What Sank the Titanic? Hopefully Not Churchill Again

What Sank the Titanic? Hopefully Not Churchill Again

Titanic redux

On 10 April 1912, the world’s largest pas­sen­ger lin­er set out on her maid­en voy­age from Southamp­ton, Cher­bourg and Queen­stown to New York. Four days lat­er, she struck an ice­berg and sank in under three hours, killing 1514 peo­ple. Titan­ic has been a bit­ter­sweet, fas­ci­nat­ing news item ever since.

On 26 Octo­ber the Dai­ly Mail report­ed British Chan­nel 5 TV pro­duc­tion, “Ten Mis­takes that DOOMED the Titan­ic.” If you saw this, please let me know if one of the mis­takes named is Win­ston Churchill. (See below.) We are always watch­ful for the onward march of invin­ci­ble igno­rance.

Old and new angles

The mis­takes the Mail men­tions com­bine old news with con­jec­ture. Yes, the crow’s nest look­outs lacked binoc­u­lars. Whether they would have enabled the ice­berg to be sight­ed soon enough to avoid the col­li­sion, giv­en sea and light con­di­tions that night, no one knows. Yes, there’s a the­o­ry that Titanic’s hull used faulty riv­ets. But then we have her sis­ter ship, RMS Olympic (mis­tak­en­ly labeled Titan­ic in the Mail’s first pho­to). The Olympic sailed for twen­ty-four years, endur­ing wartime ser­vice and sev­er­al col­li­sions. Pret­ty good for a poor­ly riv­et­ed lin­er.

A curi­ous new claim by the pro­gram is that open port­holes has­tened the sink­ing. “Only twelve open port­holes would have dou­bled the ice­berg dam­age to Titan­ic—of course, there were hun­dreds of port­holes in Titanic’s bow.”  Pas­sen­gers opened port­holes to see what was going on. Thus, “when they went up to the lifeboats, they left the port­holes open.” Nobody real­ly knows how many port­holes were open, nor is it pos­si­ble to view hull dam­age on the wreck. We do know that the col­li­sion left six water­tight com­part­ments open to the sea below the water­line. That seems a lot more deci­sive than open port­holes, well above the water­line.

A lot of fac­tors came togeth­er to cause the Titan­ic tragedy. (In Belfast, they like to say, “She was all right when she left here—English cap­tain, Yanks in a hur­ry, and a Cana­di­an ice­berg!”) But until recent­ly, no one blamed Win­ston Churchill.

Churchill did it (of course)

The Churchill Titan­ic myth began in a 2012 book Who Sank The Titan­ic?.  report­ed at the time by The Sun. (This makes a nice book­end with the old charge that he also sank the Lusi­ta­nia.)  Claimed to be based on three years’ research, the book levied chief blame on young Win­ston, as Pres­i­dent of the Board of Trade:

Churchill had final respon­si­bil­i­ty for all marine safe­ty when the Titan­ic was being planned, designed and built…. [He was] fatal­ly dis­tract­ed by a com­bi­na­tion of burn­ing polit­i­cal ambi­tion, wound­ed pride and the pur­suit of his future wife Clemen­tine…. He seems to have washed his hands of the Marine Divi­sion. Super­vis­ing Titan­ic‘s con­struc­tion 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.

Whoa, slow down…

Churchill was Pres­i­dent of the Board of Trade from 12 April 1908 to 18 Feb­ru­ary 1910. The Titan­ic, and her sis­ter Olympic, were con­ceived in mid-1907. Design­ers drew plans in late 1907 and ear­ly 1908.  Churchill was not then at the Board of Trade.

Churchill was in charge when the Board approved final plans (July 1908). And when the hulls were down (Decem­ber 1908, March 1909). But Titan­ic com­plied with all Board of Trade reg­u­la­tions. Her lifeboat capac­i­ty (1178) actu­al­ly exceed­ed the require­ment (990). If engi­neer Car­ruthers “failed to spot flaws” in the ship’s con­struc­tion, how was it pos­si­ble for Churchill to spot them?

Ear­li­er researchers have the­o­rized that weak­ness­es in Titanic’s hull plates and riv­ets con­tributed to her rapid sink­ing. How then did her sis­ter the Olympic man­age a 24-year career with such flim­sy con­struc­tion? Sur­viv­ing sev­er­al col­li­sions, she earned the nick­name “Old Reli­able.” Hmm.

True, Olympic received a dou­ble hull after the Titan­ic dis­as­ter. Yet tankers five times her ton­nage 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!”

“Prideful accomplishments”

What about the “burn­ing ambi­tion, wound­ed pride and pur­suit of his future wife”? Churchill arrived at the Board of Trade with Cab­i­net rank in April 1908. He lost the manda­to­ry re-elec­tion for new min­is­ters in Man­ches­ter, then ran and won a seat for Dundee. His “pur­suit” of Clemen­tine was near­ing its suc­cess­ful end by July. All these pride­ful accom­plish­ments occurred before the Board of Trade received the Titan­ic plans.

Nei­ther was it Churchill’s respon­si­bil­i­ty per­son­al­ly to review mechan­i­cal draw­ings. 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 hull plates, which he quite prop­er­ly assigned to under­lings.

The spe­cif­ic charge that Churchill was warned and ignored the ques­tion of lifeboats is addressed in the Titan­ic chap­ter of my book, Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty.  The record is clear. Churchill was fol­low­ing the advice of experts, and ship­build­ing think­ing at the time. Who Sank the Titan­ic con­tends that they builders were too cheap to install lifeboats for all aboard. Actu­al­ly, they con­struct­ed davits for suf­fi­cient lifeboats for all, but author­i­ties nev­er raised the require­ment. (As it was, 400 more peo­ple could have been saved had the exist­ing lifeboats left full.)

Also, they built an elab­o­rate sys­tem of water­tight com­part­ments to keep her afloat in any con­ceiv­able acci­dent. Alas they did not con­ceive of a glanc­ing blow slic­ing open so much of her hull. And water­tight com­part­ments cost a lot more than lifeboats.

Further reading

Ajay Har­ish on the Sim­scale blog presents an excel­lent engineer’s analy­sis with graph­ics of why Titan­ic sank. It is com­mend­ably free of the clam­or and spec­u­la­tion of pop­u­lar TV epics.

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