THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC
(April 14-15, 1912 – North Atlantic Ocean)
of Sinking Titanic
The Official Story
SINKING OF THE RMS TITANIC
(Iceberg Warnings, April 14, 1912)
On 14 April 1912, Titanic‘s radio operators received six messages from other ships warning of drifting ice, which passengers on Titanic had begun to notice during the afternoon.
The ice conditions in the North Atlantic were the worst for any April in the previous 50 years (which was the reason why the lookouts were unaware that they were about to steam into a line of drifting ice several miles wide and many miles long). Not all of these messages were relayed by the radio operators.
At the time, all wireless operators on ocean liners were employees of the Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company and not members of their ship’s crew; their primary responsibility was to send messages for the passengers, with weather reports as a secondary concern.
The first warning came at 09:00 from RMS Caronia reporting “bergs, growlers and field ice”. Captain Smith acknowledged receipt of the message. At 13:42, RMS Baltic relayed a report from the Greek ship Athenia that she had been “passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice”. This too was acknowledged by Smith, who showed the report to J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, aboard Titanic for her maiden voyage. Smith ordered a new course to be set, to take the ship farther south.
At 13:45, the German ship SS Amerika, which was a short distance to the south, reported she had “passed two large icebergs”.
This message never reached Captain Smith or the other officers on Titanic‘s bridge. The reason is unclear, but it may have been forgotten because the radio operators had to fix faulty equipment.
SS Californian reported “three large bergs” at 19:30, and at 21:40, the steamer Mesaba reported: “Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice.”
This message, too, never left the Titanic‘s radio room. The radio operator, Jack Phillips, may have failed to grasp its significance because he was preoccupied with transmitting messages for passengers via the relay station at Cape Race, Newfoundland; the radio set had broken down the day before, resulting in a backlog of messages that the two operators were trying to clear.
A final warning was received at 22:30 from operator Cyril Evans of Californian, which had halted for the night in an ice field some miles away, but Phillips cut it off and signalled back: “Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race.”
Although the crew was aware of ice in the vicinity, they did not reduce the ship’s speed, and continued to steam at 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph), only 2 knots (3.7 km/h; 2.3 mph) short of her maximum speed. Titanic‘s high speed in waters where ice had been reported was later criticised as reckless, but it reflected standard maritime practice at the time.
According to Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, the custom was “to go ahead and depend upon the lookouts in the crow’s nest and the watch on the bridge to pick up the ice in time to avoid hitting it”.
The North Atlantic liners prioritised time-keeping above all other considerations, sticking rigidly to a schedule that would guarantee their arrival at an advertised time. They were frequently driven at close to their full speed, treating hazard warnings as advisories rather than calls to action. It was widely believed that ice posed little risk; close calls were not uncommon, and even head-on collisions had not been disastrous. In 1907, SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German liner, had rammed an iceberg and suffered a crushed bow, but was still able to complete her voyage. That same year, Titanic‘s future captain, Edward Smith, declared in an interview that he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
“Iceberg right ahead!” (Titanic enters Iceberg Alley)
As Titanic approached her fatal collision, most passengers had gone to bed, and command of the bridge had passed from Second Officer Charles Lightoller to First Officer William Murdoch. Lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were in the crow’s nest, 29 metres (95 ft) above the deck. The air temperature had fallen to near freezing, and the ocean was completely calm. Colonel Archibald Gracie, one of the survivors of the disaster, later wrote that “the sea was like glass, so smooth that the stars were clearly reflected.” It is now known that such exceptionally calm water is a sign of nearby pack ice.
Although the air was clear, there was no moon, and with the sea so calm, there was nothing to give away the position of the nearby icebergs; had the sea been rougher, waves breaking against the icebergs would have made them more visible. Because of a mix-up at Southampton, the lookouts had no binoculars; however, binoculars reportedly would not have been effective in the darkness, which was total except for starlight and the ship’s own lights. The lookouts were nonetheless well aware of the ice hazard, as Lightoller had ordered them and other crew members to “keep a sharp look-out for ice, particularly small ice and growlers”.
At 23:30, Fleet and Lee noticed a slight haze on the horizon ahead of them, but did not make anything of it. Some experts now believe that this haze was actually a mirage caused by cold waters meeting warm air – similar to a water mirage in the desert – when Titanic entered Iceberg Alley. This would have resulted in a raised horizon, blinding the lookouts from spotting anything far away.