Titanic: How The Unsinkable Sank

One of my favourite pieces of writing from my university days was a dossier entitled ‘An Exploration of the Misjudgements, Human Errors and Misfortunes That Contributed to the Sinking of the RMS Titanic.’ Quite a mouthful, huh? I've been wanting to rewrite it into a more blog friendly piece for a while now, because history is one of those things that I'm genuinely interested in, but never get a chance to write about – and right now, I'm all about writing what I want.

If I asked you why the Titanic sank, I’d bet almost all of you would say that it was because she simply hit an iceberg. And whilst technically you would be correct, new evidence gathered over the years suggests that it was much more than a giant clump of floating ice that lead to “the greatest of maritime disasters”.

There were in fact, several incidences of (in my humble opinion) pure stupidity, bad luck and human error, that saw 1,523 lives being lost in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic ocean. It's a tale that's kept us fascinated for decades; inspiring films, dedicated walking tours, museums and countless books. Not to mention, helping to reshape the far-outdated maritime laws and policies of the time.
But what really happened to cause such a colossal disaster? Behind all the glamour and publicity of a ship deemed 'unsinkable', setting out on her maiden voyage to New York lies, frankly, some of the biggest cock ups in maritime history. Let's dive straight into them, shall we?

1.   Bruce “My Staircase is Bigger Than Yours” Ismay

Bruce Ismay

Bruce Ismay

In January 1910, Bruce Ismay, Chief Chairman of White Star Line and owner of the RMS Titanic, met with the Chief Designer of the ship, Alexander Carlisle, in Belfast, to sign off some last minute design adjustments.
Ismay had decided that he wanted a much grander staircase leading down to the reception area than what had been originally planned for the Titanic. Carlisle assured him that this was possible, but to accommodate the new staircase, they would have to compromise the height of the ship’s bulkheads to just 10ft above the water line.

Now, bulkheads are incredibly important on a ship, especially one as big as Titanic, which had a total of sixteen, consisting of fifteen watertight compartments. They were designed to isolate any water the ship let in if her side was opened during a collision. By lowering the bulkheads to make room for his grand staircase, Ismay unwittingly reduced his ship’s sinking time by two hours.

2.   Cowboy builders

Although the engineers who built Titanic knew that steel was stronger than iron, they proceeded to use iron rivets in the steel plates of the ship. Independent investigations into the strength of the iron rivets revealed that with just minimal amounts of pressure, there reached a point where the iron rivet began to fail, causing an ‘unzipping’ of the steel plates.
Dr. Jennifer Hooper-McCarty explains,

“The rivets on Titanic failed to sustain stresses due to the collision with the iceberg, which led them to pop faster than expected. This resulted in large pieces of steel originally held together by the same rivets to detach from each other and create gaps large enough for water to breach too many water tight compartments.”

It has also come to light in recent years, that for reasons still unknown, the builders of Titanic did not order the finest grade of wrought iron for the rivets, known as ‘Best, Best’ or ‘No. 4’. Instead, they ordered a lower grade of iron called ‘Best’, which had a higher number of impurities.

Had the highest grade of iron been ordered, Titanic experts say she could have stayed afloat longer than the two hours it took her to sink.

3.   Who needs lifeboats, anyway?

Once Ismay was done blindly slashing sinking time, the discussion moved on to the topic of lifeboats. You probably already knew that there weren’t enough lifeboats on board for all of the passengers and crew, but the reason behind it was down to nothing more than for want of a nicer looking deck.

Alexander Carlisle

Alexander Carlisle

The Titanic could occupy a maximum of 3,327 (that’s including the crew). To cater for all these people in the event of a disaster, Carlisle originally designed forty-eight lifeboats to be put on deck. Ismay however, thought they made the place look too “cluttered” and informed Carlisle that – and I quote, “People do not pay to look at lifeboats”. The number was subsequently reduced to a mere sixteen, plus four collapsible boats, with a total capacity of just 1,178.

This conversation – which ultimately sealed the fate of hundreds of lives – lasted just ten minutes.

Note: Surprisingly, Ismay was breaking no laws in taking away the thirty-two lifeboats, in fact, by adding the four collapsible boats; Ismay was exceeding the legal requirement of the British Board of Trade. Common sense however, was seemingly not a requirement.

4.   Blair’s binoculars

Two years later, the Titanic left Belfast for Southampton, where it would pick up the 2,208 passengers and crew for her voyage to New York. Even though the ship was considerably under capacity, you can imagine how hectic things must have been on board for the new crew and due to a reshuffle, a crewmember by the name of Blair was no longer needed.
It was in his haste to leave the ship, that Blair accidentally took the key to his locker with him, which held the binoculars for the Crow’s Nest. This was to be the first critical incident aboard the ship.

As night fell on 14th April 1912, the Captain and his Officers realised that the weather was against them; it was a moonless night and the sea was a ‘flat calm’. This meant that the lookouts, who were already having to man the Crow’s Nest with no binoculars, had very poor visibility and as the sea was completely still, there was no way of seeing waves hitting the side of an iceberg, which at 9:45pm was just fifty miles away.

Note: During the official inquest, it was discovered that there were a spare pair of binoculars on the bridge most of the time, yet 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller, who was responsible for the lookouts and survived the sinking, failed to pass them to Fleet and Lee who were manning the Crow’s Nest. .

5.   Ice warning? Cancel the lifeboat drill.

At 9am on 14th April, Senior Wireless Operator, John 'Jack' Phillips, was starting to receive iceberg warnings from other ships. His Junior Wireless Operator, Harold Bride, handed the warning to the Captain, Edward John Smith, who shortly afterwards decided to cancel the lifeboat drill. This meant that the crew were completely unrehearsed as to what to do if they had to abandon ship. To this day, no one knows why Captain Smith made that decision, but you don’t need me to tell you how many lives this undoubtedly cost.

6.   Overworked and underpaid

Captain Edward Smith

Captain Edward Smith

Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were not employed by the Titanic and earned their wages by sending ship-to-shore messages via the ship’s wireless equipment. Although these guys were well-trained wireless operators, they weren’t familiar with iceberg warnings and probably didn’t understand the significance of the messages they were receiving from other ships.

Later during 14th April, the RMS Baltic sent a warning about icebergs and field ice in an area the Titanic was heading towards, but the Captain proceeded to sail at top speed through the night. When Ismay was later asked why this was, he told the inquest that he assumed Captain Smith was anxious to get through the ice region as quickly as possible (contradictory to a statement that accused Ismay of pressuring the Captain to beat speed records). This was to be the last iceberg warning Captain Smith would receive.

In an attempt to avoid the reported ice, the Captain delayed changing course from southwest to due south by twenty minutes. Little did he know that he had inadvertently bought the Titanic on a collision course with the deadly iceberg that had made its way into the shipping lanes (something only 1% of icebergs ever achieve).

At 6pm, the next ice warning was coming through over the wireless, but Bride, who was poorly paid, was busy writing up the accounts and didn't intercept the warning from the SS Californian until almost an hour and a half later, at which time the Captain was dining and couldn’t take the message. Bride recounted later that he handed the warning to an Officer on the bridge, but no Officers who survived the disaster remember receiving the iceberg warning. To this day, no one can confirm that the warning was even delivered.

Photo of the iceberg that sank the Titanic

Photo of the iceberg that sank the Titanic

It was at 9:45pm that the fifth and most crucial iceberg warning came through. It was from the ship SS Masaba, warning of an area of ice fifty miles away, which the Titanic was heading straight towards. But the message was sent without an MSG prefix, so Phillips interpreted the warning as ‘non urgent’ and went back to work. 

Had he handed it to the Captain, Smith could have taken action and avoided the iceberg all together.

At 11pm, the iceberg was fifteen miles away and the Californian, who was just two hours from the Titanic’s position, sent a message to the ship informing them that they were stopping for the night to avoid the ice and were going to carry on at day break. The Wireless Operator on the Californian, however, did not wait until Phillips had finished his ship-to-shore messages and overrode the signal with a much stronger one, blasting Phillips over the headphones. Phillips, who was already under pressure to send all the messages in the two hour window he had been given, replied angrily “Shut up you bloody idiot. I’m working Cape Race.”

The Californian retaliated to this by turning off their wireless machines for the night, which cut off all communication between the two ships.

7.   Ship vs. Iceberg

The 100ft high iceberg was seen at 11:39pm, just 500 yards away, with the Titanic going at full speed. Officer Murdoch, who was manning the bridge at the time, quickly put the engines in reverse, slowing the ship down and attempted to turn away from the iceberg. Unfortunately, this was the last incident that sealed the fate of the Titanic.        

Had Murdoch put the engines in reverse and not turned away from the iceberg, but allowed the ship to crash head on into the ice, the collision bulkhead would have taken most of the damage and the likelihood of the Titanic actually sinking would have been extremely low.  

Because the ship had started turning under 500 yards away from the iceberg, it was unable to clear it and the ice scraped a large hole in the starboard side of the ship’s hull. Although Murdoch sealed all the watertight compartments before impact, it was too late and seawater flooded five of the bulkheads. Titanic could only stay afloat with four.

Senior Wireless Operator John 'Jack' Phillips

Senior Wireless Operator
John 'Jack' Phillips

8.   Aftermath
It was at midnight that the Captain was given the damning news – his ship would sink within two hours, causing him to suffer an apparent mental breakdown. We know this, because it’s here we start to see the command structure on board fall apart.

Officer Lightoller asked Captain Smith if he should start getting passengers into the lifeboats, the Captain replied “Yes, women and children first.” However, Lightoller interpreted this command as ‘woman and children only’ and as a result, would leave hundreds of men on the sinking Titanic, with no way of escape.
Captain Smith is rumoured to have then told his crew to "Be British", before locking himself alone in the bridge of his sinking ship, leaving his untrained crew without orders and no idea of what to do. 

Junior Wireless Operator Harold Bride

Junior Wireless Operator
Harold Bride

In the Wireless Room, Phillips was sending out frantic SOS messages to all the ships he could reach, but the Californian, who was only two hours away, was not responding. Had her wireless machine not been turned off during the argument with Phillips, the ship could have got there in time and it’s possible everyone could have been saved.

Despite orders for them to leave and try to get aboard a lifeboat, Phillips and Bride stayed and continued to attempt to reach a closer ship while there was still electricity on board. When the power went out, they headed for the boat deck where they were both separated. Remarkably, Bride managed to stay alive in a pocket of air for forty-five minutes, underneath a capsized collapsible boat and was eventually rescued. Phillips however, was not as lucky and was last seen on deck trying to get into a lifeboat. 

According to evidence and eyewitness accounts, not only were there not enough lifeboats for passengers and crew, but many of them were sent out only half full, as the Titanic began to sink. In fact, a lot of surviving witnesses said they saw one lifeboat carrying only five passengers – despite the boats being able to carry fifty people – who refused to return after the Titanic had sunk to try and save drowning passengers, fearing the boat would become overwhelmed. Only one lifeboat returned, too late to pick up what little of the passengers had survived the freezing water. 
There was even the story of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who offered the several members of crew in his lifeboat £5 each. He insisted it was to cover the cost of lost kit, but other passengers in the lifeboat testified it was to stop them going back where the boat could be swamped. The stigma of this followed him for the rest of his life.

At approximately 3:30am, The Carpathian arrived, after heading for the co-ordinates of the Titanic as soon as the SOS came through. A mere 705 passengers and crew boarded her, both emotionally and physically drained; their lives changed forever by the failings, bad luck and misjudgements of the supposed maritime experts they had entrusted their lives to.

But unfortunately, the survivors were to be without justice, as the verdict of the inquiry was that although officials recognised Titanic was going too fast through the ice region, no one was deemed lawfully at fault, because technically, standard procedure had been followed through to the end. Although outside of court people had their own ideas of who should be blamed, no one has ever been held accountable in the eyes of the law for those 1,523 lives, most of whom are still lost at the bottom of the cold North Atlantic sea.

Did you know?

  • Titanic was the largest moving manmade object of the time.
  • The designers and builders of the Titanic never suggested that the ship was unsinkable, simply that it was equipped for any emergency; it was the press and 'spin doctors' who came up the 'unsinkable' tagline.
  • 699 crew members registered their address as Southampton. A total of 685 crew members perished.
  • Contradictory to popular belief, Titanic's maiden voyage was actually when it sailed from Belfast to Southampton, as people paid to board.
  • The journey from Southampton to New York was to be Captain Smith's last voyage before retirement. He was last seen on the bridge.
  • As Titanic was sinking, a ship could be seen in the distance. Crew fired red flares up into the air to alert it to their plight but after a while it simply vanished into the night. Theories as to what the ‘mystery ship’ actually was are plentiful. But the most likely one is the Norwegian sealer, Samson. In 1962, a fifty-year-old report was found which indicated that she was operating illegally; the Captain worried that the flares were from a government fisheries vessel and simply sailed away.