Was It The Titanic That Hit The Iceberg?
By James Donahue
Even though it happened just over a century ago, the
very name Titanic instills images of one of the greatest ship disasters of all time. It made headlines when this mighty ship
struck an iceberg at full speed in the North Atlantic in the early morning of April 15, 1912. Over 1,500 people out of 2,224
passengers and crew perished when this great White Star liner sank on its maiden voyage.
Indeed, there have since been ship disasters that have
claimed more lives than the Titanic, but none stamped the historical mark on people all over the world that this particular
disaster left us with. Books, movies, folk songs, and video documentaries have been created. Diving missions with special
submersible cameras and equipment have been sent to capture images of the sunken ruins of the great ship, now lying at 12,415
feet. Thousands of artifacts have been recovered and put on display in various museums.
Over the years, and as it seems to happen with all
great disasters of this magnitude, various conspiracy theories involving this famous wreck have surfaced. One of the most
interesting was the theory put forth by author Robert Gardiner in his book, Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank. Gardiner suggests
that it was really the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic that sank, that it was done on purpose as an insurance scam, and
that the terrible loss of life was never supposed to have happened.
Indeed, the Titanic was the second of a planned trio
of great liners being built for the White Star Line by Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff. The first, the Olympic, was
launched in 1910 and put in service the following year while the Titanic was still under construction. The third ship in the
trio was the Britannic.
All three ships were built
to the same specifications. Thus the Olympic and Titanic looked almost identical to each other except for some minor details
like the number of portholes on the forward C decks, the spacing of the windows on the B decks, and a forward section of the
Titanic’s A deck promenade.
Work on the Titanic was nearing completion when the
Olympic was involved in a serious collision with the Royal Navy Cruiser Hawke off Southampton. The Hawke had an extended “ram”
below the waterline that was designed to cause maximum damage to enemy ships during engagements. That ram also caused extensive
damage to the Olympic. The steel frames, plating, propeller, crankshaft and even the keel of the ship was affected.
Gardiner wrote that beyond the temporary patching,
a proper repair of the Olympic would have involved cutting the ship in half and inserting a new frame and keel before putting
it all back together again.
To make matters worse, investigation by the British
Navy found that the Olympic was at fault for the accident. Thus the White Star insurers would not pay for the repairs.
It was in October, 1911, while both ships were moored
side-by-side in the Harland and Wolff Shipyard that Gardiner believes the plot was hatched by White Star to switch the identity
of the ships, and send the Olympic on a one-way trip to the bottom of the Atlantic.
It would have been easy to switch the names printed
on the sides of the two ships, the lifeboats and life jackets and switch the dishes, towels and other items in the vessels
that bore the names of the liners. Once done, the passengers and even many of the crew members would not know the difference.
The officers that were in on the conspiracy would have boarded with a secret assurance that the California, a large cargo
ship loaded with warm wool sweaters and blankets, was going to be waiting for them at the planned “disaster” site.
The California, which normally carried passengers and
cargo, left London just five days before the Titanic, with no passengers. And it was lying anchored not far from where the
Titanic struck the iceberg. It had room to take on all of the souls packed on the White Star liner that fateful week. Gardiner’s
theory is that the plan was for the California to receive the Titanic’s distress radio call and then pull alongside
the sinking liner in time to rescue everybody.
It was a carefully thought out plan to bilk the insurance
company. But something went very wrong. When the California radioed the Titanic letting them know the ship’s position
in the ice fields, the Titanic’s navigator made a tragic error. He calculated the position of the California 12 miles
away from its true position.
After driving the doomed ship into the iceberg, the
Titanic’s officers took their time before calling for help. They waited 35 minutes before launching distress flares
and sending radio signals. When the lifeboats were launched, they were leaving the ship only half full. Was this because the
officers were expecting help to arrive at any moment?
Because of the ocean currents, Gardiner said that by
this time the California was anchored 19 miles away from the sinking liner. This helps explain why the California was tardy
in responding to distress calls.
While the vessels were inside a known number of floating
icebergs, Gardiner theorizes that the Titanic did not strike an iceberg, but rather a third ship drifting on station with
its lights out. This is the biggest problem found in Gardiner’s story. There is no record of another known ship that
went missing at sea on that date.
The rest of the theory sounds somewhat credible. Thus
we are left wondering if it hasn’t been the Olympic resting on the bottom of the Atlantic all along.
Whether it was the Olympic or the Titanic in disguise,
the surviving ship went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career. It was the largest ocean liner in the world until the
Queen Mary was launched in 1934. That year the White Star Line merged with the Cunard Line and the Olympic was retired with
other older fleet liners. She was scrapped in 1936.