A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.
Many books have been written about the disastrous sinking of the RMS Titanic, some relating it as a simple tragic collision between a ship and an iceberg others as a complex insurance scam that went wrong.
Let’s take look at the known facts and compare them with those that may be true but equally may be fiction.
RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic was one of the Olympic class of Greyhound ocean liners built by Harland & Wolff at their Belfast shipyard, on the River Lagan, Northern Ireland, for the White Star Line. The Olympic class comprised three liners, the first two being the RMS Olympic and alongside her the RMS Titanic. RMS Gigantic was to follow but after the Titanic tragedy she was renamed RMS Britannic. On the 13th November 1915 HMHS Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship but struck a mine and sank on the 21st November 1916. Fortunately she had no patients aboard and the 30 deaths that occurred were caused by two lifeboats tragically being sucked into the still rotating propellers.
The first problems in Titanic’s chequered career arose from the political and religious divide that existed in Belfast between the Catholic and predominantly Protestant church which often resulted in violent street fights between the two sides. It was not helped by the much smaller shipyard of Workman and Clark on the County Antrim side of the Lagan (Harland and Wolff is located on the County Down side of the river) who were virulently anti-Catholic and would never employ Catholic workers. In addition just to stir things up they had been known to paint NO POPE in letters ten feet high on the hull of the ships under construction. Harland & Wolff, on the other hand, had no official policy regarding the religion of its workers.
However, the hull number reputedly assigned to RMS Titanic was 3909-04 which when written out and viewed in a mirror, the number spells out the words NO POPE (assuming a certain amount of leeway is allowed with the figure 4.)
She was built on Slipway No 3 under the Arrol Gantry but we have to ask the question, was that number of 3909-04 actually assigned to the Titanic? The answer seems to be no, the only two numbers ever assigned to the ship were her actual builder’s number, 401 (she was the four-hundred and first ship built by Harland and Wolff) and her Board of Trade number, 131,428. Following the original suspicion when you write out 401 or 131,428 and hold them up to a mirror, the “secret message” in them reads, nothing intelligible. However, such was the strong feelings between the two religious groups in Belfast, a little thing like the truth was not going to spoil a good story.
Another claimed incident at the shipyards was to dog the ship. Such was the speed of the plating and riveting that a young riveter was trapped within the double hull and allegedly riveted over. His agonised tapping and screams were lost in the tremendous noise of the shipyards. Now could this story be true, it is certainly possible. At the end of the shift all of the workers were checked and signed out, with no-one missing, but the shipyard workers were masters of covering up for missing mates that the figures must be taken as suspect.
On the launch of the Titanic it was alleged that the bottle of champagne did not break (a sure sign of an ill-fated ship). However, the truth of the matter was that neither Harland & Wolff nor White Star line ever used champagne to launch their ships.
During the construction of the Titanic the Olympic on its fifth voyage was involved in a serious accident with the cruiser HMS Hawke when the two collided in the Solent off Southampton harbour on 20th September 1911. The RMS Olympic had increased speed as it passed the Hawke and the resulting suction had dragged the cruiser into the Olympic, its armoured ram bow causing serious damage on the starboard side some 80ft forward of the stern.
The main damage was a gaping hole through the hull plates which flooded two of her sixteen watertight compartments and bent her starboard propeller shaft, necessitating an immediate return to Southampton. After emergency repairs were made in Southampton, she returned to Belfast. In order to expedite repairs, the Titanic‘s starboard propeller shaft was used to replace the Olympics’ damaged shaft, though not her starboard screw, which was pitched differently from that of the Olympic and could not be used by the older ship. In February 1912, while returning to Southampton, she lost a blade from her port propeller, which necessitated another trip to Harland and Wolff for repairs. The White Star Line was anxious to get the Olympic back into service as quickly as possible and so authorized Harland and Wolff to pull workers off the incomplete Titanic, delaying the new liner’s debut by three weeks.
The damage caused by the original accident was far more severe than originally thought and the Royal Navy held an enquiry which exonerated HMS Hawke. Professor John Biles and American Naval officer David Taylor testified on behalf of the Admiralty that as the Olympic travelled through the water logically the bow would push water out away from the ship. As the Olympics’ stern passed, water would pull back in towards the ship to fill the gap. Based on the size and speed of the Olympic at the time of the collision the zone of influence would extend for 200 yards on both sides of the Olympic. This was a new theory, and not unexpectedly was attacked as nonsense by merchant marine unions, industry magazines, writers and other maritime experts, including White Stars own Captain Smith. Nevertheless, later after the Titanic sank, the new theory was proved correct.
This left White Star Line with an expensive severely damaged ship which was not insured. It is at this point the alleged idea of an insurance fraud came to be suggested.
The hypothesis examined in a book "Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank" by Robin Gardiner was that there was a period during which the almost completed Titanic and the damaged Olympic were side by side on the stocks at Harland & Wolfe in Belfast.
It is an established fact that Titanic’s propeller shaft was used to repair the Olympics bent starboard one and probably other miscellaneous items to complete the job.
It is at this point the allegation of planned fraud took place.
The labour force was astonishingly loyal to Harland & Wolff and any that weren’t would find themselves out of any job in Belfast or any shipyard.
As outlined in the book, with the two ships right next to each other, it was an easy job to switch the two identities. Although White Star Line monogrammed linen and crockery, it did not show the ships name, which was really only shown at the bow, on lifeboats and obviously ships documents. There were minor structural differences between the two ships and these have been identified on the wreck and form much of the basis of the changed identity suspicion.
With the two ships modified the damaged Olympic became the Titanic and vice versa. The (damaged) Titanic was launched at a very low key ceremony and worked up her supposed sea trials very gently without stressing her fragile condition.
It is alleged that the Titanic (the damaged Olympic) makes her maiden voyage on a modified route taking her into the potential ice fields. After leaving Southampton on 10th April 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew, Titanic called at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland before heading westwards towards New York. The plan was that at a certain point she would come within an easy rescue range of the SS California and an un-named blacked out second ship. Captain Smith would arrange to collide with an iceberg in a manner which would cause the slow sinking of the Titanic and that all passengers and crew could be saved. On 14th April 1912, four days into the crossing and about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, she hit an object at 2340hrs ship's time. The blacked out ship was alleged to be the 254 ton Samson that was illegally sealing in the area, but she was so small a collision would barely cause a dent. Such a ship would need to be around 10-15,000 tons and the blacked out ship seen would seem to fit this description.
However a series of events was to prove disastrous. When she sailed she had a bunker fire, these were not uncommon but the plates in the area were almost red hot. As she neared the pre-arranged area she was travelling very quickly and the ice floes were becoming plentiful. What happened next is unclear - she either hit a mostly submerged large ice berg or she hit the blacked out ship that was part of the fraud. The consequence of hitting the berg was obvious, but if she hit the ship the force of the collision would have shaken ice from her masts and superstructure, still giving the appearance to the passengers, that she had hit a berg.
The suggestion that she had hit a ship was not as far-fetched as it may sound. Various survivors spoke of a blacked out ship passing by the sinking Titanic, at speed and they also spoke of large amounts of timber floating which couldn’t have come from the Titanic. Also the clincher was a lifeboat among those salvaged after the sinking which did not come from the Titanic and may have been knocked off the blacked out ship.
The SS California was still too far away, almost over the horizon. The problems with the radio and the misinterpretation of the rockets sealed Titanic’s fate.
I won’t go into the details of the actual sinking and rescue attempts as these are more than adequately covered in many books.
However, the amount of damage caused to Titanic by a collision with either another ship or a berg seems excessive and deserves more investigation.
We know the bunker fire would have affected the tensile strength of a localised area of the hull and its reaction when it came in contact with a minus 2degC. sea, but what about the quality of the steel used in the ship’s construction.
Metallurgical examination and chemical analysis of steel plate, that had been raised from the Titanic, revealed important clues that allows a better understanding of why the damage inflicted on the hull was so severe. The steel, imported from Scotland, was probably as good as was available at the time the ship was constructed and there is no reason to suspect Harland and Wolff would have used inferior steel as a cost cutting measure as, the contract was on a cost plus basis. It was, however, very inferior when compared with modern steel and would be classified as “dirty steel” today. The notch toughness (material's ability to absorb energy with a flaw) showed a very low value (4 joules) for the steel at the water temperature (-2 deg C) in the North Atlantic at the time of the accident.
The collision devastated the hull of the Titanic for about 300ft, cracking hull plates and popping the wrought iron rivets, thus destroying the integrity of the first six of 16 watertight compartments formed by the transverse bulkheads. Even a ship as well designed and constructed as the Titanic could not stay afloat under these circumstances.
Additional stories surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.
Was there a mummy among the cargo on the Titanic?
A rumour circulated that among the cargo was a mummy which was heavily cursed. According to the myth, the mummy was named Amen-Ra, who was very angry at being disturbed and was prone to curse anyone who crossed her path. The Amen-Ra we know is not a complete mummy but simply a mummy board or inner coffin board made of wood and plaster.
The actual mummy that formed part of the Titanic’s cargo was originally displayed in the 'First Egyptian Room' of the British Museum from the 1890s and only the mummy board has remained on public view ever since. It is known as the “Unlucky mummy”.
The story originated with writer, journalist, editor, and spiritualist William Thomas Stead. On Friday evening, 12th April 1912, two nights before the Titanic sank; Stead regaled his dinner companions with a variety of ghost stories and tall tales. One tale was based around the legend of Amen-Ra, the mummy stowed in the cargo hold.
The claimed presence of the mummy in the wreck is often cited as a reason why the Titanic should be left alone.
However there exists a continuation to the story, although it’s actually without corroboration. Apparently, the mummy did not sink with the Titanic. Instead it was removed from the hold and the archaeologist bribed one of the Titanic's crew to hide the mummy in a lifeboat. The story continues that the mummy arrived in New York, surrounded by all kinds of bad luck. Later, the mummy was shipped back to Egypt on the “The Empress of Ireland”, which also sank with a great loss of life but, the mummy again survived and ended up in one of the lifeboats. It was shipped a second time to Egypt on the ill-fated "Lusitania", which was torpedoed and this time there was no reprieve and the mummy now lies undisturbed in the Lusitania's cargo hold, at the bottom of the Irish Channel
The ships cat
Perhaps passengers should have taken note of Jenny the ships cat. After the Titanic arrived in Queenstown from Cherbourg, Jenny carried her kittens off the ship and watched it depart from the quay to its watery grave. There is a second, unconfirmed report of a second cat called Mouser, from the engineering department that left the ship at Southampton.
A “priceless” jewelled book was lost with the Titanic
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’s was claimed to be a “priceless” volume which now lies in the hold of the Titanic. It is confirmed that the book sank with the Titanic by 1912 newspaper accounts and elsewhere, but its actual value hardly comes close to the word “priceless”. This particular book was purchased at auction, just prior to sailing for around £405. Today, the identical book would fetch around $40,000, although that amount would climb significantly due to the book’s association with the Titanic. This amazing binding is inlaid and tooled in gold, with a design featuring peacocks and grapes on the upper cover. In total there are some 1000 jewels including Topazes, turquoises, amethysts, garnets, olivine’s and an emerald.
The Titanic purser’s safe would be loaded with valuables
There are at least three safes aboard, with the Titanic’s purser’s safe (Herbert Walter McElroy) being where the wealthy first-class women on board stored their valuables during the voyage. There is common belief that the safe is still aboard the Titanic and that it contains a treasure trove of diamonds, jewellery, gold, bank notes, and other valuables. What is more likely is that the content would have been transferred by the purser to a leather satchel for safe keeping and removal from the sinking ship. In many instances wealthy passengers would have taken small valuable items such as diamonds etc. and slipped them into their pockets or purses. If they survived then the valuables would be with their rightful owner, otherwise they would be in the rotting clothing of the drowned.
The purser’s safe was retrieved from the Titanic and opened for a 1987 television special called “Return to the Titanic”. Inside the safe was what a representative from Van Cleef & Arpels said was a diamond bracelet and that was the only valuable item.
A further safe was found in the debris field but the base had rusted through and therefore any contents would have been scattered. In the debris field a leather valise was found which contained a muddy selection of valuables which may have been from one of the purser’s safes. However, it does seem that there is no huge fortune in valuables waiting to be found.
A Ghastly Boat Load : Corpses From The Titanic
On Saturday 18th May 1912 a radio message was received from Captain Smith, of the SS Oceanic, (brother of the captain who commanded the RMS Titanic), advised that on Thursday another collapsible boat belonging to the sunken liner had been found drifting in the ocean some 200 miles south of the Titanic’s last position.
The boat, when found, contained the bodies of three male persons, who had died from the combined effects of starvation and exposure and all indications were that there had been two other occupants, who had died earlier and were slipped over the side.
Small crumbs of chewed cork in the bottom of the craft near two bodies huddled together told their story of hunger, despair and death. There were no letters but it is believed that the three men whose corpses were found survived the disaster for a number of days.
One of the victims was identified as Thompson Beattie, of Chicago; another was an unidentified crew man, and the third a fireman. There must have been at least one woman, who would have been a widow and another occupant of the boat, as two wedding rings bearing the inscription “Edward to Gerda,” were found. Evidence suggests there was a fifth occupant possibility a man named Williams, as a fur overcoat with that name written on a tailor’s pad in the pocket was also in the boat.
The boat should have been equipped with emergency rations and water but there was no sign of food, water or containers, nothing except the pieces of chewed cork, which had been torn from the life preservers.
It was Monday around noon that the first officer, Mr Frank, sighted the collapsible life boat. It was a sunny day and the sea was smooth. The Oceanic lowered a boat commanded by third officer, Mr Withers, and six men pulled the oars. The passengers on the liner, watched with macabre interest as the boat went alongside of the collapsible and saw the crew looking inside, recoiling in horror and then returned to the Oceanic.