Report into the loss of the SS Titanic - A centennial reappraisal

A remarkable team of experts shine fresh and detailed light on a century old drama.

Titanic Review

Halpern et al., with foreword by J. Kent Layton, The History Press 2011

The genesis of this book was remarkably short, all things considered, it having been conceived by Sam Halpern only in August 2010, when he wondered how the1912 British Wreck Commission would have reported, had it known then what we know now.   Luckily, Sam had to hand a congregation of Titanic researchers upon whom he could call to contribute in their own areas of expertise, so the task was not quite as impossible as it might at first have seemed.

To get the academic stuff out of the way first, it should be said that this is a book densely packed with facts and theory, and very well illustrated with diagrams and photographs which contribute greatly to the understanding of evidence which may sometimes otherwise be rather difficult for the armchair mariner.   It is meticulously referenced, and has high production values.

SS Titanic Centennial

So what of the book?  I will not single out any particular contributor as I realise they are operating as a team, but great credit must be given to Sam Halpern as the progenitor and lynchpin of the project.   Given his original idea  -  that of wondering what the Inquiry would have decided had it had our knowledge  -  the contributors are mostly technical researchers, because that was the remit of this, and the original, Inquiries.  What were the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Titanic?

The structure of the book is excellent, beginning with a succinct summary by Dave Gittins of both 1912 Inquiries, the American and the British, before proceeding to a description of the ship which can only be described as masterly.  But then, having reviewed a previous book by Beveridge and Hall, I would have expected no less.  For anyone new or only vaguely familiar with the Titanic it is well worth while reading this section carefully, as it brings home the tremendous complexities of a large passenger liner and illuminates, particularly, the problems involved in communication and evacuation.   The textual description is, of course, accompanied by blueprints of the ship, though given the scale inevitably imposed by the size of the book, I would recommend anyone over 45 to buy a pair of reading glasses if s(he) hasn’t already.    I had to fetch the magnifying glass my father used in his 90s, and very useful it was too, to visually track the description of access to the Boat Deck for passengers and crew, and other information.  

The disaster itself is introduced with an account by Lester Mitcham of the lost and saved among passengers and crew.  Readers inclined to sociology or sentiment should note that this section, befittingly, is entirely factual and makes no comment on class or nationality issues.

Next, Sam Halpern begins his odessey of closely-documented observations of navigational issues which form the backbone of this book, embracing as it does the Titanic’s journey westward and, later, the difficult issues surrounding the SS Californian and the SS Mount Temple.  A description of the Titanic’s journey gives rise to little controversy until the night of the 14th April, of course, but the Californian has given rise to possibly the greatest cause of argument over the years.   Before such controversy is reached, however, a great deal of ground is covered in scholarly detail concerning the damage to the ship (Halpern & Weeks), the evacuation of the ship and the saving of the fortunate (Wormstedt & Fitch), and the desperate problem of the inadequacy of both lifeboat provision and logistics (Gittins, Akers-Jordan & Behe).  The authors remain scrupulously devoted to fact as proven at the time and since, and where they speculate, they only do so when both stating – and questioning – their own assumptions.  It makes for good reading.  

In the chapters on the Californian and the Mount Temple, Sam comes into his forensic own.  But you’ll need to pay attention, despite the fact that he is a terrific one for providing illuminating diagrams.  I found myself compelled  --  somewhat reluctantly at first, but later with rather more enthusiasm  --  to brush up my hazy (and lazy) understanding of such things as dead reckoning, the meaning of “true”, how compasses work in steel ships,  the precise definition of bearing, current, drift, abaft, reciprocals, and refraction etc. etc.  You might scoff, but if you’re going to understand Sam’s reasoning you might have to do a bit of revision yourselves.  It is entirely possible to drift along, as it were, without making the effort and just take Sam’s conclusions for granted, but given the controversy surrounding the Californian, I think there may well be quite a few people who will be poring over these chapters and looking for chinks in Sam’s forensic armour.  All I can say is “good luck”  -  it won’t be easy.  

The disaster is rounded off by Chirnside and Gittins describing the aftermath.  Not, as you might think, a humanitarian account, but an account of modifications made for safety reasons in the wake of the disaster, and the establishment of SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea).  

Some people may wonder at the lack of personal information or comment on the people involved, but that is because the book remains true to its remit:  to re-envisage an Inquiry, given what we know now.   For those many people who are primarily interested in character, personal circumstances and the unfamiliar  -  and often seemingly unfeeling  -  attitudes of 1912, there are many other sources of information and speculation.  However, I would still recommend this book to them because forensic evidence can do so much to contextualize one’s gut, and perhaps less objective, opinions.   For this reason alone, I would recommend that James Cameron reads it, in particular the section on locked gates.  

The book concludes its purpose with a chronology of events, with references and notes.  I can only assume that this is based on Sam’s Excel file which he has built up, with the help of others, over the years.  It is quite mind-boggling, and leads into a summary of the findings of this 2011 report.

If you only buy one Centennial book, I would suggest you should buy this one.   For some readers, it may lay the whole issue finally to rest, but to others it may just provide a fresh challenge.  Which will be interesting for us all.  But it won’t be easy to argue with these authors  ...  there’s Sam’s diagrams, for a start.

Samuel Halpern, Bill Wormstedt, Bruce Beveridge, Steve Hall, Captain Charles Weeks, Dave Gittins, George Behe, Mark Chirnside, Lester Mitcham, Tad Fitch, Cathy Akers-Jordan, J. Kent Layton


Monica Hall