107 #23: Crucial ice warnings never made it to Titanic’s bridge because the wireless operator was too busy and tired

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PROBABLY TRUE. The night before Titanic’s collision, her wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, had spent six hours repairing a damaged transformer in their new Marconi wireless set, with the result that her senior operator, Jack Phillips, was unusually tired at the end of his watch the following day, when the collision occurred. These problems are explained by Harold Bride in the following extract of his 27th April, 1912 report to the Marconi traffic manager, Mr W.R. Cross:

‘The night before the disaster Mr. Phillips and myself had had a deal of trouble, owing to the leads from the secondary of the transformer having burnt through inside the casing and make contact with certain iron bolts holding the woodwork and frame together, thereby earthing the power to a great extent. After binding these leads with rubber tape, we once more had the apparatus in perfect working order, but not before we had put in nearly six hours’ work, Mr. Phillips being of the opinion that, in the first place, it was the condensers which had broken, and these we had had out and examined before locating the damage in the transformer.

‘Owing to this trouble, I had promised to relieve Mr. Phillips on the following night at midnight instead of the usual time, 2 o’clock, as he seemed very tired.’

Even more significantly, shortly before the collision, Titanic for the first time came within range of the wireless shore station at Cape Race, approximately 400 miles away. Titanic’s daytime wireless range was only 400 miles, so this was the first time on the voyage that messages from the ship could now be transmitted direct to land in America, and the tired Jack Phillips was therefore very busy trying to clear this back-log of traffic just prior to the collision.

At 11.45 a.m. on Sunday morning Titanic had received a message from the Amerika warning of ice south of her track, which was intended for the Hydrographic Office in Washington via Cape Race; this was never delivered to Titanic’s bridge as it was not intended for her and consequently was not marked for the Master’s attention by the MSG (Master Service Gram) prefix. However, since it related to navigation, the operator should have delivered it to the bridge anyway. In the event, it was probably put with the other messages for transmission to Cape Race, once that station came within range. This message did not give the time that Amerika had seen the ice.

Far more importantly, at about 9.40pm ship’s time, Phillips received a message from the Mesaba which may also have lacked the MSG prefix, warning of the icefield into which Titanic would shortly collide:

‘In Latitude 42N to 41-25N. Long.49 to Long.50- 30W. Saw much heavy pack ice, and great number large icebergs. Also field ice. Weather good, clear.’

According to Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Herbert Lightoller, writing more than 20 years later, in his memoirs, Titanic and other ships:

‘The position this ship gave was right ahead of us and not many miles distant. The wireless operator was not to know how close we were to this position, and therefore the extreme urgency of the message. That he received the message is known, and it was read by the other operator in his bunk. The operator who received it was busy at the time, working wireless messages to and from Cape Race, also with his accounts, and he put the message under a paper weight at his elbow, just until he squared up what he was doing, and he would then have brought it to the bridge. That delay proved fatal and was the main contributory cause to the loss of that magnificent ship and hundreds of lives.’ [Emphasis in author’s original.]

Nevertheless, Lightoller was every inch the Company man, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this message was in fact delivered to the bridge, and that the bridge did not act upon it, trusting instead to being able to see any ice in time to avoid it, as they had done for years, in clear weather. Indeed, as Lightoller was off duty at the time, and every more senior watch officer died in the disaster, he would not necessarily have known at first hand whether that message had in fact been delivered.

Regardless of which version of events is true, at about 11pm ship’s time Phillips received the following message from the Californian, the ship nearest to the Titanic, only about ten miles away to the northward: ‘We are stopped and surrounded by ice’.

This was only moments before Titanic collided with an outlying berg in the same north/south-running ice barrier which had brought Californian to a stop.

However, Californian’s wireless operator, Cyril Evans, had not followed the usual etiquette among wireless operators of waiting until Phillips had finished communicating with Cape Race. This was probably because Evans wanted to go to sleep after 16 hours on watch and Titanic’s communications with Cape Race would have been fast and incessant. When Evans interrupted Phillips, the loud spark from the Californian, lying only about 10 miles to the northward of Titanic, blasted in Phillips’ ears as he was listening to the much quieter signals from Cape Race, 400 miles away. This painful interruption would have obliterated the communication Phillips was sending, meaning he would have to begin his current sentence again. Phillips instinctively told Californian to ‘Shut up’ or ‘Keep out’, and explained: ‘I am working Cape Race.’ This was not unusual in the Marconi banter of the day, and would not have been taken as a great insult, but in his haste and pique, Phillips did not ask for Evans’s position and did not inform the bridge of this communication.

Now that Evans, Californian’s only radio operator, had now communicated with the only ship within wireless range of the Californian, as he had been ordered to do by Captain Lord, he switched off his wireless apparatus and went to bed, ending his long day on watch. For this reason, Californian did not hear Titanic’s distress signal, transmitted an hour and a half later.

In 1912, wireless technology was still in its infancy and experienced captains tended to rely on a sharp lookout, as they had always done, regarding wireless as a useful but inessential novelty. Many ships still did not have wireless and many of those that did, such as the Californian and Carpathia, only had one operator, meaning that messages were dependent on the wireless operator being awake and on watch. There was no way of taking messages to the bridge other than having the operator physically take it, which would then take them away from the set. There was provision for a messenger boy, but Bride said having one was more trouble than it was worth, with the result that there wasn’t one on the Titanic.

Many of the problems stemmed from the fact that wireless operators were employed by the wireless company, in Titanic’s case the Marconi Co., rather than by the White Star Line. They were therefore primarily on the ship to send passenger messages commercially on behalf of their employer, although they were supposed to prioritise government and navigational messages. Most Marconi operators were young men who loved the new technology, but they were very poorly paid and often overworked. The backlog caused by the earlier breakdown of the wireless set meant that Titanic’s Marconi operators were busier than ever. Bride was planning to relieve Phillips two hours early because he was so exhausted from repairing the equipment and trying to keep up with the traffic—and Phillips was lucky to have a relief. Harold Cottam, the sole Marconi operator on the rescue ship Carpathia, only picked up Titanic’s distress signal as he was bending down to untie his boots and go to bed! Cottam was later completely overwhelmed with trying to deal with the huge volume of messages concerning the sinking, and Titanic’s rescued junior operator, Harold Bride, had to be dragged off his sick bed, where he was suffering from severely frost-bitten feet, to assist Cottam.

Had there been two operators on the Californian, she would have picked up Titanic’s distress signal immediately; 24 hour radio watch for ships was therefore one of the most important pieces of safety regulation brought in as a result of the Titanic disaster.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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