107 #80: Titanic broke in half as she sank

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TRUE. This fact was not generally believed until 1985, when Robert Ballard found Titanic’s wreck on the seabed, nearly 4,500 metres below the surface. Her bow section was lying more than 650 metres north of her stern section. Until this discovery it was generally accepted that Titanic had sunk in one piece, despite a number of witnesses who said that they saw her break in half.

James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic shows the stern section rising to about 45 degrees and then the ship splitting in two from the top down, with her boat deck ripping apart. However, recent forensic studies of the wreck have all concluded that Titanic’s hull began to break at a much shallower angle of about 15 degrees. This is not surprising, because the bending moment acting upon the hull would have been much stronger at this shallow angle. As Titanic expert Sam Halpern points out, just try holding a baseball bat out at arm’s length, and you will see it feels ‘lighter’ if you begin to point it upwards.Titanic’s hull girder was simply not designed to support the stern at a 15 degree angle and therefore it began to break up.

The initial failure of Titanic’s hull may have been what Chief Baker Charles Joughin heard when he was getting a drink of water from the A deck pantry:

6040: ‘I went to the deck pantry, and while I was in there I thought I would take a drink of water, and while I was getting the drink of water I heard a kind of a crash as if something had buckled, as if part of the ship had buckled, and then I heard a rush overhead.’ 6041: ‘Do you mean a rush of people?’

‘Yes, a rush of people overhead on the deck.’

6042: ‘Is the deck pantry on A deck?’


6043: ‘So that the deck above would be the boat deck?’

‘Yes, I could hear it.’

6044: ‘You could hear it?’


6045: ‘People running—yes?’

6049: ‘You say that you heard this sound of buckling or crackling. Was it loud; could anybody in the ship hear it?’

‘You could have heard it, but you did not really know what it was. It was not an explosion or anything like that. It was like as if the iron was parting.’

6050: ‘Like the breaking of metal?’


As the break-up continued, 17-year-old First Class passenger Jack Thayer described the sound of it from the forward part of Titanic’s boat deck:

‘Occasionally there had been a muffled thud or deadened explosion within the ship. Now, without warning she seemed to start forward, moving forward and into the water at an angle of about fifteen degrees. This movement with the water rushing up toward us was accompanied by a rumbling roar, mixed with more muffled explosions. It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.’

Thayer was then thrown into the water and watched the rest of Titanic’s break-up from only 40 yards away:

‘The cold was terrific. The shock of the water took the breath out of my lungs. Down and down I went, spinning in all directions. Swimming as hard as I could in the direction which I thought to be away from the ship, I finally came up with my lungs bursting, but not having taken any water. The ship was in front of me, forty yards away… The water was over the base of the first funnel. The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare, and stood out of the night as though she were on fire… The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds. Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and bow or buckle upwards.’

As Titanic’s hull split apart, her stern settled back onto an even keel. Many survivors noticed the stern righting itself and some assumed that it would then stay afloat.

Greaser Thomas Dillon observed her fourth funnel falling as Titanic’s stern settled back on the water:

3857: (The Commissioner) ‘Am I to understand that you were actually on board the Titanic when she went down?’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

3858: (Mr. Raymond Asquith) ‘Before the ship actually went down did you see her make any movements?’

‘Yes, she took one final plunge and righted herself again.’

3859: ‘She gave a plunge and righted herself again?’


3860: ‘Did you notice anything about the funnel?’

‘Not then.’

3861: ‘Did you afterwards notice something about the funnel?’


3862: ‘What?’

‘When she went down.’

3863: ‘Was that after you had left the ship?’

‘Before I left the ship.’

3864: ‘What did you notice?’

‘Well, the funnel seemed to cant up towards me.’

3865: ‘It seemed to fall aft?’

‘Yes; it seemed to fall up this way.’

3866: ‘Was that the aftermost funnel?’


3867: ‘Did you get the idea that the ship was breaking in two?’


3868: ‘Did the funnel seem to fall towards you?’


3869: (The Commissioner) ‘That is the after funnel?’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

3870: (Mr. Raymond Asquith) ‘Then you say the ship plunged and righted herself again; and was it then that you dived into the water?’

‘I did not dive into the water.’

3871: ‘How did you get off the ship into the water?’

‘I went down with the ship, and shoved myself away from her into the water.’

3872: ‘Were you sucked down at all?’

‘About two fathoms [12 feet].’

In fact, although Titanic’s stern had momentarily settled back on an even keel as her hull split, her bow and stern sections had not completely separated. As Titanic’s flooded bow section made for the bottom, it dragged the forward end of the buoyant stern section down with it, upending it again. Evidently the remaining attachments were not symmetrical and Titanic’s stern twisted around as it sank.

Jack Thayer continued to observe this at close hand, from his vantage point in the water, but only after he had been washed 10 or 20 yards further away by the falling of Titanic’s first funnel, and then clambered aboard the bottom of upturned Collapsible B:

‘I pulled myself up as far as I could almost exhausted, but could not get my legs up. I asked them to give me a hand up, which they readily did. Sitting on my haunches and holding on for dear life, I was again facing the Titanic. There was the gigantic mass, about fifty or sixty yards away. The forward motion had stopped. She was pivoting on a point just abaft of midship. Her stern was gradually rising into the air, seemingly in no hurry, just slowly and deliberately. Her deck was turned slightly toward us. We could see groups of the almost fifteen hundred people aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great part of the ship, two hundred and fifty feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a sixty-five or seventy degree angle. Here it seemed to pause, and just hung, for what felt like minutes. Gradually she turned her deck away from us, as though to hide from our sight the awful spectacle.

‘I looked upwards—we were right under the three enormous propellers. For an instant, I thought they were sure to come down on top of us. Then, with the deadened noise of the bursting of her last few gallant bulkheads, she slid quietly away from us into the sea.’

Chief Baker Charles Joughin was one of those who remained on the ship during this final plunge and he graphically recalls the awful scene:

6052: ‘What did you do?’

‘I kept out of the crush as much as I possibly could, and I followed down—followed down getting towards the well of the deck, and just as I got down towards the well she gave a great list over to port and threw everybody in a bunch except myself. I did not see anybody else besides myself out of the bunch.’

6053: ‘That was when you were in the well, was it?’

‘I was not exactly in the well, I was on the side, practically on the side then. She threw them over. At last I clambered on the side when she chucked them.’

6054: ‘You mean the starboard side?’

‘The starboard side.’

6055: ‘The starboard was going up and she took a lurch to port?’

‘It was not going up, but the other side was going down.’

6056: ‘It is very difficult to say how many, I daresay, but could you give me some idea, of how many people there were in this crush?’

‘I have no idea, Sir; I know they were piled up.’

6057: ‘What do you mean when you say, “No idea.” Were there hundreds?’

‘Yes, there were more than that—many hundreds, I should say.’

6058: (The Solicitor-General) ‘You said this vessel took a lurch to port and threw them in a heap. Did she come back; did she right herself at all?’

‘No, Sir.’

6059: ‘She took a lurch and she did not return?’

‘She did not return.’

6060: ‘Can you tell us what happened to you?’

‘Yes, I eventually got on to the starboard side of the poop.’

6064: ‘On the side of the ship?’


6070: ‘Did you find anybody else holding that rail there, on the poop?’


6071: ‘You were the only one?’

‘I did not see anybody else.’

6072: ‘Were you holding the rail so that you were inside the ship, or were you holding the rail so that you were on the outside of the ship?’

‘On the outside.’

6073: ‘So that the rail was between you and the deck?’


6074: ‘Then what happened?’

‘Well, I was just wondering what next to do. I had tightened my belt and I had transferred some things out of this pocket into my stern pocket. I was just wondering what next to do when she went.’

6075: ‘And did you find yourself in the water?’


6076: ‘Did you feel that you were dragged under or did you keep on the top of the water?’

‘I do not believe my head went under the water at all. It may have been wetted, but no more.’

Titanic’s entire sinking sequence is neatly summarised by Lookout George Symons who was watching from lifeboat No. 1 between 200 and 500 yards away. Symons was regarded by Lightoller as possessing remarkable eyesight and as the best lookout, this is what he told the British Inquiry:

11502: ‘Now, just one moment. Just tell us why you say “after I saw the ship was doomed” you pulled away 200 yards? What was it that you saw that made you think that?’

‘Because her forecastle head was well under water then. Her lights had all disappeared then. You could see her starboard sidelight, which was still burning, was not so very far from the water, and her stern was well up in the air.’

11503: ‘When you say all her lights went out, do you mean right away astern too?’

‘No, just her foremost lights had disappeared, and her starboard sidelight left burning was the only light, barring the masthead light, on that side of the bridge that I could see.’

11504: ‘Then you saw her with her stern out?’


11505: ‘Will you give us an idea what angle was her stern as far as you could see? How did it look to you; was it all up?’

‘More like that with a cant. (Describing.) I do not know what position you would call it altogether.’

11506: ‘Was it out of water?’


11507: ‘Did you see her keel?’

‘No, you could not see her keel.’

11508: (The Commissioner) ‘Could you see the propellers?’

‘You could just see the propellers.’

11509: (The Attorney-General) ‘You could see the propellers?’


11510: ‘Then when you saw her like that, what was the next thing that happened?’

‘A little while after that we pulled a little way and lay on the oars again. The other boats were around us by that time, and some were pulling further away from us. I stood and watched it till I heard two sharp explosions in the ship. What they were I could not say. Then she suddenly took a top cant, her stern came well out of the water then.’

11511: ‘A top cant?’

‘You know what I mean to say, she took a heavy cant and her bow went down clear.’

11512: ‘Head downwards?’

‘Head down, and that is the time when I saw her lights go out, all her lights. The next thing I saw was her poop. As she went down like that so her poop righted itself and I thought to myself, “The poop is going to float.” It could not have been more than two or three minutes after that that her poop went up as straight as anything; there was a sound like steady thunder as you hear on an ordinary night at a distance, and soon she disappeared from view.’

11517: ‘I understand you to say that at one period you saw her stern right itself?’

‘It righted itself without the bow; in my estimation she must have broken in half.’

11518: ‘Can you form any idea from what part of the vessel it was that she appeared to right herself?’

‘I should think myself it was abaft the after expansion plate.’

11521: ‘Where was it?’

‘I should say it would be about abeam of the after funnel, or a little forward.’

11523: (The Attorney-General.) ‘Then you saw her right herself—this part of her?’

‘Yes; I saw the poop right itself.’

11524: ‘And then it went up?’

‘Yes; then it went up and disappeared from view.’ 11525: ‘And then went right down?’


Unfortunately, although Titanic’s most senior surviving officer, Charles Herbert Lightoller, saw the ship’s stern rising high out of the water during the final phase of her sinking, he did not observe her breaking in two, as this happened while he was being sucked underwater by the sinking Titanic, before he was blown free by a blast of hot air and reached collapsible B. Lightoller therefore erroneously assumed from the stern’s upright attitude that the part of Titanic he couldn’t see was intact, and believed she had sunk in one piece:

14074: (The Solicitor-General) ‘I do not know whether you can help us at all in describing what happened to the ship. You were engaged and had other things to think about; but what did happen to the ship? Can you tell us at all?’

(Lightoller) ‘Are you referring to the reports of the ship breaking in two?’

14075: ‘Yes?’

‘It is utterly untrue. The ship did not and could not have broken in two.’

14092: (The Solicitor-General) ‘Did you continue watching the afterpart sufficiently to be able to tell us whether the afterpart settled on the water at all?’

‘It did not settle on the water.’

14093: ‘You are confident it did not?’

‘Perfectly certain.’

The Solicitor-General: ‘Your Lordship knows a lot of Witnesses have said their impression was the afterpart settled on the water.’

14094: (The Commissioner) ‘I have heard that over and over again.’ (To the witness.) ‘That you say is not true?’

‘That is not true, My Lord. I was watching her keenly the whole time.’

14097: ‘Just tell us what happened, as you saw it?’

‘After she reached an angle of 50 or 60 degrees, or something about that, there was this rumbling sound, which I attributed to the boilers leaving their beds and crushing down on or through the bulkheads. The ship at that time was becoming more perpendicular, until finally she attained the absolute perpendicular— somewhere about that position (Describing), and then went slowly down. She went down very slowly until the end, and then, after she got so far (Describing), the afterpart of the second cabin deck, she, of course, went down much quicker.’

Both the American and British Inquiries accepted Lightoller’s incomplete version of events, which were regarded as accurate for 73 years, until Ballard found the Titanic.

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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