Criticism of Titanic's Officers

I think it's a bloody disgrace that the officers of the Titanic are being criticized by some. I think they performed their duty very admirably that night and any short comings such as slowness was to expected. I mean after all they are human and humans are not perfect. Like some of you have said, it's easy to say what should and what might have been done while you're on dry land curled up in a nice big chair with your family around you. These fellows didn't have that luxury. It was get the job done and I think they did as good a job as could be expected from any officer on any ship that night.
You raise some very good points, Charles. Lightoller wrote of the 'armchair complaint':

the armchair complaint is a very common disease, and generally accepted as one of the necessary evils from which the sea-farer is condemned to suffer. A dark night, a blinding squall, and a man who has been on the mental rack for perhaps the last forty-eight hours, is called on to make an instantaneous decision embodying the safety of his crew and his ship. If he chooses the right course, as nine times out of ten he does, all well and good, but if on the tenth time his judgment is, momentarily, in error, then he may be certain he is coming under the thumb of the armchair judge, who, a thousand to one, has never been called on to make a life and death decision in a sudden emergency.
There has also been a good deal of ill-informed, ill-founded criticism directed at these men.

On the other hand, as you say, they were human and not perfect. I think that it is possible to analyse and critique their performance and find out where they made errors without losing sight of the overall picture and what they did right. Not all criticism directed at them is malicious or ill-founded, and without losing sight of what they did right, and by still keeping comments, observations and questions within the context of their professional and social milieu, it is possible to look at both where they failed and where they succeeded. Only by doing so will we come to understand what role they had in unfolding events. I'm sure that, given the sort of hindsight that we now enjoy, and the luxury of time to assess what happened, they themselves would have made some different choices!​
One of the best things about the ET Message board is that we have among our members a group of people who are NOT armchair sailors. I find it fascinating to read their posts about how the officers are crew performed that night. I think the consensus among the real professionals is that they did their jobs about as well as they could have done them.

Pat W
Hi Charles,

You're quite right about people on this thread commenting on professional seamen with little knowledge other than what they've read somewhere.
Apart from myself, it's doubtful if many more on this thread has served on the bridge of a British Merchantman, in ice and fog routines across the North Atlantic throughout all seasons. According to some, you don't need any experience, just that cosy old arm chair and the right book.

It's good to hear from you Charles.
All the best,
G'day David! Did you mean 'thread' or 'messageboard'? I think Pat and I both concur with your point about experience.

It's a pity that we don't have the input on the board of more individuals such as yourself with specific experience and knowledge of the British MN. I know there are others here with considerable experience in the USN and American merchant service (many of whom I think share your frustration with the 'armchair complaint'), but I can't think of anyone else who posts regularly who has your background and experience. Unfortunately I have to draw upon oral and textual material in order to form my ideas and views of what happened, but I'm always happy to be corrected on points of fact, or hear a counter-opinion based on experience.
>>I know there are others here with considerable experience in the USN and American merchant service (many of whom I think share your frustration with the 'armchair complaint')<<

Inger, I love your talant for spectacular understatement!

I think there are a few others who are registered members who have experience in the British MN, but unfortunately, they hardly ever post.
Hello Inger,
I have a habit of calling all internet material ''threads'' which illuminates my general ignorance of internet jargon.
I always read your posts with interest and the results of your findings are those of good sound research. You can see where I'm coming from when I say that when reading your postings, they never come over as though you are trying to impress all and sundry that you are an authority on that particular subject. I shall continue to enjoy your work and you aren't among those that are at fault in this respect.
What bothers my fellow seafarers from this part of the world is the blatant condemning of our ships officers and crew from time to time by those critics who in turn, wouldn't be carried for ballast !
There are a couple of U.S. seafarers on this message board, namely Michael Standard and Capt Eric of whom hold my respect and IMO keep that end up quite well with their interesting posts, giving a good insight into the U.S way of working which is always worth a read.
Perhaps one day I may reveal my experiences in the Australian Mercantile Marine back in the 60's but that can wait for another day.
In my posts I often mention, and I quote, ''The British Merchant Navy'' for obvious reasons. Much of our trade has been tried and tested since Nelsons day and apart from being bloody hard graft, 2 year articles with no rights, long voyages, poor accommodation, poor food with many company's and low pay, one doesn't take too kindly to criticism from the inexperienced.
That's how it was right up to the 60's and 70's so one can only imagine how it was in Titanic's day.
It's a great pity more British seamen aren't on this site as Michael has mentioned as the outcome could be extremely interesting.

All the best,
Hi. I`m ex British Merch and the reason I don`t post very often is because I don`t know enough about the era that we are all interested in. However I DO NOT believe that the officers on the Titanic behaved in anything but a correct way. Mistakes may have been made but as plenty of other people have pointed out, hindsight is easy.
Now if we were to talk about more modern times you wouldn`t be able to shut me up as I can speak from above and below decks. I started off as a deckie learner on the Icelandic trawlers sailing from Hull, eventually got my AB`s ticket and lastly went to College to get my R/O`s ticket.
Sadly it all finished in 1989 when I was made redundant.
Anyway when I learn more about Titanic and her era you may well see me (for one) posting more regularly.

Best Wishes and Rgds

Hello Dennis,

It's good to hear from you and I shall look forward to seeing some more of your posts and observations. I first went to sea in 1954 when we had one of the largest merchant shipping fleets in the world along with compulsory National Service and plenty of troopships into the bargain. It was probably the reason we were treated the way we were as we had only two options. The Merchant Navy or the Army !
We must chat again sometime, meanwhile all the best and thanks for getting in touch.

I attempt to learn as much as I can from my British counterparts, but unfortunatly I don't run across as many as I used to. David Haisman is a valued resource on this board. While Mike and I can assert some much needed common sense sometimes our experience is limited to the U.S. (and for me U.S., Canadian and Russian) parts of industry. Every culture has a slightly different way in running there ships, but there are some generalities and that is why I fight (and have been fighting on one of the other threads in the collision section) any insuation of negligence or incorrect behavior on the part of Titanic's officers. I have several reasons, but the primary being that those who critize these sailors haven't sailed or don't have the kind of command experience that David has in the British merchant system. Things that make sense on land, don't always make sense at sea.

It seems some people are out to find a guilty party, I am not one of those. I am trying to defend my shipmates who I believe did the best job possible. Hindsight is wonderful for the woulda shoulda theories, but reality of a situation is completely different.

Thanks for the kind words David, and I wish you would post more frequently.
Speaking for myself, I look at the causal factors that caused the ship to collide with the ice from the vantage point of a board of inquiry. In this, I draw upon my experience sitting on three maritime mishap boards -- twice on the evaluation end and once on the receiving end (which I survived, thank goodness).

I know from these mishap boards that a mariner will be held to account for the loss of life and/or property. The most experienced seaman ever to sail the bounding main had better show strict adherence to procedure AND prove that procedure to be sound in order to be fully exonerated by the Board. This is due, I am led to believe, to one characteristic of maritime mishap boards and enquiries that does not usually surface in civilian courts...the Master has ultimate authority of his ship, and with that he carries ultimate responsibility for what happens to her. Many people make the mistake that Ismay carried that same burden of responsibility, but in my view, he didn't. He was not the ultimate authority aboard Titanic, nor was he expected to be. He may have been the Line chairman (or president, or whatever), but in terms of a ship Master's authority, he might as well have been just another passenger.

In my view, the men who crewed Titanic were highly professional and competent. As they steamed toward the ice field, they took no unsafe risk as they, and their peers, saw it. However, there is no getting around the fact that these men made a series of seemingly-correct decisions that caused their ship to wreck and founder. Those most responsible were never called before a board to explain their actions. Just because a board (notice that I avoid using the term, "court") never really ruled on their decisions does not mean that these men were not responsible or that their actions/decisions should not be questioned.

Personally, I am not looking for guilt. I realise that Titanic's foundering was the result of many factors, not the miscalculation of one man or a few men. But I also cannot accept the notion that Smith and his officers were entirely blameless. Yes, they were good, but they were also wrong. In my view, one learns most by evaluating informed and well-intentioned decisions that led to disaster rather than assigning blame to more obvious lapses in judgment and/or competence. Yes, I hold Smith ultimately responsible for the disaster. That does not mean, though, that I think any less of his profesionalism, experience, or competence. Nor does that mean that I see Smith as an aberration in the context of the industry of his time. And I would be reluctant to accept any assertion that a mishap board or enquiry would have viewed Smith differently, had Smith lived to explain his decisions.

That's my view. It may differ from Mersey's view in 1912 and certainly differs from many in this forum today. In the end, each of our viewpoints are derived from our own experiences, and mine is no different in that regard.

Having myself endured life threatening experiences on tankers and cargo ships,(which is all part of the job if you do it long enough) I would like to add that no one disputes that errors were made with Titanic.
On the contrary, but who on this message board has had similar experiences as that of Titanic's officers? None that I can see which leaves most having to rely heavily on what they can glean from the libraries.
I doubt if anyone disputes the fact that the Master has overall control at all times even during pilotage, but will still always take full responsibilty for his command and crew.
As regards to Maritime Boards and such like, I wouldn't like to hang my hat on too much on their expertise either as they too are very often left with ''after event dialogue'' and a ''pick the bones out of that if you will'' scenarios.
Having said that, there are is no one IMO on this message board that has had the experience necessary to make a judgement with any conviction to a seafarer that has had similar experience.
For those that decided that Titanic would be their research ''baby'' they should have considered that Titanic was a British Merchantman run by a British crew and perhaps would be well advised to stick to the ''passenger angle'' and leave the seamanship side to those that may have some idea of what it's all about.
If anyone cares to read my past posts carefully, I make that point many times over and will continue to stand by it.

No worries, David - I took your meaning on threads/messageboard. I know we've discussed this point before quite a few times, and suspect you know in what high esteem I hold your views. I can't pretend that I'm free of the same malaise that many others suffer from - the concept familiar to most professionals of those with a little knowledge being more 'dangerous' than those with none at all (aka the 'instant expert' syndrome), which is why I don't mind when it's pointed out to me that I've exceeded the bounds of my knowledge of the subject and am, in fact, talking utter bolloxolgy
Hi Inger,
I can take all of your ''bolloxogy'' as you come across as one of the few that can put your research findings across in a way that doesn't annoy those that may have first hand knowledge on the subject matter. It's certainly a commendable technique.
Believe me, I don't intend to upset the ''apple cart'' for those genuinely interested in the Titanic story but merely to protect the many who visit this site from ''bum'' nautical dogma !
If obscure opinions on this theme are allowed to continue in the cavalier manner of the past year or so, the tragic, yet fascinating story of Titanic will become a circus.
I don't think any of us want that.

No worries Inger. Ya know I'm crazy about ya!

Much ink has been spilled (most of it wasted) defending The Cult of the Expert: the elitist view that you had to be there, and it is impossible to understand the problem from first principles alone.

Poppycock and balderdash!

The late, great physicist Richard Feynman, having never worked in the space program (nor even seen a shuttle booster), pinpointed the cause of the Challenger disaster with the use of a glass of ice water.

Ships are machines, in the physics sense of the term, and can be well understood with a knowledge of the laws governing that discipline. To imply that having been there, or having had so many years of experience imbues the observer with a true and accurate view of events is nonsense. The presence of a moron at a brain operation doesn't make him a neurosurgeon.