... So finally the deep gives up its secrets about the titanic
A century after it sank, myths and legends still surround the doomed liner. These exclusive extracts from a new book by Tim Maltin sort out the facts from the commonly held fiction
The Titanic disaster was predicted 14 years before it happened by writer Morgan Robertson.
Yes. In his 1898 novella entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, Robertson told the story of a ‘superliner’ named the Titan, which sank after striking an iceberg on a calm April night, with great loss of life.
The Titan was ‘the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men’. Like the Titanic, she had new watertight compartments which could be closed from the bridge in an instant, and was considered ‘practically unsinkable’, as she could float with nine of her watertight compartments flooded, and no accident could be imagined which would flood more.
Nor did the Titan carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board. In 1914, Robertson again demonstrated his extraordinary powers of prediction in his short story Beyond the Spectrum, about a war between the Americans and the Japanese which began with a sneak attack by the Japanese on Hawaii and involved the use of a searchlight developed by the Americans which had similar effects to the atomic bomb, including blindness, heat and facial burns.
Two kidnapped children survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Yes. The Navratil brothers, Michel Marcel, aged three, and Edmond Roger, aged two, had been taken by their father in a custody kidnapping. Michel Navratil Sr, who was originally from Slovakia but at this time was living in Nice, France, had married an Italian woman, Marcelle Caretto, in 1907 but he separated from her in 1912 over business difficulties and an alleged affair on Marcelle’s part. Marcelle had custody of the children, but Michel kidnapped them during a visit at Easter, planning to take them to America. He travelled to England from France and boarded the Titanic at Southampton. On board he pretended to be a widower under the name of his friend Louis Hoffmann and kept the boys close.
As the Titanic was sinking, Michel and another passenger dressed the boys and took them up on deck, where they were put on board Collapsible D, the last boat to be properly launched. Michel Snr was lost in the sinking. Eventually Marcelle, recognising her sons from newspaper photographs, was brought over to New York by the White Star Line and reunited with them on May 16, 1912.
Stewardess Violet Jessop survived the sinking of both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Britannic.
Yes. Violet Jessop was lucky throughout her life. Having survived tuberculosis as a child, she became a stewardess to help support her family after the death of her father and served on all three Olympic Class ships. She was on board the Olympic during the collision with HMS Hawke; she then transferred to the Titanic, from which she escaped in lifeboat Number 16. She then served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the First World War on Titanic’s slightly younger sister, HMHS Britannic, which had been requisitioned as a hospital ship and was sunk in 1916 in the Aegean, off Cape Sounion.
Jessop escaped in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship, only to be sucked into Britannic’s giant propellers, as her captain was still trying to reach shallow water to beach the ship. Whilst under water, Jessop suffered repeated blows to her head, as she passed under one of Britannic’s propellers. By pure chance she survived and came to the surface surrounded by severed corpses and grotesquely injured men. Years later, Violet discovered that she had in fact suffered a fractured skull at the time, though she assumed for months afterwards that it was nothing more than bad headaches.
The iceberg ripped a 300ft gash along the ship’s side.
No. This ‘fact’ was a popular one in the Press of the time and is one of the more enduring myths about the Titanic. The iceberg actually caused intermittent damage in five main places, breaching six of Titanic’s watertight compartments.
Edward Wilding, one of Titanic’s designers, estimated at the inquiry that, based on damage reports and the rate and volume of water entering the breaches, the iceberg punctured Titanic’s hull in five main areas, and the total area of this damage was only about 12 sq ft, at intervals along Titanic’s hull from her Forepeek Tank to as far back as Boiler Room number 4.
Titanic’s passengers were reluctant to get into the lifeboats.
Yes. In an attempt to avoid a panic, passengers and crew had not been told of the full gravity of the situation, only that they must put on lifejackets and that the women and children must go away in the lifeboats, as a precaution. Most people believed that Titanic would either not sink, or that she would only sink after several hours, by which time they believed a fleet of rescue ships would have come to their aid, having received Titanic’s wireless distress signals. Certainly, the bright decks of the largest liner in the world seemed more secure than a rowing boat on a dark night in the middle of the North Atlantic.
The band played Nearer, My God, To Thee as the ship sank.
Possibly. The band began by playing light, cheerful music, including waltzes, ragtime tunes, and the popular comic songs from the London music halls, in order to reassure Titanic’s passengers after the collision.
Mrs Paul Schabert said that, after playing ragtime for a while, the band began playing hymns, and that When We Meet Beyond was one of the first hymns they chose, followed by others; Marie Jerwan mentions that the band played Nearer, My God, To Thee in the following extract from a letter she wrote in May of 1912:
‘Little by little the lights disappeared one after another, until we could see only a black mass. The bow was already submerged. We still heard the musicians of the ship playing the beautiful hymn: Nearer My God to Thee, to which we joined in with all our heart.’
Bodies of first and second class passengers were taken to Halifax for burial, but third class passengers were buried at sea.
No. The only bodies buried at sea were those which couldn’t be identified because they were recovered from the sea in such a poor state. The Mackay-Bennett, the first ship sent out to recover the bodies, took — in addition to embalming fluid and ice — 12 tons of grate iron for committing bodies to the deep. Of 306 bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, 116 were buried at sea; 19 more were found by other vessels of which three were buried at sea. Nevertheless, when news of the Mackay-Bennett’s practice reached shore, there was an outcry from the families of victims and thereafter no recovered bodies were buried at sea. Those which were buried at sea, however, had been given a proper burial service.
Captain Smith was drunk at the time of the collision
No. Although it is true that Captain Smith had attended a dinner party earlier that evening held in his honour by the Wideners, he never drank whilst at sea, and this party was no exception.
One lifeboat was found drifting a month after the sinking with three bodies still inside it
Yes. This was collapsible A, found by the Oceanic on May 13, 1912, several hundred miles south-east of Titanic’s wreck site. One of the bodies was that of First Class passenger Thomson Beattie; the other two were never identified, although it is possible that one was that of Third Class passenger Arthur Keefe.
Catholic workers at Harland & Wolff sabotaged Titanic because hull number was anti-Catholic
No. This myth is based on the mistaken belief that Titanic’s hull number was 3909 04 which, if seen reflected, could be made out as spelling ‘No Pope’.
However, this number has no connection with the Titanic, which had a hull number of 401 and a Board of Trade registration number of 131,428. There is no evidence of sabotage; Titanic did not need to be sabotaged in order to be sunk by the collision.
One man pretended to be a woman to get into a lifeboat
Yes. It is possible that more than one man might have done so. Fifth Officer Lowe said that he had discovered a man dressed as a woman when he was transferring passengers out of no.14 into other boats preparatory to going back to pick up more people: This was probably Third Class passenger Edward Ryan, who freely admitted in a letter to his parents that he had put a towel over his head to pass as a woman and thus enter a lifeboat.
First Officer Murdoch shot one or two passengers before shooting himself
Yes, this is probably true. At about 1am, all Titanic’s officers had been issued with Webley revolvers. Fifth Officer Lowe was the first to use his gun that night, at about 1.15am, firing several warning shots between lifeboat No. 14 and the side of the ship in order to stop a group of men from rushing it. There is evidence that at about 2.15am, as the forward part of Titanic’s starboard boat deck dipped under the water, there was a rush for the last lifeboat, Collapsible A, which Murdoch was preparing for lowering. Several eye witnesses state that they saw an officer shoot one or two passengers at this point and then shoot himself.
The following is an extract from a letter written to his wife, on April 19, 1912, by First Class passenger Mr George Rheims, who escaped in Collapsible A:
“As the last lifeboat was leaving I saw an officer kill a man with one gun shot. The man was trying to climb aboard that last lifeboat. Since there was nothing left to do, the officer told us, ‘Gentlemen, each man for himself, goodbye’. He gave us a military salute and shot himself. This was a man!!”
Ship that sank was previously damaged Olympic in insurance scam that went fatally wrong
No. But it has nevertheless been suggested by one author that Olympic’s collision with the Navy cruiser HMS Hawke and subsequent problems with her propeller blades meant that it had become cheaper to ‘lose’ her and claim the insurance. Supposedly, the Baltic was to have been standing by to pick up passengers from the sinking Olympic, which had been secretly swapped for the Titanic, but the plan went catastrophically wrong, resulting in 1,500 deaths. However, even if this ‘switch’ could have been accomplished — which would have been difficult given the large numbers of people who would have had to be involved and kept absolutely quiet — any deliberate sinking would have been disastrous for the White Star Line’s reputation and therefore for its finances.
In addition, Olympic and Titanic were each insured for considerably less than their build costs, with a large part of their insurance being underwritten by White Star Line’s parent company, the International Mercantile Marine Company. This would make any corporate claim from White Star partly an ‘own goal’ for the Group.
Finally, concrete evidence backs up the commonsense argument: the Titanic’s hull number, 401 (Olympic’s was 400), is the only one which has ever been found on Titanic’s wreck.
Wreck of the Titanic may one day be raised from the deepWaterlogged: remains of the captain's bathtub
Probably not. The wreck of the Titanic really is a wreck, as Dr Robert Ballard discovered at 1.05am on September 1, 1985. Titanic is lying in pitch darkness under 12,460 feet of water, which generates a pressure of 6,000lbs per square inch on the seabed.
She is torn into two huge pieces 1,970 feet apart, each with its own debris field over 2,000 feet long, containing much of Titanic’s mid-section and contents. There is therefore no possibility of her eventual triumphant arrival into New York, such as that which was depicted in the 1980 film, Raise The Titanic.
101 Things you thought you knew about the Titanic ... but didn’t, Tim Maltin, Beautiful Books, £12.99