I had to guess, though, it’s not looking good for some of those plucky steerage passengers.

The series is being broadcast in Canada from today onwards, and starts in the UK on Sunday March 25.

All text on Blogtanic © Greg Ward

Did anyone really think the Titanic was unsinkable?

Whether the Titanic was unsinkable was settled once and for all on April 15, 1912. A hundred years later, however, two related issues are still being debated. Did her makers, the White Star Line, claim that she was unsinkable? And did the world at large – and above all, her passengers – believe her to be unsinkable?

The Olympic and Titanic under construction, Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast.

Only the faintest of pre-tragedy references to the Titanic’s supposed unsinkability have been discovered. Describing the system of watertight compartments used in both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, a 1911 White Star Line brochure explained how in the event of an accident the captain could close the watertight doors, thereby “practically making the vessel unsinkable”.

In the Shipbuilder magazine, later that year, the crucial phrase was truncated to become “practically unsinkable”. Far from singling out the Titanic, however, the author referred to such watertight compartments as being “usual in White Star Lines”.

On the very day that the Titanic sank, the word “unsinkable” seemed to rise to the surface. The man largely responsible was White Star vice president Philip A.S. Franklin. When the first rumours of the sinking reached New York, he responded “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable”. He later told the New York Times “I thought her unsinkable, and I based [my] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it”.

Philip A.S. Franklin (left) and J. Bruce Ismay (right) during the US inquiry into the disaster.

The arrogance of imagining any ship to be unsinkable tied in perfectly with the notion of the Titanic being destroyed by hubris. Early reports of the disaster were peppered with the word, and survivors swiftly started to use the term. Less than a month later, White Star’s president J. Bruce Ismay, who had himself survived the sinking, testified at the British inquiry that “I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself”. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who was on the deck of the Titanic as her fate became horribly apparent, described the male passengers as seeking to “reassure the ladies” by repeating “the much advertised fiction of ‘the unsinkable ship’”.

In his stimulating book, The Myth of the Titanic, author Richard Howells concluded that the idea was “an essentially retrospective invention”. He argued that the Olympic was all but identical to the Titanic, built in the same shipyard at the same time. The Olympic sailed on her maiden voyage less than a year before the Titanic, on the same route and even with the same captain.

At no time however was the Olympic hailed as being unsinkable; only the Titanic became known as the “unsinkable ship”, precisely because she did in fact sink. No one would dispute that the Titanic’s passengers, and for that matter her captain and crew, thought they were aboard an exceptionally safe ship. Few appreciated that she was in fact considerably less safe than such predecessors as the Great Eastern.

While that over-confidence may not have caused the collision itself – racing at breakneck speeds towards dangerous icefields was pretty much standard practice at the time – it did ultimately cost lives, because it was surely the main reason why so few passengers came forward to board the earliest lifeboats.

Only once the Titanic sank, perhaps, did people realise quite how invulnerable they had imagined themselves to be, a blind faith they then simply articulated by using that one small word – “unsinkable”.

All text © Greg Ward

The astonishing true story of the “Nazi Titanic”

The compelling TV documentary Nazi Titanic: Revealed tells the amazing story of the 1943 Titanic movie, made in Nazi Germany. Not only was its director arrested and driven to suicide during the shoot, but the real-life ship that doubled as the Titanic met her own grisly end just two years later, claiming three times as many victims as the Titanic herself.

Commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the film calls the Titanic disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”. It centres on the struggle between “Sir Bruce Ismay” and John Jacob Astor – depicted as an Englishman – for control of the White Star Line, which is in financial trouble due to the cost of building “the first unsinkable ship in the world”. Boasting that the Titanic will capture the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing, Ismay promises Captain Smith $1000 for every hour he’s ahead of schedule when he reaches New York.

As well as the usual fictitious passengers, from decadent English gentry to young lovers in steerage, the film also features an invented crew member, the young German officer Petersen. Very much the conscience of the piece, Petersen repeatedly warns Ismay that the Titanic is sailing too fast, with too few lifeboats, into an ice zone. When the inevitable happens, both Ismay and Astor try and fail to buy their way onto a lifeboat, but Petersen helps Ismay to escape anyway, so he can be held accountable for his actions. Petersen too is rescued, after he swims out to a lifeboat carrying a little girl. The two men have a final confrontation at the subsequent inquiry, only for Ismay to be exonerated, and all blame placed on Captain Smith.

Incidental moments en route include a girl rejecting her parents to follow the man she loves; a debauched dance in the third-class dining room; and even, as in James Cameron’s Titanic, a jewel thief being rescued from the ship’s jail by the judicious use of an axe.

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The climactic scenes were filmed aboard the Cap Ancona, a liner requisitioned by the German navy. After director Herbert Selpin complained about the behaviour of the ship’s real-life German officers, his co-writer denounced him to the Gestapo. Within 24 hours Selpin had been interrogated by Goebbels himself, and found hanged in his cells.

The Cap Arcona also met with catastrophe; she was sunk by British fighter planes the day before the war ended. Five thousand concentration camp inmates, who were being shipped to an unknown destination, lost their lives.

The so-called “Nazi Titanic” will be shown at the NFT2, BFI Southbank, on April 18 at 6.20pm, and April 25 at 8.30pm.


Hold The Front Page! Thrilling Details of Titanic Rescue!

Has there ever been a front page to match this one?

This is the New-York Tribune from April 19, 1912.  In the four days since the Titanic hit the iceberg, the world has had no news of the tragedy beyond a piecemeal list of the victims.

Now the rescue ship Carpathia has finally reached New York,  carrying the only survivors of the tragedy, and at last the newspapers have the “THRILLING DETAILS” to get their teeth into.

Or do they?  A quick look at the headlines below, all clipped from this same page, reveals that while the stories are certainly thrilling, it’s quite possible that none of them is actually true.


The stories here include such persistent myths as that Captain Smith shot himself, that White Star Line president J. Bruce Ismay escaped with a hand-picked crew,  and that an officer shot panicking “Italians”.

A century later, we still don’t know whether any of these things really happened.