Despite the warning ‘Iceberg, Right Ahead!’ the Titanic was doomed

Multiple mistakes and miscalculations led to the sinking of the 'unsinkable' RMS Titanic 110 years ago, only a few days into its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

By Michael S. Sweeney
Published 11 Apr 2022, 12:18 BST
First Warnings or Failed Attempts
An artist’s rendering of the Titanic hitting the iceberg, though the actual collision was likely more glancing.
Photograph by Album / Art Resource, NY

Three days after the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage, Captain Edward J. Smith followed a normal Sunday routine. He inspected the ship but declined to conduct a scheduled safety drill. He led a worship service and then met with his officers to fix the ship’s position. According to their calculations, the Titanic averaged a sprightly 22 knots. As the sun set on April 14, 1912, the temperature lowered to freezing. The sea’s surface shone like glass, making it hard to spot icebergs, common to the North Atlantic in spring.

Nevertheless, Captain Smith kept the ship at full speed. He believed the crew could react in time if any were sighted.

(Related: go on the trail of Titanic in the UK.)

Captain Edward J. Smith (right) is shown here with the Titanic’s purser, Hugh Walter McElroy. The man who took the photograph was a passenger and departed the ship in Queenstown, Ireland, three days before the ship sank.
Photograph by Krista Few / Contributor
In this photograph, colorized by artist Anton Logvynenko, the Titanic sets sail from the docks of Southampton, England.
Photograph by Licensor: Anton Logvynenko

First warnings

Icebergs did indeed lay ahead. By 7:30 p.m., the Titanic had received five warnings from nearby ships. Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips took down a detailed ship’s message pinpointing the location of “heavy pack ice and a great number of bergs,” but Phillips, busy sending passengers’ personal messages, apparently did not show it to any officer.

At 10:55 p.m., another ship, the Californian, radioed to say it had come to a full stop amid dense field ice. Neither of these messages began with the crucial code that would have required Phillips to show it to Captain Smith, and Phillips was not in the mood for interruptions. The Californian’s electric signal was so close it nearly deafened Phillips. “Shut up, shut up!” he radioed back. “I am busy!” A while later, the Californian’s radio operator shut down for the night.

In the Belfast shipyard, workers admire the Titanic’s three 23-foot-wide propellers.
Photograph by John Parrot/Stocktrek Images

As the Titanic surged onward, lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee peered into the darkness. Just before 11:40, Fleet noticed something blacker than sea lying directly ahead. As the ship drew closer, recognition dawned. He rang a warning bell three times and phoned the bridge.

“What did you see?” came the voice through the receiver. “Iceberg, right ahead,” replied Fleet.

This image depicts a typical wireless telegraph cabin on a transatlantic ocean liner.
Photograph by Print Collector / Contributor
A telegraph message sent by the Titanic to the Olympic, reporting that the ocean liner had struck an iceberg. Several ships in the area reported receiving similar messages.
Photograph by MATT CAMPBELL / Stringer

Failed attempts

On the bridge, First Officer William Murdoch yanked the handle of the engine room telegraph to “stop” and barked an order to steer left. Murdoch also ordered “full speed astern” to try to avoid the ice. Then he pushed a button to close doors in the watertight bulkheads.

What remains of the Titanic’s foremast, from where, more than 108 years ago, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted the iceberg that would be the mighty ship’s demise.
Photograph by Emory Kristoff
This bronze telemotor was used to operate steering gear on the Titanic’s bridge, the enclosed platform on the ship where the captain and officers directed operations.
Photograph by Emory Kristoff

For more than 30 seconds, they held their breath. At the last moment, the Titanic’s bow swung to port and the mountain of ice slid along the starboard side. Fleet figured the ship had escaped.

But there’s more to an iceberg than meets the eye—nine-tenths of a berg is hidden below the surface—and its underwater bulk punched Titanic’s starboard hull plates. Many passengers didn’t notice the impact, but those in the bow knew they had bumped an iceberg because chunks fell in the well deck.

An intact glass pane from the window of Captain Edward J. Smith's cabin hangs open on the Titanic, which lies two and a half miles (four kilometers) beneath the North Atlantic Ocean.
Photograph by Emory Kristoff

Below, in the forward boilers and mail rooms, the crew worried as water gushed into the first five compartments. The Titanic’s fate was clear. The “watertight” bulkheads would do no good. They rose only as high as E Deck—above the surface in a sound ship, but useless if the ship’s bow began to sink and seawater lapped the bulkheads’ top edges.

The weight of water entering the first five compartments would pull the ship deep enough to let more spill into the sixth, pulling the ship even deeper and then causing spillover into the seventh. Inevitably, each compartment would fill and flood the next. The crew estimated the Titanic had two hours or so to live.

‘Women and children, first’

Smith gave orders to send a radio call for help, fire the distress rockets, and fill the lifeboats.

A cruel snag of bureaucracy became evident. According to out-of-date yet still standard Board of Trade regulations, all ships exceeding 10,000 tons had to have at least 16 lifeboats plus additional rafts and floats. Those numbers worked fine for old-style passenger liners in 1896, the year of their adoption, but proved shamefully inadequate for behemoths such as the Titanic, which registered more than 46,000 tons. The Board of Trade also believed that stronger ships of recent construction likely could not sink, rendering moot the issue of lifeboat capacity.

Taken by Captain William de Carteret of the cable ship Minia, which was sent to retrieve bodies and debris after the Titanic sank, this image is believed to show the iceberg—with a streak of red paint across it—with which the great ship collided.
Photograph by Bettmann / Contributor

The Titanic’s board-approved lifeboats, spread among 16 wooden craft and four canvas-sided Engelhardts, could seat only half the people aboard. Many would be have to be left behind.

The ship’s officers knew how many the lifeboats could seat, but they did not fill them to capacity for two reasons. First, Second Officer Charles Lightoller testified that the crew doubted the lowering mechanisms could bear the weight of 70 passengers per full boat. Second, crew members knew they could not waste time before launching; to do so would risk the ship sinking before all lifeboats and Engelhardts could be lowered to the sea. In fact, time ran out on the final two boats. One dropped into the sea before the crew could complete the launch, and waves swept another overboard, upside down.

In Southampton, England, a Board of Trade inspector examines the life jackets aboard the Titanic.
Photograph by UniversalImagesGroup / Contributor

All told, lifeboats left the Titanic with more than 400 empty seats. Relatively few occupants were men. When Smith ordered lifeboats filled, he hoisted a megaphone and barked, “Women and children first!” On the port side, Lightoller filled the boats with women and children only, except for one passenger with sailing experience. In contrast, First Officer Murdoch on the starboard side interpreted the order differently. He boarded as many women and children as were available, then gave remaining seats to men.

Final moments

Water continued to flood the ship. Roughly two hours and forty minutes had passed since the iceberg struck the ship when the Titanic’s stern rose high out of the water and the bow plunged below. Passengers in lifeboats watched in horror as those still aboard scrambled up the sloping aft deck to gain a few final seconds before sliding or jumping into the ocean.

A group of passengers who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
Photograph by Hulton Deutsch / Contributor

On April 15, 1912 at 2:20 a.m., the Titanic disappeared beneath the frigid waters. All who had failed to find a life-boat seat went in. A life jacket did virtually no good. More than 1,500 people—ranging from the ultra-wealthy to the working class—drowned or died of hypothermia.

For those who made it to the lifeboats, help was on the way. While it was sinking, the Titanic managed to contact the R.M.S. Carpathia, which arrived around 4:00 a.m., to rescue the estimated 705 survivors of the Titanic.

To commemorate those lost, a wreath floats in Southampton, England, in the same spot where the Titanic set sail on its ill-fated maiden voyage, April 10, 1912. “R.M.S.” stands for “Royal Mail Ship,” a designation given to the Titanic because it carried mail for the crown.

Photograph by BEN STANSALL / Stringer
To learn more, check out 'Titanic: Exploring the Discovery of a Lifetime.' Available wherever books and magazines are sold.
Portions of this article appear in Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Greatest Shipwreck by Michael S. Sweeney Copyright © 2012 National Geographic Society.

Portions of “Why so few lifeboats?” appear in Return to Titanic by Robert D. Ballard, with Michael S. Sweeney. Copyright © 2004 Odyssey Enterprises, Inc. Text Copyright © 2004 National Geographic Society.
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