Infernal Luck – The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia


On the last day of September, 1938, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew into Heston Aerodrome, alighted from his aircraft and proclaimed to the crowd around him, that thanks to the Munich Agreement signed with Herr Hitler, he had secured “peace for our time!”

Less than a year later, the world would be plunged further and further into the greatest military conflict ever seen in the history of mankind.

The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia

This posting looks at one of the most infamous, and yet possibly, one of the most forgettable war crimes of the Second World War. Within hours of war being declared, a passenger-liner with over a thousand lives onboard was torpedoed and sunk. It sparked fury and outrage, condemnation and denial throughout the world, and spurred Europe on into the bloody contest of war for the second time in a generation.

The Background

On the 1st of September, 1939, the German Army invaded Polish territory, claiming that the Poles had attacked guard-posts along the German-Polish border. The world held its breath to see what would happen next. For forty-eight hours, the Wehrmacht and the Wojsko Polskie, the German and Polish armies respectively, duked it out on the borderlands.

It was by no means certain that the Polish would lose, or that the Germans might win. Poland had fought, and won, a war against Russia back in the 1920s, so Polish confidence in their armed forces was not without foundation.

For two and a half days, the world held its breath, keeping tuned into the wireless, their eyes on newspaper-headlines, their ears out for the postman’s whistle or the knock of the telegraph-boy, wondering whether or not France and Britain would honor their alliances with Poland to come to her aid if she was ever under attack.

The Athenia Sets Sail – September 1st, 1939

12:05pm. The S.S. Athenia steams towards her dock at Glasgow, Scotland, ready to start taking on passengers. Onboard already are the crew, and some early-boarding passengers.

The S.S. Athenia is a British steamship; a passenger-carrying vessel that plied the transatlantic trade for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, running regular services between two halves of the great British Empire! The United Kingdom at one end, and the Dominion of Canada at the other. It did regular service between Liverpool or Glasgow, in England and Scotland, to Quebec, or Montreal in Canada.

The Athenia is a modest ship – nowhere near the size, or grandeur of the great floating palaces of the world – She cannot compete with the world-famous ocean-liners such as the Aquitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, or the Normandie, pride of the French Line. She doesn’t have the old-world charm of the Olympic or the Berengaria, but she will get you to where you want to go in comfort and style. Her weight is a mere 13,580 tons, compared to a heavyweight such as the Titanic, tipping the scales at over 46,000!

The rumblings of war have been in the paper for weeks. Months, even. Fears of a second Great War had been in the air ever since the German annexation of Austria in 1938.

Some people see war as being inevitable. Others think that 1939 will close as a year of peace. Either way, she leaves Glasgow, Scotland, for Montreal in Canada on the 1st of September. She carries 1,418 passengers and crew.

The S.S. Athenia, Montreal Harbour, Canada; 1935

Passengers on the Athenia range from the moderately famous, to regular families, to single persons heading to the United States and Canada; returning from holidays, from business-journeys, or escaping from the potential powder-keg of Europe before it gets too late.

10:00pm – The Athenia takes on the last of her passengers at Glasgow. She weighs anchor and sets a course for the English port city of Liverpool.

As the ship pulls away from the dock at Belfast, dock-workers scream at the passengers on the deck that they’re cowards, for running away from a war, instead of staying to stand and fight with the rest of them. As yet, no formal declaration of war exists between Britain and Germany. The Athenia sails off into a peaceful Irish Sea.

September 2nd, 1939

3:30pm. The Athenia departs from Liverpool, England. She is bound for the open ocean. She will not stop until she reaches the Canadian port of Montreal.

7:30pm. Under advisement that a state of war is soon likely to exist between Britain and Germany, the ship’s master, Capt. James Cook, orders a blackout onboard, to protect against possible U-boat attacks. All the curtains are drawn. All the portholes are shut, the navigation-lights, mast-lights, port and starboard navigation-lamps and wheelhouse lights are all shut off. Passengers are not even allowed to smoke on deck, in case the glows of their cigarettes should give away the ship’s presence.

On the ship, the war seems far away and distant. But the crew is already taking precautions. Apart from the blackout, the ship now sails up the western Irish coast. It must stay close to land to deter submarines, which can only maneuver effectively in deeper waters.

September 3rd, 1939

3:40am. Having altered her course for safety reasons, the Athenia now sails away from Ireland and out into the open sea. She is heading across the Atlantic Ocean for Canada. As she sails off into deeper waters, there is the ever-present danger of German U-boats. U-boats have been patrolling these waters for several days now, in preparation for the official declaration of war.

Seeking to protect his ship, Capt. Cook adopts traditional wartime tactics against u-boats. The ship sails as fast as it can (15kt), and maintains a zig-zag course, steaming forwards always, but at the same time, changing her heading every couple of minutes. First a few degrees port, then starboard, then port, then starboard again. This is to prevent any submarines from getting an accurate fix on her, and therefore, hinder a u-boat’s ability to fire an accurate shot at her hull.

The Athenia is only doing what any other ship in the British merchant navy would do. But she is hampered in this by her speed and size. Big ships such as the Queen Mary can move much faster, and are less of a target to u-boats as a result, despite their much larger sizes. The Athenia may be smaller, but her slower speed makes her more vulnerable to attack.

While protected by treaties and conventions, the crew of the Athenia don’t expect the Germans to play nice. Although legally, the Germans cannot attack the Athenia due to her status as a noncombatant vessel, Capt. Cook and his men take no chances.

Unknown to Cook and his crew, the one man who is actually on their side is Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler sees the British, as a great and powerful nation of intelligent, white, Aryan people, as brothers and friends of the German people. He is eager to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the problem of war.

So as not to antagonise the British, he orders the u-boats of the German Navy to adhere tightly to the 1936 Prize Regulations. The Regulations are a series of rules (to which Germany was a signatory) which lay out the kinds of ships which may, and may not be sunk during maritime warfare.

Unarmed merchant ships, such as the Athenia, could not be sunk without just cause. If a German u-boat found such a ship, it was obliged to make its presence known. The ship in question was expected to heave-to (stop dead in the water). German sailors were then allowed to search the ship for illegal contraband (such as munitions or firearms).

If no such contraband was found, the ship was to be allowed to continue on its way. If contraband was found, the ship could be sunk. But only AFTER the crew and passengers had been offloaded into lifeboats.

A ship clearly marked as an armed merchant-ship, or a ship of the Royal Navy, could be fired upon without a u-boat making its presence known first.

11:00am. The Athenia is steaming towards Canada. The seas are heavy and rough. This hampers the Athenia’s speed and her ability to maintain an effective anti-submarine, zig-zag course.

11:15am. In the Athenia’s wireless-room, 2nd Radio Officer, Donald McRae, picks up a signal. It’s a radio-broadcast from the tiny island of Valentia, off the west coast of Ireland.

It is nothing less than Neville Chamberlain’s famous speech that informs the entire world that “consequently, this country is at war with Germany”.

The message is hardly unexpected. But it’s a bit of a shock, anyway. McRae makes sure that the entire ship knows the news before very many more minutes have elapsed.

The official declaration of war by Britain means that as of this time onwards, the Athenia is sailing through wartime waters. German submarines will be on the lookout for ships that are of importance to the British war-effort, and if they find them, they will sink them.

The Athenia is safe, however. As an unarmed passenger-ship without the facilities for being converted to an armed merchant-cruiser, troopship or munitions-transport, she is protected by international treaties. A ship such as the Athenia, which does not, and which is unable to contribute to the British war-effort, is an illegal target in marine warfare. This should prevent her from being sunk by German submarines or battleships.

12:00 NOON. Capt. Cook orders a notice to be drawn up. It is to inform the passengers of what has happened back in Europe. Under no circumstances are the officers onboard to cause undue panic or alarm. They are instructed to reassure passengers and tell them that the current activities onboard the ship are precautionary, and for their own safety.

1:00pm. The ship’s lifeboats are uncovered and prepared for an emergency. Two boats are swung out on their davits. Should there be an real emergency, these two may be lowered and loaded with passengers at once. It will give the ship a head-start in rescuing survivors, and provide the crew with valuable minutes with which to evacuate the passengers.

2:00pm. Fritz-Julius Lemp is 26 years old. He is commander of the German U-boat, U-30. Already at sea, he receives orders to proceed to his assigned patrol-area in the Atlantic Ocean. Germany is at war with Great Britain.

7:00pm. The Athenia is steaming full-ahead towards Canada. With U-boats about and war declared, she doesn’t want to linger in hostile waters for any longer than she has to. She is moving at top speed steering a wartime course, with her lights doused. But unknown to her crew, Capt. Lemp of U-30 has already spotted her.

Lemp orders the submarine to dive. He tails the ship, spying at her through his periscope. He finds the ship’s behavior odd. It is moving at top speed, it is steering a zig-zag course and has all its lights off to prevent detection. Lemp is well aware that Hitler does not want civilian shipping destroyed. But this ship is acting like an armed merchant-ship, or even a battleship of the Royal Navy!

Onboard the Athenia, Capt. Cook is taking NO chances. He well remembers the unrestricted submarine warfare of the 1910s and how great ships such as the Lusitania were torpedoed and sunk for no other reason than that they could be. Although he shouldn’t have to do so in this war, Capt. Cook adopts all the traditional tactics for eluding submarines. He lived through an era of unrestricted submarine warfare and knows what might happen to his ship.

7:30pm. Capt. Cook, confident in the security and safety of his ship, joins the first class passengers for dinner. The Athenia continues to steam westwards, zigzagging all the way.

7:38pm. Capt. Lemp on U-30 is finally satisfied that the ship he has been tailing is a British armed cruiser or a military vessel of some description, and therefore a legitimate target of war under the terms of international treaties and regulations. He orders the submarine to fire two torpedoes.

7:39pm. The Athenia is rocked as something slams into the side of the ship! The whole ship is rocked by the impact and the electrical power goes out, plunging the entire vessel into darkness! Crew on deck spot the disappearing periscope of a submarine, confirming that it is indeed a torpedo-strike.

7:40pm. The first torpedo has hit the Athenia square-on and blown a hole in her side. The other torpedoes have missed, or have not fired at all due to malfunctions in the torpedo-tubes.

7:45pm. 1st R/O Don is ordered to send out an immediate distress-message, in case another torpedo knocks out the Athenia’s power-supply altogether. He sends out a coded distress-message, but also sends out a message in plain English. Automatically, an electronic cry for help is sparked off across the airwaves…


At once, the ship receives welcome news. Norwegian cargo-ship, the Knute Nelson, just 40 miles away, has received her loud and clear. The Nelson’s radio-operator appears to be in shock. He telegraphs back to the Athenia:


(*’Old Man’ is the ship’s captain).

One of the ships that receives the SOS call is the German ship the S.S. Bremen. Unsurprisingly, it ignores the radio-message and continues to its destination, the Russian port of Murmansk.

8:15pm. The Athenia has been sinking for a little over half an hour, settling heavily by the stern. The submarine, U-30, has surfaced to watch the effects of the torpedo. Radio-officer Georg Hoegel intercepts the Athenia’s plain English radio-transmission. He is shocked by what he hears. He writes it down and hands it to Capt. Lemp. Lemp too, is horrified and guilt-ridden by what he reads. Instead of torpedoing a prize of war, he has attacked and sunk an unarmed civilian passenger-ship, carrying women and children! He swears his crew to silence and secrecy. They will not speak of this to anyone, ever. Lemp feels so horrible about what he has done that he refuses even to enter it into the logbook.

The distress-messages sent out by the Athenia echo around the Atlantic Ocean. Allied shipping receive the calls, and telegraph the unspeakable information to the Admiralty in London.

9:15pm. The Athenia is in no immediate danger. She is sinking, but the damage is limited and there is time to spare. For the 1,400-odd people onboard, the Athenia is amply equipped with 26 lifeboats. All those not killed in the torpedo-attack are offloaded onto the boats and lowered into the water. By now, there are only two lifeboats left. Radio Officer Don continues to send out distress-messages over the radio. So far, four ships have responded and are steaming towards the disaster-site.

9:30pm. The S.S. City of Flint is an American steamship making her way across the Atlantic Ocean. It picks up the Athenia’s distress-messages and alters course towards her. The captain, navy-veteran Joseph Gainard, informs his passengers (mostly students and academics) that the unthinkable has happened – a British civilian passenger-ship has been fired upon by a German submarine, is sinking, and is in need of immediate assistance. Passengers aid the crew in preparing the ship to take on survivors as it steams towards the disaster-site.

10:00pm. With rescue just a few hours away and all surviving passengers and crew put off in the boats, Capt. Cook, and the remaining crew and officers abandon ship. Radio Officer Don sends off one last communication to the rescue ships, that their vessel is being abandoned and to come as fast as they can. Officer Don joins the captain and remaining crew in the last lifeboat, reserved for their use, and lower it into the water.

Onboard lifeboat No. 6, Sir Richard Lake, a former Canadian politician, and his wife, watch the ship sinking. As on the Titanic, passengers row the lifeboats around and into clusters and clumps, to remain secure, and to keep warm in the open air. Despite his age (Sir Richard is eighty years old!), he insists on taking an oar and helping with the movement of the boat.

10:30pm. Now that the fuss has died down, an urgent telegram is sent to the Admiralty in London. It reads:


The signal “SSS” is similar to the signal “SOS”, but is specifically used by ships who were the victims of submarine-attacks. The letters “GFDM” is the Athenia’s radio callsign.

11:00pm. Onboard the last lifeboat to leave the Athenia, Capt. James Cook removes his uniform and dons civilian clothes instead, to make it appear that the captain has gone down with the ship. He knows that in the last war, German submariners would shoot the commanding officer of an enemy ship.

12:00 MIDNIGHT. Another telegram reaches the Admiralty in London, confirming that the steamship Athenia has indeed been hit by a German torpedo. The Admiralty sends out urgent radio-messages to all Royal Navy ships within broadcasting range.

September 4th, 1939.

12:05am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vanquisher receives an urgent communication:


12:56am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vivacious receives an urgent communication:


2:30pm. The impact of the torpedo-attack on the Athenia goes much further than other ships, the Royal Navy or even the Admiralty or the German Navy. In London, at the American Embassy, American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Patrick Kennedy…as in the father of future American president John F. Kennedy…is awoken to the news of the sinking of the Athenia. Americans are onboard the ship, and he makes it his duty to find out how many, and who they are. He sends a telegram to the State Department in Washington D.C.:


At the same time out at sea, the first rescue-ships arrive. Passengers and crew from the Athenia are offloaded from the lifeboats onto the vessels which come to the sinking ship’s aid. The ships sail off to the town of Galway, in Ireland, the nearest land to the sinking vessel.

4:30am. The Athenia continues to sink. Despite the damage, the ingress of water is slow. She will not go under for another six hours. She will finally founder at 10:30am. More ships arrive to rescue more passengers and take them to Ireland. British naval ships have come to pick up more survivors.

The S.S. Athenia sinking; Sept. 4th, 1939

The City of Flint, one of the first ships to pick up the Athenia’s distress call, sails for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with over 400 survivors onboard.

The Impact of the Sinking

The sinking of the Athenia sent shockwaves around the world. Newspapers in Great Britain, the colonies, Australia, Canada and the United States flashed the despicable and cowardly act of the Germans, to attack an unarmed passenger-ship without warning, over their front pages in big letters, complete with photographs. Here is the New York Times for the morning of September 4th, 1939:

In Kansas, the Topeka Daily Capital flashed the following headlines:

If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s under the heading: “BRITISH STEAMSHIP SINKS IN 18 HOURS”. 

Almost at once, the finger-pointing began. The British knew the Germans did it. The Germans knew that the Germans did it. But the Germans insisted that the British did it, as a way to discredit the honourable German Navy, which would NEVER attack an unarmed civilian ship! The truth was that the German Navy knew what had happened. By listening to English radio and reading English newspapers, and by plotting out the locations of all their u-boats, the Germans knew that it was U-30 that had done the deed.

The truth about what really happened to the Athenia did not come out until 1946, during the famous Nuremberg Trials.

The sinking of the Athenia destroyed any hopes that the Germans, or the British had, of finding a quick, peaceful and diplomatic end to what they hoped would be a false war. Instead, it horrified the British people and resolved them to despise the Germans. It shocked the Germans and dragged them into a war which they were still trying to get out of…get out of with Britain, at least. The sinking of one ship had so polarised the European community that by 1940, the whole continent was at war.

More Information?

“OUTBREAK 1939 – The World Goes to War”, by Terry Charman (Virgin Books, London, 2009).

Sinking of S.S. Athenia

The Sinking of the Athenia


Drifting over the Deep: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste is one of the most famous ships in all history. It’s up there with the Titanic, the Lusitania, the Normandie and the Andrea Doria. It’s claim to fame was the disappearance of all its passengers and crew during a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1872.

How, and why the crew and passengers deserted the ship, never to be seen again, has been a mystery for over a century, and to this date, nobody knows the real reason, although there have been several theories, some more plausible than others. But what really happened onboard the ship?

The story of the Mary Celeste is so famous that there are dozens of conflicting accounts about what is real, and what isn’t. So…what is real, and what isn’t?

What Was the Mary Celeste?

The Mary Celeste was a sailing ship. To be precise, she was a square-rigged brigantine, a medium-sized ocean-going ship with two masts. She plied the oceans of the world as a cargo-vessel, transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean.

She was built in the early 1860s before and during the American Civil War, and was originally a Canadian ship named the Amazon. She ran aground in 1867, off the coast of Nova Scotia. She was floated, repaired, and then sold to the United States. The ship was restored, rebuilt and modified, and in 1872, it became a merchant-ship transporting cargo across the Atlantic…the Mary Celeste.

The Last Voyage

On the 3rd of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste’s new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, wrote a letter which he addressed to his mother. In it, he wrote, in part:

“My Dear Mother:

It’s been a long time since I have written you a letter and I should like to give you a real interesting one but I hardly know what to say except that I am well and the rest of us ditto, It is such a long time since I composed other than business epistles.

It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks but in that time my mind has been filled with business cares and I am again launched away into the busy whirl of business life from which I have so long been laid aside. For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but now I have got fairly settled down to it and it sets lightly and seems to run more smoothly and my appetite keeps good and I hope I shan’t lose any flesh. It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…”

“Sarah” and “Sophia” are Sarah and Sophia Briggs, the captain’s wife, and two-year-old daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage.

“…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage. We both have missed Arthur and I believe we should have sent for him if I could have thought of a good place to stow him away. Sophia calls for him occasionally and wants to see him in the Album which by the way is a favorite book of hers.

She knows your picture in both albums and points and says Gamma Bis, She seems real smart, has gotten over her bad cold she had when she came and has a first rate appetite for hash and bread and butter. I think the voyage will do her lots of good. We enjoy our melodeon and have some good sings. I was in hopes that Oli might get in before I left but I’m afraid not now.

We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don’t get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shal have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she’ll sail. Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of Am. Consul and about 20 days after to Messina care of Am. Consul who will forward it to us if we don’t go there…

…Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love

I am Yours affectionately

“Arthur” is Arthur Briggs, the captain’s other child, his seven-year-old son (who at the time, was living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother, the ‘Gamma Bis’ mentioned in the letter).

At this time, the ship was docked in New York Harbor.

On the evening of the 4th of November, 1872, Captain Briggs and his wife, Sarah, have dinner with Captain David Reed Morehouse, and Mrs. Morehouse. The two captains have been friends for years, and coincidentally, are both sailing across the Atlantic to Europe, but on different ships, a few days apart.

It is the 5th of November, 1872. The Mary Celeste takes on its cargo for the voyage: 1,704 barrels of highly flammable industrial-grade alcohol. It is to be transported to Italy where it will be used in the manufacture of wine. It also finishes its provisioning for the crossing. It carries enough food for ten people for six months at sea. The ship is seaworthy and ready to go.

On the 5th of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste says farewell to civilisation. It weighs anchor, sets its sails and leaves Staten Island, New York, for the Atlantic Ocean.

On board are six sailors, all of them experienced. All of them level-headed, reasonable men, English-speaking and religious. Providing their meals is the ship’s cook. Their commanding officer is the captain, Benjamin Briggs, who has had several years experience at sea. Joining him on his voyage across the sea to Italy is his wife, Sarah Briggs. With her, she brings their two-year-old daughter, Sophia. Sarah is not afraid, and is not worried about the safety of her daughter. She is an experienced sailor, and is confident that this will just be another of several voyages that she has made with her husband’s company. She’s already been on at least four voyages with her husband before, and is a hardy woman, used to life at sea. Her husband has been a maritime captain for the past ten years. What could possibly go wrong?

The Mary Celeste leaves the safety of the New England shore and sets out into the Atlantic. It charts a course East-by-South, which would take it into the mid-Atlantic, and then straight across, past the Rock of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea.

For three weeks, the voyage is uneventful. The weather was unremarkable and there were no storms or especially strong winds. Onboard the Mary Celeste, everything is calm and normal. The crew man the ship, and Mrs. Briggs tends to her husband and daughter. On the 25th of November, Captain Briggs notes in his logbook that they have sighted the island of Santa Maria (“Saint Mary”), part of the collection of islands known as the Azores…and then…


As far as the world is concerned, the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste abandoned their ship on, or shortly after that date, for reasons unknown. For the next nine days, the ship wandered the ocean, in a vaguely eastern course. With no-one at the helm to guide the ship, it started a northward tack that it never pulled away from, and just kept sailing…

Onboard the ship, in detail, were… 

The Captain. Benjamin Briggs. An experienced sailor of several years experience. He is 37 years old.

Sarah Elizabeth Briggs. The captain’s wife. She is 31 years old. They have been happily married for ten years and have two children. A boy, Arthur, aged seven (then living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother back in Massachusetts, U.S.A.), and a girl…

Sophia Matilda Briggs. The captain’s youngest child, and daughter. She is two years old. She is being brought with her mother on this voyage across the Atlantic.

Albert Richardson. First Mate. Twenty-eight years of age, and a capable and trustworthy seaman.

Andrew Gilling. Second Mate. A Danish man of 25.

Ship’s Cook and Captain’s Steward: Edward William Head. 23 years old. Not part of the deck-crew, his job is to provide good, wholesome food for the captain, his family, and for the crew of six, strong young men whose job it is to sail the ship safely across the Atlantic Ocean. The remaining crew are four German sailors:

Volkert Lorenson (29), Boy Lorenson (23), Arian Martens (35), and Gottlieb Godenschall (23).

Discovery of the Ship

As if by fate, the ship that stumbled across the Mary Celeste was the cargo-ship Dei Gratia, loaded with petroleum and bound for Europe. It had left New York on the 15th of November, sailing East-by-North. It too, had had a rather unremarkable, and ordinary voyage. It was on a southerly tack that the ship’s helmsman, John Johnson, noticed something out of the ordinary.

Let’s be honest. Standing in front of a ship’s wheel for hours and hours and hours on end…is…boring.

So what would you do?

You’d find ways to distract yourself from your boredom.

For a helmsman at sea, the best way to distract yourself was to go sightseeing.

Johnson, probably bored with standing at the ship’s wheel for ages, popped out his telescope and had a peek around the ship. Eventually, his peekings glanced in a southerly direction, off the starboard side of the ship. It was at this point that he noticed a ship several miles away. Even at that distance, he could guess that something was wrong. It was not so much ‘sailing’ as it was just ‘floating’. It sloshed around and only seemed to be making a show of keeping to some sort of course. It wasn’t sailing, it was yawing. ‘Yawing’ is when a ship’s bow swings from side to side as it moves forwards. No ship with someone in control of it would ever do that, since the bow would always be pointed straight ahead. Johnson knew at once that something was up, and called Second Mate, John Wright to have a look.

Wright agreed that the ship was acting weird, and together, they alerted the captain.

The captain ordered the ship turned southwards so that it would meet up with the phantom vessel. When they were within shouting distance, the captain took out his telescope to have another look. He recognised the ship at once as the Mary Celeste.

How could he do that? Not just by the name painted on the bow, but because he’d actually seen the ship at anchor in New York! The captain was David R. Morehouse, the man who had dined with Captain Briggs on the night before the Mary Celeste’s departure.

To say that Capt. Morehouse was surprised was to put it lightly. The Mary Celeste had a ten day head-start on its voyage! It should already be docked at the Italian city of Genoa by now! …Instead, it was floating around like a tin cup in the middle of the ocean…

As they drew even closer, they noticed nobody in the rigging…on deck…and nobody manning the ship’s wheel. By now seriously perplexed, Captain Morehouse ordered First Mate, Oliver Deveau overboard. Deveau lowered one of the Dei Gratia’s lifeboats and rowed across to the Mary Celeste. He made his boat fast against the side of the ship and climbed aboard.

He called out for the captain, his wife, and the crew…but nobody answered. With the Dei Gratia sailing alongside, Deveau began making an examination of the ship.

First, you have to understand that the Mary Celeste is not an isolated incident. Ships were found abandoned in the middle of the ocean on a regular basis. Deveau’s examination of the ship was to determine whether or not it was seaworthy enough to sail it back to land. If he could, then he and the rest of the Dei Gratia’s crew would get salvage-money! By law, any persons who found an abandoned ship at sea in usable condition, and returned it to land, was entitled to salvage-payment. Salvage-payment being a paid out as a cut of the ship’s insurance-claim.

But as Deveau explored the ship, he found more and more things curiously wrong. He, and other subsequent investigators noted that…

– The ship’s one lifeboat was missing, its davits empty.
– Two of the ship’s three hatch-covers were open to the sea.
– The hatch to the hold was sealed and shut.
– The ship’s cargo, highly flammable alcohol, was tied down and secure and undamaged.
– Nine of the 1,704 barrels had sprung leaks. Alcohol had dribbled out of them.
– Two of the ship’s three emergency water-pumps were out-of-action.
– The ship’s papers, apart from the logbook, were missing.
– The ship’s chronometer (sea-clock used for navigation) was also missing.
– The ship’s sextant (another navigational-aid) was also missing.
– The ship’s stove in the galley (kitchen) had been shifted from its foundations.
– There was a 3ft-depth of water in the ship’s bilge.
– Most, if not all, of the crew and passengers’ personal possessions had been left behind.
– The glass shield over the ship’s compass was smashed to pieces.
– The ship flew no distress-flags of any kind.
– The ship carried no alcohol at all (Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler), except for its cargo.
– The ship’s provisions of water, food and essential supplies were undamaged.
– A single length of rope trailed off the ship into the water.

Captain Morehouse did not understand at all. He knew Captain Briggs well. He had been his personal friend for years. They’d eaten dinner together just a few weeks before! He knew Briggs to be a steadfast, intelligent man of sound mind. Religious and a teetotaler. And yet, he, his wife, his child and all of their crew had left the ship, gotten into the lifeboat and just gone!


The ship was in no danger of sinking. The ship had not had a fire onboard. The ship’s cargo was not in any immediate danger. There was six months’ worth of food, fresh water and other provisions stored safely away below deck. It was all unspoiled and perfectly good for eating. What would make a seasoned seaman, an experienced set of crew and a hardy and trusting wife leave a perfectly good ship and trust their lives to a small, wooden, six-oared lifeboat?

Neither Captain Morehouse, nor any of his crew could figure out why.

After a thorough examination of the ship, First Mate Oliver Deveau determined that…apart from the water sloshing around in the bottom of the ship, which could easily be pumped out…the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking, fire, breaking up, or any other potential emergency.

Captain Morehouse decided to claim salvage rights on the ship. He ordered a skeleton crew aboard the Mary Celeste, and escorted the mystery ship to the Mediterranean Sea.

On the 13th of December, 1872, the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia arrived at Gibraltar. At once, an inquiry was held into the condition of the ship, its cargo, its insurance, and of course…the mystery surrounding its lack of crew and passengers.

The Admiralty Court in Gibraltar questioned, examined, cross-examined and interrogated every witness they could find. This included Captain Morehouse, his officers, and James Winchester, principal owner of the ship (of which the late Capt. Briggs was a partner).

Hundreds of questions were asked about the captain, the crew, the crew of the salvaging vessel, the type and condition of the cargo, conditions onboard the ship, and what might possibly have caused an experienced captain, his family and crew, to abandon a perfectly sound vessel.

Theories of the Mary Celeste

There are as many theories about what happened to the passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste as there are hairs on your head (or grains of sand on the beach, if you happen to be bald).

I won’t list them all here, but they ranged from the possible, the plausible, to the outright ludicrous. Everything from krakens (giant, squid-like sea-monsters), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Black Death and pirates.

What REALLY happened will of course, never be known. All we can surmise is what we can gleam from the evidence. But what were some of the theories that were put forward, both at the time, and later on?


An obvious theory. Pirates attacked the ship. They kidnapped and/or killed everyone onboard, and then sailed off.

But why did they take the ship’s chronometer? It was a valuable scientific instrument. Maybe they hoped to sell it. But why the sextant? Surely they had their own. And what about all the charts, maps and documents?

On top of this, there was no violence seen onboard. No blood, no gunshots, no damage to the ship other than what might be caused by the sea. Under the captain’s bed, his sword remained sheathed and unused. Surely if the ship was attacked, he would’ve used it to defend his family and men?

Any valuables that the ship might have held were untouched. Jewellery, men’s personal effects such as their pipes, clothing, pocketwatches, rings, money…were all left as they were. In the captain’s cabin, Mrs. Brigg’s sewing-machine, in the 1870s, a valuable piece of household equipment, sat untouched. A dress that she was making for her daughter was still laid on it, the thread unbroken.

Sea Monsters!

Another popular one. This theory supposes that a giant squid, octopus, kraken or other equally horrific and ugly sea-creature attacked the ship and snatched off all its crew and passengers, which it then either drowned or ate.

Fascinating…but unfounded. If it was a sea-monster…why was the ship’s lifeboat missing? Why was the ship’s master timekeeper, it’s chronometer, gone? Why was half the captain’s paperwork missing from his desk? And the sextant? A sea-monster would have no need for such things.

Mutiny and Drunkeness

Perhaps the crew mutinied against the captain and his family, killing them, dumping them overboard and then sailing off in the lifeboat?

But then why didn’t they take clothes? And food? Money?

On top of that, the captain was sailing with his wife and young child. He wouldn’t have just Shanghaiied a bunch of men, chucked them onboard ship and sailed off across the ocean. Indeed, the crew were carefully chosen for their temperaments, skills and experience. Furthermore, Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler. There was not a drop of alcohol aboard his ship, apart from the barrels in the hold. And the alcohol there was of an industrial quality, quite unfit for regular consumption. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere what it was, it’s likely that it was methanol, a highly concentrated alcohol that would’ve been toxic to humans.

The Bermuda Triangle!

Absolute rot.

The Bermuda Triangle is located off the south coast of North America, several hundreds, thousands of miles, from the course and position of the Mary Celeste.


One of the more plausible theories, although not one given very much serious consideration back in the 1870s, was that of a seaquake.

A seaquake is like an earthquake. Except…it…happens at sea. This theory supposed that the ship sailed over a seismically active area of the sea. Without warning, the tectonic plates shifted. The resulting abrasion sent off shockwaves through the water, which threw the ship around. Fearing for their lives, the passengers and crew dropped everything, boarded the lifeboat and sailed off!

The Azores, the last recorded sighting of land in the ship’s log on the 25th of November, is a seismically unstable part of the ocean. The Azores themselves were formed of volcanos and earthquakes. Such a jolt might explain why the ship’s stove, a solid iron structure bound to weigh several dozen pounds, was thrown off its mountings.

But ships are designed to cope with stuff like this. And even if the ship had sprung a leak, it had three pumps to drive the water out! Abandoning ship was done only as an absolute last resort. A captain such as Briggs would have to have had a truly stupendous reason for abandoning ship. And his vessel being rocked around  a bit by the waves was not deemed sufficiently life-threatening to allow this to happen.

Fume Explosion

The theory given the most credence by the evidence, apart from the possible seaquake one, is that of an alcoholic explosion.

This theory supposed the following:

Faulty barrels stored within the ship’s hold sprang a leak. When the ship was discovered, nine barrels of the 1,704 were found to be leaking or empty.

The alcohol within the barrels, no-longer contained, spread out across the floor of the hold, which was tightly sealed to prevent damage from water. Fumes from the alcohol seeped throughout the ship. This possibly caused a panic. Capt. Briggs was not used to transporting such dangerous substances such as alcohol…in fact, this was the first time he’d done so!

To prevent a potential explosion, from the alcohol-fumes coming in contact with a spark or naked flame, or possibly, because of a naked flame igniting the fumes, fear of, or the result of an explosion blew off two of the hatch-covers.

Fearing for their lives and the safety of the ship, the captain, crew and the captain’s family lowered the ship’s lifeboat into the water. There might be a fire onboard caused by the deadly alcohol fumes. The captain took with him what he judged to be the most important documents, along with the ship’s marine-clock. In the panic, he forgot the logbook.

The boat was secured to the side of the ship with a rope. Once the fumes had dissipated and the danger had passed, the decision would be made to pull on the line and draw the boat back to the ship and resume their journey.

During the wait, the rope securing the boat to the ship snapped or came undone, possibly due to a change in the wind, or a storm. The ship, being under sail, would be moving too fast for the occupants of the boat to catch up with it using the lifeboat’s oars. The passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste would’ve drifted rapidly out of sight of the ship, and would’ve either been wrecked near the Azores, drowned in the Atlantic, or died of starvation and dehydration in the packed lifeboat.

This engraving of the Mary Celeste, made according to witness testimonies, shows how the ship’s sails were set when the vessel was found adrift. In their haste to abandon ship, for fear of a fume-explosion, not all the sails were trimmed. This left the ship with enough surface-area to pick up significant amounts of speed if the strength of the wind increased, causing the single lifeline that held the lifeboat to the ship to snap under the strain, setting the ship’s passengers and crew adrift in the open ocean.

The Inquiry into the Mary Celeste

Shortly after the two ships, the salvager and the salvaged, reached Gibraltar, an inquiry into the Mary Celeste disaster was held at the Admiralty Court by the British Royal Navy. Witnesses, experts, sailors, friends, business-partners and acquaintances were all questioned and interrogated. It was a slow, frustrating process.

Not least of all because of a man who’s name was Flood.

Frederick Solly-Flood, to be precise.

Frederick Solly-Flood was the Attorney-General of Gibraltar at the time.

During the inquiry, the judge listened acutely to everything that was told, and praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their attention to detail, their bravery and skill in rescuing the ship (if not it’s crew and passengers), and bringing it safely back to land.

Frederick Flood, however, had his own agenda.

Flood was hell-bent on proving that the passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste had all met with some horrible, violent, bloody end. It was he who first suggested the theory of a drunken mutiny. He even rowed out to the ship to find evidence!

He found the broken, leaking barrels, the alcohol, the captain’s sword and cut-marks along the railings. He proposed the theory that the crew got at the alcohol, drank themselves blind, murdered the captain, his wife, his daughter, his first mate, chucked them all overboard, then got into the lifeboat and rowed…away…from a perfectly good ship…

…Yeah it kinda…fell to pieces in court.

Indeed, not a single piece of ‘evidence’ that Flood submitted was found to be what it was! The barrels were empty because they were leaking (they’d been built of red oak, a porous wood which would’ve explained the empty barrels). The damage to the railings? Ropes rubbing across the wood.

The blood on the captain’s sword?

It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t even the captain’s sword…that sword was stored under his bed! The sword that Flood found was an old, rusty knife lying on the deck. Scientists examined the blade and determined that the red substance on it was nothing but rust and old paint. It was probably used to lever open paint-cans and stir coagulated paint around!

Flood dreamed up even more insane theories. He suggested that Capt. Briggs had drawn Capt. Morehouse into an insurance fraud of some sort and that they were both in this together. Perhaps Briggs tricked his family and crew off the ship, hid somewhere on an island, while Morehouse found the abandoned ship, towed it away, took all the money, and then when the storms had died down, gave half of it to Briggs?

The idea was so preposterous that it was considered insulting and was denied by Capt. Morehouse and his officers.

Yet another madcap idea Flood proposed to the court was that it had been the crew of the Dei Gratia themselves, who had dispatched the crew of the Mary Celeste, along with the three members of the Briggs family…another theory that fell on deaf ears!

But the damage was done!

Crime-fever swept around the world! The idea that a madman had killed the entire ship’s company and then stole away in the ship’s one boat, captured the imagination of thousands, millions of people!

The alcohol-fumes explosion theory, which was put forward at the inquiry by none other than the Mary Celeste’s owner and principal shareholder, James Winchester, was disregarded as fanciful rot! Flood’s ruthless questioning, cross-questioning and wild accusations had painted a red mark over the memory of the Mary Celeste.

After the Inquiry

In the end, Capt. Morehouse did get…some…of the salvage-money that he hoped to receive from returning his late friend’s ship safely to land, but he never got all of it. In total, he received about 1,700 pounds sterling. As for the Mary Celeste? She was deemed to be a cursed ship. She passed from owner to owner to owner, before finally being burned and wrecked on the coast of Haiti in 1885…this time, in a real insurance fraud!

The Mary Celeste was not an isolated incident. Back then, before the days of the internet, cellphones and wireless radio, ships regularly went missing out at sea for various reasons, and were never seen from again, or were found, abandoned. But what made this ship so famous?

In a word, the mystery. WHY did the crew, the captain and his family flee the vessel in such haste, entrusting their lives to a tiny lifeboat? What happened to them? Where did they end up? How did they die? Why did they do what they did, if the ship was in no danger?

The stories of the ship that leaked out of Gibraltar and which were telegraphed around the world as fast as cables could send them, and which were splashed across the newspapers of the day, made the ship famous. And not least of all because of a story that appeared in a literary magazine of the age.

In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine.

The Cornhill was not some soppy farthing-rag that tittery housewives bought and which grandmothers used to line bird-cages with. It was a famous and well-respected literary journal. Some of the biggest names in 19th century literature started off writing to this magazine. Names like…Charlotte Bronte…Thomas Hardy…George Eliot!…Alfred Lord Tennyson!

In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. It was unsigned and submitted anonymously to the magazine, but was published nonetheless. It was given the rather flashy title of “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement“, supposedly, a true story about a ship found abandoned at sea. The ship was called the “Marie Celeste“, and it had been found floating around in the middle of the ocean with nobody onboard. Hot food was still on the table in the galley. Tea was still steaming in the teacups. The lifeboat was lashed to the deckhouse roof. A bottle of machine-oil was left balancing on a sewing-machine in the captain’s cabin. But there was nobody there!

Sound familiar?

The story was supposed to be a fictional account of something that never really happened. It was inspired by, but was not written about, the mystery of the Mary Celeste. How do we know this? Because the story’s author was a rather famous person, you know…

At the time of writing it and submitting it to the Cornhill Magazine, the author was a struggling Scottish physician. A general practitioner of the medical sciences, who had no patients, little money, a lot of time and who was incredibly, incredibly bored.

If you’d gone to the doctor’s surgery, the plaque you might’ve seen nailed on the front door probably read something like this:

“Dr. A. C. Doyle. Consultant Physician”

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, who wrote that story! Perhaps foreshadowing his great success as a mystery writer, Doyle’s ghost-ship story was so incredible that people thought it was real! It wasn’t, of course, but it was that story which captured the world’s imagination, and which kept the mystery of the Mary Celeste alive to this day.

Whatever happened to Capt. Briggs, his crew, the ship’s cook, Mrs. Briggs, and little Sophia Briggs?

Nobody will ever know.

What caused them to abandon a perfectly good ship and risk their lives in an open rowboat in the middle of the ocean?

Nobody will ever know.

There has been all kinds of conjecture about the fate of the Mary Celeste’s passengers and crew, but just like the colour of the Queen’s underpants, it’s something that we’ll never know.


The Biggest Maritime Disaster Ever: The M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff

Disasters at sea will always be famous. The R.M.S. Lusitania, the R.M.S. Titanic, the H.M.H.S Britannic and the Oceanos, to name but a few. And they’re all famous for different reasons – War, luxury, mischance, cowardice and bravery…and yet, none of these is the biggest maritime disaster of all. No, not even the Titanic, which this year commemorates the 99th anniversary of its sinking.

This unfortunate honour: The biggest maritime disaster in the world to date, goes to the ill-fated German ocean-liner, the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.

What was the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The M.V. (motor vessel) Wilhelm Gustloff was built between 1936 and 1938. Originally, she was a cruise-ship and was named for the asassinated leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland, who was killed just months before construction was due to begin. The Gustloff was launched on the fifth of May, 1937 in Hamburg, Germany.

Photograph of the Gustloff being launched

The Gustloff had been envisioned as one of the most luxurious cruise-ships of the day. She was to have large communal halls and open decks so that passengers could make optimum use of the space offered by the ship. As near as was possible, her cabins were all to be the same size. This was the same for both passengers and crew, to create a feeling of equality onboard ship…although only the passenger cabins would be permitted to have oceanfront views. To continue the feeling of equality, there would only be one class onboard ship – the cruise-class.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was 684ft long (nearly a full 200ft shorter than the Titanic), she weighed 26,000GRT (Gross Registered Tons), a little more than half of the Titanic and she carried 417 crew and 1,460 passengers, making for a total complement of 1,877. By comparison, the Titanic could take over three thousand passengers and crew. She had eight decks, a top speed of fifteen knots (18mph) thanks to two propellers and engines capable of producing 9,500hp. She had twenty two lifeboats and twelve transverse bulkheads creating thirteen watertight compartments

With all these characteristics, Hitler hoped that the Wilhelm Gustloff would be a floating pleasure-ship, taking Germans all around Europe. She would be comfortable, open and safe to travel on and would be a symbol of German superiority and ingenuity. She was designed to be a cruise-ship for the masses, for ordinary German working men and women, a sign that the Fuhreur and the Reich cared about the ordinary, hardworking German citizen. To the German worker, the Gustloff was to be the ultimate prize and reward as a holiday for all his hard work. But sadly, it was not to be.

In the company of the captain, Hitler (extreme left) tours the recently-completed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938

Wilhelm Gustloff – Hospital Ship

Whatever Hitler’s plans were for the Wilhelm Gustloff, they barely reached fruition, if indeed they ever did. Barely a year after the ship’s maiden voyage on the Thursday of the 24th of March, 1938, Germany would be plunged into the hell of the Second World War and all thoughts of the Wilhelm Gustloff being the People’s Cruise-Ship were smashed to pieces.

Once the pride of the German KdF (Kraft Durch Freude, “Strength through Joy”) shipping fleet, after several successful cruises throughout 1938 and early 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned over to the German navy, the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 with the outbreak of World War Two.

In the German Navy, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned into a hospital ship, a role which she played from September 1939 until November of 1940. After that, she became a floating barracks for German U-boat crews.

The Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship off the coast of Oslo, Norway; 1940

Operation Hannibal and the Last Voyage

For four years, between 1941-1945, the Gustloff had remained at anchor. During this time, it was used mostly to house sailors and submariners, but by 1944 and the Invasion of Normandy in June of that year, the War started going bad for Germany, especially on the Eastern Front. Operation Barbarossa, the attempt by Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, was a complete disaster and now the Russians wanted revenge. By January 1945, the German army was fighting off Italy, Russia, England, America, Commonwealth troops, Free French fighters and resistence-fighters on almost every front imaginable and it was rapidly losing the war.

As the Russian army pushed westward across Eastern Europe towards Poland, Operation Hannibal was executed.

Operation Hannibal was nothing less than the biggest seaborne evacuation in military history. It even eclipsed the famous Dunkirk Evacuation when the “little ships” were used to evacuate Allied soldiers from the beaches of France in 1940. In total, Operation Hannibal was going to try and evacuate about one and a quarter to two million people in roughly a thousand ships over the course of fifteen weeks.

One of those ships, was the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.

On the 22nd of January, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff is given the order to prepare to take on thousands of escaping German refugees. Many are women, children and wounded soldiers. German civilians are terrified of what retributions the Russians might unleash as they sweep westwards and many want to escape back to Germany as fast as possible. The Wilhelm Gustloff is at anchor in the port city of Gdynia, German-Occuped Poland. The crew are worried. Apart from the fact that they have to house so many thousands of people, they are worried about the mechanical strain; the Gustloff’s engines have been cold for the past four years while it was in harbour, and there is no time to run the necessary maintenance and safety-checks.

On the 28th of January, the Gustloff’s crew receive the order to prepare for evacuation. Thousands of refugees, mostly sailors, nurses, civilians and wounded soldiers file onboard, each person bearing a permit of travel that allows them refugee status and permission to board the Gustloff.

Gustloff’s last voyage took place on the 30th of January, 1945. On this day, the ship is ordered to raise anchor and steam westwards towards the German city of Kiel. The official passenger manifest lists about 3,000 people onboard (the Gustloff is rated to carry only 1,800 passengers and crew), but even this is not even close. In the panic of evacuations, thousands of people who aren’t supposed to be there, force their way onboard the already dangerously overcrowded ship. Even as the Gustloff leaves the harbour, people are offloaded onto the ship from harbour-tugs which pull up alongside while their passengers climb on, using the ship’s boarding-stairs. In total, the Gustloff is carrying about ten and a half thousand people.

January 30th, 1945. The Gustloff leaves Poland. This is the last photograph ever taken of the ship

Onboard the Gustloff, things are far from easy. The ship is crammed so far beyond capacity that even with extra safety-equipment onboard, there is only enough lifeboats, flotation-vests and life-rings for less than half the ship’s full complement of passengers and crew. The passenger-quarters are so full that any space at all is fair-game as a sleeping-area during the voyage back to Germany.

On the bridge, the Gustloff is in the combined command of four captains, three civilian captains and one military one. They argue constantly on the best precautions to take. Do they turn off the ship’s lights to prevent detection? Do they stay near the coast where Soviet submarines will find it harder to patrol? Do they go into deeper water away from the shoreline where lights from cities will certainly outline the shape of the ship? Do they go straight ahead to make the most of what short time they have, or do they steer a conventional wartime zig-zag course to try and throw off enemy submarines who might try and torpedo them?

The only thing that the captains seemed to agree on was that their escort was wholly inadequate. All they had was one torpedo-boat, the Lowe, to protect them from the formidable force of the Russians and anything that they could throw against them. The ship was a sitting duck.

The Lowe, originally a torpedo-boat in the Royal Norwegian Navy. It was captured by the Germans in 1940 and was returned to the Norwegians in 1945 at the end of the War

The Sinking

With such disagreements over defensive actions and with such a useless escort-vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff was easy pickings for the Russian submariners who hunted down fleeing German shipping. The submarine that’s after the Gustloff is the S-13, under the command of Capt. Alexander Marinesko.

Just before 8:00pm on the 30th of January, the S-13 spots the Wilhelm Gustloff. It’s in deep water with all its lights on, as a warning to other shipping, but to the crew of the Russian submarine, it’s a big, fat target. For a whole hour, Capt. Marinesko orders that no actions be taken. The Wilhelm Gustloff is a big prize and the Russians must be patient, lining up the perfect shot before they try and take the ship down.

Eventually, shortly after 9:00pm, Capt. Marinesko gives the order to fire. The S-13 lets loose three of a possible four torpodoes into the water. The fourth torpedo misfires and jams in its torpedo-tube. Quick thinking on the part of the S-13’s crew prevents the malfunctioning torpedo from exploding and destroying the submarine. The captain has no idea what his target is because it’s so dark outside. All he knows is that it’s a big German ocean-liner with all its lights on.

At 9:16pm, disaster strikes.

The first torpedo slams into the Wilhelm Gustloff, forward of the bridge, blowing a hole in her port bow. The second torpedo strikes the ship further back, below the ship’s swimming-pool. The third torpedo hits the vessel amidships, destroying the engine-rooms.

To prevent the ship from sinking, the captains order all watertight doors to be closed at once. This unwittingly drowns many of the ship’s crew who would have been essential in manning lifeboats and organising evacuations. The second torpedo kills hundreds of the Women’s Naval Auxilliary who have used the empty ship’s swimming-pool as a sleeping-area. The third torpedo arguably creates the most damage of all.

By striking the ship’s engine-room, the third torpedo simultaneously disables the ship and isolates it from the outside world. With the engines crippled, the Wilhelm Gustloff is unable to move, but even more unfortunately, the damaged engines will no longer power the ship’s generators – all electrical power, from lights to telephones and even the ship’s wireless radio, suddenly lose power, plunging everything into darkness. If not for the ship’s emergency generator (for the wireless-room only), the Gustloff would have sunk without anyone knowing what had ever happened to it.

Although the wireless-radio is still operational (if just barely), its transmission range is only two kilometers. Within that radius, only the Gustloff’s escort-vessel, the Lowe, picks up the ship’s desperate S.O.S message. It immediately steams towards the ship.

Onboard the Gustloff, panic reigns supreme.

Whatever people are not immediately killed or drowned in the opening minutes of the attack are now desperate to get off the ship. There are barely enough lifejackets to go around and certainly not enough lifeboats. The three huge holes in the ship’s hull causes a dangerous list to Port and the ice on the ship’s boat-deck sends many people sliding into the freezing January waters. Whatever lifeboats there are, become next to useless because they are frozen to their davits by the freezing temperatures. Any crew who might be able to free them and lower them safely are probably dead already, trapped inside the ship’s hull.

In the chaos, only one lifeboat is lowered successfully. Most people just jump or slide into the water where lifebelts provide little protection against the freezing water. People jumping into the water wearing one of the few life-vests that are available are susceptable to broken necks. As their bodies hit the water and sink, their chins hit the floating vest, whipping their heads back and causing spinal injuries. What few lifeboats are lowered are done so incorrectly or haphazardly, causing them to break free from the ship and crash into the water. At least one lifeboat is smashed to pieces when an anti-aircraft gun on the boat-deck breaks loose as the Gustloff continues a steady list to port.

The Gustloff’s woefully underpowered wireless set only manages to raise the Lowe, the Gustloff’s one and only escort-vessel, which is able to reach the stricken cruise-ship’s side within fifteen minutes. She manages to rescue 472 people in the water and in lifeboats. The Gustloff continues to sink. The severe list to port means that it becomes impossible for people to get out of the ship. Stairways and corridors are packed with panicking passengers who can’t find their way up to the boat deck due to the lack of lights and the inability to climb the stairs due to the tilting of the ship. Soon, it is a case of “Every man for himself” as people take their lives in their hands and fight to find any way off the ship and on to safety. Soldiers and sailors shoot their own families and then commit suicide rather than freeze to death in the water. Firearms are also used by the ship’s officers to try and maintain order on the boat deck, but in a scenario where even the “Birkenhead Drill” (more famously known as “Women and Children First”) is being ignored by everyone, they do little more than add more panic to the already frantic situation unfolding all around them.

In less than forty-five minutes, the Gustloff had been struck by three torpedoes, it had listed to port, capsized and finally, vanished beneath the waves.

In total, nine ships and boats of varying sizes rush to the Gustloff’s aid. Between them, they save a total of 1,252 people. The last person to be rescued was a baby which was found alive in one of the Gustloff’s lifeboats, seven hours after the ship went down. Of approximately 10,500 people onboard the Gustloff, anywhere from 9,200 to 9,500 people (the exact figure is unknown because no official record exists of how many people were really onboard) either drowned inside the Gustloff when it went down, or froze to death in the water trying to escape. It remains to this day, the biggest loss of life at sea from a single disaster.

The Aftermath of the Sinking

Despite the appalling loss of life, the Wilhelm Gustloff is probably the most forgettable and unknown maritime disaster in the world. The reasons for this are numerous and some of them are more obvious than others.

– The Wilhelm Gustloff sunk during the dying months of the Second World War. There was little interest in the popular news press about anything that wasn’t directly related to an eventual Allied victory in Europe.
– The Gustloff was an ‘enemy ship’ carrying ‘enemy soldiers’ and civillians. It wasn’t in the best interests of the Allies to take notice, or care.
– Dozens of ships were being sunk every day during the War. One more barely made a difference.
– The German government, already aware that their country would lose the war, suppressed the news, fearful of what it would do to already-shattered German morale.
– The Gustloff carried no famous celebrities, unlike the Titanic, which carried nearly all the movers-and-shakers, socialites and big businessmen of the Edwardian era.

Capt. Alexander Marinesko, the Soviet submarine-commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was shunned by almost everyone, even in Russia! Within years of his successful action against the Gustloff, Marinesko had been…

– Discharged from the Soviet Navy.
– Arrested and sent to Siberia for three years’ hard labour.
– Diagnosed with cancer.
– Reinstated with his title of captain.
– Given a military pension.
– Given a ceremony honouring his actions during the Second World War.

Just three weeks after these last three incidents, Marinesko died, in October of 1963. He was fifty years old.

Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a protected war-grave. It lies in 44 meters of water, off the northwest coast of Poland.


Smoke on the Water: The Tragedy of the S.S. Morro Castle

There are few things more terrifying than being on a sinking ship at sea, but one event that probably rises up to the same level of a sinking would be finding yourself on a ship that was on fire out on the open ocean. The Lusitania, the Titanic, the Britannic and the Wilhelm Gustloff were all famous ships that sunk at sea. But how many people could name a ship that turned into nothing short of a flaming, red-hot, smoke-belching fire floating out in the middle of nowhere?

Probably not many. And yet, the disaster that befell the S.S. Morro Castle was one of the most famous ship-fires in history.

Morro Castle the Coast-Hugger

The S.S. Morro Castle was built in January, 1929, with construction finishing about eighteen months later. She was christened in March of 1930 and was finally completed in August of that year, by which time, the Great Depression had taken a firm grip on the United States of America. The S.S. Morro Castle was a direct result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1928, which allowed American ship-companies to construct new ships to replace their aging steamers, with the government subsidising as much as three-quarters of the cost of the construction of each ship.

The Morro Castle, the second ship of that name constructed by the Ward Line; a steam passenger-and-mail ship company that transported people and mail between New York and Cuba, operating routes up and down the Eastern U.S. seaboard. The Morro Castle’s route was between New York City in the United States and Havanna, Cuba.

A postcard of the S.S. Morro Castle

The Morro Castle was designed as a relaxing and luxurious cruise-ship. sailing up and down the U.S. eastern coastline, something that she managed to do, despite the crippling effects of the Great Depression, which robbed her of many of her most promising and high-paying passengers. For four years, the Morro Castle sailed thousands of miles up and down the U.S. coastline, a trip from New York to Havanna taking just 59 hours. Part of the reason why the Morro Castle was able to keep such a steady cliente was because she was allowed to stock, transport and serve alcoholic beverages (which were illegal in the United States from 1920-1933). As a result of this, most of the passengers onboard the Morro Castle often boarded her with the desire to take part in a week-long, totally legal booze-cruise, up and down America’s Atlantic coastline. The low ticket-prices (due to the Depression) meant that a wider range of passengers could be found onboard the Morro Castle. The Depression did have the positive effect in that more people were able to afford a relaxing cruise now, due to the drop in prices. Anyone from honeymoon couples, families, socialites, wealthy businessmen and married couples wanting a romantic, anniversary cruise.

Where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire

For four years, the Morro Castle was a successful, popular cruise-ship, transporting a wide variety of people from lovers to couples to wealthy businessmen and families, to socialites and millionaires up and down the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the Depression, business was going well and there didn’t seem to be anything in the world that could stop the Morro Castle’s wonderful career.

That all changed in early September of 1934.

It was the height of the Depression in 1933-1934; more people were out of work and unemployment in the USA had reached the dizzying level of 25%! The broadway musical, “Anything Goes” was weeks from its premier. If not for the disaster of the Morro Castle, the musical would’ve been known as “Hard to Get”, a comedy set onboard a transatlantic ocean-liner steaming from England to New York City. The recent tragedy at sea, however, caused the show’s writers to change the title and the majority of the script in light of these terrible, recent events.

So one of the most famous songs in history, “Anything Goes”, was born. And on the S.S. Morro Castle, literally anything did go…terribly wrong.

The Morro Castle steamed out of Havanna Bay, past Morro Castle, the coastal fort that gave it its name, on the 5th of September, 1934. Things were going well. People were happy, the weather was fine and there wasn’t a whiff of danger anywhere in the air. Over the next two days, however, conditions at sea and onboard the ship, worsened dramatically. The weather began to steadily deteriorate, with increasing cloud, stronger winds and occasional rain making this voyage more treacherous than previous ones. Many passengers spent their time indoors due to the rough weather. On the evening of the 7th of September, the Morro Castle’s captain, Robert Willmott, had his dinner served to him in his own quarters. Shortly thereafter, he complained of stomach-troubles and died a few hours later of a heart-attack. Many of the Morro Castle’s regular passengers must’ve felt immense sadness at this event, for Capt. Willmott was a popular man with his passengers and crew and was fond of socialising with the people onboard his ship. William Warms, Chief Officer onboard the Morro Castle, took over command of the vessel as Capt. Willmott’s immediate subordinate. Some people questioned whether Capt. Willmott had died a natural death; passengers and crew began to suspect murder and a future sabotage of the ship by communist agents, who might have boarded the Morro Castle before it left Cuba. The ship’s physician, as well as three other doctors travelling onboard as guests, examined Capt. Willmott’s body and agreed that he had died of a heart-attack.

But Acting Captain Warms had no time to think of conspiracies and plots. Weather did not improve; the winds and the sea grew progressively rougher, making the voyage even more tricky than it already was. Warms had to concentrate on keeping the ship safe and on-course.

At about 2:50am on the morning of the 8th of September, disaster struck. A fire had started in the First Class Writing Room on B Deck. Within minutes of its discovery, the fire, which had previously been confined to a small locker, spread rapidly. With the Morro Castle sailing so close to the U.S. coastline, Warms’ original decision was to steer the ship hard a’port so that he could beach the vessel on the coast, giving panicking passengers a chance to escape the flaming ship with their lives. The seriousness of the fire, however, meant that he had to postpone this action until much later in the emergency.

The death of Capt. Willmott had severely scrambled up the chain of command onboard the Morro Castle. Since Warms was now captain, the First Officer became Chief, Second became First, Third became Second, and so-on down the line. While this doesn’t sound very serious, it should be noted that each officer had very specific duties to attend to. The sudden reshuffling of officers meant that the men had to suddenly carry out duties which they had not yet been trained to do.

Upon the discovery of the fire, the crew did not tackle it immediately with fire-extinguishers as they should have done, but instead returned to the bridge to report the incident to the acting captain. This wasted precious seconds, during which the fire might have been controlled. This and their further failure to close fire and smoke-doors allowed the blaze to spread from its confined space in the cupboard of the Writing Room, to all over the ship in a matter of minutes. Within half an hour, the Morro Castle was a floating fireball. Crew untrained in fire-drills hooked up fire-hoses to the various fire-hydrants around the ship and turned them on in an attempt to fight the flames. However, the design of the Morro Castle’s plumbing meant that only six hydrants could be operated at any one time. In their frenzied attempts to control the fire, the crew forgot this and turned on more than the maximum number of hydrants. This caused a severe drop in water-pressure which rendered the hoses completely useless for the task that they were installed for!

Passengers, either roused by the crew or awakened by the smoke and flames, tried to make their way to the lifeboats, however the flames and smoke made navigation of the ship very difficult. Many people found themselves trapped near the stern of the Morro Castle as they tried to escape the fire which was burning amidships. More unfortunate was the fact that this was where many of the lifeboats were located.

Calling for Help

George Alanga and George W. Rogers were the Morro Castle’s two radio-operators. Alanga, already awake, roused his colleague who took control of the ship’s wireless set and sent Alanga to the bridge to ask if the captain wished to send out a distress-call. The bridge was absolute chaos. The fire had disabled the Morro Castle’s steering, which had forced Capt. Warms to abandon his plan to beach the vessel. Alanga heard Warms shouting to Chief Engineer Abbott to keep the boilers fired up so that the crew would have enough water-pressure to fight the flames. Abbott was heard to say to the acting captain that it was “too late now!”

Unable to get Warms’ attention in the confusion, Alanga ran back to the wireless-room, telling Rogers that “They’re all crazy up there!” Rogers insisted that Alanga get Capt. Warms’ permission before he sent off a distress-call and sent his colleague back to the bridge. On his second trip there, Alanga finally got the acting captain’s attention, who asked him to send out an SOS distress-call.

Flames were approaching the radio-room now and the fire had been burning for twenty-five minutes before Rogers finally sent out the fist distress call about 3:20am. Other ships in the area had noticed the smoke and flames and had radioed the nearby coastguard post to ask if a ship was in danger. At 3:10am, the main electrical systems on the ship began to fail. While the radio remained functional, the lights onboard the Morro Castle went out.

The heat of the flames started playing with Rogers’ radio-set. The batteries on the radio-reciever exploded, spraying acid all over the place. Rogers was unhurt and was relieved when he discovered that his transmitter was still functional. While he would not be able to recieve messages, he could still send them, and quickly sent out several distress-calls for help.

By now, the fire had fully taken hold of the Morro Castle and Warms realised that any attempts to put out the inferno were in vain. He initially ordered that the ship be steered by using the engines; cutting off power to one engine and transferring it to another so that the ship could be steered by its propellers alone. Unfortunately, the fire had advanced so greatly that by this stage that engine-room crews were unable to man their posts without risking serious injuries. Warms ordered the anchors dropped so that lifeboats could be safely loaded and lowered. By now, the ship was about five miles off the coast of New Jersey.

An aerial photograph of the S.S. Morro Castle, taken during the early morning

Impatient or terrified passengers could no-longer wait for the officers to do anything. In desperation to escape the floating inferno, many jumped from the ship into the water. Crewmembers who were supposed to be manning pumps and fire-hoses abandoned their posts, stole life-jackets, lowered boats and rowed away. Other crewmembers, less cowardly than their colleagues, aided passengers into lifeboats or found them lifejackets. The Morro Castle had a total of twelve lifeboats, with a capacity of 816 people. However, in the panic and confusion, only six of these boats, starboard boats #1, 3, 5, 9 and 11, and port lifeboat #10, could be lowered safely. Between them, they could carry 408 passengers, but rowed away with only a total of 85 people onboard; mostly crewmembers.

With the other lifeboats inaccessible, other crewmembers started throwing deckchairs and life-rings over the side of the ship. Passengers in the water could hold onto them and use them as flotation-devices. As with the Titanic, passengers who jumped into the water from the stern wearing their lifebelts risked breaking their necks when they hit the water. This was caused by the boyancy of the lifebelts, which sprung up when they hit the water, while the wearer’s bodyeight went downwards. This caused the belts to hit the wearers on their chins, giving them whiplash or even breaking their necks and killing them instantly.

Cruise Director Smith, along with radio-operators Alanga and Rogers, was one of the heroes of that fateful day. Calm and collected in the midst of chaos, he rallied the passengers together on the stern of the flaming ship and explained to them as best as he could, the safest way to deal with the situation at hand. He implored passengers not to jump into the water. They should dive if they entered the water at all. And even then only after the ship had stopped moving, for the suction from the propellers might cause them to drown or even worse, be sliced up like mincemeat!

Chief Engineer Abbott, however, personnified cowardice during the disaster. Instead of reporting back to the engine-rooms after seeing the captain, as he was meant to do, Abbott, along with twenty-six other crewmembers, commandeered a lifeboat with a capacity for sixty-three and, with three passengers onboard, lowered away and rowed directly for land, five miles away, not even bothering to stop and pick up passengeres in the water. “It was a moment of shame for all those who believe in the tradition of the sea”, Capt. Warms said later.

Eventually, Warms gave the order to abandon ship. By now, many of the passengers had already done so. Along with radio-operators Alanga and Rogers and ten others, Warms stayed onboard ship until the end.

Rescue Efforts

A total of six vessels responded to wireless-operator Rogers’ calls for help; one freight-ship, three ocean-liners and two coastguard vessels. They were, in order of response:

S.S. Andrea F. Luckenbach.
S.S. Monarch of Bermuda.
S.S. City of Savannah.
S.S. President Cleveland.

These four were later joined by U.S. Coastguard vessels Tampa and Cahoone.

Despite the overwhelming response from nearby vessels, rescuing passengers in the water was not easy. The rough conditions at sea made it hard for lifeboat-crews to spot the heads of panicking Morro Castle passengers, bobbing in the waves. The Luckenbach had only two lifeboats to rescue passengers with. The Monarch of Bermuda and the City of Savannah, both proper-sized ocean-iners, were able to lower more lifeboats to aid in the rescue of struggling swimmers. The S.S. President Cleveland was unable to find any survivors and soon steamed off.

Eventually, local radio-stations heard of the unfolding disaster and telegraph-wires buzzed hot with the news. Telephones rang and the word spread up and down the New Jersey coast that the S.S. Morro Castle was in danger. New Jersey Governor, Harry Moore took to the skies. Using an airplane, he flew around the ship, taking photographs, but also dropping floating markers into the water so that lifeboat-crews at sea-level could more easily identify struggling swimmers. Eventually, passengers from the stricken liner, both dead and alive, began washing up on the New Jersey coastline. People from the nearby towns ran forward to aid the survivors ashore and to help treat their injuries. Private fishing-boats and pleasure-yachts were either skippered by their owners or commandeered in the emergency, and were sailed out into the surf in an attempt to rescue more people.

Townsfolk set up field-hospitals and relief-stations, treating and nursing the injured and recording the names of survivors. They helped passengers find friends and family whom they’d become seperated from in the chaos and helped to retrieve dead bodies from the surf. Of the 549 passengers and crew onboard the S.S. Morro Castle, 135 of them either burned to death or drowned, trying to escape.

The Aftermath

The fire onboard the S.S. Morro Castle remains one of the biggest maritime disasters in the world. In the days after the disaster, the Morro Castle drifted ashore and beached itself near Asbury Park, New Jersey. The fire burned for another two days; it was decided that the ship was a total loss, anyway, so no great efforts were taken to try and put the fire out any faster than nature intended to. From September, 1934 until March, 1935, the ship remained beached near Asbury Park. Due to its closeness to shore, for the next few months, the ship became something of a tourist attraction. People came from all over the nearby states to view the charred wreck…and even to touch it! When the tide went out, it was possible to wade out to the Morro Castle and feel it with your hands!

The smouldering hulk of the S.S. Morro Castle, beached off the coast of New Jersey; 1934. You can still see four, unlaunched lifeboats onboard; three on the port side, and lifeboat #7 hanging lopsidedly on the starboard side (to the right of the second smokestack)

Eventually, in mid-March of 1935, the Morro Castle was towed away for scrap.

An investigation into the disaster revealed many things about the deficiencies in the ship’s design, as well as the conduct of the crew. With a few notable exceptions, such as Cruise Director Smith, many crew and officers abandoned their posts and fled from the ship in lifeboats. Those that remained manned their posts poorly, allowing the fire to spread. Those already in the lifeboats made no effort to save passengers already in the water, instead rowing directly for land. Despite trying his best, even Capt. Williarm Warms came under fire from the inquiries. It was established that he never left the bridge to examine for himself, the full extent of the fire and never engaged the ship’s emergency steering or electrical systems, when the main ones had failed.

Acting captain William Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott and Henry Cabaud, Vice-President of the Ward Line, were all sentenced to prison-terms, charged and convicted of willful negligence. Capt. Warms and Engineer Abbott appealed their convictions, which were later overturned. Warms had been thrust into the position of captain when Capt. Willmott died and was in no position to effectively command the crew in the event of an emergency. Abbott abandoned ship because he was unable to do his duties properly due to the spreading of the fire.

Chief wireless operator, George White Rogers was praised as a hero in the disaster, for sending out distress-signals when no official word from the bridge had come that he should do so. His fame was short-lived, however. He was convicted of trying to murder a policeman, Vincent Doyle, later in his life. Doyle tried to prove that Rogers had also set the Morro Castle on fire, but this was never proved. Eventually, Rogers was arrested for murdering a neighbouring couple of his for their money. He was convicted and died in jail in 1957.

The Morro Castle disaster is famous for advancing fire-safety at sea. Thanks to the Morro Castle, ships were renovated or built with automatic fire-doors, better fire-alarm systems and fireproof materials were used to build walls and ceilings in cabins. Mandatory firefighting training on all ships, which is a law today, was a direct result of the wholly inefficient way which the fire was fought onboard the Morro Castle, over 70 years ago.

There are a few strange facts about the Morro Castle disaster: Unlike the Titanic, the Hindenburg, the Lusitania and even 9/11, it has never had a feature-film or even a television-movie produced about it. And the ship’s radio callsign (KGOV) is still registered to the ship by the FCC, and is therefore unavailable for use by radio-stations. On September 8th, 2009, the first-ever memorial service to the Morro Castle disaster was held in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on the 75th anniversary of the disaster, and on the very spot where the ship came aground, so many decades ago.


Queens of the Sea: The Golden Age of Ocean Liners

Ocean Liner. The very word conjours up images of grand, majestic, enormous, powerful, luxurious metallic beasts, powering their way through the oceans of the world, delivering their fragile and all-important human cargo safely and comfortably to their destinations. Most of us seem to forget that, prior to the early 1950s, ocean-liners were the only way to cross the Seven Seas to distant parts of the globe. Commercial, long-haul airplane flights of the kind we know and love today, did not take off (literally) until the postwar boom of the 1950s, when aircraft technology (spurred on by the Second World War), had advanced enough for large numbers of people to fly through the air from country to country. While flying as a form of transport had existed before the 1950s, it was still rather experimental at the time, and flights were short, city-to-city or state-to-state stopovers, rather than planes which flew halfway around the world. It was because of the fact that nobody was sure of the long-haul abilities of aircraft, that ocean liners retained their dominance for so very long. But where did ocean liners come from?

The First Ocean Liners

An ocean liner is defined as a large, sea-going ship, capable of crossing great stretches of water in long voyages, in relative ease, speed and safety. They’re defined as carrying large numbers of passengers and having passenger comfort and satisfaction-of-service as being a key priority in their operation. Given these criteria…what were the first ocean liners?

The ocean liner as we know it today, was born around the middle of the 19th century. It was at this time, in the 1840s-1860s, that steam-power was gradually overtaking the soon-to-be-outdated wind-power of sailing-ships. Initially, steamships were only marginally faster than sailing ships travelling the same distance, and people took little notice of which kind of vessel was better, if indeed, one was. However, improvement in steam-powered engineering allowed steamships to travel faster and further than their sail-powered competitors and soon, stiff competition had arisen.

Early ocean liners were slow, coal-fired paddlesteamers which made slow, choppy, unsteady progress through the seas. These early ships were prone to mechanical failure, shortage of fuel and having only a barely-noticable advantage of speed over similar, wind-powered clipper ships of the period, which were the fastest sailing-ships then in existence. Furthermore, paddlesteamers were loud and noisy and they were dangerous to use in rough seas. Indeed, some early paddlesteamer ocean liners even had a full arrangement of masts, rigging and sails, such was early steamship captains’ mistrust of this new technology.

As time passed, however, steam technology improved and steamships were now significantly faster than sailing-ships, to the point that they were a practical way of crossing the Seven Seas. Added to this, without the necessity of having to store spare wood, spare rope, spare sails and spare other things, that a sailing-ship needed, shipbuilders were able to concentrate more on passenger comfort and ammenities, rather than the storage of provisions. Early ocean-liners, such as the RMS Britannia, the S.S. Great Britain and the S.S. Great Eastern and the Great Western, soon began to steal passengers from other, sail-powered shipping-lines, and people began to realise that steam was the thing of the future.

The Cunard line’s RMS Britannia (1840); one of the world’s first true ocean liners.

The Power of Steam

Once steam-power had proven itself to the shipbuilding masses, sailing ships became increasingly, a thing of the past. By the 1880s and the 1890s, leading up to the turn of the century, great steamship companies or shipping-lines, such as Cunard, White Star Line, Red Star Line and the French Line, were all in stiff-competition with each other for the greatest slice of the passenger pie. Cunard and White Star were the two most famous shipping lines of the turn of the last century, and they were constantly trying to outdo each other with grander, faster, more luxurious, more powerful ships. By the early 1900s, paddlesteamers were a thing of the past; as early as the late 1850s, ships started being powered through the world’s oceans by propellers, having first one, then two and in some cases, even three or four propellers!

Ships which were built for the various steamship companies all had their own, very distinct characteristics, typically regarding a ship’s name. For example, all ships owned by the White Star Line, ended in ‘-ic’. Titanic, Britannic, Olympic, Baltic, Oceanic, etc. Cunard’s ships all ended in ‘-ia’. Carpathia, Lustiania, Mauretania, etc. The Red Star Line’s ships all ended in ‘-land’: Finland, Kroonland, Lapland, and so on. Just like car-manufacturers today, steamship companies printed advertisments in magazines, on posters and in newspapers, all trying to boast…the most luxurious crossings, the fastest crossings, the most passenger ammenities, fast express-trains from the docks to major cities, automobile hire and almost anything else you can think of!

By the early 20th century, the ocean-liner had truly taken on the image which we think of today: Large, metal ships with tall smokestacks, with staterooms, berths, boilers, coal fires and communicating to each other across the seas using the Edwardian equivalent of MSN Messenger: Morse Code wireless telegraphy.

Morse Code wireless telegraphy…more commonly known as ‘wireless’, allowed ships to communicate with each other in realtime, and everything from important weather warnings, ice-reports, distress calls and seasons’ greetings were exchanged between ships and land-stations. It became such a part of shipboard life, that people would even be able to buy newspapers which had all their content, courtesy of the telegraph-machine.

The Blue Riband

No article on ocean liners could possibly be complete without a mention of this, most famous of industry prizes.

The Blue Riband.

For most of its life, the Blue Riband was a sort of unwritten competition held between various ships and shipping-lines, and it was awarded to the ship which could make the fastest overall crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and maintain the fastest average speed during its crossing. Winners of the Blue Riband were given the privelige of hoisting a long, bright blue banner…the blue riband…on the masts of their winning ship, to indicate proudly to prospective passengers that by boarding THIS SHIP with the blue flag…YOU would get the FASTEST crossing across the Atlantic Ocean! It was amazing publicity and one hell of a marketing-boost. Cunard was particularly famous for winning the Blue Riband and its ships held the Riband for several years.

The actual Blue Riband ‘Hales Trophy’, as it’s called, commissioned by British MP Harold K. Hales, in 1935.

In time, the Blue Riband became more than just a bit of cloth flapping in the wind, it became an actual, real-life, solid gold trophy! The trophy was awarded to the ship which made the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean while maintaining the highest average speed…or at least, that’s it in a nutshell; there were a mountain of rules abut how to win the trophy and what was considered a proper or an improper win, rules too complicated to try and explain here!

Throughout its existence, the Blue Riband was won by a total of 35 ocean-liners, of these, twenty-five were British, three were American, five were German, one was Italian and one was French. Of all the shipping-companies whose ships won the Blue Riband, the highest total was 14 ships, belonging to the Cunard line. I wasn’t kidding when I said they played to win!

Getting an Ocean Liner Underway

Away from the world of glamour, of luxury, of grand prizes, marketing hype and technological advancements, there was another, earthier, more grimey side to ocean liners which few people think about on a daily basis…and this was just what it TOOK to get an ocean liner ready for a voyage. These days, it’s easy, you pack it all in, you press a button and off you go! 80 years ago, it was a LOT harder.

These days, the food is all pre-packed and it’s driven onto the ship with massive forklifts and cranes. Back in the 1920s, this was all done by hand. Some cargo might be hoisted onto the ship by cranes, but most of the crates and barrels with food and drink and linen and crockery and cutlery and glassware and towels and napkins and tablecloths and pots and pans and all the other, billions of things that ocean liners needed, were all loaded by dozens of dock-workers. These days, everything is loaded onto pallets and driven onto ships with trucks and forklifts, and it still looks hard. Imagine doing it without all that stuff.

Apart from the provisions, ships needed fuel. In the 1910s and 20s, fuel meant…coal. Lots of coal. Tons and tons and tons of coal. It was all shovelled and craned and tipped and carted into the ship’s massive coal-bunkers, from which stokers and firemen would have to get it, to fire up the ship’s boilers.

This leads us to our next big thing in getting a ship going…firing it up…literally.

These days, ships are all powered by fuel-oil and it’s relatively easy to get them going. 80 years ago, all the ships were powered by steam. Firing up an ocean liner such as the Mauretania, for example, or the Olympic or the Titanic, took hours…even days…to do. If a ship was to sail on the 10th of the month, stokers, firemen and engineers, would have to be firing up the boilers at least two days in advance, before they could get going. But what exactly had to be done?

Well…first, the boilers had to be filled with water. Then, the furnaces had to be lit. Then you shovelled the coal in. The coal was brought from the coal-bunkers by wheelbarrows. Once the fires were burning, you had to feed them even more coal. The fires had to glow absolutely white hot. As the heat built up, the water in the boilers would start to boil. This could take hours to do, and lighting the fires already took hours! Once the water was boiled, it made steam. Constant heat was needed to keep the steam from cooling off and condensing again, so fires had to be kept lit and stoked up at all times. Once the steam was produced, you had to wait for steam-pressure to build up. This could take the better part of a day. Steam-power ran everything on an ocean-liner back in the 1910s, so if you didn’t get the boilers fired up…the ship didn’t move. The steam-pressure not only powered the pistons, which drove the driveshafts, which spun the propellers, which pushed the ship through the water, the steam-pressure also powered the ship’s generators, which ran the dynamos, which gave the ship its electrical power! You couldn’t even switch the lights on if the boilers weren’t lit!

Apart from that, you had to make sure that the steam-pressure didn’t get too high. If it did, the boiler could explode from the pressure, killing everyone! A buildup of steam-pressure caused great damage to a smokestack of the S.S. Great Eastern when it exploded; several of the crew were killed in the blast. Stokers had to keep the fires burning, but they also had to make sure that the fires were laid and built correctly; out on a rocking, rolling ocean, you couldn’t risk having piles of burning coal spilling out of the furnace onto the floor because you forgot to rake the fire correctly and prevent buildups of unsteady coal!

Speed was paramount onboard steamships. Ocean liners, much like jumbo jets today, had strict schedules to keep. They were all expected to be able to sail from A to B within a certain time, dop off their passengers, recoal, reprovision and then turn around and sail back, within a couple of days. As a result, the ‘black gangs’, the stokers and firemen who lived in the bowels of the ship, all worked in shifts, in very hot, very sweaty, very trying and noisy environments, twenty four hours a day, for weeks at a time.

But just how fast were ocean liners?

This varied. Most people think of ocean liners as big, grand vessels with lots of funnels, belching out smoke and slicing through the water. Yes, there were ships like this, but they all belonged to the wealthier lines, the less-prominent steamship lines, of which there were many, did not have such grand vessels, and they could not go as fast. But to give you an idea of just what kinds of speeds ships were expected to make…

The RMS Mauretania, of the Cunard line. Top speed: 24kt.

At 24kt, the RMS Mauretania was expected to be able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a week. Today, the RMS Queen Mary 2 is expected to cross the Atlantic (going at a speed of 30kt) in six days or less. Voyages on smaller, slower ships could take ten days or two weeks, but on the really fast ships, a week was generally the expected crossing-time of the Atlantic.

Changing Times

Up until the mid 1920s, all ocean liners were coal-fired, water-boiling monsters which took on tons of coal for each crossing. In the 1920s and 1930s, new technology allowed ships to have boilers which were fuelled by oil instead of coal. This was more efficient and it needed fewer people to work the ship’s engines. Newer ocean liners coming out in the 1920s and 30s started looking more modern and more sleek than their aging, Edwardian and Victorian running-mates. One example of this was the S.S. Normandie.

The SS Normandie, launched in 1932 and entering service with the French Line in 1935.

The Normandie was different in many ways; she was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the earlier, more boxy and angular Edwardian ocean liners of the 1900s and 1910s. She was faster, boasted better engines and more modern, up-to-date appointments. Earlier ships boasted interiors which were modelled after great palaces, hotels and grand manor houses of European royalty and aristocracy. By comparison, the Normandie had more modern decorations, in keeping with the then, very popular Art Deco and Streamline Moderne art-movements, which emphasized sleek lines, flashy colours, glass, metal and graceful curves.

The main dining-saloon of the SS Normandie. In comparison with earlier ships which had carpets and wrought iron and lots of wood carving, this dining-saloon is brighter and more modern, with more modern carpet-patterns, tiles, mirrors, and flashy, glass light-fixtures.

The Depression and the War

Like almost everything, the shipping-industry was hit in the crotch by the Great Depression. Several famous shipping-companies collapsed completely, or had their ships reduced from grand, ocean-going superliners, to coast-hugging cruise-ships. Cunard and White Star had to perform a merger, just to keep each other afloat, literally and figuratively. They became ‘Cunard-White Star’ in December of 1933. The Depression meant that people couldn’t afford to take casual, week-long pleasure-crossings on grand ocean liners anymore. Passenger numbers plummeted and company big-wigs had to do some fast thinking if they didn’t want their ships to go under along with the money they brought in.

The RMS Queen Mary in her heyday.

The Second World War, starting in 1939, changed a lot of things, including the shipping-industry. Ships such as the SS Mauretania (a later Cunard ship, launched in 1938), the RMS Olympic, the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth, all famous ocean liners, soon found themselves as troop-transport vessels, which were badly needed to ship soldiers to battlefields in Europe and Asia. Their enormous passsenger capacities, together with superior speed, meant that these ships were excellent for transporting combatants across the globe quickly and efficiently…and most importantly – fast enough to outrun any German U-boat submarines.

The SS Normandie, like the ocean liners listed above, was also to be converted to troop-transport, however during conversion in New York Harbour, a fire broke out in the ship. Attempts to put the fire out meant that there was a severe weight-imbalance, caused by the water pumped into the ship to put out the blaze. This imbalance caused the Normandie to capsize. Too busy with other wartime efforts to salvage the ship, the American authorities left the Normandie in the harbour for nearly a whole year. It was finally righted and refloated in 1943 (it was capsized in ’42), but the ship was, by that time, so damaged that it was considered a write-off, and was sent to the scrapyard.

Ocean Liner…or…Cruise Ship?

If you went up to the captain of an ocean liner and told him he had a nice ‘cruise ship’…he’d probably slap you in the face. Despite what some people think, there are actually significant differences between what constitutes an ocean liner, and what constitutes a cruise-ship. Ocean liners are large, powerful, ocean-going ships (hence the name…OCEAN liner), designed to transport vast numbers of passengers in comfort, over long distances. They are designed to be faster, larger, stronger and more luxurious. Their lifeboats are situated higher up on the ship’s side, to protect them from rogue-waves when out at sea.

By comparison, cruise-ships are smaller, less luxurious and slower. Their lifeboats are located further down on the ship’s hull and they are not expected to have to cross vast oceans on a regular basis. Cruise-ships sail from port to port, while ocean liners sail from country to country, covering several hundred miles of ocean. Cruise-ships carry fewer provisions, given the fact that they don’t spend as much time away from land. Ocean liners had to carry enough food and other necessities, to keep people fed for up to two weeks at a time.

The End of the Ocean Liner

With the rising popularity of commercial airplanes in the 1950s, with their faster travel-times, ocean liners began to find themselves running short on passengers. Most lines had crumbled in the Depression of the 1930s, but the few which remained, such as the Cunard Line, struggled to hold onto what passengers they had. By the 1970s, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was one of the few ships still making regular, transatlantic crossings. Eventually, however, airliners won out, and the grand days of the ocean liner were but a memory. Today, Cunard, with its grand ocean liners, is one of the very few shipping-companies which still plies the transatlantic route, with new ships such as the RMS Queen Mary 2 and the MS Queen Victoria.

Few of the grand ocean liners of yesteryear exist today. Ships such as the RMS Acquatania, the RMS Olympic, and the Normandie were scrapped. Ships such as the Britannic and the Titanic were either destroyed during service as troop-transport or hospital ships, or were sunk during accidents at sea. Today, the original RMS Queen Mary is the only one of the original ocean liners still intact, which plied the oceans of the world in what was the Golden Age of Ocean Liner.

The RMS Queen Mary as she appears today, docked in Long Beach, California.


The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (Pt. I)

The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, or indeed in world history. What made the Titanic so famous? Why was it not just lost to history like so many other maritime disasters and why does it continue to overshadow more recent or more tragic catastrophes at sea?

Probably because the events of the night of the 14th of April, 1912, were so intricately and minutely documented. Because the Titanic was a symbol of progress which literally vanished overnight. Because of the number of famous people onboard who lost their lives. Mr. and Mrs. Straus, Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, who were the Bill Gates’ and Donald Trumps of the the Belle Epoque.

But what really happened on the night of the 14th of April? Who lived? Who died? And what happened onboard the decks of the Titanic as people fought to survive? This posting will be an in-depth look at the events of that infamous night on the north Atlantic. All care has been made to keep this as factually accurate as possible…

Sunday, April 14th, 1912.


The RMS Titanic ending the fourth day of an expected seven-day crossing to New York City from the port of Southampton, in southern England. Onboard ship, everything is calm. Officers go about their rounds, stokers shovel coal into the boilers and passengers relax in their cabins, or in the ship’s many public rooms, enjoying drinks, jazz and classical music or playing cards, before bedtime. 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller ends his watch and is replaced on the bridge by 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch. It is freezing cold and the temperature is dropping fast. It’s already at freezing-point. 32F, or 0C. Up in the crow’s nest, lookouts Fredrick Fleet and Reginald Lee replace the previous two lookouts. They are warned to keep a sharp lookout for icebergs.


In the ‘Marconi’ wireless radio room, head wireless-operator Jack Phillips is busy sending telegrams to the wireless land-station located in the lighthouse at Cape Race, Newfoundland, several hundred miles away. He is interrupted in his transmissions by wireless operator Cyril Evans of the S.S. Californian…

“I say old man. We are stopped and surrounded by ice”.
“Shut up, shut up, I am busy. I am working Cape Race!”

Evans, failing to properly prefix his message with the standard “MSG” (Master Service Gram, which would indicate a telegram to be sent directly to the captain), is brushed off by an overworked and frustrated Phillips. He has a massive backlog of messages to hammer out on the telegraph-key, due to the wireless-set breaking down the day before. Phillips disregards Evans’ message and continues transmitting to Cape Race. Evans shuts off his radio and goes to sleep about 11:30pm.


Up in the crow’s nest, lookouts Fleet and Lee spot something large in the distance. It’s enormous, dark blue, and almost impossible to see in the moonless night. It’s an iceberg, less than half a mile away. The Titanic is steaming right for it, at nearly top speed. At 21kt (about 25mph), the Titanic would take up to 850 yards to come to a complete stop. The iceberg is barely 400 yards away. Fleet strikes the crow’s nest bell three times, to signal an obstruction in front of the ship. He picks up the telephone and contacts the bridge. 6th Officer Moody answers the call.

“What do you see?”
“Iceberg, right ahead!”
“Thank you”.

1st Officer Murdoch has already spotted the iceberg. He bellows the order “Hard a’Starboard!” into the wheelhouse. The helmsman, quartermaster Robert Hitchens, turns the wheel hard over, as far as it will possibly go. Murdoch grabs the handles of the two engine-order telegraphs and wrenches the indcator arms to the position: ‘Astern – FULL’. The bells ring and down in the engine-room, the ship’s engineers rush to engage the reversing gear. This isn’t as easy as you might think. The Titanic’s propellers must first come to a complete stop, before the gear is engaged. Steam-pressure has to be built up again before the propellers will start spinning in reverse. This interruption slows down the ship, but also makes it harder to turn. Murdoch activates the switches which close the watertight doors below deck. The ship slams into the side of the iceberg and scrapes past on the starboard side. Below the waterline, the rivets buckle and pop under the force of the impact with the iceberg. The steel, made brittle by the freezing Atlantic Ocean, opens up and water comes gushing into the Forepeak, the three forward holds and boiler room #6. Five compartments are breeched. Few passengers are awakened by the collision, which is but a barely-noticable shudder.

Murdoch then orders ‘Hard a’Port’, to swing the Titanic’s stern free of the iceberg to prevent further damage. At this point, Captain Smith comes out on deck. Murdoch explains the situation. Smith orders the engines ‘All Stop’. He orders 4th Officer Joseph Boxhall to go down below to assess any damage. Boxhall comes back up saying that nothing is wrong. Smith sends for the ship’s carpenter and for master shipwright Thomas Andrews to sound the ship (check it for damage). The water is rising very fast. Captain Smith orders the ship’s pumps to be turned on. The pumps are insufficient to cope with the amount of water pouring in, but they buy a few precious minutes of time.

Monday, April 15th, 1912.


By now, the water is pouring into the ship. Capt. Smith orders Jack Phillips, the wireless operator, to radio for help immediately. Phillips puts on his headphones and sends out the following message:

      “CQD DE MGY 41.44N / 50.14W”
    “Calling All Ships. Distress. This Is. Titanic. (Position).”


Phillips sends out another radio message. He includes the new distress-code, ‘SOS’, for the first time in his life. The Titanic was NOT the first ship to send out an SOS distress-call, however:

“CQD CQD SOS DE MGY 41.44N/50.14W”
“Calling All Ships. Distress. Calling All Ships. Distress. SOS. This is. Titanic. (Position)”.

SOS was selected as the radio distress-signal because it was easy to remember and distinctive in Morse Code. In case you ever need to use it, it is:

… – – – … (three short, three long, three short).

By now, two ships have responded. The S.S. Frankfurt and the R.M.S. Olympic, the Titanic’s sister-ship. They are 170 and 500 miles away, respectively.


By pure luck, Phillips manages to contact his friend and fellow wireless-operator, Harold Cottam on the R.M.S. Carpathia, eastbound out of New York City, steaming for the Mediterranean. Cottam was very nearly about to go to bed. He had put on his headphones to listen to the radio while undressing when this message came over the airwaves:

“Come at once. We have struck a ‘berg. It’s a CQD old man. Position 44:41N/50.14W”.

Stunned, Cottam radio’d back:

“I say old man. Do you know that there is a batch of messages coming through for you from MCC?”

(MCC was the callsign for the land-station at Cape Cod, Mass.).

“Shall I tell my captain? Do you require assistance?”
“Yes! Come quick!”

Cottam ran out of his cabin to find 1st Officer Dean of the Carpathia. Together, they ran to find Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron. Rostron orders the ship turned around and to head northwest at full speed (17kt). He orders Cottam to send a radio-message back to the Titanic to find out as much as he can and to tell Phillips they’re coming as quickly as possible. At 58 miles away, it will take the Carpathia up to 4 hours to reach the Titanic.

At the same time, the Titanic’s lifeboats are uncovered, swung out and lowered level with the Titanic’s boat-deck. Passengers are ordered out on-deck. Capt. Smith orders “women and children first” into the lifeboats. The order “women and children first” was meant to be that women and children entered the boats first, and any remaining men were to head in afterwards to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, some officers misinterpreted the order as “women and children ONLY”, which possibly led to the needless deaths of men later on. The Titanic has 20 lifeboats – 16 wooden ones and 4 collapsable ones with canvas sides.


The Carpathia has turned around and is steaming towards the Titanic as fast as possible. Cottam wires back to Phillips:

“Putting about and heading for you”.


The first lifeboat (starboard boat #7) is loaded with people. The 65-seat boat is loaded with only 28 passengers. The order is given to lower away at 12:45, one hour and five minutes after the sinking began. Every other boat is loaded and launched thereafter, at roughly ten-minute intervals. At 12:55, the second boat (starboard #5) is lowered. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe is interrupted by the White Star Line’s managing director, Joseph Bruce Ismay, who insists that the boats must be loaded and lowered as quickly as possible. Lowe, already on-edge and irritable, loses his temper at Ismay and shouts:

“You want me to lower away quickly!? You’ll have me drown the lot of them!”


On the port (left) side of the Titanic, lifeboat #6 is being lowered away. It contains such notables as Fredrick Fleet, the lookout, Robert Hitchens, the quartermaster and helmsman at the time of the collision and Margret ‘Molly’ Tobin Brown, the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown. Halfway down, it’s noted that there aren’t enough sailors in the boat to row it. Canadian major Arthur Peuchen, an expert yachtsman, offers his services. Lightoller, the loading-officer, looks at Peuchen a bit skeptically.

“Are you a seaman?”

      Lightoller asks.

“I’m a yachtsman”.
“Well if you’re seaman enough to go down those falls, you can go”.

Peuchen grabs hold of the falls (the ropes which lower the boat down the side of the ship) and climbs down safely into boat #6.

In the early stages of the sinking, many boats left the Titanic half-full. Passengers were unwilling to board the boats. For an explanation about why the boats were launched half-full, see “Questions and Statements about the Titanic”.


Lifeboat #1 (starboard) is lowered. Only twelve people occupy a boat meant to hold 40. Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Lady Duff-Gordon, his secretary, seven crewmembers and another two first-class passengers were all that were to be loaded into this boat. For the rest of his life, Sir Cosmo would try unsuccessfully to clear his name from cowardice and accusations of bribing the members of the crew in the boat, from going back to the site of the sinking to rescue survivors in the water.

The Titanic continues to sink faster and faster. More boats are lowered with more passengers now.

1:30, 1:35am.

Lifeboats #13 & 15 (starboard) are lowered. Both of them are fully-loaded. The discharge-pipe which is forcing out water from inside the ship threatens to fill boat 13 with water. Crewmembers push the boat away from the side of the ship with their oars. When they land in the water, the discharge-water from the ship sends the boat sliding underneath boat 15. Quick thinking and a sharp knife to cut the falls prevents a disaster. Lifeboat 13 rows away just in time and boat 15 lands safely in the water alongside it.

It is now obvious that the Titanic is sinking. Passengers begin to panic. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe lowers lifeboat 14 on the port side. He fires his revolver at least three times to maintain crowd-control as angry and terrified male passengers try to swarm his already fully-loaded lifeboat.

As the night goes on, distress-rockets are fired. Phillips continues to radio desperately for help. The ship’s band, the Wallace Hartley Quintet, plays ragtime and classical music to try and calm the passengers. Mrs. Ida Straus gets into a lifeboat. When her husband tries to get in and is pushed back by the loading-officer, Mrs. Straus gets out of the boat, famously proclaiming to her husband:

“Where you go, I go”.

Mr. and Mrs. Isador Straus, owners of ‘Macy’s’ department-store in New York City, drown on the Titanic.

In the radio-room, Phillips continues to transmit Morse Code over the airwaves. His latest message:

“Women and children in the boats. Cannot last much longer”.


Collapsible C is lowered. White Star Line’s Joseph Bruce Ismay boards this boat, an action that will destroy his reputation for the rest of his life.


Two hours and five minutes after impact. Water covers the Titanic’s nameplate. It pours onto the deck and the bow plunges deeper. Water pours into the foward well-deck. Time is beginning to run out. Phillips transmits the following message to Cottam on the Carpathia:

“Come as quickly as possible, old man! Our engine-room filling up to the boilers!”

    (Captain Smith had recently informed Phillips of this fact, having gone down a few minutes before, to check on the water-level inside the ship).

The Titanic has just over half an hour left afloat. Master shipwright Thomas Andrews urges passengers to put on their lifebelts and to board the lifeboats as quickly as possible.


Lifeboats continue to be lowered at roughly 5-10-minute intervals. The Titanic starts a noticable list to port. The water onboard ship is causing it to lose its center of balance.


Collapsible D is launched from the Titanic. She is the last lifeboat to be successfully lowered. Water is pouring into the promenade area on A Deck. The ship starts sinking even faster. Soon, water makes it to the wheelhouse and the forward boat-deck. Officers begin to panic and try desperately to launch collapsible lifeboats A and B, stored upside down on the roof of the officer’s quarters. Seamen try to slide the boats down on planks propped up against the walls, but the port list makes this difficult at best. Collapsible B falls over upside down. Passengers manage to get Collapsible A upright and partially loaded. The rapidly rising water causes the boat to be flooded and it floats off with about two dozen people onboard.


The ship’s electrical generators are beginning to struggle. The Titanic’s electricians run around trying to stop the generators from short-circuiting from the water. Phillips continues to hammer out Morse Code messages on his now, barely-functioning wireless-set. The current is weak and his messages are garbled and broken up. He sends:

“SOS SOS CQD CQD DE MGY. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats.”

Outside, passengers climb down the empty lifeboat-falls into the water and swim for nearby lifeboats. Survivors in the boats help swimmers in and watch, horrified as the ship’s stern rises out of the water. The rudder and the three propellers are now clearly visible. Passengers who jump from the ship wearing lifebelts risk broken necks as they hit the water. Their downward momentum sends their bodies down into the water, but the boyant, cork-padded lifebelts pop upwards, hitting them on their chins, whipping their heads back and breaking their necks.

In the First-Class Smoking-Lounge, a steward escaping the rising waters, finds Mr. Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s shipwright, standing in front of the fireplace, staring at the painting over the mantelpiece, “Approach to Plymouth Harbour”. The steward asks Mr. Andrews if he’s even going to make a try for it. Andrews, who isn’t even wearing a lifebelt, probably suffering from shock and wracked by guilt, doesn’t respond. The steward flees, leaving Andrews to his fate.


Phillips continues to transmit. His last message:


At this point, the wireless-set finally packs up. Try as he might, Philllips cannot get it to turn back on. According to Bride at the inquest, Phillips had intended to send:

“Calling All Ships. Distress. This is. Titanic.

With the wireless set dead, Phillips and Bride turn to flee. They beat up a stoker who sneaks into the wireless-room, trying to steal Phillips’s lifebelt. Both men put on their belts and run out of the room. Bride helps the crew and 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller in launching Collapsible boat B. Phillips heads aft. The forward smokestack collapses into the water. It kills several struggling swimmers and it washes lifeboats A and B clear of the ship. Struggling to hold onto the slippery, overturned Collapsible B are about 30 men, a mixture of passengers and crew.


1st Class Passenger Jack Thayer Jnr (aged 17) and his friend, Milton Long, jump from the Titanic’s upper decks. Thayer never sees Long ever again. Jack swims through the frigid, 28F, -2.2C water until he reaches Collapsible B, which was overturned by the wash from the falling forward smokestack. He is met by wireless operator Harold Bride, who helps him aboard.


The lights flicker once and go out. The Titanic breaks in two, right down to the keel. The stern falls back and the bow plunges down. As the bow sinks, it pulls the stern vertical. It detataches and then sinks like a stone. The stern floats for a few seconds before finally filling with water and plunging down into the sea. The Titanic is gone. Over 1,500 passengers are still thrashing in the freezing water, begging for rescue. Most are dead within 20 minutes.


The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (Pt II)

Continued from Part I, above.


Onboard the overturned Collapsible B, 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller takes command. Spreading the men out along the overturned boat, he’s able to keep the boat from flipping over and sinking, and helps more passengers onboard. Along with the few who grabbed on when the ship sank, Lightoller is soon joined by wireless operators Phillips and Bride, 1st Class Passenger Jack Thayer Jnr, ship’s cook George Maynard and chief baker Charles Joughin. Joughin is unique amongst the passengers of the Titanic in that he entered the water completely stinking drunk. When the ship was sinking, he consumed his entire private stash of brandy and whiskey before leaving his cabin. He rode the stern of the ship down and described it as being like in an elevator. He stepped off the ship and into the water without, so he claimed, even getting his hair wet. He then swam over to Collapsible B where his colleague and friend, Maynard, held onto his hand while Joughin bobbed in the water for up to an hour before being hauled safely aboard the lifeboat when another passenger died from exposure.

A little further away, 5th Officer Lowe gathers some lifeboats together. He redistributes passengers and rows back to the site of the sinking to search for survivors. Throughout the sinking and throughout the night, roughly a dozen people are pulled out of the water. Nearly half of them later die from exposure and hypothermia. Amongst them is wireless-operator Jack Phillips.

Throughout the night, Lightoller talks to the people onboard his boat, to keep them awake. Their delicate balancing-act on the overturned Collapsible B is the only thing preventing them from all faling into the water and losing the boat for good. He asks Bride how long the Carpathia would take to arrive. Bride estimates another one hour. In lifeboat #6, QM Robert Hitchens comes under heavy criticism by the women passengers, whom he would not allow to row back to the Titanic to pick up survivors. He continues to mope and grumble throughout the night, arguing frequently with Molly Brown. At one point he even swore at her. Considering that Brown was a girl who came from a working-class background and who married into wealth, she barely batted an eyelid. Instead, she coolly replied that she would tip Hitchens out of the boat if he didn’t shut up. Hitchens sat at the back of the boat for the rest of the night, not talking to anyone.


The R.M.S. Carpathia reaches the exact spot given by Phillips. There’s nothing there. No boats. No ship. No bodies. Nothing. Captain Rostron, who has steamed through the night at top speed through an ice-field at great risk to his life and the lives of his passengers and crew, begins to worry. He orders distress-rockets to be fired to signal his ship’s presence and location. In the lifeboats, Titanic’s survivors notice the rockets. They burn pieces of paper and articles of clothing such as hats and scarves, to send out smoke and fire-signals to indicate their presence and position and start rowing towards the Carpathia. 4th Officer Boxhall releases a green smoke-flare to attract further attention.


The first lifeboat pulls up alongside the Carpathia. Carpathia’s officers and crew help survivors out of the boats with rope ladders and slings. They are served hot drinks and food and crewmembers start taking down the names of survivors.


The last of the Titanic’s boats has finally been offloaded. The Carpathia carries 705 survivors. She steams off to New York City. Nearby, the wireless-operator of the S.S. Californian has just woken up and radios to the Carpathia to ask if there’s anything he can do to help. Despite severe frostbite to his feet, surviving wireless-operator Harold Bride helps his colleage, Harold Cottam, in working his wireless-set, transmitting lists of survivors to New York. Joseph Bruce Ismay sends the following telegram:

    “Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later.”

Questions and Statements about the Titanic’s Sinking.

Just as the Titanic has its legions of fans, affectionately known as ‘Titaniacs’, the ship also has its hundreds of cynics, critics and just plain clueless people, who make sweeping statements, outrageous suggestions or ask questions which can only lead to unhappy answers. Here I’ll list some of the more…interesting…statements and questions that I’ve read in my time:

1. “If the lookouts had binoculars, they would’ve seen the iceberg earlier! Why didn’t they have any?”

This is a popular assertion. Yes, if you have distance-viewing equipment, you can see things in the distance a lot easier and a lot quicker! DUUUH! On the surface, it sounds perfectly logical. But apply this to the Titanic scenario, and it falls down flat like a row of dominoes. Here’s why:

Binoculars (or indeed, any distance-viewing aid, such as a monocular or a telescope), while they greatly increase how far you can see, also greatly decrease your field of vision. It’s no point being able to see ten miles out to sea if you can only look a total of six inches either way with your eyes. You’ve effectively created tunnel-vision for yourself. Without peripheral vision, you’re basically staring into a pair of tubes in a black room.

On the night in question, being almost pitch black with still water and no breaking-water at the base of the ‘berg, the Titanic’s fate was almost invisible to the ship’s lookouts, with a wide field of vision and the help of the ship’s lights. Having bincoulars would only have narrowed their field of vision even more, making them effectively blind. You can’t see something if you don’t know it’s there. They wouldn’t have seen the iceberg because they wouldn’t have a ‘reference point’. By that I mean, they wouldn’t be able to say: “If we start at the tip of the bow and work our way forward, we’ll focus on that area in front of the ship”, because they wouldn’t able to FIND the bow of the ship with their field of sight so severely restricted. If you don’t believe me…Go out into the sky at night with a telescope or some binoculars. Look at the ground. Put the binoculars to your eyes. WITHOUT taking them AWAY from your eyes…look up and try and find the moon. Can you find it? No. It’s impossible to look for it if you don’t know it’s there and it’s impossible to see it without having first seen it with your naked eyes. This was the predicament that the Titanic’s lookouts faced, and why binoculars would’ve been almost no help at all.

As to why they didn’t have any binoculars, well, there were binoculars onboard the Titanic, but they were locked in a cupboard and the crewman who had the key, had taken it with him when he disembarked the ship before it sailed off into history.

2. “Why didn’t they just stop the ship?”

Basic laws of physics is why not. Anyone who passed high-school science will know that the larger an object is, the harder it is to set in motion, and the harder it is to arrest that motion. The Titanic simply wasn’t able to stop in time. During her sea-trials, the Titanic accelerated to ‘full ahead’, a maximum speed of 23kt. She then had her engines stopped and then run full astern at maximum speed. It took her half a mile to stop. The ship had roughly half a mile between the iceberg and her bow when the iceberg was sighted and the crew had only 37 seconds to react. Furthermore, on open ocean, the ship would have had nothing to slow its momentum, apart from the drag of the water.

3. “If they had more lifeboats onboard, they would’ve saved everyone!”

A lot of people have said this. And on the surface, it sounds logical, but unfortunately, it would not have helped. The Titanic had twenty lifeboats; sixteen wooden ones and four Englehardt collapsable lifeboats with canvas sides. In the two hours and forty minutes in which the Titanic sank, the ship’s officers only managed to launch eighteen of those boats at a rate of one every five minutes starting at 12:45am (a full hour after the sinking started). Even if they had the full complement of lifeboats that the Titanic could carry (64 in total), they wouldn’t have been able to launch them all in time, which means the provision of extra lifeboats was rather pointless.

4. “Why didn’t they fully-load the lifeboats before lowering them?”

For all of the Titanic’s history, one of the biggest controversies was why the lifeboats were never fully-loaded when they were filled with passengers and lowered into the water. The reasons for this are numerous and will take some time to explain. There are several factors which one has to consider about the Titanic’s lifeboats to understand why the officers did what they did.

Passengers didn’t want to go.

Brainwashed by media hype, passengers believed that the Titanic was well and truly unsinkable. With this in mind, they did not see the point in getting into the lifeboats. Officers could not force passengers into the boats, so they took what few that would get into the boats, and then lowered them away. They could not afford to wait around and waste time while passengers made up their mind, which was almost invariably, to stay onboard the ship.

The Drop.

The Titanic was a big ship. From the boat deck down to the waterline, it was a drop of sixty-two feet, just over twenty meters, into ice-cold water that was 28F, or -2.2C. Most passengers were not brave enough to get into a tiny wooden lifeboat which was swinging out over the side of the ship on a set of ropes. They considered the Titanic to be a much safer option, foregoing what was probably their only chance of survival.

The Weight of the Boats.

This was probably the officers’ biggest reason for not wanting to fully load the boats with passengers. The lifeboats themselves were already incredibly heavy. I know, they’re made of wood. They can’t weigh that much, can they? Yes they can. The average Titanic lifeboat weighs between two and three tons…empty. Add passengers and that increases the overall weight to five to six tons. Considering that they only had twenty boats, the officers didn’t want to be put in a situation where an overloaded lifeboat snapped free from its falls (the ropes which lowered it into the water) and crashed into the ocean, 62ft below, possibly smashing the boat like matchwood and killing or injuring several dozen people. They preferred to do it safe.

5. “Why weren’t the ship’s pumps turned on?”

The ship’s pumps were turned on. When the Titanic started sinking, the captain ordered all of the ship’s pumps to be turned on, in an effort to bail out the water. Unfortunately, the ship did not have any pumps which were designed to force out the water quicker than it was coming in. She had bilge-pumps for ejecting water from the bilge (the very bottom of the ship), and she had ash-ejector pumps, which forced out a slurry of water and ash into the ocean, but she did not have any pumps purely for preventing the ship from sinking. The water was pouring in much too fast for the Titanic’s small pumps to ever force it out at a speed quick enough to keep the ship afloat.

6. “Why didn’t passengers swim to the iceberg?”

They didn’t swim to the iceberg simply because they didn’t know where it was! By the time the ship had stopped, the iceberg was at least half a mile away, if not more. It would have been impossible to locate it in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean without any lights.

7. “Why didn’t the ‘Californian’s’ wireless-operator stay on the air throughout the night?”

Cyril Evans, the wireless-operator of the S.S. Californian, shut off his wireless set shortly after 11:15pm and went to sleep at 11:30pm on the night of the sinking. The Titanic would strike the iceberg just ten minutes later. Why didn’t he remain on the air longer?

Because he didn’t want to, he didn’t need to, and he wasn’t legally obligated to. Until after the sinking of the Titanic, it was not mandatory to maintain 24/7 radio-contact at sea for purposes of safety.

8. “Why did Jack Phillips ignore Cyril Evans’s radio-message?”

One of the most famous events in Titanic history. At 11:00pm, Cyril Evans sent out a general message to all ships (including the Titanic) that the ‘Californian’ had stopped for the night, on account of the pack-ice near the ship, which made it too dangerous to continue sailing until morning. The exchange between the two wireless-operators, word for word, was:

Evans: “Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice”.
Phillips: “Shut up! Shut up! I am busy! I am working Cape Race!”

Why did Phillips ignore Evans? Because Evans interrupted him, simple as that. Phillips was busy sending wireless messages (in morse code), to the wireless land-station in Cape Race, Newfoundland, several hundred miles away. Evans, just a few miles from the Titanic on the S.S. Californian, sent a radio-message that was so loud, it nearly blew Philllips’s eardrums out. Apart from that, Evans did not prefix his ice-warning message with the three letters: “MSG”.

“MSG” stands for “Master Service Gram”; (telegram, that is). All messages prefixed “MSG” had to be sent DIRECTLY to the captain AT ONCE. Evans’s failure to follow basic wireless-operation procedure of the time, meant that to Phillips, Evans’s message was just as good as saying: “Sup dudez? Wez stopped by ice and stuff and like…yeah. Out, man!” instead of something more official, along the lines of: “IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Stopped due to heavy ice in path. Please inform captain ASAP”.

9. “Why didn’t the Titanic just simply back up to the iceberg, park there and offload all her passengers onto it?”

Because it could not be done. For the Titanic to make it back to the iceberg, she’d first have to know where it was, which was impossible. And even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to navigate effectively, backwards, towards the iceberg. And even if she could do that, the momentum built up during the journey would mean that the Titanic would not have been able to stop (AGAIN!) in time to ‘park’ next to the iceberg, probably resulting in another collision and even more damage.

10. “Did a ship’s officer really commit suicide?”

The general consensus is yes, an officer did commit suicide. Was it 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch? Nobody will ever know for sure.

11. “Did ship’s officers ever shoot anyone on the Titanic?

No. Certainly there were revolvers and ammunition on the Titanic (at least five pistols, four belonging to the crew, one belonging to a passenger), but none of these were ever used to kill anyone. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe had a revolver (of his own, private property), and the other, more senior officers had revolvers (Webley & Scott breaktop revolvers, which were part of the ship’s supplies), and certainly, Lowe fired at least four shots during the sinking to scare passengers back from swamping the boats, but there is no evidence to suggest that anyone was actually shot and killed or wounded on the Titanic, except the unknown officer who commited suicide.

12. “If the ‘Californian’ had answered the Titanic’s calls for distress, she could have saved everyone”

On the surface, this looks like a rather easy thing to say. If the Californian had answered the Titanic’s radio calls or distress-rockets as quickly as possible, she could be alongside the Titanic and would have saved everyone at once! Unfortunately this isn’t the case, as there were several things preventing it.

Stopped for the night.

The Californian’s engines were stopped for the night. This means that it would take a considerable amount of time to get them going again. Once they were going, it would have taken time to get the ship moving, time which Titanic didn’t have.


The Californian would be sailing through several icebergs to reach the Titanic, which would have greatly impeded her speed and progress.


Even IF the Californian had built up enough steam. Even IF she had reached the Titanic, she still needed to cart all the passengers back and forth, using both her own, and the Titanic’s lifeboats as ferries. Even on a flat calm, still night like that of April 14th, 1912, this would’ve taken several hours. While this might have saved several more lives, it is unlikely that the Californian would still have managed to rescue everyone.

13. “Why was the Titanic going so fast? Why didn’t it slow down?

The Titanic was going so fast because it had a schedule to keep and it didn’t slow down because it wasn’t seen as being necessary. Don’t forget that time is money. If the Titanic arrived in New York late, it meant that passengers would cancel their tickets and pick other ships, which meant that the Titanic and the White Star Line, would lose money.

14. “Did that car in the Titanic film really exist?”

The car in which Jack and Rose had sex in, in the 1997 movie certainly exists. But I figure you’re asking: “Did it exist on the ship in real life?”. Yes it did. The car was a 1911 35hp Renault towncar, owned by Mr. William Carter Snr, a first-class passenger. The scenario in the movie would have been impossible, though, because the car was locked in a crate for the duration of the voyage. It is listed in the Titanic’s cargo-manifest as: “1 Case Auto – W. Carter”.

15. “Hitting the Iceberg Head-On would’ve Saved Everyone!”

This is debatable. The argument is that if the R.M.S. Titanic had slammed into the iceberg head-on, less of the ship would’ve been exposed to major damage and the ship’s ‘usinkable’ design-features would spring to the rescue. Here’s how it plays out:

The Titanic was designed to float with the first four, or any other two of her watertight compartments flooded. The argument contends that if the ship had crashed into the iceberg head-on, the first, or at the very most, first two compartments, would’ve been ruptured by the force of the collision. The water floods in, but the ship is in no immediate danger of sinking. It might even be able to continue sailing to New York City, or at the very worst, it would stay afloat long enough for rescue-ships to reach it and offload all her passengers.

When the Titanic was designed back in the early 1900s, the kinds of accidents it was being ‘protected’ against were T-bone accidents, with the bow of one ship crashing into the broadside of another, or vice-versa. Under these circumstances, where two or three bulkheads might be ruptured, yes, the ship would stay afloat. But the ships of the day were not designed to survive impacts with icebergs. In theory, the ‘headbutt’ argument with everyone (or most of the people) surviving sounds plausible, but as it’s never been put into practice, it is unknown how much structural damage the Titanic would really have sustained, having smashed into a mountain of ice (that’s what an iceberg literally is – ‘ice’ + German word ‘berg’, meaning ‘mountain’, literally ‘ice-mountain’). The ship might have been even more severely damaged and this would have caused great problems later on with the evacuation of passengers.


All Aboard! – Life on the R.M.S. Titanic

Everyone and their brother knows about the fact that the Titanic bumped into one of nature’s ice-cubes and sank nearly 100 years ago. But what was life actually like onboard the ‘ship of dreams’, during those four days when passengers treated this crossing like any other which they might have booked? What would they have eaten, what would they have experienced and where could they go around the ship?

The Ship’s Interiors.

The R.M.S. Titanic was nothing less than a great, big, steam-powered floating hotel. Her public rooms were all lavishly decorated to match the styles of great European palaces, English country houses and famous hotels such as the Hotel Ritz in Paris, France. Her first class areas and accomadations were the most luxurious and the most comfortable which anyone could ever have imagined to have existed on a seagoing boat in the early 1910s. All the public rooms were brightly lit with electric lighting at night, and dazzling sunlight in the morning. The ship’s dining-rooms and hallways, cabins, staterooms and libraries were a whirlwind of polished brass, wrought iron, glass, carved wood panelling, patterned carpets and crisp, bright colours. No expense was spared. The Titanic had not one, but two grand staircases. The first one, everyone knows about, the second, smaller staircase was located further back and it stopped one deck short of the one forward, but it was details like this that made the Titanic famous. She was designed to be impressive and she was designed to be luxurious. Her luxury was part of her very purpose. The Titanic was built as the second of three ships which the White Star Line hoped would provide some stiff competition to its main competitor, the equally famous Cunard Line. Cunard ships prided themselves on speed. They made fast, efficient crossings which won them big bucks in the lucrative transatlantic-crossings business. White Star wasn’t able to build ships that were as fast as Cunard’s, so instead of speed, they went all out on luxury.

Prices and Tickets.

How much did you have to pay in order to be a part of all this floating luxury?

In 1912, a first-class ticket for a parlour suite stateroom cost $3,450. Today that’s $75,260.
In 1912, a first-class ticket for a berth cost $150. Today that’s $3,270.
In 1912, a second-class ticket cost $60. Today that’s $1,308.
In 1912, a third-class ticket cost $15-40, depending on the size and type of the cabin. Today that’s $327-$872.

Even today, that’s a hell of a lot of money to be paying just to hop on a ship to sail across the flipping Atlantic Ocean! But of course…passengers would never have paid so much for their tickets, if they were not assured of the very highest luxuries. What sort of ammenities did the Titanic have for her passengers and which class of passengers could expect what?

Creature Comforts.

As we’ve seen, travelling on the Titanic was anything but cheap. Fifteen dollars in 1912 was about two week’s wages for the average working man. A bottle of Coca Cola was five cents, a film-ticket was five cents (a ‘nickel’, from which we get the term ‘nickelodeon’). The cheapest watch (a pocket watch, back then), cost one whole dollar in a day and age when you could buy an entire meal, plus drink, for about twenty-five cents. For all their hard-earned money, people on the Titanic were expecting bang-for-their-buck on a nuclear level. What could they expect for all their money?

In First Class:

For their meals: An a-la-carte restaurant, the Cafe Parisien and the First Class Dining-Saloon (this latter capable of serving over 600 people in each sitting).

First Class Dining-Saloon.

First-Class a la carte restaurant.

The Cafe Parisien.

For their amusement: The first-class library, the swimming-pool, the gymnasium, the ship’s dark-room and the ship’s squash-courts. Also, the musical abilities of two bands, the Wallace Hartley Quintet (comprising of a cellist, two violinists, a bassist and a pianist), and another musical trio. Passengers could expect music such as selections from the Gilbert & Sullivan ‘Savoy Operas’, classical music, early jazz and ragtime tunes, popular music, folk-songs and classical and opera pieces.

First-class gymnasium, located on the boat deck.

For their relaxation: The promenade deck, the turkish baths, the first-class receoption room, the lady’s reading-and-writing room and the men’s first-class smoking-lounge.

The Titanic’s First-Class Smoking Room.

The First-Class Reception Room on D-Deck. In the second photograph, the double-doors on the left lead into the First-Class Dining-Saloon (photo further up). In the third photo, behind the pillar on the right, you can see the bannister which made up the last flight of the Forward Grand Staircase.

For their accomadation: First-class parlour suite staterooms and berths, complete with electric heaters (it could get below freezing on the Atlantic Ocean at night).
For their servants: The Valets’ & Maids’ dining-room.

The swimming-pool was open to both men and women, at separate times. It contained heated water and was the first such swimming-pool to exist on an ocean-liner.

In Second Class:

For their meals: The Second-Class Dining-Saloon.

The Second-Class Dining-Saloon. You can see a piano at the back of the room, another, neat little detail.

For their amusement: The second-class library and the ship’s dark-room (for any photographers).

The Second-Class Library

For their relaxation: The second-class smoking room and the second-class reading-and-writing room.

For their accomadation: Second-class staterooms and berths.

The food for the first and second-class restaurants were all cooked in the same galley, so the quality of food served to second-class passengers was of the same served to first-class passengers.

In Third Class (also called ‘steerage’):

For their meals: The Third-Class Dining-Saloon.
For their amusement:…not much. Third-class passengers generally provided their own amusement with musical instruments they brought with them.
For their relaxation: The poop-deck, the third-class common-room, which contained a piano for budding musicians amongst the passengers. Considering how expensive a piano is, this was a real luxury for passengers travelling in third class.

Ammenities open to all passengers:

The ship’s infirmary (with an operating room and the services of two expert physicians).
The ship’s marconi room (the radio-room, from which passengers could send telegrams. A telegram was 12s 6d…twelve shillings and sixpence…for the first ten words, and 9d…ninepence…for every word thereafter. It’s no wonder that telegrams were often kept as short as possible. A pound sterling was 20s).
The ship’s four elevators (lifts). The elevators were located behind the Forward Grand Staircase on D-Deck. Three elevators for first-class passengers, one elevator for second-class passengers. Third-class passengers had to walk.
The ship’s two barbershops, available to all classes.

The only known photograph of the Titanic’s elevators. One of them, anyway.

Class-Divisions onboard Ship.

Despite all her bells and whistles, her gadgets and gizmoes, her devices and doovalackies, the Titanic was no different from any other ship on the high seas back in the 1910s in that she stuck strictly to the class-system that existed in society at the time. Onboard ship, all passengers were expected to know their places and they were expected to stay there. First and second-class passengers were not expected to mingle and third-class passengers were expected to stick to themselves, below deck. They were called ‘steerage’ passengers because their berths were often deep down in the ship, some even below the waterline, near the engines…near the ‘steerage’ area of the ship at the stern. Despite popular myth, the Titanic never boasted the big, intimidating accordian-grille gates which the 1997 James Cameron film immortalised. Careful studying of the ship’s blueprints, survivor-testimonies and examinations of the shipwreck itself, provided no evidence that such gates ever existed. There were, certainly, small barriers set into corridors to indicate where one part of the ship ended and another began (indicating, yet again, class-divisions), but these were not in any way meant to be used as crowd-control barriers. They were described simply as low gates which could be stepped over or climbed over in the event of an emergency.

Arriving in New York.

Had the Titanic actually arrived in New York City as it should have, passengers would have disembarked by class, first first, second second and third…last. Luggage would have been unloaded and claimed and any prior transportation which passengers had arranged, would have been waiting for them in New York.


R.M.S. Titanic – The Lure of a Legend.

Ninety-seven years ago, a ship sailed off into history. Ninety-seven years ago, it left the port of Southampton, England, on a sunny, April day at twelve noon. Ninety-seven years ago on the 10th of April, 1912 at midday, the R.M.S. Titanic steamed off into history, carrying 2,228 passengers and crew on a transatlantic crossing which has fascinated the world ever since.

In many respects, the R.M.S. Titanic was like any other ship on the high seas, during the period known as the ‘Belle Epoque’, which is a French term meaning ‘Beautiful Era’. In many respects, the Titanic differed very little from other ships then ploughing through the waves around the world. She was made of iron, she was held together by a hefty three million rivets, she was steam-powered, with coal-fired boilers and she carried all kinds of passengers, both rich and poor. Her sinking was no more interesting than any other sinking, one could argue. The Titanic isn’t even the ship with the highest death-rate from a single sinking! Indeed, when the Titanic set sail on the 10th of April, most people didn’t really see it as anything remarkable or special. The RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s older sister was seen as something special, because she was the first of a new class of ocean-liners. Not many people other than those who made the Titanic, really thought that it should be given any more attention than any other ship. Why then do we, nearly a full century after it vanished under the sea, still continue to hold a fascination with what is now a rusting hull stuck two and a half miles down at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? There are thousands, millions of articles, books, novels, magazines and films about this ship, but why?

The Lure of the Titanic.

In its day, the Titanic was not seen as something amazingly special. And even now, after all the media hype, some people still don’t see what all the fuss is about, and yet there is still another group of people who won’t shut up about it. Why?

The Titanic fascinates so many people, entrances them, excites them and interests them so deeply purely because of what the ship…was!

In many respects, the R.M.S. Titanic was the embodiment of the Edwardian Age, all hammered, beaten and riveted into reality. The Titanic reflected life as it really was back in the early 1910s. Sailing onboard her decks, sleeping in her cabins and eating in her dining-rooms was a layer-cake slice sample of Edwardian society. Filling the ship’s rooms, offices and running through the walls, under the floors and over the ceilings, were all the latest inventions which had flowered at the start of the 20th century. The Titanic catered for everyone and boasted of everything. In a day and age when most people still sent letters, the Titanic had telephones and a switchboard. In a day when the speed of a train was the fastest way a message got from A to B, wireless radio could send messages across the ocean in a matter of seconds! When previously it took a month to sail across the Atlantic, it now took one week. When most people were still using gas lighting, the Titanic had fully-operational electric lights in every single room and cabin. The ship was seen as the total embodiment of all that was advanced and magnificent. It was proof to everyone that the Edwardian Era had reached a scientific and technological peak, never before seen by humankind.

What the Titanic Represented.

To the people who built her, who fitted her out, who booked cabins on her, who walked her decks, the Titanic represented…progress. Progress in science, arts, engineering, culture and technology. Unfortunately, it also represented stereotypical Edwardian-era arrogance. The arrogance of mankind, as it was thought back then, that they had triumphed over everything, that they had triumphed over nature, and that they had now created something which was truly indestructable. The ship was modern, fast, luxurious, comfortable and unsinkable.

Well no.

The Titanic’s designers, shipbuilders or owners never actually said that the Titanic was unsinkable. It’s never mentioned anywhere. The claim of ‘usinkability’ came from a popular magazine of the period known as ‘The Shipbuilder’. The Shipbuilder, as the name suggests, followed all the major shipping-news, much like how a magazine like ‘Wheels’ or ‘Top Gear’ would follow all the latest automobile news today. The Shipbuilder toted the Titanic as ‘practically unsinkable’. Practically. Not literally, practically. Unfortunately, the ocean-going public of 1912 took the ‘practically unsinkable’, removed the ‘practically’ and changed it for ‘literally’.

High-Tech Titanic.

One of the biggest lures of the Titanic was the technology and the passenger ammenities that were available onboard. The Titanic boasted electric lights in all her cabins, it boasted electric heaters in all the staterooms. It had a 5 kilowatt wireless radio-system capable of transmitting messages to a radius of 400 miles. On a clear night, this range could triple to 1,200 miles! The Titanic boasted a 50-telephone switchboard, a state-of-the-art infirmary with an operating-theatre and four…yes four elevators! Three were allowed to be used by first class passengers, and one by second class passengers. Third class passengers would have to leg it. The Titanic also featured a full gymnasium and a fully-equipped darkroom, for any amatuer photographers onboard.

A Slice of Life.

If the Titanic said anything about society in the 1910s, it showed that the strict class-divisions which had been a key part of life during the Georgian and Victorian eras, was still well alive in the 20th century. The Titanic’s passengers were a real cross-section of Edwardian society. You had everyone from wealthy industrialists and businessmen such as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggemheim and the Strauses, you had well-to-do gentlemen like Lawrence Beesley, then a young teacher and author in his mid 30s and you had poor, humble passengers travelling across a vast ocean to start a new life, like the Goldsmith Family, with Mr. Frank Goldsmith Snr., his wife and his little boy, also named Frank, who was aged just nine.