Robert Strange, a British investigative journalist, in his book Who Sank The Titanic?, holds Churchill responsible for the century-old disaster, The Sun reports. (This makes a nice bookend with the old charge that he also sank the Lusitania.)
On 10 April 1912, the world’s largest passenger ship set out on her maiden voyage from Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown to New York. Four days later, Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in under three hours, killing 1514 people. Mr. Strange, who says he spent three years researching documents in the National Archives, levels the chief blame on Churchill:
As a newly-promoted government minister, Churchill had final responsibility for all marine safety when the Titanic was being planned, designed and built [but was] fatally distracted by a combination of burning political ambition, wounded pride and the pursuit of his future wife Clementine. I believe he bears a heavy burden of responsibility….From the start, he seems to have washed his hands of the Marine Division. Supervision of Titanic’s construction was passed to Francis Carruthers, a poorly-trained and underpaid Board of Trade engineer who failed to spot flaws in the ship’s construction….
By the time the Titanic was finally launched, Churchill had achieved his aim of promotion to Home Secretary and thereby escaped public examination about his role in the Titanic debacle. [But] the ship was first proposed, designed and had its keel laid down on his watch. It is inconceivable that the minister responsible for safety at sea would not have been fully briefed about the construction of what was to be the biggest ship afloat. And he was very aware of the lack of lifeboats. He had been warned again and again but failed to take action.
Churchill was President of the Board of Trade from 12 April 1908 to 18 February 1910. RMS Titanic, and her sister ship Olympic, were conceived in mid-1907 and the plans drawn in late 1907/early 1908. It is therefore incorrect to say that Churchill was in charge when the ships were planned or designed.
Churchill was at the Board of Trade when the final plans were approved (July 1908) and the hulls laid down (December 1908/March 1909). But Titanic complied with all current Board of Trade regulations. Her lifeboat capacity (1178) actually exceeded the requirement (990). And if Francis Carruthers, the engineer assigned, “failed to spot flaws” in the ship’s construction, how was it possible for Churchill to spot them?
Earlier researchers have suggested weaknesses in Titanic’s steel plates and rivets contributed to her rapid sinking. This begs the question of how her sister the Olympic managed an illustrious 24-year career, including troop transport during World War I, and several collisions, earning the nickname “Old Reliable,” with faulty rivets and weak plates.
True, Olympic was refitted with a double hull after the Titanic disaster. Yet oil tankers up to five times her tonnage, and 100 feet or more longer, remained single hulled until the Exxon Valdez episode in 1989. To blame Churchill for design defects reminds us of the author who criticized Churchill’s urgent despatch of tanks to North Africa in 1941 before they’d been fully tested. A reviewer commented: “The Prime Minister must also be a mechanic!”
What about the “burning ambition, wounded pride and pursuit of his future wife”? Churchill was offered the Board of Trade in April 1908, achieving Cabinet rank. While he lost the mandatory re-election for new ministers in Manchester in April, he won handily at Dundee in May. His “pursuit” of Clementine was nearing its successful end by July. All these prideful accomplishments were before the Titanic plans were submitted to the Board of Trade.
Neither was it Churchill’s responsibility personally to review ship plans submitted to the Marine Division. Churchill saw his personal role, volume II of the official biography records, “as responsible for the direct defence of Free Trade,” and fostering “the commercial interests of our country, within the limits of state intervention.” It is certainly true that he found those tasks more interesting than rivets and steel plate, which he quite properly assigned to underlings.
The specific charge that Churchill was warned and ignored the question of lifeboats must await my review of Mr. Strange’s book and the sources he offers for this conclusion.