April 11, 2013

Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012

Page 53

Titanic: The Strange Verdict

Who Sank the Titanic? The Final Verdict, by Robert Strange. Hardbound, illus., 224 pp., $32.95, Amazon $25.04, Kindle $13.99.

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The author’s contentions, that Churchill, as a newly promoted President of the Board of Trade, was distracted from carefully reviewing the Titanic by political ambition, pursuit of his future wife and “wounded pride,” were covered in “Datelines” last issue (FH 155: 7-8). We cover here only the accompanying accusations, that Churchill was warned about the ship’s insufficient lifeboats, and failed to take action; and that he should have known (somehow) that corners were being cut (maybe) in Titanic‘s construction.

Titanic‘s lifeboat capacity (1178), though nearly 20% higher than the Board of Trade requirement (990), was vastly short of her total passengers and crew. But this had been the lifeboat situation for twenty years before Churchill arrived. Queried about lifeboats in Parliament before the tragedy, Churchill had replied: “I am advised that it would not be practicable” for liners to carry boats for all. This is no different from what his predecessors had been saying on the advice of their experts. What makes Churchill different?

The author argues that lifeboat quotas were purposely kept low by greedy ship-owners who “never wanted to pay for boats or for the men who could launch them” (20). He shows effectively how Thomas Ismay, the owner of White Star, “cooked” the minutes of an 1888 committee on lifeboats to delete references to lifesaving “appliances” for all aboard. “In fairness to Ismay,” he adds, the committee “probably never imagined” their regulations would still be in force two decades later.” But Churchill should have?

By 1908 the same greedy ship-owners were building elaborate watertight compartments controlled from the bridge, which cost a lot more than lifeboats, and which, they thought erroneously, would keep a liner afloat in any conceivable situation. (They would have, if Titanic had hit the iceberg at virtually any other angle.)

Churchill, we are told, should have divined that watertight compartments were not enough, that slicing her hull open for 200+ feet in a glancing blow would cause them to overflow, one into another, until a ship sank. That is really asking a lot of a government minister taking the advice of technical experts.

As for not wanting to pay for enough men to launch lifeboats, Titanic carried 900 crew—which proved more than enough to launch every boat in the davits, and then some. (Anticipating an increase in lifeboat regulations, the builders had provided Titanic with davits for double the number of boats, enough for everyone on board.)

The fact that many boats left the ship short of capacity, saving nearly 500 fewer lives than they might have, is something even Churchill could not foresee: at first, passengers hung back, preferring the “safety” of the ship to small boats on the open sea; later, officers sent boats away unfilled, believing they might buckle on the way down.

The author indicts many people besides Churchill—captain, crew, ship-owners, politicians, builders, steel suppliers, riveters, inspectors. He does make a powerful case that White Star, in its haste to build the ship, may have accepted poor quality steel and/or rivets. But he admits this theory is “controversial” and can only say with certainty that “the steel of 1912 was less resistant to stress than the steel of today.”

Yet Strange will keep Churchill in his crosshairs: “…it is hard to believe that the politician in charge of the Marine Division could not have been aware of the ship’s construction” (195). Really? “It would have been odd,” he adds, “if Churchill hadn’t talked to Lord Pirrie” of Harland & Wolff, Titanic‘s builders. Why? Well, they were close enough to be “the main speakers at a Belfast rally in favour of Home Rule.” Which proves what, exactly?

This is a good book for Titanic aficionados, because Strange does offer interesting and challenging critiques of the ship’s construction, the Board of Trade’s long-outmoded lifeboat rules, and the actions of the ship’s owners and builders. But he has failed to prove that Churchill “bears a heavy burden of responsibility” for her loss.

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