Who Sank the Titanic? The Final Verdict

Posted on Tuesday 17th April 2012


Who Sank the Titanic? The Final Verdict
The basic facts of the Titanic disaster have long been accepted throughout the 100 years since the then biggest ship in the world sank beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. On her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the Royal Mail Ship Titanic struck an iceberg late on the evening of 14 April 1912. She sank in the early hours of the following morning after an estimated 3,845,000 gallons of water had poured in below her waterline. The crew had launched all of her too few lifeboats to try and save as many women and children as possible. But her officers were so badly trained that lifeboats were lowered away with far fewer people than they were designed to hold.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, two lengthy and expensive inquiries – one on each side of the Atlantic – produced new safety recommendations. Neither hearing attached any significant blame to any company, government department or individual involved in the management, construction or safety regulations of the ship. No shipping company boss lost his job. Nobody involved in building the ship was dismissed. No politician responsible for safety at sea resigned or was thrown out of office. There were no criminal prosecutions.
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Titanic on her slipway at the Belfast shipyard during construction.
'Who, if anyone, told you to enter that lifeboat?'
1.00 am Monday, 15 April 1912
Upper deck of RMS Titanic
Dead reckoning position: 41° 46' N, 50° 41' W
North Atlantic Ocean
Hundreds of women and children were being loaded into the last few of the sixteen wooden lifeboats on the uppermost deck of the ship. Around an hour and twenty minutes after striking the iceberg, Titanic was dipping lower and lower in the water. Her pumps were at full capacity, discharging more than 30 tons of water per minute from the stricken ship’s lower decks. They were, however, fighting a losing battle with the overwhelming power of the ocean. Seawater was flooding in at a rate of 360 tons per minute and all of the pumps on board could only briefly delay the inevitable.
Even so, many of the passengers remained ignorant of the imminent danger; convinced that they were safer on board the vast, 45,000-ton vessel than they would be in an open lifeboat at sea. With many of the boats by then launched and rowing away from the ship, around 1,800 people were still trapped on Titanic, many of them nowhere near the lifeboats on the upper deck. The crew, trying to persuade women and children into the boats, had been joined by an unexpected volunteer: Bruce Ismay, the 49-year-old president of the American corporation that owned Titanic, had been working alongside them on the open deck.
Ismay’s sole reason for sailing on Titanic had been to judge how well the ship would operate on her maiden voyage. He had been on deck for more than an hour. Moving from lifeboat to lifeboat, he had urged women to save themselves and encouraged the sailors to ‘lower away’ the boats. Most of the crew had not even recognized the president of their shipping line, and some had not welcomed his assistance. At one point, Titanic’s 5th officer, Harold Lowe, told Ismay, his own employer, to ‘Go to Hell ... ’because his unwanted instructions were confusing everybody.
‘The occasion for using the language I did was because Mr Ismay was over-anxious and he was getting a trifle excited.’ Lowe explained later:
He said, ‘Lower away! Lower away! Lower away! Lower away!’ I told him, ‘If you will get to Hell out of that, I shall be able to do something.’ He was, in a way, interfering with my duties, and also, of course, he only did this because he was anxious to get the people away and also to help me.
I said, ‘Do you want me to lower away quickly? You will have me drown the whole lot of them.’ He did not make any reply. He walked away and went to No. 3 boat.

Combining Bruce Ismay’s testimony to both the American and British inquiries builds up a detailed picture of his actions that night. The millionaire ship-owner consistently claimed that all he wanted to do was save as many lives as possible:

'I assisted, as best I could, getting the boats out and putting the women and children into the boats. I do not think I ever left that deck again. We simply picked the women out and put them in the boat as fast as we could. The natural order would be women and children first; as far as practicable.
I put a great many in. We took the first ones that were there and put them in the lifeboats. I rendered all the assistance I could. All the women that I saw on deck got away in boats. They were swung out, people were put into the boats from the deck, and then they were simply lowered away down to the water.'

Ismay’s critics, however, took a different view of his actions. He was one of the few people on board who knew the terrifying truth: that Titanic was inevitably going to sink that night. How convenient then was Ismay’s self-appointed role as an unofficial, junior lifeboat assistant? It gave the ship-owner the perfect reason to stay close by the boats; and the perfect means of saving himself should the opportunity arise.
By Ismay’s own account of events, he clearly understood the danger far better than any other passenger on board. Finding himself all alone the previous evening, Ismay had invited an old friend, Titanic’s surgeon, Dr William O’Loughlin, to dine with him in the First Class restaurant. The two men, colleagues for almost forty years, had eaten early and finished their meal before 9.00pm. Ismay then returned to his cabin, put on his pyjamas and fell asleep.

'I presume the impact awakened me. I lay in bed for a moment or two afterwards, not realizing, probably, what had happened. I really thought we had lost a blade off the propeller. I went along the passageway out of my room and I met a steward. I asked him what had happened; he told me he did not know. 'I went back to my room, put a coat on and went up on to the Bridge, where I found Capt. Smith. I asked him what had happened, and he said, "We have struck ice." I said, "Do you think the ship is seriously damaged?" He said, "I am afraid she is.’"'
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A possible suspect? An iceberg photographed from the Carpathia the morning after the sinking.
Ismay, who had known and respected Smith for decades, was to see the captain twice that night; first soon after the impact, and then during a second visit to the bridge around thirty-five minutes later. By then, Titanic was already dipping lower into the water. In the interim, Ismay had returned to his cabin and donned a suit and an overcoat over the top of his pyjamas. Yet, in the confusion, he forgot to put on his shoes and spent the rest of the night wearing only his slippers.
'I heard Captain Smith give an order to lower the boats. I think that is all he said. He simply turned around and gave the order. As soon as I heard, I left the bridge. I walked along to the starboard side of the ship, where I met one of the officers. I told him to get the boats out – I saw the first lifeboat lowered on the starboard side. What was going on on the port side, I have no knowledge of.'
Armed with his insider’s knowledge about Titanic’s inevitable fate, Bruce Ismay stood directly opposite one of the last boats waiting to be launched on the starboard side of the ship. It was one of four collapsible, canvas-sided boats that Titanic carried in addition to the sixteen wooden lifeboats that hung from her davits. ‘Collapsible-C’ had already been manhandled onto an empty davit in preparation for its descent. As it began inching lower Ismay looked around, moved forward... and stepped into the boat. The lifeboat rocked slightly as he took a seat among the few dozen women and children already on board.

Ismay subsequently attempted to justify his actions throughout repeated question-and-answer sessions with Senator William Alden Smith, the Chairman of the US Senate Hearings. He defiantly explained how and why he escaped with the women and children, just before Titanic finally slipped beneath the waves:
‘Mr Chairman, I understand that my behaviour on board the Titanic has been very severely criticised. I want to court the fullest inquiry, and I place myself unreservedly in the hands of yourself and any of your colleagues, to ask me any questions in regard to my conduct; so please do not hesitate to do so, and I will answer them to the best of my ability.’
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White Star boss, Bruce Ismay, being questioned at the US Senate inquiry in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
‘Who, if anyone, told you to enter that lifeboat?’

‘No one, Sir.’

‘Why did you enter it?’

‘Because there was room in the boat: she was being lowered away. I felt the ship was going down, and I got into the boat. I was immediately opposite the lifeboat when she left. The boat was there. There was [sic] a certain number of men in the boat, and the officer called out asking if there were any more women, and there was no response, and there were no passengers left on the deck. And as the boat was in the act of being lowered away, I got into it.’

‘At that time the Titanic was sinking?’

‘She was sinking.’

‘Was there any attempt, as this boat was being lowered past the other decks, to have you take on more passengers?’

‘None, Sir; there were no passengers there to take on.’

‘And that at the time there were no other persons around; no women, particularly?’

‘Absolutely none that I saw, Sir.’

‘Was that the last lifeboat, or the last collapsible boat, to leave?’

‘It was the last collapsible boat that left the starboard side of the ship. It was not filled to its capacity. I should think there were about forty women in it, and some children. There was a child in arms. I think they were all Third Class passengers, so far as I could see.’

‘Were all of the women and children saved?’

‘I am afraid not, Sir.’

‘What proportion were saved?’

‘I have no idea. I have not asked. Since the accident I have made very few inquiries of any sort.’
As the most senior executive of the company that owned Titanic, Ismay’s apparent indifference to the fate of her passengers and crew was used against him by his critics in the months after the disaster. His evidence in America revealed that, for some days after the sinking, he had spoken to just one of the surviving officers, and to none of the traumatized passengers. Ismay’s decision to save himself by taking one of the precious lifeboat seats when so many others, including hundreds of women and children, were left behind to die was to haunt him for the rest of his life. One American newspaper headline at the time condemned him as ‘Brute’ Ismay.
Unbeknown perhaps even to Ismay himself, there was a terrible irony, never made public before, in the fact that he was saved by one of Titanic’s last lifeboats. Over decades leading up to the sinking, the British Board of Trade had consistently refused to update regulations governing the number of boats to be carried on the vast new ocean liners of the day. The irony is that files now released within the British National Archives have revealed for the first time the name of the one man who bears much of the responsibility for the grossly inadequate number of boats on Titanic. He was a man who rejected suggestions that ships should carry ‘lifeboats for all’. He bullied and cajoled Board of Trade committees to keep lifeboat numbers below the numbers that safety required. That man was Thomas Ismay – Bruce Ismay’s father.
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RMS Titanic after sea trials in Belfast Lough.
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Bruce Ismay, a British ship-owner who had inherited one of the world’s greatest shipping empires from his father and grandfather before him, was the man most directly responsible for the design, construction and operation of Titanic. He struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen him, his company, and Titanic’s remaining passengers and crew. Ismay already knew that he was living through a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. What he could not then have appreciated was that the repercussions of the tragedy would echo through the years to come and blight the remainder of his life. The events then unfolding on the boat deck were to ruin Ismay’s reputation forever and brand him as, arguably, Titanic’s most despicable coward.
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Titanic and Olympic in the background at the Harland
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Titanic prepares to depart from berth 44 of White Star dock at Southampton for her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912.
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Over decades leading up to the sinking of Titanic, the British Board of Trade had consistently refused to update regulations governing the number of boats to be carried on the vast new ocean liners of the day.
There was room in the boat: she was being lowered away. I felt the ship was going down, and I got into the boat. I was immediately opposite the lifeboat when she left. The boat was there. There was [sic] a certain number of men in the boat, and the officer called out asking if there were any more women, and there was no response, and there were no passengers left on the deck. And as the boat was in the act of being lowered away, I got into it. (Bruce Ismay)
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Titanic survivors photographed from the rescue ship, Carpathia.

Further Reading


Who Sank the Titanic?
(Hardback - 224 pages)
ISBN: 9781848844704

Only £19.99

Designed as the technological marvel of her age, RMS Titanic claimed to be the largest, strongest, safest ship of the early 20th Century; a triumph of centuries of Great Britain’s unrivalled shipbuilding expertise. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The 1500 American and British victims of RMS Titanic went to their watery graves never knowing that much of the ship was imperfectly forged from cheap and recycled scrap-iron and that the tragedy was caused by a chain of gross negligence and greed.

Crime investigator Robert…
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