Titanic: myths sunk!

Historian Tim Maltin sets the record straight about the sinking of the Titanic

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Historian and author Tim Maltin can’t wait to see the rest of Julian Fellowes’s Titanic, with one reservation: “It’s a very good production. What I’m sure of, though, is it won’t talk about the real drama that happened that night.” Here he debunks five enduring myths about what really went on in the North Atlantic on the night of 15 April 1912.

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The lookouts weren’t doing their job

“For 100 years, no one has believed Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, the lookouts on the night. They said the iceberg came out of the haze at the last minute. They were laughed out of court.” Every other witness has said it was the clearest night they’d ever seen. 

Yet Maltin has studied the logbooks of all shipping in the area in the ten days before and after the disaster. His conclusion is that climatic conditions that night were to blame. A cold water current combined with warmer air above created miraging, so when the lookouts said the iceberg came out of a haze, it did. “They weren’t lying – they were just saying what they saw.”

The rivets on the hull were weak

“Everyone says that the Titanic’s steel was shoddy. I love this idea that stuff was worse in the old days and we could do it better now. I’ve touched a 15-tonne piece of the Titanic and I tell you, it’s over-engineered to a degree that you wouldn’t possibly believe.” There was nothing weak about the Titanic. It was merely that the impact from the iceberg – a million foot tonnes (enough to move a million tonnes, or three Empire State buildings, a foot in a second) – was enormous. “There isn’t a ship ever built that would have survived that.”

If only they’d had more lifeboats, more passengers could have been saved

Lifeboats, Maltin says, are “a massively inefficient way of unloading a ship.” Before a ship sinks, normally it lists. This renders all of the lifeboats on the skyward side unusable. “So the board of trade at the time decided, quite reasonably, that rather than making the ship unstable and having huge numbers of lifeboats, which you wouldn’t have enough crew or time to launch, they would reward shipping companies making safe ships that don’t sink in the first place.” 

Titanic was allowed to carry less lifeboats because her hull was so brilliantly subdivided – the Captain boasted at the dinner before she went down that you could break Titanic into three sections and all three would float. What he didn’t envisage was a sideswipe disaster that could take out 200ft of the ship. In fact, until the Concordia, no such disaster had been recorded before or since in maritime history.

It was a classist conspiracy

James Cameron’s Titanic shows passengers in third class locked below deck while the first class get the seats on the lifeboats. “Total rubbish,” Maltin says. There were gates on Titanic but these were for US immigration purposes, to stop the spread of infectious disease on the ship between classes. “As soon as the order was given to lower the lifeboats, the order was given to open all the gates and there was no discrimination on the boat deck between either first class or third.”

Women in third class were denied places on lifeboats

“Controversially, most of the third class chose to stay on board,” says Maltin. “In 1912 women didn’t tend to have their own careers; men were very much the breadwinners. The families in third were all leaving for a new life and had all their possessions with them. 

“Plus in 1912 you were classified as a man if you were over 13. Can you imagine a woman going to a new life in America leaving her husband and 13- or 14-year-old son on the ship? She ain’t going to do it. She’ll take her chances with the ship. It’s not going to sink anyway, there’s a rescue ship on its way…”

It could never happen again

Maltin suggests it very nearly did, just last year. “Look at the Concordia. Very similar impact and same length. Look how fast she rolled. If Concordia hadn’t been in shallow water I think a couple of thousand people could have died. More than on the Titanic.” 

He uses the example of the Concordia to make one final point – that it’s easy to ascribe blame to individuals unfairly. He cites the infamous Italian “Captain Coward” of the Concordia, who, like Captain Edward Smith, was also accused of being drunk (neither were). 

“Had that Captain not brilliantly got the ship into shallow water there would have been many more fatalities. He could have followed the rulebook but I think he thought, ‘Let’s beach this because it’s going to go really bad. He could have beached that thing flat – he nearly did – and then he’d be the biggest hero in the world.” 

The point holds for the Titanic, he says. “There were no heroes and no villains, only ordinary human beings making decisions based on the data they are given. Unfortunately, with the miraging that concealed the iceberg and the super-refraction that scrambled their distress signals, nature was throwing them a massive curveball.”

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Titanic: Case Closed airs tonight at 8pm on National Geographic