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!”
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.
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.