Titanic's Rockets

Titanica!

HOW MANY rockets were fired by the Titanic?

"Eight!"

It’s one of those facts we have unquestioningly received; an answer that comes automatically from the same vaults of memory that store similar statistical information, such the fact that the Titanic was 882.5 feet long or 46,000 tonnes by gross register.

But no matter how comfortable we may be with our eight rockets fired by Titanic, this is simply not a truth in the same category as the others. In fact, it’s just not a fact at all. Eight rockets is pure bunkum.

It is a tribute to the British Inquiry that the idea of eight rockets and eight alone was so assiduously implanted into public consciousness where it has remained in the decades since.

Lord Mersey first espoused this dogma in his final report, published at the end of July, 1912 :

"In all, Mr. Boxall fired about eight rockets. There appears to be no doubt that the vessel whose lights he saw was the Californian. The evidence from the Californian speaks of eight rockets having been seen between 12.30 and 1.40. The number sent up by the Titanic was about eight. The Californian saw eight."

Thus we have eight. And eight has been ingrained ever since.

The Californian certainly saw only eight rockets. But did the Titanic really only fire eight? Just eight?

Why would they limit their distress rockets to such a small number??

Let’s look at some facts. The Titanic had no fewer than 48 rockets aboard, not counting an amount of deck flares and a dozen other signals. Why then fire such a sparse amount? Why economise so much on rockets when a $10 million vessel is sinking?

When we ignore Lord Mersey and examine what the Titanic witnesses who gave evidence had to say, it is suddenly revealed that there was no agreement that eight and only eight were fired.

How many rockets were fired from the Titanic, according to that ship’s crew?

Third Officer Herbert Pitman: "It may have been a dozen or it may have been MORE, sir."

Second Officer Charles Lightoller: "I should roughly estimate somewhere about eight (but he will go on to indicate that these were those he saw fired on the starboard side alone.)

Quartermaster Arthur Bright: "Six were fired in all, I think (but implies these were ones solely fired by him and fellow Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe alone – and after Boxhall had previously been firing rockets.)

Fourth Officer Joseph Groves Boxhall: 15395. How many rockets did you send up, about.? – "I could not say, between half a dozen and a dozen, I should say, as near as I could tell."

Steward Alfred Crawford: "I should say I saw about a dozen go up, probably MORE."

The only agreement above is between Crawford and Pitman, who both believe it could have been the case that more than a dozen rockets were fired. If we imagine this means at least a minimum of 13, then it is five more than Lord Mersey would have us believe.

The average number from the crew accounts given above is ten rockets. And even this does not give any weighting for the two "mores" above a dozen, nor add anything to those who speak about only one side.

From the evidence, it looks more like a dozen rockets fired. Lord Mersey is hardly entitled to state as a found fact that "the number sent up by the Titanic was about eight."

And despite Mersey’s pronouncements, Joseph Boxhall did not say that he fired eight rockets. He says instead that he personally could have fired up to TWELVE.

And now it is crucial to state clearly that he was not the only one firing.

The indications we have are that there were two firing positions on either side of the bridge.

This is an important concept, bearing in mind the evidence from Apprentice Officer James Gibson aboard the Californian, which is that he saw only three rockets in the hour from 1.00 to 2.00, Californian time.

When we compare these two situations, we do not see Mersey’s "coincidence" of only eight rockets fired and seen. Instead we see the possibility that the Californian did not see ALL of Titanic’s rockets but instead saw just SOME.

This in turn suggests that the Californian’s own nearby ship - lying motionless and unresponsive up to five miles away - was not the one firing rockets, but that the rockets were being fired by a distant and unseen vessel over the horizon, as Second Officer Herbert Stone suspected at the time may have been the case.

It is now worth looking at the Titanic evidence in a little more detail:

Third Officer Pitman: I should say about a dozen rockets were fired.
Senator Smith: What did you see? What did they do?
Pitman: They were fired from the rail. They make a report while leaving the rail, and also an explosion in the air, and they throw stars, of course, in the air.
Senator Smith: And you saw about a dozen or so of them?
Pitman: It may have been a dozen or it may have been MORE, sir.

AB George Symons:
11468. Before you left the boat deck had you noticed any rockets being fired from the bridge ? -
Yes, the rockets were going up simultaneously, every minute, minute intervals, and that steamer’s light was in sight about a point and a half on the port bow, roughly between five and ten miles away when they fired the rockets, and they were also working the starboard and port Morse lights.

Symons use of the word "simultaneously" strong implies two firing positions. Rockets were going up simultaneously, he says.

It appears that that there were two firing sockets either side of the bridge, as indicated by Pitman (and elsewhere by Boxhall.) Rockets could be fired from the rail on either the starboard or port sides.

In a moment we shall see that Quartermasters Rowe and Bright were indeed firing separately to actions carried out by their senior officer, Boxhall.

The evidence is indeed that rockets were fired both on the port side (where the mystery ship was seen) and also on the starboard side, where witnesses saw their flash and where Officer Lowe was "nearly deafened" by the detonations beside him.

Symons says above they were "also" working the starboard and port lights, which may suggest that other work "also" being done on the starboard and port sides involved the firing of those simultaneous rockets.

Meanwhile his description of rockets going up - sometimes together, or at one-minute intervals - is totally at odds with Boxhall’s telling the Inquiry that he himself was firing rockets at intervals of (15399) "probably five minutes".

If Symons is right and Boxhall is equally right, then only two firing parties can explain the contradiction.

And two firing parties are also suggested in this extract from John Hardy’s evidence from the US Inquiry:

Hardy: He (Capt Smith) was superintending the rockets, calling out to the Quartermaster about the rockets.

[The Quartermaster is either Rowe or Bright. Officer Boxhall, in this account, is not at this scene. Smith was giving orders to a Quartermaster because he was the one in charge of rockets at that location, and it will be argued that this was on the port side.]

Second Officer Lightoller, meanwhile, says eight rockets were fired from the starboard side:

14160: I should roughly estimate somewhere about eight (rockets) at intervals of a few minutes-five or six minutes, or something like that. (Agreeing with Boxhall’s intervals.)

14161. One at a time ?-Yes, all fired from the starboard side, as far as I know.

Here now is further evidence of two separate firing stations, operating independently on both the port side and the starboard side:-

PORT SIDE FIRING

Evidence of Quartermaster George Rowe:

Senator Burton: When did you first see her (the mystery ship)?
Rowe: When I was on the bridge firing the rockets. I saw it myself, and I worked the Morse lamp at the port side of the ship to draw her attention.

STARBOARD SIDE FIRING

Fourth Officer Boxhall:

15434. I know the starboard emergency boat had gone some time, and that they were working on the collapsible boats when I went, because I fired the distress signals from the socket in the rail just close to the bows of the emergency boat on the starboard side.

Every time I fired a signal I had to clear everybody away from the vicinity of this socket, and then I remember the last one or two distress signals I sent off the boat had gone, and they were then working on the collapsible boat which was on the deck.

Boxhall suggests he is alone here, and alone here all night, since he does the clearing away as well as the firing. The absence on the starboard side of Rowe and Bright becomes an argument that they were instead busy on the port side.

Yet another proof of this contention arises if we reduce the contrary argument to absurdity: it does not take three men to fire rockets from just one socket position when one man had been successfully doing it alone before the other two arrived.

And if the other two were there with Boxhall, why did he have to shoo everyone away alone when he wanted to fire?

No, the indications are that Boxhall’s evidence about rockets is about 6-12 rockets fired personally:

15395. How many rockets did you send up about.?-I could not say, between half a dozen and a dozen, I should say, as near as I could tell.

Now we shall see that Boxhall was already busy with rockets on his own when he unexpectedly got the opportunity to call up assistance.

His evidence specifically states that he had sent up rocketry when he got the sudden chance to order that even more rockets be brought up from the stern of the ship.

Boxhall

15593. - I knew one of the boats had gone away, because I happened to be putting the firing lanyard inside the well-house after sending off a rocket, and the telephone bell rang. Somebody telephoned to say that one of the starboard boats had left the ship, and I was rather surprised.

Quartermaster George Rowe told the US Inquiry that it was he who had rung the bridge. He was ringing, don’t forget, after Boxhall has already begun firing off rockets:

"I telephoned to the fore bridge to know if they knew there was a boat lowered. They replied, asking me if I was the third officer. I replied, "No; I am the Quartermaster." They told me to bring over detonators, which are used in firing distress signals."

So Boxhall already had at least one box of rockets at his disposal and in use, and wanted more.

Rockets were kept in two places on the Titanic, being stowed both on the bridge and in a locker all the way aft, as Rowe testified in America:

Senator Burton: Were there any detonators or other signals kept aft?
QM Rowe: The detonators, such as the distress signal rockets, green lights, and blue lights..
Sen. Burton: Were there any kept forward? Rowe: Yes; on the fore bridge.

Two places. And now there are at least THREE boxes of rockets brought to the bridge, because this is what Quartermaster Arthur Bright has to say:

Bright (US Inq):
"I went out to the after end of the ship to relieve the man I should have relieved at 12 o'clock, a man by the name of Rowe. We stood there for some moments and did not know exactly what to do, and rang the telephone up to the bridge and asked them what we should do. They told us to bring a box of detonators for them - signals. Each of us took a box to the bridge. When we got up there we were told to fire them - distress signals."

Rowe separately says:

"I took them to the forebridge and turned them over to the fourth officer. I assisted the officer to fire them…"

Bright was asked who fired the rockets, and replied: "Rowe and I, and Mr. Boxhall, the fourth officer."

This reply in itself seems to suggest two firing parties. On the one hand, Rowe and Bright, on the other, Boxhall. And Boxhall’s tale of lone firings and shepherding people away himself serves to confirm what Bright is saying.

Bright then says, when asked how "you" had fired: "Six were fired in all, I think."

It would seem that he is speaking only for his firing party. Because if "six in all" means EVERYBODY aboard the Titanic, then this cannot be true. Californian saw eight rockets.

And of course when Bright answers the question as to how many "you" fired, he is not answering in a context that includes Boxhall’s use of rockets before Bright came up from the poop.

So here we are - Boxhall had previously been able to fire rockets alone, and now there are at least three designated men and three separate boxes of rockets on the bridge, which has available firing sites to port and starboard.

Despite a minimalist construction on what Bright says, the idea of just eight rockets being fired by the Titanic in total must be looking doubtful with each new layer of otherwise minor fact.

TIMINGS AND INTERVALS

It is now worth looking at times and the gaps between Titanic rocket firings as cited by different witnesses.

A single man, if he were firing only eight rockets at the intervals suggested by Boxhall (five minutes) would be done and dusted in 40 minutes.

So what do the rocket-firers say?

Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe:

17683. Did you take any part in firing distress rockets? -Yes.

17684. How long do you think it was from the time you commenced firing the rockets till you finished firing the rockets? -From about a quarter to one to about 1.25. (40 minutes)

17685. Yes, that is right. You gave evidence in America about it, and I see what you said there was: "I assisted the officer to fire them "-that is, rockets-" and was firing distress signals until about five and twenty past one." That is accurate? - Yes.

But Boxhall has been firing rockets before Rowe ever made it to the bridge.

Boxhall meanwhile indicated that he himself continued firing rockets until 1.45. Rowe’s watch had been put back 20 minutes at midnight. So when Rowe cites 1.25 as a stop time, this is actually 1.45, and agrees with Boxhall.

Both parties are firing rockets for 40 minutes. "Simultaneously," offers Symons. And Boxhall specifically states that he began firings before Rowe had even telephoned the bridge.

So, just eight fired in all?

Bright says that he and Rowe each brought a box each of rockets to the bridge. Presumably those two boxes did not contain just a couple of rockets each… if we are to believe the proposition that the Titanic fired just eight rockets.

No – on the contrary, the evidence is trying to tell us something very much to the contrary.

Two firing parties with separate boxes each must have managed far more than eight rockets fired!

If Bright’s six are married to Boxhall’s maximum of a dozen, then 18 rockets seems to be the outer limit sent into the night sky by the drowning Titanic.

Steward Alfred Crawford says not only a dozen, but probably more:

17972 After the boat was launched that you were in, did you see any rockets sent up ?-Yes, from the Titanic. I also saw the Morse code being used. (Agrees with Symons, earlier.)

17973 About how many rockets did you see sent up ?-I should say I saw about a dozen go up, probably more.

17974 A dozen rockets from the Titanic?-Yes, they kept going up.

17975 And you could see those quite distinctly?-Yes.

(And at US Inq)

Senator Smith: Did you see any rockets?

Crawford: Yes, sir; plenty of them went up from the Titanic. (would eight be plenty?)

Yet the Californian only saw EIGHT.

I have not advanced a time when Boxhall began firing rockets. But the evidence we have is capable of suggesting that he was busy for some long time before that telephone rang on the bridge.

In parts of his evidence, Boxhall implies that he had been firing rockets early in the night, when the mystery ship was just a pair of masthead lights:

Boxhall (US Inq):
I had been firing off rockets before I saw her side lights. I fired off the rockets and then she got so close…

Was this before Rowe and Bright were summoned up to the bridge? It would appear so. And Boxhall is firing rockets in the plural. In fact, Boxhall had obtained rockets as soon as he saw a light.

And think about this - the Titanic, as soon as she knew she was sinking (which was very early indeed) was bound to send up distress rockets whether there was a ship in sight or not.

Boxhall 15393 -- I could see the light with the naked eye, but I could not define what it was, but by the aid of a pair of glasses I found it was the two masthead lights of a vessel… but she was too far off then.

15394. Could you see how far off she was ?-No, I could not see, but I had sent in the meantime for some rockets, and told the Captain I had sent for some rockets, and told him I would send them off, and told him when I saw this light. He said, "Yes, carry on with it." I was sending rockets off and watching this steamer. Between the time of sending the rockets off and watching the steamer approach us…

This was early in the night, then. But how early?

Quartermaster Rowe indicates in his evidence that the Titanic’s mystery ship was close by the time he got to the bridge:

Senator Burton: When did you first see her (the mystery ship)?
Rowe: When I was on the bridge firing the rockets. I saw it myself, and I worked the Morse lamp at the port side of the ship to draw her attention.

Thus, she was close enough to Morse, in Rowe’s opinion. But Boxhall had been "firing off rockets before I saw her sidelights. I fired off the rockets and THEN she got close…" (US Inq.)

A number of rockets already fired by Boxhall then, according to his own evidence, before he had the good fortune to be able to summon Bright and Rowe.

Can we make further progress and establish when exactly Boxhall began this mysterious number of pre-telephone rocket firings?

Senator Fletcher: I understood you to say that you saw a steamer almost ahead of you…about the time of the collision?
Boxhall: Shortly afterwards….
Sen. Fletcher: And how soon after the collision?
Boxhall: I cannot say about that. It was shortly after the order was given to clear the boats.

Not to lower the boats, or even to man the boats, but simply to take the covers off the boats…

So Boxhall strongly implies that he was firing rockets long before ANY boat had been lowered, and indeed Rowe and Bright only came to the bridge from aft after seeing a boat in the water for the first time.

AB George Symons supports this view.

He gave a deposition to the British Consul in America on May 2, 1912, which was later read into the record of the British Inquiry. It reads in part (11721):

"Shortly after I had got on the boat deck I noticed rockets being fired at very frequent intervals from the bridge, Morse signals being used, and at about 12.30 I saw about one point on the port bow distant some five or six miles a light which I took to be the stern light of a cod bank fisherman."

Symons (sent away in boat 1 at 1.10am) appears to place "very frequent" rockets being fired shortly after he got on the boat deck. His arrival was just after midnight because he referenced something else happening (Br 11418) at about five minutes to twelve.

He said: "…as I was on my way to the deck, they struck eight bells in the crow’s-nest," meaning midnight.

So what do Boxhall and Symons mean separately by the word "shortly" in this context? How early can rocket firings be placed ?

There is no point in exhaustively examining times. What appears to be indicated is that rockets had been fired before Rowe and Bright brought two more boxes of rockets forward - which were used next. If Symons is right about "very frequent" rockets, then three men would certainly dispose of only eight rockets in a very short time.

Rowe said however (17684) that the second phase of firings [in other words those rockets that he himself took part in firing], lasted forty minutes. Bright says half an hour, but this is a guess whereas Rowe gives specific times for beginning and end of his firings.

Meanwhile the distress regulations called for rockets at "short intervals," akin to Symons’ "very frequent."

Even if five-minute intervals are considered, then the parties should have fired six in half an hour, or eight in forty minutes, on top of whatever Boxhall had already sent up before he got that telephone call from all the way aft.

And there’s more.

Boxhall said he fired half a dozen to a dozen rockets, before he left. And Rowe appears to have been the last man remaining with rockets:

Rowe

"At that time they were getting out the starboard collapsible boats. The chief officer, Wilde, wanted a sailor. I asked Capt. Smith if I should fire any more, and he said ‘No: get into that boat.’"

Lookout Reg Lee left the Titanic in boat 13, which left c. 1.40am. This was five minutes before the departure of Boxhall, who at that stage was busy organizing boat 2. Lee’s account seems to indicate that rockets were fired (by Rowe, who remained?) after Boxhall had given up his personal firings:

Lee

2582. Did you see any rockets sent up from the Titanic?-Yes, Sir.

2583. Before you left the vessel ?-Before and after.

So here we are: Boxhall was firing rockets personally. He is later joined by Rowe and Bright and all three take part in the further firing of rockets. A number of Titanic witnesses talking of seeing a dozen rockets and more. "Plenty."

Boxhall only refers to firing on the starboard side, and is there alone. He says he fired 6-12, a guess very similar to Lightoller’s estimated eight, which the latter emphasised were "all from the starboard side."

Bright’s figure of six is the lowest mentioned by anyone. But this must be wrong as a Titanic total, since at least eight were fired because eight were certainly seen. If, however, Bright’s six refers to all those fired on the port side alone, then the judgement of other witnesses makes sense. Six from port and eight from starboard makes fourteen.

But the Californian saw just eight. She may have missed a number.

Because she was very distant?

Think what you will about the Californian. But think for yourself about the rockets. Don’t unquestioningly accept Lord Mersey’s self-serving shibboleth. The evidence he was charged to oversee and analyse does not support his perjorative coincidence. Quite the contrary.


© Senan Molony, 2000.

Related Biographies:

John Charles Bigham
Joseph Groves Boxhall
Charles Victor Groves
Stanley Lord
George Thomas Rowe

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