When did Titanic try for help?

When did the Titanic transmit her distress signal?

When did Titanic try for help?

Titanic Research

DID she hold on until utter inevitability was established, thereby limiting the reaction time of rescuers? Or did she act of the earliest, putting precaution before pride?

It’s not difficult to see the most sailor-like response, but what time actually did Titanic first admit her humiliating distress?

The answer, at one level, is easily forthcoming. The land station Cape Race and the ships La Touraine and Mount Temple simultaneously heard Titanic transmit CQD, the distress signal, for the first time at 10.25pm New York time (NYT) on April 14.

All coastal and ship stations west of 40 degrees longitude operated NYT. But what time was it on the Titanic? Crucially, how long had it been since impact with the iceberg?

That cataract-unleashing collision came at 11.40pm. Captain Smith was on the bridge in an instant, asking a series of relevant, professional questions – ‘What have we hit? Have you closed the watertight doors?’

The next step - an inspection - was immediately undertaken. The carpenter was summoned. The way ran off the ship. Men went below on a variety of urgent missions. And Captain Smith, according to surviving wireless operator Harold Bride, showed instinctive precaution for the first time.

He checked his operators were still, at that late hour, alive to their duty. 

Harold Bride Titanic Radio Operator

A New York Times interview with surviving Titanic wireless operator Harold Bride, in the presence of Guglielmo Marconi, took place aboard the RMS Carpathia, within a few minutes of her docking on April 18, 1912.

Bride declared: ‘I was standing by Phillips telling him to go to bed when the Captain put his head into the cabin. “We’ve struck an iceberg,” the Captain said, “and I’m having an inspection made to tell what it has done for us. You better get ready to send out a call for assistance. But don’t send it until I tell you.”

This encounter has the immediate ring of truth, though Bride never mentioned it again in evidence, probably as he was only questioned directly as to when the first assistance call was actually ordered.

But it shows at once that Smith was preparing for any eventuality. Nothing would hold him back from acting with the utmost celerity, once the situation warranted it. Thus it is entirely ‘of a piece’ with Smith’s triage, or preliminary checks, with Officer Murdoch, the man on the bridge at the point of convergence. 

Bride had previously agreed to relieve Phillips at midnight, two hours earlier than normal, because the senior operator had worked long hours and had taken on the immediate duty of clearing an ‘accumulation’ of messages from Titanic passengers to Cape Race, which had at last come within range that evening.

Bride awoke before midnight, but it was not, he insisted, the crash that stirred him. He said at one point that he was out of his bunk at 11.45pm, five minutes after impact, but a quarter of an hour before his due. He also said it was perhaps five minutes to twelve. In any case, it was definitely ‘this side of twelve’ (before midnight).
[All citations US p. 144, April 20, 1912.]

Harold Bride Titanic Radio Operator Hospital Bed

If he had been in bed as late as five minutes to twelve, however, then Bride could not have heard Smith’s account of an inspection being undertaken, which happened within five minutes of the collision.

It is possible that voices in the exterior room, being those of Smith and Phillips, woke Bride. In both his early newspaper article and then his initial testimony, Bride said he was in pyjamas when he went to Phillips first. He next went back to his bunk and changed into his clothes. This would consume perhaps five minutes.  

Fourth Officer Boxhall had completed two inspections prior to midnight, the second likely mandated by Captain Smith because Boxhall’s original report of ‘No damage’ – which might have prompted a cautious course resumption - had already heavily conflicted with the accounts of others.

Boxhall first left the bridge to see if he could find any damage immediately after the collision (Br. 15573). He was away ‘somewhere between five and ten minutes’ (15580/1), returned, and then went down to the mail room, but was ‘not long.’ The total may have been 15 minutes, bringing the time to 11.55pm.

15586. And then you came up and reported to the Commander?
Boxhall — Yes.

15587. What did he say? — He walked away and left me. He went off the bridge, as far as I remember.

Titanic Officer Boxhall
Officer Boxhall

This could have been, even probably was, Captain Smith’s visit to the Marconi room with the first calculated position, which had been estimated in the meantime.

It dovetails exactly if Bride’s first estimate of turning out, at 11.45pm, is correct. “The Captain went away and in ten minutes, I should estimate the time, he came back,” said Bride to the New York Times. It was 11.55pm. “Send the call for assistance,” the Captain directed. It was the call he had warned them to prepare for earlier. 

Now there was a ship’s position, the first transmitted, being 41 44 N, 50 24 W.
Some 380 miles away to the NNE, Cape Race logged it, even as other vessels also heard.

But at what ship’s time was it sent?

Bride: I took over the watch from [PhillipsI. He was going to retire… He got inside of the other room, when the Captain came in.
— He told us that we had better get assistance… That’s exactly what he said. He said, “You had better get assistance.” When Mr Phillips heard him, he came out and asked him if he wanted him to use a distress call. He said, “Yes; at once.”
Smith Who sent this call? — Mr Phillips.
Smith: He responded to the Captain's desire? — Yes, sir.
Smith: And you turned the apparatus over to him? — Yes, sir.
Smith: Was the message sent immediately? — Immediately.

(US p. 145)

EJ Smith
Captain Smith returns

It was ordered sent ‘at once’ and the order carried out ‘immediately,’ some time after 11.55pm ship’s time.

16503 — The Captain told us he wanted assistance.
16504 — He gave us to understand he wanted us to call CQD.
16507/8. Did you hear any conversation between Mr Phillips and the Captain? — The Captain gave him the latitude and longitude of the Titanic, and told him to be quick about it, or words to that effect.
16509 Then what did Mr Phillips do? — He started to call CQD.

Besides the order to transmit ‘immediately,’ or ‘at once,’ or to ‘be quick about it,’ these pieces of testimony show that there must have been a prefiguring mise-en-scène. A Captain cannot simply arrive and order a call for assistance to be abruptly sent out without engendering questions – but Smith has previously put his operators in the picture, like the pro-active professional described in the New York Times interview.

These further steps, appearing in testimony without reference to the first, are themselves proof that there must have been a pre-existing encounter. What is spoken is this: ‘Send the call for assistance.’ Unspoken: ‘that I was telling you about.’ 

So Bride’s 11.45pm earliest citation is right. Bride, in pyjamas, joined Smith and Phillips. Ten minutes later, Smith orders the call sent, and provides the position. Bride in the meantime has changed into his clothes. He is sitting at the instrument, before realising it is a matter for the senior operator.

It is this ten-minute gap, and Bride’s failure to recollect or at least mention the earlier encounter, that leads to a little confusion in further testimony, when he suggests the call may have gone out ten minutes after the collision – at 11.50pm (11.40 + 10) – when Boxhall has not yet returned from his second inspection.

Senator Smith: [What is] the time that elapsed after the collision or impact, before you sent the CQD call out?
Bride: My best recollection would be somewhere in the vicinity of 10 minutes, sir, because Mr Phillips and I were discussing one or two things before the Captain came and told us to call for assistance.
Smith: What were you discussing? —We were discussing what Mr Phillips thought had happened to the ship, and the working of Cape Race.
Smith: Did the Captain come personally? — Yes, sir.
Smith: And he told you or told Phillips to send this call out? — He told Phillips to send the call out.
(US p. 903)

Senator Smith: You have fixed as best you could the interval between the time of the collision and the time the Captain came to your room and told you to send out the CQD?
Bride: Yes, sir.
Smith: You have fixed that, to the best of your recollection, as 10 minutes? — Yes, sir.
(US p. 904/5)


Bride Testifies at US Inquiry
Bride testifying at US Inquiry

Bride: I said the Captain came to the cabin 10 minutes after the accident. The Captain came to the cabin after I had turned out 10 minutes, and I turned out after the collision had occurred.
Senator Smith: I assume you were in bed? — Yes sir.
Smith: Between the time you turned out and the Captain gave the order to send this message — It was just about 10 minutes.
Smith: Your statement stands that it was about 10 minutes. It might have been a little more.
Bride: As far as I recollect; Mr Phillips did not tell me when it was that he felt the ship striking; but to the best of my recollection it was 10 minutes after I had turned out that the Captain came in and told us to get assistance.
(US p. 906)

It was ten minutes after he had turned out – but he had turned out at 11.45pm. It was thus 11.55pm. Not ten minutes after the collision, but fifteen. Senator Smith, perversely, is right that it was probably ‘a little more’ than ten minutes after collision. A traumatised Bride was offering what appear to be contradictions. But there is no contradiction in his essential recollection that the Captain was away for ten minutes after initially alerting them to possibly urgent duty.

Captain Smith may have been vexed that ten minutes had been lost, but now he wants all haste – so that others may hasten to him.

The distress message goes out at 10.25pm NYT. What’s that in ship’s time?

Perplexingly, an article has recently been posted on these pages insisting that the Titanic time difference from NYT was two hours and two minutes (2h2).

Add it to the actual NYT of transmission. It would mean the Titanic’s first distress call was sent at – wait for it (literally, wait for it!) – 12.27am.

It absolutely defies not only logic, and Smith’s demonstrated anxiety, but Bride’s repeated testimony.

On the other hand, evidence from Titanic Officers Lightoller, Pitman and Boxhall, and Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, states that ship’s time was one hour and 33 minutes (1h33) ahead of NYT. Nobody at all states 2h2 in evidence, and this article will list that theory’s shortcomings.

But apply the agreed 1h33 time difference of Rostron, Lightoller Pitman and Boxhall to the 10.25pm NYT that distress was first signalled. What does it mean?

It means that the CQD was first sent at 11.58pm Titanic ship’s time.

Having read Bride, which is more likely to be correct – 11.58pm or 12.27am, a full 47 minutes after the collision? Which adjusted time – 'at once,' 'immediately' - complies with Smith’s state of mind?  That his desire was complied with immediately by Phillips is not in doubt.

Ten minutes after the first transmission (57 minutes, virtually an hour, after collision by thinking of the 2h2 theory) Titanic sent her corrected position. It was still wrong, but a better approximation.

By 2h2, this was at 12.37am. But it fits much better with Boxhall if 1h33 (which Boxhall advocated) is applied, becoming 12.08am ship’s time. Boxhall it was who produced this corrected position, and who in the same timeframe mentions that men were at work in turning out the portside boats. Not loading, but turning out.

But there is an additional ‘timing device’ from testimony that blows the 2h2 theory to smithereens.

Harold Bride stated in his evidence: “As far as I recollect, Phillips had finished working with Cape Race about 10 minutes before the collision with the iceberg.”
(US Inq, p. 903)

Phillips thus finished transmitting at 11.30pm ship’s time on Titanic. This is ten minutes before the collision, which, as we all know, was definitively put at 11.40pm.

Cape Race
Cape Race at Dusk, 2003 (Contributor)

Yet Cyril Evans, wireless operator in the Californian, testified that he heard Titanic still working Cape Race at 11.25, 11.27 or 11.28, 11.30 and up to 11.35pm by his own ship’s time, when he turned in for the night.

The recent author of the 2h2 theory states that because Californian was 1h50 ahead of NYT (which is true), that 12 minutes must be added to her time – by his yardstick (2h2 less 1h50) - to produce Titanic time.

Let’s do it:

Senator Smith: Was that the last time you heard from the Titanic that night?
Wireless operator Evans: The last time I exchanged signals with them? I heard them working at 11:25. [11.37 Titanic by 2h2]
Senator Smith: Heard him working? —: Working Cape Race… sending messages.
(US p.735)

Senator Smith: What time did you retire that night?
W/o Evans: At 11.25 [11.37 Titanic by 2h2] I still had the phones on my ears and heard him still working Cape Race. About two or three minutes before the half hour, ship's time that was [11.30pm - 11.42 Titanic by 2h2], and at 11.35 [11.47 Titanic by 2h2] I put the phones down, took off my clothes, and turned in. (US p. 736)

Cyril Evans
Cyril Evans, W/o Californian.

But Evans cannot be hearing Titanic at 11.37 to 11:42pm Titanic time, because Bride said Titanic ceased transmissions at 11:30pm Titanic time, “about 10 minutes before the collision.” So the 2h2 time difference is proven incorrect.

Phillips is still transmitting at the time of collision by 2h2 – surely something Phillips would have remarked to Bride instead of remarking to the contrary, that he had actually stopped sending about ten minutes earlier!

This is the evidence of the same Cyril Evans in London, and it’s just as bad for 2h2:

9022 After that did you hear him continuing to send messages? — Right up till I turned in.
8927. Can you tell us what time you turned in on the Sunday night? — Half-past eleven, ship’s time. [11.30pm + 12 = 11:42pm Titanic time by 2h2]
9204. You say you continued to hear her [Titanic] until you turned in at half-past 11? — Yes.

Bride also gave evidence in London, and at Br. 16490 reiterated that “as far as I can recollect, Mr Phillips told me he had cleared all the traffic to Cape Race.”

No messages had been sent or received after Bride got out of bed (16500/1), showing Phillips was indeed finished, and was not continuing to transmit. Thus, 2h2 is shown to be in error once again.

At Br 16696, Bride was asked about Phillips’ remark that he had finished working Cape Race 10 minutes before collision. "‘He made mention of the fact when I turned out.’ Did you say that, and is that true," Bride was asked.

The British, for their own knock-on reasons, did not want it to be true. But Bride replied: ‘I said that, but I could not remember what he [Phillips] said now. I said that to Senator Smith, but I could not recollect now what Phillips told me after I had turned out.’
It was many weeks later, and Bride's health had suffered in the interim, but the British pressed (16698) ‘Was what you said to Senator Smith true?’ — “Well, I was on oath at the time,” pointed out Bride.

16699. I presume what you said was true? — Yes.
16702 You know Phillips was engaged in communicating with Cape Race right on from half-past 8 to 10 minutes before the collision? — Apparently so, yes
16703 Well, have you any doubt about it? — No, I do not think so. I am judging by the amount of work that was got through.
16704 He was engaged during these hours, from half-past 8 to 10 minutes before the collision, in communicating with Cape Race these trade and private messages? — ‘Yes.’

The British wanted Californian and Titanic times to be the same, yet they were not. Phillips had finished sending before impact. He said ‘ten minutes before’ to Bride, and not the corollary, that the impact had jolted him while sending. In fact, there are suggestions from the earliest interview that an idle Phillips instead immediately post-impact looked outside – not something he could have done if he had been hooked up and in the harness of transmissions.  

Deduct 1h33 (testified by Titanic officers) from 11.30pm ship’s time. It means the work with Cape Race was finished three minutes before 10pm New York (at 9.57pm NYT).

Why is this important?  Because Phillips likely wanted to get off air before 10pm NYT, as that was when Cape Cod (call sign MCC) would begin transmitting 30 minutes of news. Other ships were tuning in for MCC particularly.

As operator Harold Cottam of the Carpathia declared:

17085. — Just previous to having received the [Titanic distress] signal I was taking the long-distance news from Cape Cod.
17086. That is news that is being sent to the ship from the mainland? — Yes.
17087. — I was going to turn in directly afterwards.

Cape Cod Marconi Station

Cottam also said (17181A): ‘I got it [CQD message] directly after Cape Cod had finished the first round of press. I know he finishes at half past 10.’
He received the second, corrected CQD from Titanic at 10 35, ten minutes after the first had been sent. 

There is also further proof, this time from the Virginian, that 2h2 is wrong, because she was waiting for Titanic to finish.

Virginian at Night
Virginian
at night

Author's collection.

The Virginian ship’s time was 1h30 ahead of New York, but her wireless operator naturally kept NYT. At 9:45pm NYT (11.15pm Virginian time) her PV records that she was “standing by,” as – and this is a direct quote -  “MCE [Cape Race] working continuously with MGY [Titanic].”


Extract from the Virginian PV showing Titanic still trafficking Cape Race at 9.45pm NYT.

Now apply the 2h2 theory to 9:45pm NYT to get the claimed Titanic ship’s time. It means Titanic still dealing messages with Cape Race at 11:47 p.m. – seven minutes after she struck her berg. Impossible.

As with the evidence of Evans, Virginian’s clear entry would contradict Bride’s statement that Phillips had finished with Cape Race ten minutes before collision, if 2h2 was right. 

Instead it cannot be Bride, Evans and Virginian that are wrong, but the 2h2 theory itself. Similarly, Virginian indicated at 10 p.m. that Titanic had finished, because she was ready (“Bi” = standing by) for Cape Cod messages. This would have Titanic trafficking Cape Race up to midnight, assuming the 2h2 time difference.

The Virginian was additionally backed up by the Asian as to how long Titanic was working Cape Race. The Olympic PV has this from Asian -

TR Asian

TR Asian with German oil tank in tow for Halifax, asked what news of MGY [Titanic]? Sends service later saying “Heard MGY v. faint wkg C..Race up to 10pm.”

This would be Titanic working Cape Race to two minutes after midnight by the 2h2 addition to 10pm – which did not happen because Bride’s evidence is so clear. The exact Cape Race pre-collision records may also be available, if anyone should care to look for them.

The Carpathia PV meanwhile has ‘Signals exchanged with the Titanic at frequent intervals until 9.45pm.’ But this is post-impact by 2h2, and impossible.

Senior Titanic officers and crew (Boxhall, Pitman, Lowe, QM Rowe, etc.) wore wristwatches. They clearly supplied their times when on the Carpathia, which ship transmitted to all shipping later that very day of rescue (April 15) that the liner sank at a Titanic time that was 1h33 ahead of New York, not 2h2. This message was signed by Captain Rostron.

The claim (despite Bride, Evans, Virginian, Carpathia and Asian) for 2h2 being right also means that all these men – Titanic officers and Captain Rostron — are wrong, having made a ”mistake” (like letting their ship begin to sink for over three-quarters of an hour before telling anyone about it.)

Nobody ever testified 2h2. While the US inquiry accepted a time difference of 1h33, the issue was never probed in London because that inquiry wanted to pretend that nominal ship times were the same throughout.

It was a full eight days after the Carpathia had first cited a Titanic 1h33 time difference, on the afternoon of April 15 in a transmission to the Olympic, on April 23, that Officer Pitman repeatedly specified 1h33 to the U.S. Inquiry (p. 310/11). He cited 12:47am NYT for the sinking, or 2.20am ship’s time.

It was after a further lapse of six days, on April 29, that Officer Boxhall specified to the US Inquiry what the time difference had been:

Senator Smith: “Mr Boxhall, you seem to be the one upon whom we must rely to give the difference between ship's time and New York time; or, rather, to give ship's time and give the New York time when this accident occurred?
Boxhall: “At 11:46 p.m., ship's time, it was 10:13 Washington time, or New York time.”
(US Inq. p. 918)

The time difference is 1h33, the same as transmitted by Carpathia, although the latter gave relevant times for the sinking, not the collision. The same result is thus produced two different ways.

Harol Cottam US Inquiry
Carpathia operator Harold Cottam at the US inquiry.

This testified time difference would mean the first distress call going out at 11.58pm Titanic time, as seen earlier, which is entirely what one would expect, and what Bride’s testimony means.

Nobody present at that hearing, including some of Boxhall’s fellow officers, contradicted his US evidence. In fact Third Officer Pitman testified to a time difference of 1h33 also.

And Second Officer Lightoller offered a fourth piece of corroboration during Pitman's evidence by stating that the sinking was at “2.20 — 5.47 Greenwich mean time; 2.20 apparent time of ship.” Because GMT is five hours ahead of New York, this is the same as 0.47am. Taken from 2.20, it gives the same time difference — 1h33. 

There is yet another useful proof of 1h33. It is widely known 47 minutes were due to come off that Sunday night. This would leave 46 minutes. Take this away the following night, and Titanic could arrive in New York late on Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning) on the correct New York time. 47 minutes and 46 minutes make 1h33, and it is their similarity that is convincing.

Meanwhile there is yet another problem with the 2h2 difference. When applied to a end-stage transmission of CQ from Titanic, overheard by Virginian at 12.27 a.m. NYT, it turns out to be a Titanic time of 2.29 a.m. But Titanic cannot still be sending signals nine minutes after she sank.

The 2h2 proponent’s solution is to add Virginian - again - to the list of ‘mistaken.’ But Virginian has been listening throughout, knew the Titanic’s ‘musical’ spark, and indeed (as seen earlier) has been listening a very long time to her make-and-break when Titanic was trafficking with Cape Race, long before any disaster unfolded.

Virginian’s hearing of faint signals is furthermore not a stray incident. She has been hearing Titanic lose power as her wireless log, extracted here, proves. This indicates the Virginian log is good, and the 2h2 theory bad.


The end of entries about Titanic in Virginian’s PV, showing faint calls at 12:10 a.m., 12:20 and finally 12:27 New York Time, when signals end abruptly, “as if power suddenly switched off.” The switch is off on the Marconi apparatus on the Titanic wreck.

And Bride testified to this effect –

“Phillips sat down again at the telephone and gave a general call of CQD, but I think our lamps were running down; we did not get a spark. We could not tell, because the spark of our wireless was in an enclosed room. We could not hear at any time whether it was sparking.
(US p. 159)

16566 — “Mr Phillips called once or twice more, but the power was failing us and I do not think we were getting a spark, as there were no replies.”

Jack Phillips Titanic Radio Operator
The final transmissions. Phillips in the Titanic wireless shack, from an April 1912 New York Times sketch. 

Bride: “That was the last, because we were of the opinion at the end that we were not
getting a spark, owing to the poor supply of power.”
Senator Smith: The power had been impaired? — The power was being impaired all the time.
And you were not getting your full spark? — “No, sir.”
(US p. 899)

It is natural that other ships should detect Titanic’s waning powers. Cape Race meanwhile registered Virginian’s end-stage recording -


Cape Race log of operator Robert Hunston. Author photo.  Original in Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Halifax NS. 

On the other hand, applying 1h33 to Virginian’s 12.27am produces a final Titanic transmission at exactly 2am, twenty minutes before the sinking, and fitting the evidence of Bride.

We know the Titanic operators left the shack some time before the forward end was inundated. 2am is an appropriate time for them to evacuate. Phillips goes aft, but Bride thereafter climbs onto the roof and spends time assisting with Collapsible B, helping to push it down onto the deck. He gets down himself, and is swept off when the Titanic takes a forward dive.

Bride said he and Phillips were relieved from all further duty by the Captain “about 15 minutes” before the sinking [US p.160]. Some time clearly elapsed before Bride was swept overboard. “A short time after that, I saw the Titanic sink… the time was long enough to give me a chance of getting away from the Titanic itself,” he said.

Bride estimated the distance from the side at the time he turned back to watch as 150 feet, or fifty yards. He had time to get that far away before she sank.

But the end is not as important as the beginning. And the beginning is clear and unambiguous evidence of a CQD not ludicrously delayed, but promptly sent out just before midnight.

The conclusion: A time difference of 2h2, argued only in recent times, is demonstrably wrong in many ways. A time difference of 1h33, widely orally testified by surviving Titanic officers, works. And unlike 2h2, it does not infringe the separately-maintained records of listening ships.

Senan Molony is the author of Titanic Scandal: The Trial of the Mount Temple.

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Senan Molony
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