Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Ironic - and her sister ships

I predict a sudden surge in stories about the loss of the ship RMS Titanic.  I don't use any special powers to make that prediction, since we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

I happen to know a few surprising things about that magnificent vessel which need not have been lost so tragically.  I hope you might be able to use them during the next week or two.

However, I should say that I don't presume to judge the actions of her captain.  I remember a few years ago that members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers spent several months being 'wise' in letters to the magazine Professional Engineering, about what ought to have been done to save Titanic.  Their comments seemed plausible until a Royal Navy Commander wrote in and put them right on a number of topics relating the the practical day-to-day wisdom of operation of big multi-screw ships.  I found that to be a salutary lesson for a young engineer.  Professional engineers should be revered when they are talking about their own speciality, but treated with suspicion when they stray to other areas.  Indeed they ought to know better than to express an opinion if they do not know it to be accurate or valuable.   I noticed that the letters on that topic dried up rather quickly.

Regarding Titanic's Captain though, Edward J Smith was a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.  This meant that he had the right to fly the Blue Ensign on ships that he commanded, rather than the normal Red Ensign.  The owners of the White Star Line were, no doubt, aware of the marketing value of such a gesture.  It would make their ships appear safer than those of rival companies.  How Ironic!  (Although Ironic was NOT a sister ship of Titanic!)

You might not realise it, but the Titanic was not actually unique.  She had two sister ships.  Olympic, launched June 1911, had been in service for months at the time of the Titanic disaster.  She was also crossing the Atlantic at the time, in the opposite direction and too far away to come to help.  Britannic was still being built (and it was planned that she would be called Gigantic, but the marketing wisdom of the shipping line did not fail them in this case).  She was the only one of the three not to be captained by Smith.

Of the three ships only Olympic survived for long, being scrapped in the mid 1930s.  Soon after Titanic's sinking the First World War began, and Britannic was converted into a hospital ship.  In slightly suspicious circumstances she was sunk in the Mediterranean Sea, either by a mine or by a torpedo from a German U-boat.  The wreck has been extensively studied and controversy rages to this day.  Whether it was a war crime or not is somewhat academic now, but people still argue about it.

Olympic's early career was not unblemished either.  Just 3 months after her 1911 launch she collided with HMS Hawke near Southampton, UK.  Her Captain's reputation seems not to have been badly damaged.  Edward J Smith's next command was . . . Titanic.

Violet Jessop - survivor of Titanic and her sisters.
Three unlucky ships share one other remarkable coincidence.  Violet Jessop was on Olympic at the time of the collision, then as a stewardess survived the sinking of Titanic.  Just a couple of years later she was then unlucky enough to be on Britannic at just the wrong moment.

The realisation of what was happening again must have given her a sinking feeling.

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