by Senan Molony
WHO talked to Titanic?
It is a most interesting question, but one infuriatingly unanswered.
The Titanic’s brief service history is still clouded by large gaps, or lacunae, even though it lasted less than half a calendar month.
Particularly obscure is her wireless conversation with other stations prior to the dread moment of 11.40pm ship’s time on Sunday evening, April 14, 1912.
The British Inquiry catalogued Titanic traffic thereafter as she began to sink, reconstructing her exchanges through the wireless records of other ships. The White Star vessel’s own PV went to the bottom, despite a determination among operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips during the crisis that it should be saved.
Bride wrote in a letter to the Marconi company (on April 27, while in New York) that at the end of the drama:
“I had up to this time kept the PV entered up, intending when we left the ship to tear out the lot, and each to take a copy, but now we could hear the water washing over the boat deck, and Mr. Phillips said, "Come, let's clear out." (Letter cited in US Inquiry report, p. 1,053)
It is certain that not all the Titanic’s transmissions in her death throes have been restored through the reconstruction work of the London inquiry.
But there is a much larger ‘invisible achive’ of missing messages, which predates the time when the demise of the maiden voyager began to unfold.
Harold Bride testified: “When we had finished with Cape Race, we had transmitted 250 telegrams, just about, since leaving Southampton.”
He repeated himself immediately, for the sake of clarity: “From leaving Southampton to the time we had finished with Cape Race, we had got through about 250 telegrams.”
These 250 messages are virtually all missing. And while Phillips had a substantial accumulation of messages to send to Cape Race that evening, it would seem that this outgoing pile, while never specified numerically, would have been unlikely to far exceed 25, and certainly not 50 because of the transmission time involved.
While these were passenger transmissions, North America having come within range for the first time on the voyage, it may have been that Bride was not talking of passenger ‘telegrams’ exclusively.
It seems clear that most of the messages sent since Southampton would have been from the Titanic to other vessels, and it is not conceivable that many ship-to-ship communications would have involved passenger messages, with one from a Titanic passenger to another on the Carpathia early on the night of the collision.
There is also a number of pre-collision Marconigrams from the Titanic recorded in the book Signals of Disaster by Booth and Coughlan. But their paucity raises questions about what might be missing.
Bride testified at Br. 16422: “There were messages coming through for Captain Smith all the time, but they did not affect the navigation of the ship.” They were not ice or obstruction warnings therefore, just messages of greeting and routine weather descriptions. The Titanic would have responded in kind.
Additionally, there would have been TRs, or time rushes, with other ships – mere courtesy exchanges of modest value, which might have been the precursor to conversation between operators.
Bride revealed that on Monday April 1, the day before sailing from Belfast to Southampton on the positioning trip for the maiden voyage, he and Phillips had been involved in testing their new Marconi apparatus.
It was the day of the Titanic’s sea trials. She exchanged signals with Malin Head (call sign MH) and Liverpool (Seaforth, call sign LV). It seems that the station at Malin, on a Donegal headland known as Banba’s Crown, received the first seaborne greeting from the brand new vessel. Malin is ironically now a major marine rescue centre.
Bride indicates that the next day, the Titanic was lying off Ballyquintin Point, at the mouth of Strangford Lough (the transcript erroneously renders Ballyquintin as ‘Linton’), after she “came around Belfast,” to start on the southern journey the length of the Irish Sea. It was at this point, on April 2, “when we exchanged the last message with Tenerife (Canary Islands) and Port Said (Egypt).”
These are great distances – at 1,900 and 3,000 statute miles respectively.
The contacts were achieved in somewhat freak conditions, but the atmosphere for transmission was to remain “very favourable” for the remainder of the voyage.
But the far more mundane contacts thereafter were with “English coast stations and with other ships.”
Leaving aside the coastal stations (such as Plymouth, Ryde, the Lizard, etc), there is a useful guide to the ships the Titanic would have “met” through the ether – from sailing day until she struck.
It exists in the form of the Marconi Telegraph Communication Chart for the North Atlantic for the month of April 1912. This is essentially a map of connectivity for the information of wireless operators. The author is lucky enough to possess an original.
Such charts were put in frames in wireless shacks and simply discarded at the end of their usefulness. They plotted all eastbound and westbound departures for Marconi-equipped ships crossing the Western Ocean, and where the lines intersected the ships would be in geographical proximity.
This meant their wireless nets would also overlap – providing a guide as to which ships might be communicated with, and at what point in the voyage.
With the Marconi chart for April 1912, it is thus possible to indicate the ships with which the Titanic likely spoke, or at least those vessels with similar installations who may have received some of her many messages.
Here is the Titanic’s timeline of primary intersections, although she probably addressed other vessels more peripherally in range, or who were not equipped with Marconi equipment.
Sailing Day, Wednesday April 10
The Titanic, although busy with pre-voyage preparations and with possibly some last-minute messages from seasoned passengers to friends ashore, could have been in contact with quite a number of incoming ships.
These include the Prinz Oskar of the Hamburg-Amerika Line, a passenger vessel, of 6,000 tons, the North German Lloyd’s Köln (18,000 tons, interned by the USA during WW1 and later converted to the troop transport USS Amphion), and the Pretorian of the Allan Line.
Also inbound were the Batavia of Elder Dempster and the Dominion of the International Navigation Line.
On sailing at noon, the Titanic could have spoken to the Nieuw Amsterdam (call sing MHR), which is the first vessel to get a mention in disaster inquiry records.
|Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm|
On April 9, the Nieuw Amsterdam told the Californian, already en route from London, about an icefield reported in 43º 20' North, 49º longitude, “extending as far to north-northeast as horizon is visible.” It is unlikely the Titanic would initially have been interested in such details.
Outward bound, she ought also to have had the La Savoie, a CGT liner on the New York to Le Havre route, along with a White Star stablemate, the Majestic of10,000 tons, Captain Smith’s former command. She almost certainly exchanged signals with the latter.
Bride might have taken an especial interest in communication with the Haverford, as he formerly served aboard her. The INL vessel, arriving from Philadelphia, would soon be left in Titanic’s wake as she crossed to Cherbourg.
Thursday April 11.
On leaving Cherbourg for Ireland in the hours of darkness, the inbound Hesperian of the Allan Line (call sign MSN) would have been available as both neared the Irish coast on closing courses.
Next in range would have been another former command of Captain Smith, the RMS Adriatic, once one of the Big Four. It is possibly unlikely that the Titanic spoke to the German Konigin Luise of the North German Lloyd after she left Queenstown. But she was indicated to be within range.
Towards evening of that day, the first outward leg from Europe, the CPR Line’s Empress of Britain (Captain James A. Murray) would have been within hail of a wireless exchange.
We know from the evidence of operator Stanley Howard Adams of the Atlantic Transport Line’s Mesaba (Captain Clark; call sign MMV) that she had been in contact with the Empress of Britain, but the date is not known.
The Empress replied to a Mesaba transmission with the words: “Many thanks for your kind message from all here.”
The Mesaba, eastbound, would later send an ice warning to the Titanic.
It was still Thursday night, however and later in the evening the Oceanic, inward bound, would have been nearby. The Oceanic, on her return trip westward in May, would find the Titanic’s collapsible A, and three bodies
At about midnight, long out of contact with the last of Europe, the Tunisian hove into the ether horizon. Two days before, Captain Fairfull had sent a message to Richard Jones, Master of the Canada, reporting pack ice nearly 100 miles north of where the Titanic struck, and very considerably west.
The Canada met the ice in 43° N, 49° 20’ W.
Friday April 12
The Marconi chart indicates that the maiden voyager’s next major contact could have been with the C. F. Tietgen of theScandinavia American Line, returning from New York to Kristiania (Oslo).
Formerly the Rotterdam of the Holland-America Line, she was 8,173 tons and 485 ft. in length. The original Mr Tietgen was one of the forces behind the industrial revolution in Denmark, and was involved in establishing companies such as the makers of Tuborg beer.
Six years on from possibly greeting the Titanic, the C. F. Tietgen would join her on the bottom. On June 18, 1918, the ship was torpedoed while on her way to France from Newport News. Destruction at the hands of the U-151 came 400 miles NE of Bermuda. Six of the lifeboats arrived safely after up to ten days at sea, but a seventh, with 22 men board, disappeared for all time.
On Friday the Titanic could also have interacted with the Dominion Line steamer Cassandra, sailing home from St John, via Halifax, for Glasgow. Or she could have spoken with the Caledonia of the P. & O. Line, as well as the Inman liner St Paul, captained by Frederick Passow.
After midday the Marconi chart indicated that the Corinthian (Captain Tannock) was available. The Titanic could subsequently have picked up a message that the Corinthian originally received from the Corsican – that there was ice in 42° 15’ N. and 49° 48 W, running to 41° 25W’ N., 50° 20’ W.
This message was sent the next day from Corinthian to Mount Temple. It defined the box in which the Titanic would strike her berg.
In the evening there would have been opportunities with the Victorian (sister ship to the Allan liner Virginian, which was later to pick up the Titanic distress messages) and the aforementioned Canada of the Dominion Line, which had received an ice report from the Tunisian.
The President Grant of the Hamburg Amerika Line, the Atlantic Transport Line’s Minnehaha (call sign MMA) and the Red Star liner Finland were also within range. The latter, bound for British waters, had logged nine large icebergs between latitude 41° 28’ N and 40° 58’ N, and longitude 46° 7’ W. and 46° 42’ W.
This box was southeast of where the Titanic later struck. The night after sighting these ice mountains, the Finland passed “several other bergs,” as is mentioned in testimony. She could have told the Titanic, had they been in contact, that the ice was alarmingly far to the south.
But the Titanic could not have spoken to any of these steamers that evening. Her wireless equipment suddenly went out of commission, and Bride and Phillips had to work the whole night to locate the fault.
The Finland could have sent an important warning, but fate had conspired against any communication with the mighty Titanic.
Saturday April 13
About midday, Harold Bride could have met the Lusitania through the ether. She was a great rival, one of the Cunard ocean greyhounds, but a vessel on which Bride had served as second operator.
This would have been a quiet day for wireless traffic. The Marconi communication chart for April 1912 indicates only two lines intersecting with Titanic’s own course line for this day.
The other, due to be reached in the afternoon, belonged to the Victoria Luise. Formerly the Deutschland, she too was a four-funnel vessel, operated by the Hamburg America Line, making this Saturday an unusual occasion when three four-stackers were within hailing distance of each other.
Only fourteen four-funnel liners were ever built. This particular conjunction could obviously never been repeated. Even if it was literally an ethereal event, it is a wide-overlooked curiosity in the story of the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
Sunday April 14
“We had a lot of traffic on Sunday,” said Harold Bride in evidence, referring to the routine exchanges before tragedy unfolded, and indeed the Marconi chart indicates a forest of intersections for this day, quite unlike the day before.
Shortly after midnight, signals could have been expected from the Holland America Line’s Noordam (Captain Krol), sailing from New York to Rotterdam. And indeed the transcript shows that a message was received from the Noordam, mentioning ice, and that the Titanic responded in a low-key fashion, commenting that she had experienced moderate, variable weather.
Another message, received at 9am, was from the Caronia of the Cunard Line. It declared: “Captain, Titanic —Westbound steamers report bergs, growlers “and field ice in 42° N, from 49° to 51° W, 12th April. Compliments —Barr.” This was a danger signal.
The Titanic responded nearly three-quarters of an hour later, with the Caronia message having been taken to the bridge in the interim. Captain Barr received back: “Thanks for message and information. Have had variable weather throughout—Smith.” It was 9.44am. Three hours later, Captain Smith would show the Caronia warning to Second Officer Lightoller.
A further hour later, two important ice warnings, well canvassed at the subsequent inquiries, were received by the Titanic. At 1.42pm a wireless message from the Baltic (Captain Ransom, call sign MBC) declared:
“Captain Smith, Titanic — Have had moderate, variable winds and clear, fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athenai reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in lat. 41° 51’ N, long. 49° 52’ W. Last night we spoke German oil-tank steamer Deutschland, Stettin to Philadelphia, not under control, short of coal, lat. 40° 42’ N, long. 55° 11’ W. Wishes to be reported to New York and other steamers. Wish you and Titanic all success— Commander.”
This cited ice location was very close to where the Titanic struck. But Bride seems to have regarded the Baltic message as conversational. He testified: “Communication had been established with the Baltic on Sunday afternoon, and compliments were exchanged between the two commanders, and the state of the weather.”
Captain Smith famously handed the Baltic warning to White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay, who kept it for several hours before the Master asked for it back. It seems to have been put up in the chart room at 7.15pm that evening.
Three minutes later, at about 1.45pm, a message was received from the German steamer Amerika, intended ultimately for the Hydrographic Office in Washington, but passed to the Titanic for onward transmission because she was nearer to Cape Race.
It said: “Amerika passed two large icebergs in 41° 27’ N, 50° 8’ W, on April 14.”
This was a position south and west of the point where the Titanic subsequently struck. Bride may have gone to lunch, as the Amerika message was received by Phillips, who put it aside to wait until Cape Race was within range. The junior operator was never told about it, and neither, apparently, was the bridge.
Two other messages conclude the known ice warnings. At 7.30pm a fourth such message was received, and was said by Bride to have been delivered to the bridge. This message was from the Leyland liner Californian (call sign MWL) to the Antillian (MJL; Captain Japha) of the same line, picked up by Titanic. It read:
“To Captain, Antillian, 6.30pm apparent ship’s time; lat. 42° 3’ N., long. 49° 9’ W. Three large bergs five miles to southward of us. Regards — Lord.”
Bride does not remember to what officer he delivered this message. A final ice warning was received at 9.40pm from the Mesaba of the Atlantic Transport Line (call sign MMV, Captain Clark):
“From Mesaba to Titanic and all east-bound ships. Ice report in lat. 42° N to 41° 25’ N., long. 49° to long. 50° 30’ W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice. Weather good, clear.”
As stated subsequently, this message clearly indicated the presence of ice in the immediate vicinity of the Titanic’s course and provided the oblong in which she collided. “If it had reached the bridge would perhaps have affected the navigation of the vessel.” It does not appear to have been delivered to the Master or any officer, and may have ended up under a paperweight.
But these were not the only messages received by the Titanic that day, when Bride cited a lot of traffic. The Marconi chant indicates that the Allan Liner Grampian could have been in contact, being eastbound from St John and Halifax for Liverpool.
Similarly a vessel of the Companie Generale Transatlantique (CGT), the La Provence (Captain Vesco; call sign MLP), was within range. Her PV shows that she received one of the first distress signals later sent by the stricken Titanic.
Also within reach that Sunday was the North German Lloyd’s Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm (call sign DFK) bound for Southampton.
This vessel was told to observe silence early the next morning by Marconi inspector Gilbert Balfour on the Baltic after she and the Amerika called up, ignorant of the sudden crisis. “We had to tell them to stand by, to give us a chance of getting at the Titanic,” Balfour testified.
“At 2.10am the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm called CQ. I told him to stand by on phones for [the] CQD call, and not to touch the key.”
In the unclouded hours of the early evening, while operators Bride and Phillips were waiting for Cape Race to come within range, they could have come across the Scotian, of the Allan Line, at about 5pm. Formerly the HAL’s Statendam and later destined to become CPR’s Marglen, she was of over 10,000 tons and bound for Liverpool.
It is because of the Cape Race traffic that Titanic likely passed up later evening opportunities to talk with the Canadian Pacific’s Lake Champlain and her sister, Lake Michigan, the latter being later the subject of a mystery-ship tip-off to the Board of Trade, which concluded she was too far west and north of the Titanic at the time.
The Titanic probably also failed to talk to the ss United States, while at midnight the Campanello (call sign MGU), from New York for Rotterdam, the Brandenburg and the Virginian would all have been within range.
Much further away would have been the Olympic, St Louis, Columbia and Megantic (MZC). Nearest among the westbounders, who had deported European ports days before Titanic, are shown to be the Saturnia and Mongolian, and the Mount Temple, along with the Parisian and the Hannover (DHV Captain Proitzsch).
If only the Titanic PV had been saved, how interesting it would be.