Criticisms of Capt EJSmith


William Conrad


After reading some books and viewing internet forums about the Titanic incident, I've come across many people who, in my personal opinion, unfairly criticise Capt. E.J.Smith's actions after the Titanic struck that iceberg. Basically, I want to deal with the 'steaming_towards_the_mystery_ship' scenario. I don't know if this'll be opening a big can or worms, but here goes...

People criticise Capt. Smith for not steaming towards the 'mystery ship' seen from the deck of the sinking Titanic, thus saving everybody onboard. The people who suggest this alternative course of action, don't seem to take into account a few facts that, I believe, would've made such a undertaking wholly impractical for Capt. Smith.

First off, the 'mystery ship' wasn't even spotted until after 12 o'clock that night, a little bit after Capt. Smith was told that the ship would sink within an hour or two by ship's designer. Next, it was only realised for certain that the 'mystery ship' was not responding to the Titanic's calls for help after it didn't respond to the Titanic's morse lamp or white distress rockets.

If Titanic's master had made the decision to chase the 'mystery ship' in the distance, Capt. Smith would've had to abandon the Titanic's evacuation, retrieve any launched lifeboats, bring everyone inside and build up enough steam before he could even begin to move off. All the while knowing his ship was only going to last an hour or two and not knowing how far away his destination was anyway! Not only that, he would've had to steam at a reduced speed, because of the flooded forward compartments and damaged bow.

With this in mind, isn't it probable that the Titanic would've foundered under Capt. Smith's feet, long before they ever got there? And many more people would've died, because of the suspension of the evacuation, in order for Capt. Smith's all out attempt to reach the 'mystery ship'. In short, Capt. Smith's only practical option was to order the abandonment of the Titanic as quickly and efficiently as possible, lifeboat shortage or not.

Anyone else agree or disagree?
I would have to agree with you. Captain Smith was
doing the best he could with the circumstances
As you indicate, by the time the 'mystery ship'
was spotted, Titanic's boilers were shut down and
most of the steam vented. It would have taken too
much time to refire the boilers and even then,
with seawater flooding the boiler rooms, he
couldn't have done anything in that regard.

Had the boilers stayed fired and Captain Smith
decided to head toward the 'mystery' ship of
undetermined distance, the Titanic would have
gotten to the point where she would have
nose-dived faster, speeding up the sinking.
Evacuation might have had to have been hastened,
and if the ship was still drifting forward, the
sceanario may have been similar to Lusitania or
Britannic, where the still-churning propellers
might have drawn in lifeboats full of people.

In all probability, with the Titanic colliding
with an iceberg an unavoidable event, a head-on
collision might have been the way to go. She
likely would have damaged 2 or 3 forward
compartments, killing mostly crew and steerage
passengers while they slept, but Titanic would not
have sunk. Another possibility is if Murdoch
ordered hard-a-starboard and kept the engines full
ahead, the ship very well may have shot past the
ice, a 'close shave'. But instinct would be to
slow and turn, just like when driving down a
country road and a deer darts out into the street.
One instinctively hits the brakes and swerve.
Another point to ponder; if Captain Smith had kept up steam, the boilers would very likely have exploded once the cold water flooded in, all of which would have speeded up the sinking say nothing of forcing water in at a faster rate through the openings had the ship maintained any sort of useful speed.

Re Smith, I have some reservations about the man which I'll have to cure through further research. It seemed as if he wasn't in full control of the situation, though in all fairness to the man, he was really caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I have to wonder if any one of us could have done any better.

Michael H. Standart

Michael H. Standart
The only problem I have with Capt. Smith is the steaming full speed BEFORE hitting the iceberg.
Most people would agree that afterwards it would be foolhardy to try to move the ship, for all the reasons you and Dan and Michael pointed out.

Mike Herbold, I absolutely agree with you! I'm afraid all those Capt. Smith fans out there won't like this, but blame must be laid at Capt. Smith's feet for steaming too fast into an area where he expected ice anyway. I know that Capt. Smith was probably under pressure from the management of the White Star Line to make his crossings as fast as possible. After all, don't many companies do that even today? In this respect, I can't help but feel some sympathy for him...

As for Murdoch, well I believe he acted as best he could under the circumstances. Yes, he could of made the Titanic turn that little bit faster if he hadn't reversed the engines, but it's still just speculation that the Titanic would've missed the iceberg. And the accusation that he should of rammed the iceberg head on, is absolutely bizarre! Yes, it may of saved the Titanic, but who in there right mind would do that! How could Murdoch of known that trying to avoid the iceberg would result in the fatal damage!

At the end of the day, I believe that Murdoch tried his best. The fault lay with the Titanic's excessive speed into an area where Capt. Smith knew there would be ice. That decision lay with Capt. Smith and him alone...
Like most of you I have mixed feelings about Captain Smith. However, regarding his speed that night, wasn't this standard practice? Provided vision was clear, weather favorable, etc., wasn't the 'mode' of the day to 'push on'? Marcus, I believe, showed several cases where other captains did just this. Also, at the hearings (British, primarily) didn't several other captains all back up Smith?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not sayin speed wasn't the problem (I believe the 'unsinkability factor' also played a major role but that's another debate). I just feel that Smith was the one who paid the price (along with 1500 other souls) for a practice he did not introduce but only followed.

Best regards,
Yes, I agree with that also! What you're saying is absolutely correct. All steamship Captains followed these practices, probably under the suggestion of their shipping companies.

Remember, if one line did it, all the others had to do it to stay competitive. This is where safety laws come in. To act as a final restraint on unscrupulous employers who'd force their Captains to take risks in pursuit of faster crossings and more profit.

I think that Capt. Smith was pushing it, but not dangerously so by the standards of the day. He played the game and took the risks like all the others on the shipping lanes. Unfortunately, his luck just ran out and he got caught...

Dangerously incompetent? No, not by the standards of his day as the White Star Line's policy doesn't seem to of been any different from any of the others. Remember, if it hadn't been the Titanic, it would've been another ship in time. The relaxed practices of the time were an accident waiting to happen...

As a Captain of a passenger ship I think that I can add some insight. Even if Smith saw the "mystery ship" before he was told the ship would sink. He knew it. Even though after giving the initial orders to get the boats ready he hesitated in lowering them he knew his ship was sinking and decided that getting the passengers off was a more practicable thing to do rather then steam over and risk taking on more water. Even after the inspection he did not know the full extent of the holes that had been punched in his ship. He only knew that the water was in places that he didn't want it in. As a Captain once you think your ship is going to die, you get the people who can't help you save it off, and in his case as many off as you can. I believe that if Captain Smith had tried to steam in that direction the ship would have flooded much more rapidly and a very steep starboard list would have developed and she would have foundered quickly with a lot more lives lost.
Hi Erik, for what it's worth, naval architects have come to the conclusion that the RMS Titanic had an initial flooding rate of close to seven tons per second. I have no doubt that increased water pressure below the waterline played a very large part in this. I shudder to think what would have happened had Smith tried to make for the mystery ship at. Any sort of useful speed would certainly have forced water in at a faster rate...and made launching the lifeboats impossible. Every ship I ever served on in my Navy days either came to a dead stop or slowed to barely minimum steerage way befor ever trying to launch a boat for any reason lest they end up swamping the boat.

I have some concerns and a lot of doubts about the quality of Smith's leadership in this. It seems on the surface of it all that he was hardly there and was indecisive when he needed to take action the most, yet as I've asked befor, could any of us have done any better? The man was in a lose-lose situation on a sinking ship in freezing water with not enough lifeboats for all aboard. Not an enviable situation. I'll need to do some more research on this befor I firm up my opinions on this.

Michael H. Standart
Hey Mike

It is said that Smith was very decisive until he knew that his ship would founder and over half the people onboard would die. Smith hit two bottoms at once. Realizing and tryinig come to grips with the fact that he was going to die and the fact that his ship was going to die. Smith was hesitant in lowering the boats. But when asked he gave the order to Lightoller he gave it. Wilde is the one who wanted to wait until the Captain gave the order. I would not say Smith's leadership was bad. In the very begining he did what needed to be done. Began an immediate inspection and then realized that he needed to abandon ship. Now the events after that are in some question. However other then giving the orders to abandon ship, meaning, lowering the boats with people in them. There wasn't anything for him to do. But wait. From all accounts I have read his whereabouts and actions after his orders to Lightoller are relatively unknown. Oh, and the orders to QM Rowe. I do agree on the moving the ship. What do you think on the opening the doors theory. I think it is debunked and would have been a fatal mistake. I have more insight but I will wait for a response.
Is it possible that as Capt. Smith was entering unknown territory, he suddenly lost his nerve? To realise that suddenly your ship is about to sink and you haven't got enough lifeboats for all the passengers, not to mention that help is too far away to be of any practical use, must of been a terrible shock!

With such a terrible calamity staring him straight in the face, Capt. Smith must of wandered the deck of his ship wondering how it could all fall apart so easily. Almost shell-shocked maybe!
Good day Erik. Always nice to hear from another mariner. And you're right, the opening watertight doors theory was debunked. A Discovery Channel special showed the results when a properly balanced scale model was used in a tank to check it out. When the doors were closed, the model sank exactly as the Titanic did on the night of 14 to 15 April. However, when the doors were opened, the ship took on a heavier list, power was lost nearly an hour sooner and the ship soon capsized shortly thereafter.

BTW, do you mean agree or disagree on moving the ship? I gathered from your earlier post that you disagreed with it and I'm chalking this one up to a minor typographical error when you wrote your last message.

I'll have to go into both investigation transcripts befor I form any conclusions about Captain Smith. What we call Monday Morning Quarterbacking in the United States is all too easy when one has all the known facts at hand as we do, but Smith didn't nesseccerily have that advantage. Too meny critics forget that.

Michael H. Standart
Good Afternoon,

Abandoning ship at night good or bad weather is the last thing a Captain wants to do. It is often said that Lightoller asked Wilde who said no and then Smith who said yes. Most Captains don't want to admit that there ship is going to die so they hold on to the thought that she could stay afloat so they hesitate. That order for Smith also meant he would die. As a Captain there isn't much to do after the abandon ship efforts begin. You are beyond trying to save your ship you are just trying to save the lives of those on board. You are also trying to keep power and keep her afloat for as along as possible but mostly the enigneers worry about that. You are just a person to blame. Also a little historical tid bit, now because of the Titanic they are required to have emergency generators on or above the boat deck that do not use the main fuel source.

I forgot to put that I agree that moving the ship torwards the mystery ship would have been a fatal mistake as would opening the doors. I would think that it would have slowly but surely made a steeper list and loss of power would have come some time earlier.

G'Day Erik, thanks for clearing all of that up. I knowwhat you mean about emergency generators with independant fuel sources. I was on the USS Ranger in '83 when we had the fire which gutted number four main machinary room. Main power throughout the ship was the first thing lost. Were it not for the emergency generators, I strongly beleive that the ship would have been the next thing lost. Since the closest land was hostile (Iran!), it wouldn't have been a fun time.

Re the experiment which was shown on the Discovery Channel, even without moving the ship, it was the free surface action of all that water sloshing randomly around which caused the ship to turn over. I'm glad they didn't try it with the real thing.

Michael H. Standart