107 #65: Captain Smith had a mental breakdown following the collision, which rendered him ineffective

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captain smith titanic

FALSE. Although Captain Smith suddenly found himself in an impossible and overwhelming situation, which must have been unbelievable to the 62-year-old captain, who had captained 17 White Star vessels, and who in 1907 told the New York press:

‘When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say “uneventful”. I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.’

Titanic’s evacuation was characterized by poor organization, although this was largely due to Captain Smith knowing that there were only lifeboats for about half of those on board and wanting to avoid a panic. He therefore decided not to communicate the gravity of the situation, even to all his officers; although he did tell them the truth if they asked him directly, as Fourth Officer Boxhall did about half an hour after the collision:

15610: ‘Did you hear the Captain say anything to anybody about the ship being doomed?’

‘The Captain did remark something to me in the earlier part of the evening after the order had been given to clear the boats. I encountered him when reporting something to him, or something, and he was inquiring about the men going on with the work, and I said, “Yes, they are carrying on all right.” I said, “Is it really serious?” He said, “Mr. Andrews tells me he gives her from an hour to an hour and a half.”’

Smith’s deliberate lack of communication about the gravity of the situation, combined with the fact that the crew was new to the ship and that Titanic had never had a full lifeboat drill, caused confusion, but not panic.

The myth of Smith having some sort of a breakdown, though, probably stems from the fact that Lightoller had to ask the Captain if it was alright to load the lifeboats with women and children:

CHL514: (Senator SMITH) ‘You asked the captain on the boat deck whether the lifeboats should take the women and children first, if I understand you correctly?’

Mr. LIGHTOLLER: ‘Not quite, sir; I asked him: “Shall I put the women and children in the boats?” The captain replied, “Yes, and lower away.”’

However, this delay was probably caused only by the deafening noise of the steam escaping from Titanic’s boilers, which made giving orders on the boat deck impossible and caused Lightoller to resort to hand signals:

13797: ‘You were just telling us what you found when you came up on deck after you had heard of what had happened, and I think you just told us that the steam was roaring off—blowing out of the boilers, I suppose?


13798: ‘Was it making a great noise?’


13799: ‘So great as to be difficult to hear what was said?’

‘Very difficult.’

13811: ‘Had you any means of knowing what boat a particular seaman would be attached to if he did not know; have you any means of telling him?’

‘Well, I did not think it advisable, taking into consideration the row going on with the steam to make any inquiries. I could only direct them by motions of the hand. They could not hear what I said.’

Lightoller was in fact asking Captain Smith to adjudicate when he felt that Titanic’s Chief Officer, Henry Tingle Wilde was being too slow and cautious about swinging out the boats:

13820: ‘And what did Mr. Wilde say about that— what were the orders?’

‘I am under the impression that Mr. Wilde said “No,” or “Wait,” something to that effect, and meeting the Commander, I asked him, and he said, “Yes, swing out.”’

In the following similar testimony from Third Officer Pitman it seems as though Titanic’s owner, Bruce Ismay, was taking the lead over Captain Smith in organising the evacuation, although this was probably also because the noise of escaping steam was making it hard to communicate orders on the Boat Deck at this time:

HJP816: ‘As I understand, you say that Mr. Ismay told you that you had better get aboard with the women and children?’

‘No, no. He remarked to me, “You had better go ahead and get the women and children”; and I replied that I would await the commander’s orders. I did not know it was Mr. Ismay at the time.’

HJP817: ‘Did you tell him what Mr. Ismay said?’

‘I said I judged that it was Mr. Ismay.’

HJP818: ‘And you told him what Mr. Ismay said?’


HJP819: ‘What did the commander say?’

‘Carry on.’

Captain Smith apparently made a simple mistake in the following testimony of First Class passenger Hugh Woolner:

HUW019: ‘Did you have occasion to see the captain occasionally?’

‘I asked somebody to point him out to me. Naturally, one is interested to know the appearance of the captain, and I knew him by sight.’

HUW021: ‘Did you see him the night of the accident?’

‘Not until I came up onto the boat deck, and he was there on the port side.’

HUW025: ‘How long was this after the collision?’

‘I did not look at my watch, but I should think it was half an hour.’

HUW026: ‘Did you hear him say anything or did you say anything to him?’

‘Yes; I did. I made one remark to him. He said: “I want all the passengers to go down on A deck, because I intend they shall go into the boats from A deck.” I remembered noticing as I came up that all those glass windows were raised to the very top; and I went up to the captain and saluted him and said: “Haven’t you forgotten, sir, that all those glass windows are closed?” He said: “By God, you are right. Call those people back.” Very few people had moved, but the few that had gone down the companionway came up again, and everything went on all right.’

But even if this was indeed Captain Smith, as Woolner thought it was, this small mistake is understandable, especially given Smith’s familiarity with Titanic’s nearly identical sister, whose promenade deck was open at this point. However, it is possible that Hugh Woolner was confusing Captain Smith with Lightoller in this incident, or that Lightoller made the same mistake, as Lightoller clearly attributes this mistake to himself:

13834: (The Commissioner) ‘That is what I want to know?’

‘Well, you see, if I may give it to you in the order that I was working, I swung out No. 4 with the intention of loading all the boats from A deck, the next deck below the boat deck. I lowered No. 4 down to A deck, and gave orders for the women and children to go down to A deck to be loaded through the windows. My reason for loading the boats through the windows from A deck was that there was a coaling wire, a very strong wire running along A deck, and I thought it would be very useful to trice the boat to in case the ship got a slight list or anything; but as I was going down the ladder after giving the order, someone sung out and said the windows were up. I countermanded the order and told the people to come back on the boat deck and instructed two or three, I think they were stewards, to find the handles and lower the windows. That left No. 4 boat hanging at A deck, so then I went on to No. 6.’

In any event, we know from the following testimony from Major Arthur Peuchen that Smith did not make that mistake again:

AGP076: ‘The captain was standing still by him [Lightoller] at that time, and I think, although the officer ordered me to the boat, the captain said, “You had better go down below and break a window and get in through a window, into the boat”…although Major Peuchen did not regard the Captain’s suggestion as feasible.’

AGP077: ‘The captain said that?’

‘Yes. That was his suggestion; and I said I did not think it was feasible, and I said I could get in the boat if I could get hold of a rope. However, we got hold of a loose rope in some way that was hanging from the davit, near the block anyway, and by getting hold of it I swung myself off the ship, and lowered myself into the boat.’

AGP078: ‘How far did you have to swing yourself?’

‘The danger was jumping off from the boat. It was not after I got a straight line; it was very easy lowering.’

However, it seems that Captain Smith was simply doing his best to assist:

AGP107: ‘From what you saw of the captain, was he alert and watchful?’

‘He was doing everything in his power to get women in these boats, and to see that they were lowered properly. I thought he was doing his duty in regard to the lowering of the boats, sir.’

And Captain Smith continued to do his best under the terrible circumstances and to give orders, right until the very end, with no signs that he had suffered any kind of breakdown. Surviving Marconi operator Harold Bride said that a few minutes before Titanic began her final plunge, Captain Smith went to the Marconi operators’ room and released them from their duties:

‘Just at this moment the captain came into the cabin and said, “You can do nothing more; look out for yourselves.”’

And Smith was still busy releasing Titanic’s crew from their duties a few minutes later, when Titanic’s decks were actually awash, as Steward Edward Brown remembered:

10585: ‘The Captain came past us while we were trying to get this boat away with a megaphone in his hand, and he spoke to us.’

10586: ‘What did he say?’

‘He said, “Well, boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves.” He walked on the bridge.’

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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