Titanic: Letters

Titanic followup letters

Titanic cutaway
Cutaway sketch of Titanic. Note the “smoke” from number four funnel.

Tom Fisher writes of the Last Log of the Titanic: book review (Newsletter 54 September 2003):

The stated fuel consumption of 650 tons of coal an hour must be in error. Southhampton to New York is some 3000 miles. At 22.5 knots the ship would have to consume some 86,000 tons of coal. She displaced only 46,000 tons. I would suggest that the ship would have consumed less than 850 tons of coal a day and even this figure would have kept the 270 or so stokers very busy.

Of poignant interest is that not one of the engineer officers survived the collision. The electric lights, however, were still burning as the ship plunged to her doom. This was possible because at least some of the 17 massive Merchant Navy Scotch boilers, each of which held probably 20 to 30 tons of water, had enough stored energy to keep up steam as the ship slowly flooded.

(Ed. Note:Tom is correct and reviewer John Ellis agrees. The “per hour” figure was an egregious typo. It should have read “650 tons … per day.”)

Ron Robb contributes to the Titanic discussion:

Browsing over Tom Fisher’s comments re John Ellis’ review of David Brown’s The Last Log of the Titanic stirred some half-forgotten observations about the seemingly never-ending fascination with that ill-fated liner and brought to mind a few other stories, both mythical and real, about other maritime disasters. It’s also worth noting that horrific disasters at sea still occur today. It may also come as a surprise to know that the “golden age” of liner travel was less in the 1920s than it is today so the opportunities for disasters are as present as ever. A few comments follow.

Photo showing smoke from Number three, but not number four funnel.

The first thing I noticed about the cutaway illustration of the legendary ship at the top of Tom’s letter was that it has a very common error in non-photo pics of Titanic: smoke coming from the after smokestack. In fact, that structure was there mainly for show but was used as a ventilating trunk, as John mentioned.
The public of the day equated power and speed with multiple funnels so the White Star line went along with the fad. The Last Log of the Titanic has a painting on the front cover actually showing smoke coming from No 4 stack (p 10 Newsletter No. 54 and here). John picked up a few errors and contradictions in David Brown’s book and this one appears even before one opens the cover.

The Riddle of the Titanic (Gardiner and Van der Vat, Orion: London, 1995) has good photos of both Titanic and Olympic (first of the class) with a big head of steam and plenty of exhaust smoke, but with No. 4 stack showing none; that book also notes that No. 4 was for ventilation only .

Fitting-out photo

Titanic (Leo Marriot, PRC Books: London, 1997) specifically describes the three boiler rooms exhausting into funnels 1, 2 and 3. It also shows a photo of her fitting-out with only the three active funnels in place at that stage and specifically draws attention to the fact that the dummy fourth was to be fitted later. Moreover, it shows a number of famous paintings of Titanic, all correctly showing smoke from the first three stacks only (and also a painting of Brittanic, the third and last of the class, likewise showing no smoke).

Perhaps the most famous artist’s painting of the ill-fated vessel is Simon Fisher’s The Last Sunset, viewed from the port quarter and depicting Titanic sailing west after leaving Queenstown, having worked-up to to full speed to meet Lord Ismay’s determination to break all records, with voluminous smoke belching from the first three stacks, but nothing from the fourth.

Titanic contemporary RMS Lusitania did have a number four funnel chimney.

Tom Fisher was right about the coal usage, as was John Ellis’ subsequent correction: The Last Log of the Titanic does indeed state that she was fed 650 tons of coal per day, and that was by human muscle and shovels. Each stoker shifted five tons of coal per watch, of which there were two of four hours per twenty-four.

Also confirmed is Tom’s note that not one of the engineer officers survived. According to Brown there were 35 of them under Chief Engineer Joseph Bell. Gardiner and Van der Vat list 32, though if deck engineers, electricians, carpenters and boilermakers are included then the number is greater than either. Whatever, the main two investigative enquiries did not manage to elicit much about the last hours of the Marine Engineering/Electrical Department but what evidence there was indicated that those who survived the first engulfment stuck to their posts right to the end.

No doubt most of them would have eventually been overwhelmed in the flood as it began to overtake the lower regions, with menacing inexorability once No. 5 bulkhead at boiler room No. 6 gave way, having been weakened to the point of red heat by the just recently extinguished ten-day old bulk coal fire.

Bunker fires were common in those days, due to the unstable coal dust atmosphere and, rather than the bulk explosives cargo claimed by the German Government, a likely reason for the mysterious second explosion after the single torpedo that went into the Lusitania. (However, that point is still to this day being hotly argued).

Press on regardless?

The whole confluence of events was all the while being rapidly exacerbated by Ismay’s insane determination to press on regardless and CAPT Smith’s reckless disregard for caution after the impact.

Of Bell’s enlisted engineering department, comprising 271 firemen, trimmers and greasers, only 47 survived. Probably only NOC members of a bygone age, such as those who worked in boiler/engine rooms of the big warships like the County class cruisers, the carriers and other such big steamers, can imagine what the last hour or so down there in Titanic must have been like.

As an ex-birdie I sometimes used to go down into those spaces and to me they seemed like a precursor of Hell. At least ships soon after Titanic were oil-fired but even then life in the bowels was no picnic. When one considers conditions where 650 tons of coal per day had to be shovelled by hand I must confess I have a mental picture something akin to those terrifying orcs working in that ghastly middle earth in the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies – an erie half light, punctuated by blazes of angry firelight from roaring furnaces, suffocating heat, black dust everywhere, sweaty bodies covered in grime.

Why no engineer survivors?

I sometimes wonder why at least some of the Titanic engineers didn’t survive, as there would have been plenty of time for them to climb the ladders out of the partitioned compartments (which were open at the top but with the watertight doors now closed). Marriot in Titanic actually draws a comparison between Titanic‘s uncapped compartments and the contemporary Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania with their independently compartmentalised watertight integrity (warship style). Tom Fisher and John Ellis were both steam plumbers so they may care to elucidate.

Tom also noted that the ship’s electrics continued right to the end. People often remark on that and sometimes assume that it was artist’s or film director’s licence. We know that in fact there was a good head of steam available right to the end because launching of the lifeboats quite some time after the accident was made all the more difficult by the deafening roar of venting steam.

The sudden extinguishing of all that light and hideous grinding-and-shearing noise as the vessel finally broke up and plunged must have left a dramatic contrasting silence and a terrifying switch into starlit darkness. At that point the horror of their position would have become starkly obvious to the survivors, many more of whom were yet to perish.

Notwithstanding the errors by Brown in The Last Log of the Titanic as pointed out by John Ellis, in my opinion the book does make a good case for what happened during those few critical moments and suggests that the vessel grounded rather than collided with the iceberg. The initial damage was not all that great. Many passengers and crew were unaware of the impact and Brown goes to some length to explain what a grounding feels like, as opposed to a collision, and how different a vessel behaves in each case. He convincingly reconstructs the technical aspects of the accident to show that the first damage probably amounted to just a few metres of opening-up and that not more than a few centimetres wide.

The damage, he claims, was more a gentle crushing and rupturing of the rivet integrity rather than the than ice acting as a can-opener.

Near success

First Officer Murdock attempted to “port” the ship around the iceberg and came within a whisker of pulling it off. He had successfully executed a similar manoeuvre in another ship and he understood the dynamics of multiple screw/single rudder ship handling. Brown seems confident that no “full astern” order had been given and that is consistent with Murdock’s skill.

If Brown’s reconstruction of events is right, a “full astern” order would have been counterproductive. I would be very interested to read a fish-head’s review of Brown’s book and would be happy to lend both that book and my Gardiner and Van der Vat’s The Riddle of the Titanic, which gives a scathing review of Lord Ismay and CAPT Smith for that purpose. Brown examined two aspects of the Titanic disaster in great detail: the technical aspects of ship design (including the current state of metallurgy) and the seamanship attitudes and actions of CAPT Smith and his duty bridge officers.

If Ismay had not been so obsessed with getting under way again, and CAPT Smith had exercised his better, and legally obligatory, judgement, the ship might well have survived what was almost certainly a manageable situation for which, after all, she had been designed. Murdock achieved a fair salvaging of the situation but his superiors squandered the chance to recover.

The Riddle of the Titanic is a damning review of the cavalier attitude within the whole of the White Star top management. A disaster by Titanic or some other White Star liner, seems inevitable. There had been plenty before, including CAPT Smith’s collision in Olympic with an RN cruiser, HMS Hawke, for which he was found culpable. He had grounded another liner at least once before and one wonders how he rose to be Commodore of the White Star line.

Even as Titanic departed Southampton, Smith’s gung-ho attitude nearly caused a collision with the New York. The British Board of Trade was uneasy about White Star’s record, even though safety-at-sea regulations were appalling by today’s standards. White Star must have been a right slap-dash outfit.

To give them some due, White Star never claimed Titanic was “unsinkable”. The company quite reasonably trumpeted her superior construction but the “unsinkable” adjective was a media beat-up that took wing. In fact, the “unsinkable” description had virtually no currency until after the fact.

Why the fascination?The Titanic seems to cast a never-ending fascination over the lore of the sea and various theories have been put forward why, since it was by no means unique in terms of circumstances or numbers of fatalities.

It had, in fact, nearly faded from the scene until the 1953 movie A Night To Remember came out and then, more recently, Dr Robert Ballard finally found her so it leapt back into the public’s imagination. After the 1953 movie there was a rush of Titanic movies, the most fanciful being Raise the Titanic, of which one critic remarked that the movie was so expensive and such a flop that it would have been cheaper to drain the Atlantic.

One theory on the saga’s fascination is that it signified the end of the era of innocence and brought everybody up with a round turn to the realisation that mankind was not as smart and invincible as had been imagined towards the end of the golden Victorian age. My own guess is that, because many of the professionally qualified-to-comment officers perished and the log was lost, little evidence of what really happened was available to the two Boards. Additionally, uncorroborated stories by terrified and confused survivors who were unskilled in maritime affairs were accepted at face value.

The enquiries thus generated more heat than light and mystery still surrounds much of the case. The loss of the log raises some interesting questions since its impounding and preservation should not have been difficult, given the time available and the number of bridge officers who survived.

Suffice to say that Lord Bruce Ismay emerged from the enquiries with a less-than-glowing reputation and went into seclusion (he died in 1937 bearing the shameful epithet ‘Brute’ Ismay).

The pathos of survivors’ stories add an overtone of fascinated horror. All of these things are ingredients for a gripping yarn, as indeed A Night to Remember and the more recent Titanic were.

Titanic trivia

One positive effect of the heightened interest in the sinking of the Titanic is some very interesting research. For instance, Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, who was the only convenient scapegoat that the British Board of Enquiry could dredge up, is now being steadily exonerated and reinstated as a sensible officer who acted in a professional manner after all.

Closer to home, a local researcher in the Morling College Archives discovered a postcard reference from a Rev. John Harper, who declined a Sydney ecclesiastical post. Instead of sailing to a new job in Australia, he became a Titanic passenger headed for America. He perished after heroically giving his lifeboat place to a young mother and child.

The last purported Australian survivor from the Titanic, William Hall, lived in Sydney, perhaps Castle Hill, but he died in 1997 and some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of his claims.

Australia is the only place known to have monuments to the band that played as the Titanic went down. The three bands of Broken Hill erected a pillar in December 1913 and people of the silver city claim it is the world’s only such monument.

However, it is not so well known that a bandstand memorial to the Titanic band was built at the lower end of Sturt St, Ballarat, in October 1915 The funds were raised by the Victorian Bands Association and the people of Ballarat but the plaque engraver got it wrong and listed the sinking date as 1913.

Music played?

Speaking of bands, popular legend has it that the ship’s band played the hymn Nearer My God to Thee as she went down. It’s doubtful that they did and while some survivors claim to have heard the hymn being played, reliable eyewitnesses such as Second Officer Lightoller, passenger A.H. Barkworth and retired U.S. Army Colonel Archibald Gracie all aver that the band was playing cheerful ragtime music. Moreover, the band had long since abandoned their instruments before the ship began her final plunge.

However, the band did achieve a later record that takes its place amongst the “biggest” in the Titanic corpus. The body of band leader Thomas Hartley, of Colne, Lancashire, was recovered and returned to his home town. His funeral, a symbol for all the ordinary working class people lost in the sinking, was held on the 18th May. Colne’s population was only 26,000 but some 40,000 people lined the procession route and packed around the Methodist Chapel. It was therefore the biggest single event, by far, then or since, that commemorated the tragedy.

One Titanic coincidence was a Morgan Robertson 1898 story, The Wreck of the Titan, published originally as Futility. Although a good fiction yarn, some precognition and similar psychic believers find it startlingly prescient in its detail for the Titanic. Robertson was a former Merchant Navy officer responding to a perceived disregard of the danger posed by icebergs to the new steamships, with their rapidly growing size and speed. A similar story is claimed to have been published by an even earlier author, W.T. Stead in 1892.

There are poignant stories aplenty arising from the Titanic. One concerns stewardess Violet Jessop, who survived both the Titanic and Britannic disasters. However, the most determined survivor would have to be Fireman John Priest, who served in all three Olympic class ships and who also outlived the loss of both the Titanic and Britannic.

There are also amusing anecdotes. An American naval historian, Kit Bonner, recounted in a recent USNI Proceedings how he had been engaged as a technical adviser by the producers of the recent Titanic movie (starring Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio, directed by James Cameron).

Titanic movie

The producers painted some rocks black to simulate coal. It was heavy stuff and was really tiring out the burly extras who had been hired. Bonner suggested that they use real coal because it was much lighter, but the company declined on the grounds that painted rocks looked more realistic.

John Ellis (Newsletter September 2003, p 10) drew attention to the gap between reality and life aboard Titanic as depicted in that movie. One example given by Bonner was his advice that having a “scantily clad” Kate Winslett at the prow of the ship enjoying a gentle breeze was silly. “My remark that the windchill factor in the North Atlantic at that time of the year was probably 15 degrees (F) went ignored,” he said.

On the other hand, his young granddaughter solved one vexatious problem. “My contribution to this film pales in comparison to my seven-year-old granddaughter Sarah’s,” Bonner proudly reports. “She accompanied me one day to Skywalker Sound Studios, where she suggested that we use the dinosaur foot stomps from Jurassic Park to emulate the rhythmic thump of the Titanic’s engines.” So next time you watch machinery space scenes in a Titanic re-run, think Jurassic Park.

The rest of the class

Titanic‘s two sister ships went on for some years. Britannic was the last of the three Olympics and on completion was requisitioned as a hospital ship for WW I. A German mine sank her on her sixth voyage in the Mediterranean on 21 November 1916.

Interestingly, she received almost identical damage to Titanic and her Captain Bartlett made the same mistake as Titanic‘s Smith. He attempted to move on again although, in fairness, he aimed to beach her on a nearby island. However, as with Titanic, the forward surge was too much for the damaged plates and rivets. They gave way so she, too, went down by the head. Only 21 lives were lost in the Britannic sinking, and those mostly by lifeboats tangling with the still-turning propellers. The warm Mediterranean water was also much more forgiving than the Atlantic’s icy grip around Titanic.

Robert Ballard has dived on Britannic and regards her as one of the best preserved wrecks he has ever seen. Underwater pictures show her lying on her starboard side with the bow and stern sections generally in good shape.

RMS Olympic served at Gallipoli and as a passenger ship until broken up in 1936.

The Olympic actually completed a full service life until eventually broken up in 1936. Of interest to Australians is that she took part in the 1915 Gallipoli landings.

The class were actually well-designed ships and the two that were lost could almost certainly have withstood their damage if they hadn’t been driven so hard immediately after the disasters.

Brown makes a good case in Last log of the Titanic for her being not terribly wounded and he concludes that she should have survived if Ismay and Smith had not been so impatient. The ships were the epitome of their day for sound design and excellent workmanship. In fact, some marine engineers have remarked on the White Star line’s ships being sleek and “right-looking” compared with Cunard’s propensity to build bulky “top-heavy-looking” liners.

A really big myth

Titanic by no means holds the record for number of fatalities, at an estimated 1523 or so. There have been a number of ships, both merchant and naval, that lost as many and in some cases far more souls, some in recent years, even with safety standards and navigational equipment far superior to that in 1912. The Lusitania disaster (some 1,198 fatalities) just a couple of years after Titanic was just as spectacular and to this day is surrounded by many unanswered questions.

Empress of IrelandNorstad
The Empress of Ireland (left) sank after colliding with the Norwegian collier Norstad (right, showing her damaged bows.)

On the 29th May, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was struck by a collier in the mouth of the St Lawrence. She was especially designed for superior watertight integrity and boasted 24 watertight bulkheads. Nevertheless, she sank in 14 minutes within close sight of land and 1,014 people went down with her. In December 1987 the super-ferry Donna Paz (mentioned by John Ellis) collided with a small tanker in the Philippines and somewhere between 4,341 and 4,500 lives were lost, well eclipsing Titanic.

However, the greatest sea disaster of all time, in terms of loss of life, could be the Wilhelm Gustloff, 25,484 tons, sunk in the Baltic by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945, evacuating German civilians from Gdansk (Danzig) towards the end of WW II. The actual number of people who perished remains in doubt because of an unsubstantiated number of refugees aboard, but Robert McAuley conservatively records a loss of 5,200, Irwin Kappes says 5,348 and Mark Weber reports 5,400. A more recent work by Gunter Grass claims 9,000 lives lost, mostly women and children, but all agree that only about 1,239 survived.

The ship was one of Hitler’s “Strength through Joy” workers’ cruise ships built in the late 1930s but requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 as a hospital ship. She was designed to carry fewer than 2,000 passengers and crew but was grossly overloaded, maybe by a factor of more than five, in a desperate attempt to evacuate civilians from the advancing Russian Army. Heaven only knows how close her metacentric height was to the C of G.

Near-freezing Baltic

At that time of the year the Baltic temperatures were even worse than Titanic‘s Atlantic. Many people were lost after skidding across the ice-covered sloping deck, while a number of lifeboats could not be lowered because they were frozen to their davits.

Wilhelm GustloffCape Arcona
The German ships Wilhelm Gustloff (left) and Cap Arcona sank with great loss of life in WW II.

Other German ships to sink with great loss of life about that time include the 14,666-ton General von Steuben on 10 February 1945, with the loss of 3,500 refugees and the 5,230-ton Goya on 16 April with perhaps 7,000 refugees and soldiers killed. The 27,000-ton Cap Ancona sank on 3 May with perhaps 5,000 concentration camp prisoners perishing in Lubeck Harbour after a British aircraft attack. The 2,800-ton Thielbeck was also sunk in the same 3 May raid, killing another 2,800 prisoners. Only 200 survived.

Grass is a well respected German-Polish writer. His work appears to be well researched, particularly on the Wilhelm Gustloff topic. He was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, in 1927 and was a member of the Hitler Youth. The Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy was kept quiet by the Germans for a long time and only recently are the circumstances being slowly rediscovered.

The Pacific War also saw its share of tragedy. The Toyama Maru, 5,400 tons, was torpedoed by USS Sturgeon on 29 June 1944, with the loss of 5,400 troops and POWs. On 18 September 1944, HMS Tradewind torpedoed the Junyo Maru, 5,065 tons, killing 5,620 POWs and slave labourers.

The new Golden Age

Finally, we tend to think of the 1900s to the late 1930s as the golden era of great liner travel. In fact, more people are travelling by ocean liner and recording more ocean liner passenger miles right now, in 2004, than ever before in history. In 1999 some five and a half million people travelled by sea but by 2002 this figure had increased to more than seven million. About 250 large liners are in operation, filled to 90 per cent or beyond capacity. More than 40 others are building or on order from mainly European yards and orders stretch out for some years ahead. (The Finns, French, Italians and Germans have the game sewn up. The British have evidently lost their manufacturing, marketing or government support skills.) It is sobering to realise that Great Britain, once the world’s leader in mega-liner construction, now has its flagships built by others.

The P & O Star Princess was a big ship but the new Queen Mary 2, launched at St Nazaire in March 2003 and commissioned in January 2004 is now in service. She weighs in at 150,000 tons and carries over 3,000 cruise passengers.

However, even larger vessels are on the drawing boards with tonnages of a quarter of a million under consideration. That equates to a large town with all its infrastructure.

The ocean cruise is the main reason for this shipbuilding surge and evidence of this may be found in any recent photo of any of the bigger Caribbean ports. There will be several giant liners alongside. The Mediterranean and Alaskan cruises are also big business and many Australian ports are used to cruise ships coming and going.

Harland and Wolff

The Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast that employed 30,000 in its heyday is still building big tankers and freighters, but it is hardly a household name today. Wistful reminders are the twin slipways where the Olympics were built. They’re still there, unused and derelict alongside an equally unused and derelict car park.
With these new behemoths regularly plying the oceans in large numbers it may be confidently forecast that it will be only a matter of time before one of them faces a disaster. That won’t happen in this age of sophisticated technology? Think again of Andrea Doria and recall Queen Elizabeth 2 ripping her bottom open in December 1975 on a Nassau reef. Technology is no guarantee. Consider the latest super-technology in aircraft where sometimes the technology itself was actually the cause of disaster. Never mind the destruction of the mighty New York World Trade Centre by terrorists wielding nothing more lethal than Stanley knife box cutters.

A Cunard spokesman at the 2003 launching of Queen Mary 2 was asked if he saw any similarities between Titanic and the first voyage of the new luxury monster setting out on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The Cunard man grandly asserted that no such thing could happen these days. Queen Mary 2 is double hulled, with the latest in construction methods and metallurgy, 21st century navigation gear, Iceberg Watch, and so on. He actually declared the new Cunarder “unsinkable”. There are also plenty of lifeboats, that are well fitted-out, self righting, seaworthy and enclosed.
But pay close attention to the life jacket and abandon ship drills as you leave harbour.


Brown, David G. The last log of the Titanic. Maine International Marine: Camden 2001.
Bonner, Kit. Behind the Titanic – way behind. USNI Proceedings 124/4/34 April 1998.
Ellis, John E. The last log of the Titanic. Book review, Naval Officers Club Newsletter 54/10 September 2003.
Grass, Gunter. Crabwalk. Tr. K. Winston. Harcourt: San Diego. 2003.
Kappes, Irwin J. The greatest marine disaster in history. www://MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.
Miller, William H. and Rob McAuley. The liners: A voyage of discovery. Boxtree: London. 1997.
Robertson, Morgan. The wreck of the Titan (alt. title: Futility). Virtual Books: Los Angeles. 1898. (Reprinted 1912). Also http://www.titanic-titanic.com/titanic_e-books/wreck_of_ the_titanic_1.shtml.
Weber, Mark. History’s little-known naval disasters. The Journal for Historical Research. 17/2/22, March 1998.