Secret testimony revealed of human error and arrogance that sank 'Titanic'
Novelist grand-daughter of most senior surviving officer tells story going to the heart of why the ocean liner went down, writes MARK BROWN
FAMILY SECRETS casting new light on the sinking of the Titanic, one of the most enduring and powerful 20th-century disaster stories, have been revealed, telling a remarkable story of human error followed by an almost criminal disregard for human life.
Just as remarkable is that the first-hand testimony has remained a secret for nearly 100 years.
Louise Patten, the grand-daughter of the most senior surviving officer from the Titanic, is today revealing family secrets which, she says, get to the heart of why the liner went down overnight on April 14th-15th 1912, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.
If true, the secrets reveal two things: that the ship was steered towards the iceberg that sank it because of a simple mistake, and that the Titanicthen kept sailing for all the wrong reasons.
There is a caveat to the revelations. Patten, the wife of former UK education secretary Lord (John) Patten and a high-flyer in the City of London, is making them known because they are part of the storyline of her new novel, out next week.
But Patten said this should not detract from their veracity. “I suppose because I’ve known of them for so long, it feels less remarkable than it will to others,” she told the Guardian. “I’ve known since I was 10.” The secrets come from Patten’s grandfather, Cdr Charles Lightoller, who was serving as second officer on board the Titanic. He was, Patten said, in a unique position to know exactly what happened, and told the story to his wife – but not to the official inquiries.
That Titanichit the iceberg could be down to a misunderstanding. Because the ship sailed during the transition from sail to steam, there were two different steering communication systems in operation: rudder orders for steamships, and tiller orders for sailing ships.
“The two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another,” said Patten. “So a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system, and left under the other.”
The man at the wheel, quartermaster Robert Hitchins, was trained under rudder orders – but tiller orders were still in use in the north Atlantic. So when first officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a “hard a-starboard” order, a panicked Hitchins turned the liner into the course of the iceberg.
By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had been lost. Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull.
Lightoller was also privy to shocking decisions that followed. Shortly before the Titanicwent down, there was a final meeting of four senior officers in the first officer’s cabin. It was there that Lightoller heard of the communication error.
He also discovered that after the iceberg struck, the captain, Edward Smith, was persuaded to keep sailing by the chairman of White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, perhaps fearful of damaging the company’s reputation.
“My grandfather described the decision to try and keep Titanicmoving forward as criminal,” said Patten. Pressing on added to the pressure of water already within the hull, forcing it over the bulkheads and sinking the ship many hours earlier than it would otherwise have sunk.
Patten added: “The nearest ship was four hours away. Had she remained at ‘stop’, it’s probable that Titanicwould have floated until help arrived.”
There is a third part to the story, one that reflects less well on Patten’s grandfather. Why did he not tell the truth at the inquiries into the Titanic’s sinking?
Patten said he felt duty-bound to protect his employers, fearing it would bankrupt the company, and every job would be lost. “He made the choice to keep it a secret; he thought he had a duty to protect his employers, and he never doubted for one moment that it was the right thing to do. I think if I had been him, I would have done the same. It was for the best of reasons.”
Lightoller died before Patten was born, but she was close to her grandmother, who passed on the stories.
Patten’s mother did not want the secret revealed because “grandpa had lied”, and Patten herself would probably have gone to her grave with it unless she had been plotting her novel.
The claims, of course, are just that. They are another story adding to the mountain of theories that have been suggested for nearly a century.
Michael McCaughan, a maritime specialist who has been writing about the Titanicfor 30 years, said it was not the first time he had heard claims regarding the rudder/tiller orders. “But of course, as we come up to the centenary, this is clearly interesting. It’s a new piece of aural evidence, and it will give rise to a lot of discussion and debate.” – (Guardian service)