In the early morning hours of May 27th, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck was in dire straits in the Atlantic. With her steering gear jammed beyond repair and a vast, avenging armada of British warships closing in for the kill, it was obvious to most on board that the battleship would not see another sunset.
A flurry of last signals was exchanged between the doomed monster and Berlin. The last of these was simple, urgent, and straight to the point:
SEND U-BOAT TO SAVE WAR DIARY….
Admiral Gunther Lutjens clearly wanted his actions to be dispassionately dissected for posterity. He knew that several of the key decisions he had made over the last few days would arouse controversy, and he obviously wanted his thinking to be understood by later generations.
Of course, no U-Boat came. It was way too late for that. But it did make me wonder- why was no attempt made to save the log book from the Titanic?
Think about it; Titanic was in a similar state of terminal duress as Bismarck. But she was not being torn apart by torpedoes and shellfire. Instead, Titanic sank slowly but steadily on a flat calm ocean. Almost every one of her twenty lifeboats was lowered safely, if sporadically.
Of the seven principal deck officers on the Titanic, three of them- namely Pitman, Boxhall and Lowe- were ordered away to take command of individual boats. It seems damned nigh incredible that not one of them was told to take the ship’s log, or even the regularly updated scrap log, to safety. And it would have been so easy to do.
Speculating as to why this wasn’t done gets us nowhere. To use another Bismarck analogy, it leaves us sailing helplessly in circles. For sure, Captain Smith seemed to lose the plot in those last hours, and with little wonder. He knew that his great command was sinking, and that at least a thousand people would freeze to death in the ocean a full two hours before the first responsive rescue ship, the Carpathia, could arrive. And, as the captain, he would ultimately be blamed for that loss of life.
That knowledge alone would have short circuited most people, and the likely prospect of imminent death must have hung round poor Smith like a millstone. Few men could have remained cogent and decisive in the face of such an awesome denouement.
So what about the other officers? We know that Murdoch, Lightoller and Moody- with occasional help from Wilde- were so busy loading and lowering the boats that they were sweating profusely, despite the near Arctic conditions that prevailed on those sloping decks. Probably none of them ever gave saving the log book a passing thought. And, in the final analysis, it would have been Captain Smith’s decision to make, in any event.
What about Thomas Andrews and J. Bruce Ismay? Architect and owner respectively, they might surely have prevailed over Smith with a view to saving the ship’s log? And Andrews, of all people, would surely have wanted some kind of posthumous validation for the ship that he had laboured so hard and long on?
Simply put, I think that both Andrews and Ismay endured a similar kind of nervous breakdown as did Captain Smith. All three men were aware of the desperate shortage of lifeboats on the Titanic, and the even shorter time span left to fill those actually carried on board. Both Andrews and Ismay directed their efforts towards saving as many lives as they could. We know that as a documented fact. Indeed, Ismay’s efforts were so near to hysteria at one stage that he was publicly bawled out by Fifth Officer Lowe.
But, while Ismay contrived to save himself, Andrews went down with the ship. Even so, I think that saving the ship’s log book would be the last thing on the White Star chairman’s mind.
Might it have been incriminating? Would the contents of that log have been compromising to a man already shattered by disaster, and soon to be held to account in public on both sides of the Atlantic? Would the contents of that log have wrecked Ismay just as surely as the iceberg wrecked the Titanic herself?
What we do know is that Ismay was on board as an ‘ordinary passenger’ (his own words) for the maiden voyage. The fact that he was the Chairman of the White Star Line was purely a coincidence.
But for an ordinary passenger to summon the chief engineer to his cabin while the ship was at Queenstown, and then tell him the speeds that he wanted to see the Titanic ran for during her crossing, goes way beyond the remit of any ‘ordinary passenger’. In effect, Ismay was usurping the authority of his own captain, a man who was the senior commodore of the entire White Star Line.
Nor are ordinary passengers usually allowed to look at messages concerning potential navigation hazards- in this case, a pair of telegrams containing warnings of ice- let alone to retain them in their personal possession for several hours. Yet Ismay did just that, on that fateful afternoon of April 14th.
Of course, we’ll never know. Both the log book and the regularly updated scrap book, went to the bottom with the ship. And there they remain to this day.
I’m not writing this in a spirit of censure or condemnation. None of us will ever find ourselves in the same awful position as these men did on that cold April night in 1912. And anyone can second guess from behind the comfortable barrier of a more than century old controversy.
But I am genuinely curious about this, and I would love to know what other people think. So, if anyone out there can shed some light on this, then I’d most certainly be grateful for your input….