CAPTAIN SMITH’S DILEMMA; TITANIC IN EXTREMIS

TITANIC SINKING
Death of a dream; the Titanic sagging helplessly into the calm, starlit Atlantic on the night of April 14-15th, 1912

Bearing in mind that today marks the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, I’ve been giving some thought to putting together this post.

It mainly concerns Captain Smith, and his situation once the ship had already hit the iceberg.

This is not a condemnation, nor yet another of those attempts to rationalise the events and omissions that led up to the actual accident itself. It is simply an attempt to put the man in context at the most extreme and momentous point of his life.

By midnight on April 14th/15th, the situation of his command can be summed up as follows:

The Titanic was sinking, without any hope of salvation. At best estimates, she had less than three hours to live. The nearest responsive rescue ship- the Cunard liner Carpathia- was a minimum four hours’ steaming time distant.

In the meantime, he had 2,200 plus passengers and crew on board under his charge, and lifeboats with a maximum capacity of 1,180, assuming every boat was correctly loaded to capacity and lowered safely.

Even then, under those optimum conditions, that left over a thousand people with nowhere to go, other than into a freezing ocean where they would almost certainly expire within minutes.

And Smith- as the sole master, under God, for the duration of the voyage- would ultimately be held to blame for their loss, as he very well knew.

Under those circumstances- the sure and certain knowledge that responsibility for at least a thousand deaths would be laid at your door forever- that would be enough to break any man.

So, for those wondering at Smith’s almost complete lack of involvement in the botched evacuation of his ship, there largely lies the explanation. Captain Smith imploded mentally under the sheer strain, the awful enormity of it all simply overwhelmed his normal rational thought processes.

In terms of the actual evacuation, almost everything was left to a handful of increasingly desperate deck officers, literally working against both time and tide, who were constantly having to improvise in a situation that worsened every minute. And all without any overall sense of direction.

This is why Smith’s initial ‘women and children first’ order was interpreted differently on opposite sides of the ship. Separated by just ninety-four feet, Lightoller and Murdoch each formed his own interpretation of the order.

In that situation, Lightoller- loading the port side boats- allowed ‘women and children only’ into the boats. No men at all.

Slaving away on the starboard side, Murdoch allowed men in the boats if no more women and children were in evident sight.

Smith, of course, never clarified the order either one way or the other. He ruled in favour of neither of his officers. But was he ever asked for a clarification? We’ll never know, of course.

But that fateful lack of co-ordination was largely responsible for the needless loss of at least another four hundred plus lives over the night of April 14th-15th, 1912.

Other than joining the officers for the issuing of firearms at about 1.30 in the morning, exact information on Smith’s whereabouts during those final, desperate hours is scant indeed. As with the luckless Murdoch, there are numerous theories on his final fate, but no really substantive evidence.

I think it extremely unlikely that the emotionally shattered Smith would even have contemplated trying to survive the loss of his command. The sinking of the Titanic also marked the wrecking of his mainly superlative, glittering thirty eight year career. As his great command sagged helplessly into the freezing ocean underneath his feet, Edward John Smith would have known that, too.

No, the evacuation of the Titanic was not a ‘text book’ situation, but there is no such thing as a ‘text book disaster’, either. It is easy to be critical of the individuals involved, and the decisions that they made. Indeed, for the sake of posterity, some rational attempt at analysis is absolutely vital.

But, once the full, ghastly horror of the situation became clear to them, both the captain and his deck officers were placed in an appalling conundrum, one that got more acute with every passing minute. If the sheer scale and horror of what they faced almost overwhelmed then, it is hardly to be wondered at.

Placed in such a horrifying predicament, I sometimes wonder how any of us might have fared. And that is why, today of all days, I retain more than just a little sympathy for that handful of embattled men and their stunned, effectively neutered captain.

 

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7 thoughts on “CAPTAIN SMITH’S DILEMMA; TITANIC IN EXTREMIS”

    1. Never, ever, had the misfortune to read your ‘book’ Mister Butler, and likely never will. I arrive at my own opinions, thank you very much, and I certainly don’t need to use YOU as a reference point. Don’t tar me with your own brush, sir.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Last July on QM2 when we sailed over the location the Titanic went down, we had a two minute silence and were informed this would happen the day prior. The chart for the day is also marked with the spot. All Cunard ships observe this custom and respect ,
    Your article is one of many and as you day one cannot get into the minds of the passengers and crew at the time.
    What is not said a lot is the request to make the deadline and speed ahead ignoring the Captains concern. These days we do separate the running of the ship regardless of who is on-board.
    A lot was learned , sadly , lifeboats, ice berg patrols, welding bolts, inspection of steel … Mind you we still have companies that try to take short cuts , minimal though.
    I just read a short story that their were some dogs on the Titanic also
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Three things in this life are guaranteed to bring on insomnia; listening to Lionel Richie, watching anything starring Hugh Grant, and reading anything ‘written’ by you. I’ll pass on all three, thanks.

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    1. Clearly, dear, for you to know that means that at some point you have done all three. However, to make my point to you and all eleven of your readers, let me share the actual passage in question. And do try to remember that this was written in 1996….

      Appendix III

      The Conundrum of Captain Smith

      The actions of two of the captains whose names have become inseparably linked to the sinking of the Titanic have presented history with what is probably a unique set of contrasts. On one hand is the captain who did everything–or nearly everything–right, Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia; and on the other is the skipper who did everything–or nearly everything–wrong, Stanley Lord of the Californian. Lately, though, the name of a third captain has begun to crop up in discussions about who did what the night the Titanic went down and whether his actions were right or wrong–Edward J. Smith.
      At the time, the overwhelming majority of the British press, along with quite a few American newspapers, portrayed Captain Smith’s conduct as utterly heroic and ultimately self-sacrificing, especially when contrasted with the actions of Bruce Ismay. Smith’s reputation, aided by popular books and movies, endured for three quarters of a century. Yet in the past few years questions have begun to be raised, not about Captain Smith’s courage, but rather about his judgement and abilities, and how errors he may have made led to the disaster. One noted author specifically suggested that the Titanic (along with her sister Olympic) were simply too big for Captain Smith to competently handle; other writers have suggested that Smith had become increasingly complacent, even reckless, as year after year of uneventful crossings of the Atlantic went by; while still others marvel at the fact that after the Titanic hit the iceberg and the certainty of her doom was made clear by Thomas Andrews, Smith, who had been portrayed time after time as being such an outstanding leader, should be so ineffective in his efforts to get the passengers into the lifeboats.
      Had Captain Smith been given command of a vessel that, because of its immense size, demanded ship-handling and navigational skills he didn’t possess? Had he grown complacent, even careless, because in his forty years at sea he had never been in a serious accident, let alone had a ship sink while he was serving on board? Why did Smith give the appearance of being controlled, decisive, and very much in command until Thomas Andrews informed him that the Titanic was going to sink and take half the people on board with her, then from that moment seemed to almost be reduced to being a mere spectator as the tragedy unfolded? Ultimately, was Captain Smith a seaman who had been lucky for forty years, and suddenly had no idea what to do when he realized his luck had run out?
      To conclude that Captain Smith bore a considerable share of the responsibility for the collision itself is inescapable. By early evening on April 14, he was fully aware that the Titanic was proceeding at high speed into a section of the North Atlantic where ice was known to be about, and had already altered the Titanic’s course to take her some twelve to fifteen miles farther south of the normal shipping lane in order to avoid what he thought to be the worst concentration of ice. What he didn’t know was that the icefield ahead of the Titanic was far larger than he believed. Had all of the six wireless messages concerning ice been properly posted on the bridge or in the chartroom, the extent of the ice floe the Titanic was steaming toward would have been much clearer, so that Captain Smith could have radically altered his course in order to avoid it. The problem was that there was no clear-cut procedure for handling wireless messages of this sort, so Phillips and Bride did with them what they though best: at times sending the messages up to the bridge immediately, at others handimg them to the nearest officer, at still others letting them sit in the wireless office while they worked on the passengers’ traffic. Unfortunately this resulted in the six messages being scattered across the ship, one (from the Baltic) even winding up in Bruce Ismay’s pocket.
      Critics of Captain Smith have been quick to point out that this admittedly haphazard handling of wireless messages deprived the Captain and his officers of vital information affecting the safe navigation of the ship. But the fault was not so much Captain Smith’s as it was that of the prevailing attitude of captains and officers of passenger ships on the North Atlantic run in the early years of the twentieth century. The technology of wireless was still relatively new to many of these men, and as a consequence most of them hadn’t thought out the implications of the increased communication capabilities wireless offered: very few had realized that wireless gave them the opportunity to virtually look over the horizon and anticipate danger before it hove into view. Even fewer had worked out set procedures for the wireless operators to follow when they received messages affecting the navigation of the ship. At the same time, the wireless industry itself had very few regulations or conventions to guide the operators in such a situation. Attempting to blame Captain Smith for the inept way in which the ice warnings were handled rings a little hollow, since the conditions that existed on the Titanic were the same as those on most of the ships on the North Atlantic. If Captain Smith failed to appreciate the potential that wireless communications had to improve the safe navigation of his ship, it was not due to willful ignorance, for it was a shortcoming shared by nearly all of his colleagues.
      Nevertheless, because Captain Smith was aware from the one or two messages he had seen that ice lay across the Titanic’s course, there were some precautions he could have taken but didn’t, and for that he was clearly responsible. While he did alter the Titanic’s course farther south to avoid the ice and issued orders for the lookouts to be alert for ice ahead, he failed to post extra lookouts. That this would have been a wise precaution was amply demonstrated by Captain Rostron aboard the Carpathia, when as she was beginning her frantic dash north to come to the Titanic’s aid, he posted no fewer than seven additional lookouts to watch for ice. Significantly, four of them were posted on the foredeck, rather than up in the crow’s nest or on the bridge, since it was a well-known fact that it was easier to spot ice from deck level than from higher up. Smith’s failure to post extra lookouts may have been the most serious mistake he ever made.
      Another mistake was the decision to maintain a speed of 22 knots, the fastest the ship had ever gone. This though may have been an error committed out of ignorance: if Captain Smith, having already altered course to the south, wasn’t aware of the full extent of the ice floe spreading across the Titanic’s course–and the evidence is that he wasn’t–then he wouldn’t have seen the necessity of reducing speed. To some degree, Bruce Ismay, with his obsession with bettering the Olympic’s time on her maiden voyage, may have contributed to this. Captain Smith, impending retirement or no, would have been less than human if he hadn’t been susceptible to the urge to carry out his employer’s wishes, and so was inclined to not reduce speed.
      Of course, the speed the Titanic was making as she approached the iceberg had a direct effect on the time and distance it took her to respond to the movement of her rudder. No one will ever know for sure just how familiar Captain Smith was with the turning radius and response time of the Titanic, though there is little reason to believe that they would have differed significantly from those of the Olympic, which Smith had commanded for nearly a year. Smith had an outstanding reputation among professional seamen as an expert ship handler; but the question persists as to whether or not Smith knew just how clumsy and ponderous these new ships were. Yet asking the rhetorical question, “Had ships gotten too big for Captain Smith?” implies that there were other captains who had the ability to better handle ships the size of the Olympic and Titanic. In plain truth there weren’t. The two White Star sisters were the largest ships in the world, fully a third larger than the next largest ships, the Lusitania and Mauretania, and no one had any more experience with them than Captain Smith. The handling characteristics of the Olympic class ships were uncharted territory, and if Smith overestimated the maneuverability of those vessels, there was nobody with the credentials to gainsay him.
      Simply put, the decisions Captain Smith made about navigation and shipboard procedures on the Titanic right up to the moment of the collision, while in hindsight frighteningly casual in some respects, were in fact singularly unremarkable when put in perspective: his actions were very much in line with the standard practices on board most Atlantic liners of the day. To expect him to radically depart from those practices–and it should be kept in mind that for the forty years he had been at sea those same practices had never gotten him involved in serious accident or emergency–would be to demand a foresight, even a prescience, that is beyond the ability of most mortals.
      It is after the collision occurs that Captain Smith’s behavior and decision making becomes far more questionable. For the first twenty or twenty-five minutes after the impact, the captain was very much the embodiment of command, instantly giving orders to ensure the safety of the ship, having the carpenter ascertain the damage, putting Ismay (who always seemed to be underfoot at the worst possible times) firmly in his place, conferring with Thomas Andrews about the effect the damage would have on the ship. But just about midnight, his powers of decision and command seemed to desert him. For the next two hours and twenty minutes, he would be only a shadow of his former self, isolating himself on the bridge, failing to pass on critical information to his officers and senior seamen, acting and reacting slowly, as if in a daze, to reports and rapidly changing circumstances and giving half-hearted orders, some of which the crew would openly defy. Clearly something had happened, the question is what?
      The answer lies in the what passed between Thomas Andrews and Captain Smith when they had finished their inspection and returned to Andrews’ cabin, A-36. The absolute certainty with which Andrews pronounced the Titanic’s doom must have been like a body blow to Smith, but worse was to come: when Andrews confirmed that the ship carried enough lifeboats to hold only half the people on board, it must have seemed like Smith’s worst nightmare had come true. The safety of the ship and every person on board her, regardless of how many regulations were complied with, no matter how many Bruce Ismays were aboard, were the sole responsibility of the ship’s captain, and now Captain Smith had failed that responsibility. All of Smith’s superb seamanship, his forty years at sea without a serious accident, his twenty-seven years of command without ever having lost a single life entrusted to his care, his unqualified confidence in the capabilities of modern shipbuilding, had all been swept away in the ten seconds it took for the iceberg to open up the Titanic’s starboard side.
      From that moment on, Smith would exhibit all the characteristics of someone suddenly overwhelmed by circumstances they were not prepared for mentally or emotionally. What orders and instructions he would give would often be incomplete or impractical: after Smith had ordered the lifeboats uncovered, he had to be prodded by Second Officer Lightoller to have them swung out and begin loading the passengers; when he wanted to load the boats from the Promenade Deck, he completely forgot that the forward half of the deck was enclosed, making loading from there impossible; and his idea for filling the half-empty boats from the gangways on D Deck made no sense at all.
      He also failed to make it clear to his officers and senior seamen–the quartermasters, Bosun’s mates and able-bodied seamen–that the ship was in mortal danger, and so didn’t impart any real sense of urgency to them. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Titanic’s sinking is that very few people on board regarded the situation as serious for more than an hour after the collision–in fact it was nearly 1:15 before Fourth Officer Boxhall was told the ship was going to sink. While no doubt Smith wanted to avoid a panic among the passengers, and quite possibly the crew as well, not letting his officers know just how serious the emergency was may well have contributed to a false sense of security among them, which in turn caused them to allow a number of the boats to leave the ship less than half full.
      It is almost certain that only Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, and Captain Smith knew for sure that there were far too few lifeboats on the Titanic to hold all the people aboard her. Again, by not informing the officers of this discrepancy, Smith may have unwittingly caused an even greater loss of life, because so many of the lifeboats left the ship only partially filled. Certainly, the knowledge that the number of boats was inadequate was not something to be shared with the passengers, but it isn’t difficult to believe that the Titanic’s officers would have acted differently had they realized the truth. Nor did Smith give any instructions on how “Women and children first!” was to be interpreted. This led to Lightoller taking it to mean women and children only, while Murdoch was more flexible, allowing some married couples into the boats, and a few single men when there weren’t any women immediately nearby.
      Finally, Captain Smith isolated himself on the bridge, leaving it only occasionally to walk a few yards aft to the wireless office, to inquire of Bride and Phillips if there were any ships coming to the Titanic’s aid. He never made his way down the Boat Deck to observe how the loading and launching of the lifeboats was proceeding, never bothered to ascertain if his orders were being carried out, never inquired as to whether all the passengers and crew had been roused and were accounted for.
      What had happened to Captain Smith? Dr. Dorothy Mihalyfi, a clinical psychologist from Boca Raton, Florida who specializes in crisis counseling, reviewed Smith’s actions and behavior at the author’s request. In her opinion, Smith was in a state of mental shock, as she put it, “a temporary disfunctionality.” Smith had believed that the ship was unsinkable, had believed in his abilities as a ship’s captain, had believed that he had taken all the necessary precautions. Now the entire edifice around which his authority was built had come crashing down. Completely dumbfounded by the situation, he was in a blank state of immobility, a mental void similar to that of a boxer who has taken too many punches, and though he refuses to go down, can no longer defend himself or fight back. In such a case the referee would step in to stop the fight, but there was no referee on April 15, 1912.
      Instead, Smith was confronted at every turn by the awful finality of what had occurred: every order he gave and every instruction he issued reminded him anew of the dreadful conclusion the night’s events must lead to, and the knowledge inhibited his ability to make decisions. Dr. Mihalyfi observes that Smith’s awareness of the terrible loss of life that was imminent would have loomed up like a wall before him every time he was called upon to choose a course of action. As a consequence indecision was easier, and isolation on the bridge made it easier still. It was quite possible that Smith couldn’t bring himself to go out onto the Boat Deck and see the faces of so many people who were very shortly going to die.
      It went deeper than that, as well. Dr. Mihalyfi points out that it is quite common for someone who has undergone a severe psychological trauma to enter a state where they become completely hopeless, resigning themselves to their fate. They develop a feeling that the circumstances are insurmountable, that nothing can affect the outcome of the situation, and that any further effort on the part of the afflicted individual is pointless. Apparently this too overtook Captain Smith, as it seems he made little if any effort to reach any of the lifeboats after the Titanic sank. Indeed there can be few more perfect statements of hopelessness as when Smith told Phillips, “You look out for yourself. I release you. That’s the way of it at this kind of time….”
      It is important to note that Dr. Mihalyfi’s observations do not imply that Captain Smith went mad or was mentally deranged (note that Dr. Mihalyfi is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist), nor are they intended to impute an undeserved portion of the blame for Titanic disaster to Captain Smith. Instead they make it clear that Smith was confronted with a situation that he wasn’t prepared by emotion, experience, or training to handle. That Captain Smith was overwhelmed by circumstances is something for which he should be pitied, but never condemned. It is highly doubtful that any of us could have done any better.

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