Arse over Titanic

In the final scene of A Night to Remember, the 1953 film about the Titanic, second mate Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) ruminates on the cause of the sinking. “There were quite a lot of ifs about it,” he said. “If we’d be steaming a few knots slower, or if we’d sighted that berg a few seconds earlier…if we carried enough lifeboats for the size of the ship…”
This sinking was different, he concludes.
“Because we were so sure, because even though it has happened it is still unbelievable.” The reluctance of many passengers to leave the ship, believing it was unsinkable meant nearly all the lifeboats were lowered without a full complement of passengers. The sinking of the Titanic was the shattering of the belief in the human harnessing of technology for good. It was the beginning of the end for modernism.

Expect a deluge of commemoration in April next year for the 100th anniversary of the sinking. On April 15, 1912, 1502 people died in the North Atlantic when Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage. It was the worst disaster at sea ever and it remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind only the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters, neither of which have inspired Hollywood movies. Similarly unknown is the worst marine disaster ever the Nazi ship Wilhelm Gustloff torpedoed by a Russian submarine in 1945 with 7000 lives lost. Another 3000 died when the British Troopship Lancastria sunk in 1940 but its official record has been classified until 2040 possibly because the captain ignored maximum loading capacity instructions.
The Lancastria is a mystery but the Titanic is a myth. Titanic sank for reasons familiar today: the law not keeping up with communication, technology and corporate greed. Wireless was available but unregulated and rival companies could jam each other. The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 had a section about the number of life-boats, life-jackets, life-rafts and life-buoys on British ships which delegated to the Board of Trade “according to the class in which they are arranged”.
The Board, guided by ship owners, judged the number of lifeboats to be a function of tonnage not of total passengers. Titanic exceeded its legal lifeboat capacity of boats for 1060 people carrying 20 lifeboats (enough for 1178 people including all of first class). But she could carry three times that many people.
When the Board last regulated on the matter in 1896, the largest ship afloat was Cunard’s 12,950 ton vessel RMS Lucania. The Germans outstripped it with the 14,400 ton Norddeutsche Lloyd vessel Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, and further ruffled British feathers by winning the Blue Riband for the record speed in an Atlantic crossing averaging 22.3 knots, half a knot faster than Lucania.


White Star line upped the ante with the Oceanic (1899), Celtic (1901), Baltic (1905) and Olympic (1911) trebling the tonnage. A year later their Titanic weighed in at a new record 46,329 tons, almost four times heavier than the law allowed for Lucania. White Star’s ships were built for comfort and style not speed. Cunard continued to dominate the Blue Riband, despite their smaller ships. White Star was cutting corners of a different kind.

In 1912 White Star was part of the International Mercantile Marine company owned by monopolist J.P. Morgan. IMM was overleveraged and suffered from inadequate cash flow that caused it to default on bond interest payments in 1914. At the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster Sir Alfred Chalmers of the Board of Trade was asked about the lifeboat regulations. Sir Alfred made a strange claim.

He said if there were fewer lifeboats on Titanic more people would have been saved. He said more people would have realised the danger and rushed to the boats filling more to capacity. This claim has superficial validity as the lifeboats could have saved 1187 people but only 710 survived. But then he gave the real reasons: Newer ships were stronger than ever with watertight compartments making them unlikely to require any lifeboats, sea routes were well-travelled meaning a collision was minimal, the availability of wireless technology, the difficulties of loading more than 16 boats. Ultimately, said Chambers, it was a matter for ship owners.

Those owners were well served by the highest ranking surviving officer Second Mate Lightoller – the hero of the 1953 film. Lightoller guided his upturned boat through four hours of choppy seas to safety. In testimony to the Inquiry he said it was “necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush”. That meant giving careful answers to sharp questions “if one was to avoid a pitfall, carefully and subtly dug, leading to a pinning down of blame on to someone’s luckless shoulders.” His job was to defend the Board of Trade and White Star Lines and he succeeded admirably.

But his testimony did force a change of the rules. Lightoller admitted the pendulum had swung “to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.” But then he would remember the “long drawn out battle of wits, where it seemed that I must hold that unenviable position of whipping boy to the whole lot of them.” The only thing that bothered him was that White Star never thanked the whipping boy. They had others things on their mind. Although the Line survived the tragedy, both IMM and Morgan went under – just like their most famous ship.


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