It seems that these days you just can’t have a good disaster without a conspiracy theory of one sort or another about how and/or why it happened springing up. (One wonders how long before the “Costa Concordia Conspiracy” will rear its ugly head?) Well, the Titanic disaster is no exception: in the late 1990’s, at the height of the wave of “Titanic-mania” that followed James Cameron’s rather soggy cinematic epic, a book appeared, Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank?, authored by one Robin Gardiner, with the premise that the ship which sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, wasn’t the Titanic after all, but rather her sister ship, the Olympic. As Gardiner tells the tale, the two ships had their identities switched in an elaborate (and apparently successful) insurance fraud.
Like all good conspiracy theories, this one is incredibly complex, based on several supposedly questionable events and apparent coincidences that occurred (or supposedly did so) between the Titanic’s launch on May 31, 1911, and the ten-second encounter with the iceberg at 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912. The starting premise of Gardiner’s thesis is that the two ships, the Olympic and Titanic, were designed to be as identical sisters, as alike as two peas in a pod. By the time the Titanic was launched, this was no longer true, of course, as several modifications had been made to the details of her design before she was even put into the water, details which subtly but unmistakably differentiated the two ships. Not to be put off by this inconvenient fact, Gardiner blithely sails on to describe how the Olympic, which had gone into White Star Line service in June 1911, turned out to be a rather unlucky ship with a spotty service record, and eventually became such a liability that her owners decided to dispose of her. In the most sneaky manner possible, of course.
On 20 September 1911, the Olympic was involved in a collision with the Royal Navy’s light cruiser HMS Hawke in the Brambles Channel near Southampton. Hawke had been inexorably drawn toward the Olympic by the giant liner’s wake (in fact, this incident led to the discovery of a new hydrodynamic principle affecting ships moving in parallel in restricted waters). So powerful was the suction that the cruiser’s ram bow was driven into the liner’s starboard side, aft of the engine room, damaging the starboard propellor shaft. (Gardiner falsely claims that the collision damaged the Olympic’s center turbine mountings and her keel.) A subsequent Court of Inquiry (at which the new hydrodynamic principle was presented for the first time) found that the Olympic was at fault, and the owners of the ship, the White Star Line and its parent company, International Mercantile Marine, were liable for damages. As Gardiner spins his yarn, this ruling had dire financial consequences for both White Star and IMM, as White Star’s insurers (Lloyds of London) refused to honor the insurance claim–conveniently ignoring the fact that Lloyd’s did not insure the Olympic, as the White Star Line was self-insured. What was true was repairs to the Olympic would take nearly two months, forcing White Star to not only absorb the cost of the repairs but also the lost revenue that resulted from the company’s largest, newest, and most glamorous liner being out of service. An unexpected consequence was that the repairs to the Olympic would set back the completion of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast by a similar span of time, delaying the new ship’s introduction and maiden voyage.
To make matters worse, at least, so Gardiner tells us, the damage to the Olympic proved to be even more serious than was first believed, for after the ship was repaired and returned to service, she supposedly began experiencing severe engine problems which caused her to be returned to Harland and Wolff yet again, this time in February 1912. The ostensible reason for this return, as told to the public in general, was that the Olympic had lost a propellor blade and that she had to be drydocked to allow its replacement. This is where Gardiner becomes the most ambitious–and at the same time, the most absurd. He theorizes that, in order to get at least one of the two liners to sea and earning money, the crippled Olympic was converted into the almost-completed Titanic, the Titanic then assuming her older sister’s identity. Betraying an almost total ignorance of ships and shipbuilding in general, Gardiner asserts that all that was necessary to accomplish this identity switch was exchanging those parts of the ships which bore the vessels’ names: name plates, bells, navigation equipment, lifeboats, and any interior signing bearing the name Olympic or Titanic. This, of course, completely ignores the physical differences that already existed between the two ships, for example, the completely reworked accommodations on B and C Decks, which dramatically altered the number and arrangement of the windows and portholes on both decks; the extended enclosure aft on C Deck, the different arrangement of ventilators, fans, piping and machinery on the Boat Deck; the difficulty in changing the shell-plating at the bow and stern which bore the ships’ names (the names weren’t just painted on the plates, they were cut into the plates in letters four feet high and one-half inch deep). But hey! It’s a conspiracy theory–why let something as mundane as facts or the truth get in the way of a good fantasy, right? One last minute alteration was made to the Olympic–supposedly now the “Titanic”-which was done to forever make her distinct from her sister–and at the same time assure that everyone would know that the ship which was to be sunk was indeed the “Titanic.” The forward two-fifths of her Promenade Deck (B Deck) were enclosed by steel screening and glass windows.
(Just in passing, Gardiner also forgets to explain how this switch was to be concealed from the shipyard workers who were working on the two ships–some 15,000 of them–for that matter. As my friend James Carlisle, Belfast-born and raised, puts it, “How on earth can anyone expect 15,000 Irishmen to keep a secret?”)
The length of the “Titanic’s” sea trials is further evidence of the switch, as Gardiner sees it. The Olympic‘s trials in 1910 required two full days, while the “Titanic’s” trials reportedly took less than a day to complete. By Gardiner’s accounting, why bother conducting sea trials on a ship that had already passed them almost two years earlier? He also claims that the “Titanic” never traveled faster than one-half her designed top speed, as her damaged hull was too weak to endure the stresses of a prolonged high-speed run. Any and all documentary records indicating otherwise were, he says, falsified in order to maintain and perpetuate the massive insurance fraud which was about to take place. (Gardiner conveniently forgets to explain how in just four and one-half days the “Titanic” reached the position where she sank if she was never able to travel at more than 12 knots. Details, right?)
For that is the heart of Gardiner’s thesis: the switching the two liners was done to perpetrate an insurance fraud on a near-unimaginable scale. The “Titanic”–actually the crippled and irreparable Olympic–would be lost at sea, and an insurance claim for her total value, some $15,000,000 in 1912, would be filed and of necessity honored.
How this was to be brought about is the most entertaining–and mindlessly absurd–aspect of the entire theory. It was intended for the “Titanic” to steam into an area where several ships would be waiting nearby, the better to take off the passengers and crew of the stricken liner, where a collision would be staged, the “Titanic’s” sea cocks opened, and the ship scuttled, the “victim” of the “damage” suffered in the collision. Some, though not all, of the ship’s senior officers, including Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch, were in on the scheme and were tasked with carrying out the “accident” and overseeing a successful evacuation of the ship. Any loss of lives, no matter how few, was never part of the plan.
Things went awry, though, when, according to Gardiner, in the darkness of a moonless night the “Titanic” actually ran into the stern of one of the waiting rescue ships–the story would later be spun that what the ship struck was actually an iceberg. This collision did far more extensive damage than the plan had originally allowed for, and the ship sank much more rapidly than had been anticipated, with the resultant horrible loss of life among both passengers and crew. The rescue ship which had been struck by the “Titanic,” rather than fulfilling her designated purpose, disappears into the night, while other ships in the area, which were standing by, expecting a crippled and slowly sinking “Titanic” to rendezvous with one of them, never answered the “Titanic’s” wireless signals of distress or the white rockets fired in a vain effort to attract their attention, the crews of these ships believing that these signals were all part of the “window dressing” of the plan, designed to add credence and verisimilitude to the deception. So, instead of a neatly contrived insurance fraud, the White Star Line was left with a genuine disaster on its hands, with the loss of over 1500 lives to show for it.
Despite all of the readily apparent holes in Gardiner’s theory, it has gained a surprising amount of traction among the credulous and easily-led, as well as that fringe element that always seems to prefer embracing a conspiracy theory, no matter how far-fetched, to the truth. Sadly for them, any credence that might have resided in Gardiner’s “insurance-fraud switch theory” was eliminated by a simple three-digit number: 401. You see, the hull number assigned to the Olympic by her builder, Harland and Wolff, was 400; the number assigned to the Titanic was 401. This number was cut, stamped, engraved, burned, or painted onto every major component and piece of machinery for each ship, in order to make sure that the correct parts went to the right vessel. A component for Hull No. 400 would never be used in Hull No. 401, and vice-versa. And as nearly-identical as the two ships were, as shown earlier, the Olympic and the Titanic were not exact twins.
One difference was their propellors, or screws: the pitch of the two ships’ screws were different. This is, the size, shape, and angle of the propellor blades were slightly different, altering the amount of thrust each screw created as it turned in the water. Obviously screws of different pitches could not be used on the same ship, as it would create not only differential thrust problems for handling the ship, it would also create severe, even potentially dangerous, vibration. (Propellor design in the early 20th Century was very much an inexact science, with a lot of “cut-and-try” involved, so it wasn’t uncommon for shipbuilders to use props of different pitches on ships of the same class, to work out which propellor design was the most efficient for that particular class of ship. This is what was done with the Olympic and Titanic.) So a propellor blade meant to be installed on the Olympic couldn’t be used on the Titanic, nor could one of the Titanic’s propellor blades be used on the Olympic.
And as luck would have it, in 1986 one of the first expeditions to the wreck of the ship that sank on April 15, 1912, happened to take a photograph of the starboard propellor. One of the blades is sitting bolt upright, and unmistakably visible on it, almost as clear as the day it was stamped there, is the number “401.” The Titanic–the real Titanic.
This is one myth that can definitely be described not as “busted” but as “sunk.”