Acquitting the Iceberg


Say old man, we are surrounded by ice and stopped ::

Today, more than a hundred years later, we know what no one knew on Sunday April 14th 1912. It is important for us to keep that singular fact in mind. Today, we know the Titanic hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. and sank two hours and forty minutes later. We know it because – to us – it is history; it happened in the past. But at 11:30 that night – at midnight – no one knew what was going to happen, or when. A few were making some educated guesses by midnight and beyond, but none of them knew with absolute certainty, the way we do today. By around one o’clock it is unlikely many, if any, on the Titanic did not know the ship was actually going to sink and if they didn’t get off in a lifeboat and no rescue ship appeared at their side they were going to be in very serious trouble. But still they didn’t know it would all be over an hour and twenty minutes later. They couldn’t know. For them, it hadn’t happened yet.

More than a hundred years later we have the advantages of hindsight.

Unfortunately, we also have the dis-advantages.

The value-judgement trap based on perfect 20/20 hindsight is an easy one to fall into. It is simple, for example, for us today to condemn the actions taken, or not taken, by First Officer Murdoch when he tried to avoid the iceberg that was looming directly in front of him. Had he known then, in those few fateful seconds, what we know now, maybe he would have acted differently.

Sometimes the gift – or maybe it is a curse – of hindsight blinds us to the realities. We want to say he should have done this, he should not have done that (not only Murdoch, of course, but also other players in the Titanic-drama). The point however is that “should” and “should not” are meaningless. What we need to examine is what they did. We can still ask – we must ask – why and why-not, but the moment an historian starts along the should-have-should-not-have path, s/he is going to make grave mistakes.

Lawrence Beesley, the somewhat stuffy English schoolteacher who survived the disaster and wrote his own book about it, warned us, already in 1912, against hindsight

“The reader,” he wrote, “must rid himself entirely of the knowledge that the Titanic has sunk ... an important necessity, for he cannot see conditions as they existed there through the mental haze arising from knowledge ..... he must get rid of any foreknowledge of disaster to appreciate why people acted as they did.”

Maybe one of the greatest “mysteries” still surrounding the Titanic disaster, despite the amount of study dedicated to solving it, is the part played – or not played – by the Leyland Line ship Californian and its captain, Stanley Lord.

To many, of course, what has become known as “The Californian Incident” is no mystery at all and they don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t believe what they do.

One problem is that most historians approach the Californian with pre-conceived notions. They are utterly convinced at the outset that Lord was “guilty”, and look only for “evidence” to prove it. Or they are utterly convinced at the outset that Lord was “innocent” and look only for “evidence” to prove it. And both sides (called “Lordites” and “Anti-Lordites”) produce armies of experts and copious evidence to support their theories and treaties, and frequently ignore what could be harmful to their case. No other Titanic episode generates hotter emotions. Friendships have actually broken up because of it. People take it very personally and objectivity suffers as a result.

Is it even possible to uncover the “truth” about the Californian?

The answer seems to be an enigmatic “yes” and “no”.

This historian is neither a Lordite nor an Anti-Lordite and has attempted to examine both sides of the argument objectively, by examining the evidence and by asking questions and – hopefully – by reaching an acceptable conclusion. Will it satisfy all sides? Of course not.

At around 10:20 p.m. on Sunday, April 14th, the 6,000 ton Leyland Line steamer Californian – outward bound from Glasgow – hove to. It had run onto the edge of field ice and the master, 35-year-old Stanley Lord, having reviewed the situation, took prudent action and stopped his ship. He then wirelessed his position to the Hydrographic Office. He had not been in field ice before and decided, wisely, to stay put until it was light enough for him to navigate a passage either through or around it.

Lord was no novice, despite his inexperience with field ice. Born in Bolton, England, in 1877, he went to sea in 1891 and had his extra master’s certificate by the time he was 23. In March 1911, he took command of the Californian, a cargo ship with a licence to carry up to 47 passengers, although none were aboard on this trip.

Also at around 10:30, as Lord was stopping the Californian and wirelessing his position to the Hydrographic Office (an important detail), another Titanic legend was enfolding. The Furness Line freighter Rappahannock’s acting master, Albert E. Smith (the freighter was out of Halifax and not equipped with wireless) reputedly flashed a Morse-lamp message to the Titanic to warn it of a large field of ice through which it (the Rappahannock) had emerged with a damaged rudder. The Titanic, so the story goes, acknowledged the signal and wished the freighter good night. The freighter’s fifteen minutes of fame in the Titanic-story, therefore, is it was the very last ship to see and communicate with the liner before the collision. In short, more significantly, only one hour and ten minutes before it ran into the ice that sank it, the Titanic was warned of field ice thick enough to damage a freighter ..... field ice no more than 25 miles directly ahead ..... yet the liner did not slow down nor alter course.

The Rappahannock

The Rappahannock

This “fact” has many times been highlighted to illustrate Captain Smith (on the Titanic) as being arrogant and reckless, and behaving in a way that showed total disregard for the safety of his ship and its passengers and crew ..... the same attitude which had already been attacked 14 years earlier by Morgan Robertson in his little tale of morality he called Futility).

However, and in keeping with so many other elements of the Titanic-story, the matter of the Rappahannock is not as straightforward as it at first appears to be.

William Murdoch was on the Titanic’s bridge at 10:30 p.m., having taken over from Lightoller at 10. Hindsight notwithstanding, and knowing what we do about The best and smartest sailor afloat, can there be any doubt as to what Murdoch would have done had he received such a signal from the Rappahannock, or from any other vessel? He would have done one or two things, and most likely both.

Firstly, he would have ordered a warning to be sent to the lookouts in the crow’s nest, and he would almost certainly have increased their number. Secondly, he would have informed Captain Smith.

Lookouts Fleet and Lee made no mention of any warning from the bridge beyond the one sent up during Lightoller’s watch, and no extra lookouts were posted.

Did Murdoch inform Smith? We cannot of course say with certainty what communication there was, or was not, between the bridge and Captain Smith before the collision. Murdoch, Sixth Officer Moody (also on the bridge) and Smith did not survive ..... and the log was lost.

But we can be reasonably sure the first officer did not inform Captain Smith of the Rappahannock’s Morsed message, because, had he done so, Smith would have come onto the bridge and ordered an Immediate reduction in speed (he had already told Lightoller they would need to slow down if visibility became poor. Record-run attempt or not, he was not prepared to race his ship blind). Too, he would have altered course, probably south, and would have remained on the bridge until he was sure the ice was safely behind them. Most likely, too, he would have sent for Henry Wilde, the other half of the strong two-man Olympic-experienced team he had put together back in Southampton.

When no further warnings were sent to the lookouts, when their number was not increased, when the captain did not come out onto the bridge, when the Titanic did not slow down or alter course ..... what, if any, conclusions can we reach?

That Murdoch received the Rappahannock message, acknowledged it, and ignored it?

That he alerted Captain Smith, and he ignored it?

In a cable from London to the New York Times on April 26th 1912, the Rappahannock’s chief officer and acting master, Alfred Smith, said his ship encountered the Titanic on Saturday, April 13th, and he made no mention of a Morsed warning about ice. It was not in fact until fifty years later, when being interviewed for a book, he claimed the encounter took place on Sunday ..... and then, for the first time, gave details of the Morsed message.

There is another interesting aspect of the Rappahannock encounter that tends to slip through the research net. It was out of Halifax, and was therefore on the northern route of the Atlantic. That it encountered the Titanic at all – particularly when it was clearly Saturday and not Sunday – suggests the liner was also on the northern route and not on the southern where it was supposed to be.

Senator William Alden Smith asked Bruce Ismay, “Had you ever been on this so-called Northern route before?”

Ismay told him, “We were on the Southern route, sir.”

“On this Newfoundland route?”

“We were on the long southern route, not the northern route.”

“You were not on the extreme route?”

“We were on the extreme southern route for the west-bound ships.”

Yet, at some time during Sunday, the wireless message was sent to the New York Times announcing the Titanic’s arrival as Tuesday instead of Wednesday, a feat that could not have been accomplished had the Titanic been on the southern track.

Did the Rappahannock catch Bruce Ismay red-handed that Saturday ..... and nobody notice?

At around 11 p.m., forty minutes before the collision, Lookout Fleet called down to the bridge on the crow’s nest telephone to report he could smell ice. Several passengers apparently heard him say he did when he was in Lifeboat 6; he repeated the story to others on the Carpathia, and to the New York Times reporter who interviewed the 25 surviving crewmen on the Celtic.

At the American inquiry, Fifth Officer Lowe was asked what an iceberg was made of. Dryly, Lowe replied, “Ice,” and got a laugh. However, icebergs contain a lot more than just ice. They also contain rock, gravel, sand, dead fish ..... just about any and everything they pick up on their travels over a possible two-thousand years of existence (iceberg experts, however, believe the ‘berg that sank the Titanic was no more than 2 years old). A sensitive nose could well detect it, particularly if there was a lot of ice around, as there was in the field the Titanic ran into.

Frederick Fleet was an unreliable witness at best, and an incompetent lookout (as will be demonstrated), but did he really warn the bridge about ice forty minutes before the ship struck it? We can never know for sure, but, years later, Fleet told friends he was promised a job and pension for life if he “forgot” that early warning when giving evidence at the inquiries.

Frederick Fleet is one of the constant key players in the Titanic story, but what kind of a man was he? When we examine him closer, he comes across as a sad, somewhat pathetic little man, defensive and paranoid. He was uneducated, an orphan sent to a training ship when he was twelve, and thrown out to look after himself when he was sixteen. By his own admittance, he was always short of money and constantly in debt. He spent twenty-four years at sea after the Titanic; the Depression of the 1930s forced him to work, maybe ironically, at the shipyards of Harland & Wolff in Belfast. After he retired, he sold newspapers on street corners in Southampton. Finally, at the age of 76, on January 10th  1965, just two weeks after his wife died, Frederick Fleet, “The Man Who First Saw The Iceberg” that sank the Titanic, hanged himself from a clothesline.

One gets the impression he was not an easy man to like. Not that that was relevant to anything; he was not employed by the White Star Line to be popular. All that was expected of him was he do his job, and apparently he did ..... at least, he did right up to the moment it was really needed, and then, it seems, he did not. He wasn’t even the man who first saw the iceberg (see CHAPTER NINE)

While Frederick Fleet was reporting to the bridge that he could smell ice (and was being ignored by First Officer Murdoch .... or not reporting it and, therefore, was not being ignored), Third Officer Charles Victor Groves, pacing the bridge of the stopped Californian, saw the lights of what he later described as a “large passenger ship” coming up fast from the south east. Captain Lord also saw the stranger, but he said it was “something like ourself; a medium-sized steamer”. He instructed Groves to call the newcomer with the Morse lamp. Groves did, and received no reply.

Captain Stanley Lord Wireless Operator Cyril Evans

Captain Stanley Lord; Wireless Operator Cyril Evans

While talking to the engineer about keeping the steam ready, Lord decided to ask Wireless Operator Cyril Evans what he knew about the approaching ship and met the 22-year-old on his way to the wireless shack. Evans told him he had been in contact with the Titanic (strictly speaking this was not true: Evans had sent a message to the Antillian, which was picked up by the Titanic – see CHAPTER SEVEN –  but it is likely he had heard the Titanic’s operator working) to which Captain Lord, reputedly, replied, “This is not the Titanic. There is no doubt about it.” Which was an odd thing to say at the time ..... as if he was establishing a case for the stranger not to have been the Titanic hours before the disaster. There is, of course, no way to prove Lord did not say what he said he said ..... but, in reality, it is unlikely.

Lord then told Evans to call the Titanic and tell it the Californian was stopped because of ice. And now one has to wonder why it wasn’t until after he had sighted the approaching ship (“not the Titanic”) that Lord decided to call the liner and warn it of ice. Because he really believed the approaching ship was the Titanic? We don’t know, of course.

Evans then walked into his wireless shack and started to call the Titanic. According to the legend, he sent .... “Say old man, we are surrounded by ice and stopped.”

Assuming that really is what Evans sent (we will see it probably is not), the question needs to be asked ..... was it a reflection of his youth and inexperience, or was it evidence of his incompetence as a wireless operator? Or was it nothing worse than a reflection of the low standards prevailing in those early years of wireless telegraphy? Maybe it was a combination.

On the Titanic, Jack Phillips had had a hard day. He was still trying to clear the backlog of messages caused by the breakdown of the equipment on Friday night. Mostly these were irritating passengers’ messages containing a lot of foolishness. This was typical: No seasickness. All well. Notify all interested. Poker business good. Al. It was enough to fray the nerves of anyone, particularly someone working the long hours Phillips and Bride did, and for such low wages. As senior operator, Phillips was paid around  $40 a month and Bride, the junior operator, only half that. That evening, Phillips was tired and on edge and Cyril Evans’ call burst in on him like a thunderclap; so loud, we are assured, it hurt his ears.

His snapped reply, “Shut up! I am busy! I am working Cape Race!” has become part of the Titanic folklore.

Assuming it happened the way the legend insists, and however (arguably) understandable it was of Phillips to react the way he did, he was, without question, unprofessional. On the other hand, Evans took it a step further. Had he been more experienced, or a better trained (or simply halfway competent) he would not have sent a navigational message in such a way that it could be interpreted as operator-to-operator “chit-chat”, which is the only way to interpret a messaging beginning, “Say old man ....”

Not that the fault was entirely his. The correct procedure would have been for Captain Lord to tell Evans to send an MSM (Master Service Message) not simply to “call” the Titanic. Had he done that, Phillips would have been obliged to receive it, deliver it to the bridge and send an acknowledgement. And Murdoch, on the bridge, would have known precisely where the ice was.

Maybe it was Stanley Lord’s first mistake on that night of errors.

For all that, though, a more experienced and competent operator (even without the weight of an MSM) would have used his initiative and called again; he would not have allowed himself to be dismissed that way. He had been told by the captain to contact the Titanic to report that the Californian was stopped by ice. He didn’t need to be a sailor to understand that. Evans failed to carry out the captain’s instructions which, it could be argued, put him in dereliction of his duty. And then, having tried once, Evans did not try again and Jack Phillips did not ask him to repeat his message.

However ..... an important question that needs to be asked (and appears not to have been asked before) is this: just how much of the famous say-old-man message did Phillips actually receive? Considering his response, it seems highly unlikely he let Evans get as far as we-are-surrounded-by-ice. Almost certainly (there is, of course, no way to substantiate this) Evans never got beyond sending the Titanic’s call sign (MGY) followed by the Californian’s (MWL) before Phillips cut him off.

In short – logically – the Californian’s legendary warning message was not ignored by the Titanic because it was never received because it was never sent.

But, however much of the message he sent, or did not send, Cyril Evans then gave up. He said he listened a while to Jack Phillips sending private messages to Cape Race for onward relay and, at around 11:30, closed down for the night.

And around thirty miles from the racing Titanic¸ the Canadian Pacific Line’s Mount Temple, commanded by Captain Henry Moore, steamed westward, its wireless operator John Durrant sitting at his set listening to the night. And, most likely closer still, the Norddeutscher Lloyd immigrant ship Frankfurt (Captain Hattorff in command) also steamed quietly through the night, it’s operator, a man named Zippel, awake, on duty and – like John Durrant – listening out.

The Mount Temple The Frankfurt

The Mount Temple; The Frankfurt

On the Titanic, Jack Phillips finally finished the Cape Race messages while the day was almost over throughout the ship.

Marguerite Frolcher was asleep

Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen was undressing ready to go to bed

Mrs J. Stuart White sat on the edge of her bed

Baker Walter Belford made bread rolls

Bruce Ismay and Colonel Archibald Gracie slept

In the first class smoking rooms, Archie Butt, Clarence Moor, Henry Widner and William Carter sat talking while Hugh Woolner, Håkon Björnström-Steffanson and others played a not very serious game of cards.

The corridors in third class were quiet at last.

Down in Boiler room #6, Fireman Frederick Barrett chatted to Engineer James Hesketh.

In first class, 16-year-old Jack Thayer wound up his watch.

Second Officer Charles Lightoller dozed.

Lawrence Beesley lay in bed reading.

For the Titanic time had run out.

Titanic at night

In the last moments before it hit the iceberg, the Titanic would have looked a little like this.


Peter Elverhøi

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