THE LOSS OF THE TITANIC
COMMANDER LIGHTOLLER AND THE WIRELESS MESSAGE
To the Editor of the Telegraph and Post.
Sir.—-Your issues of the 15th and 18th January have been forwarded for my notice.
At the outset let me say that I do not wish to open any controversy or attribute the slightest blame to any individual
for the Titanic disaster, but the letters published in your paper of the 15th and 18th instant by Harold S. Bride and
T. J. O'Donnell general secretary of the Association of Wireless and Cable Telegraphists, seem to challenge the
truth of the statements that I have written and you have published.
First may I say that I tried to pay full tribute to the coolness and courage exhibited by the passengers and crew of
the Titanic, though their magnificent behaviour was actually beyond all praise. I endeavoured to set forth as clearly
as possible my wholly dispassionate and unbiased view of the circumstances surrounding that tragic night, including the
events leading up to the loss of that magnificent ship.
I yet maintain, as officer of the watch from 8 to 10 p.m. that night, and in further defence of that splendid officer W. M. Murdoch, who followed me on watch from 10 p.m. to the moment of collision, that had the Mesaba message been received by the bridge, and in reasonable time, the Titanic would not have been lost.
Referring now to Mr Bride's letter in which he says:-
"At the Board of Trade inquiry, which is recognised for all purposes as being officially correct, no proof was available that the Mesaba message was ever received aboard the Titanic... If Commander Lightoller knew about the Mesaba message, as he claims, why did he not say so at the Board of Trade inquiry, and not wait until this late day to throw doubts on the efficiency of a very gallant gentleman who died procuring aid for Commander Lightoller and 701 other fortunate survivors."
In answer I will quote direct from:-
"Report of a formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering, on 15th April, of the British steamship Titanic, of Liverpool, after striking ice in or near latitude 41 deg. 46 min. N longitude 50 deg. 14 min. W., North Atlantic Ocean, whereby loss of life ensued. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of His Majesty." On Page 27 the Wreck Commissioner's (Lord Mersey) report reads :-
There was a fifth message received in the Marconi room of the "Titanic" at 9.40 p.m. This was from a steamer called the "Mesaba." It was in the following terms: -
'From 'Mesaba' to 'Titanic' and all east-bound ships. Ice report in lat. 42° N. to 41° 25' N., long. 49° to long. 50° 30' W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice. Weather good, clear.'
This message (Lord Mersey continues) clearly indicated the presence of ice in the immediate vicinity of the "Titanic," and if it had reached the bridge would perhaps have affected the navigation of the vessel. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been delivered to the Master or to any of the officers. The Marconi operator was very busy from 8 o'clock onward transmitting messages via Cape Race for passengers on board the "Titanic," and the probability is that he failed to grasp the significance and importance of the message, and put it aside until he should be less busy. It was never acknowledged by Captain Smith, and I am satisfied that it was not received by him. "
I am inclined to think that this statement by Lord Mersey disposes of the accusation that I withheld essential evidence at the inquiry or that the Mesaba message was not received on board the Titanic.
Furthermore.- I will supplement Lord Mersey's conclusion that this message "would perhaps have affected the navigation of the vessel." by stating categoriqally that the officer in charge of that ship and those hundreds of lives who received that dire warning and who did not at once take the necessary precautions would then have been guilty of downright criminal negligence and deserving the most rigorous punishment.
As to the charge of withholding either "essential evidence " or my conviction regarding the terrible importance of the
Mesaba's message, allow me to give again my opinion as stated before Lord Mersey and in answer to Sir Robert Finlay's question to me:—
You have heard the “Mesaba” message, of course? - Yes.
Is that a message which, if the Captain or any officer had got, he could have failed to communicate to his colleagues? - I think had that message been delivered, even to the Captain, he would immediately have brought the message out personally to the bridge; he would not even have sent it out, and he would have seen it was communicated to all the senior officers, as well as distinctly marked on the chart. It was of the utmost importance.
And of a somewhat startling character? - Extremely so.
I may mention here that the Mesaba's message was not the only ice report that failed to reach the bridge, and though
not actually reporting ice in our course there seems to be little excuse for its failure to reach responsible hands—-and
those hands are the Captain's or those of the officer on the bridge, who is in sole charge of the sbip during his watch and responsible for her safety.
Such a message was passed through the Titanic by the German steamer Amerika to the
hydrographic office in Washington reporting icebergs, to which the Commissioner refers in the following words:-
"Being a message affecting navigation it should, in the ordinary course, have been taken to the bridge. So far as can be ascertained it was never heard of by anyone on board the Titanic outside the Marconi room."
The Amerika message, however did not convey the vital significance of that contained in the Mesaba report.
Regarding the last paragraph where Mr Bride says:—
"Such efficiency does not go with putting urgent ice warnings under paper weights and promptly forgetting them."
may I again quote from the official evidence regarding another ice message this time from the Californian:-
Sir Robert Finlay—You knew it was an ice message? - Yes.
I think you stated to the Attorney-General that you were engaged in adding up your accounts? - Yes.
And then you went on adding up your accounts, and paid no attention to this message? - No.
Then some time afterwards, I forget whether you gave us the time, you happened to hear it repeated? - Yes, that is correct.
Then you had not written it down when you heard it the first time? - No.
You knew it was a message to the “Titanic”? - Yes.
Reporting ice? - Yes.
You did not write it down? - No.
You took no notice of it at all, but went on adding up your accounts? - Yes.
Then, if you had not happened to hear that message repeated to another ship nothing would ever have been heard of that message? - Yes, it would.
Well, forgive me. It gave the latitude and longitude. You had written nothing down when the message first came? - No.
Do you suggest that without writing anything down, and being busy with accounts, you can trust yourself to carry in your head the latitude and longitude which had been given in the message? - No, I had read the text of the message, which mentioned three large bergs. I had not got the latitude and longitude, and I should have called the “Californian” if she had not transmitted it at a very short period afterwards, and asked her for the latitude and longitude.
The latitude and longitude you could not have carried in your head? - No.
The only way of getting that message would have been to call the “Californian” afterwards to get the latitude and longitude? - Yes.
You happened to hear it repeated, did you say, a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes afterwards? - Yes.
Are you sure about the time? - Yes.
Had you finished your accounts by that time? - No.
Were you still on your accounts? - Yes.
Referring to Mr Phillips (Senior Operator, who Jater died from exposure) and his explanation to me regarding the
failure of the Mesaba message to reach the bridge,' namely, that he was busy with his accounts. Mr Bride's evidence
reads as follows:—
Sir Robert Finlay- You know Phillips was engaged in communicating with Cape Race right on from half-past 8 to 10 minutes before the collision? - Apparently so, yes.
Well, have you any doubt about it? - No. I do not think so. I am judging by the amount of work that was got through.
He was engaged during these hours from half-past 8 to 10 minutes before the collision in communicating with Cape Race these trade and private messages? - Yes.
And it was at 9.40 p.m.. according to Lord Mersey's finding, that the fateful Mesaba message was received by the
Now, may I take just a little of your valuable space. sir. to refer to Mr O'Donnell who, in his letter of the 18th,
We give you hereunder the relevant part of Commander Lightoller's evidence at the Board of Trade's inquiry, presided over by Lord Mersey, which is as follows. If you will look up the official report you will find this:
Brides’ Evidence re. Californian Message.
Commander—This is the only ice message that you can tell us anything about?
—It was the only ice message" &c.
This caption "Commander" should have read "The Commissioner" (meaning Lord Mersey) and follows with questions asked and answers given by Bride (not myself).
In actual fact the correct rendering of the evidence Mr O'DonneIl refers to is as follows:-
(The Commissioner.) I want to ask this witness (Bride) another question. (To the Witness.) The only ice message that you heard anything at all about was the ice message from the “Californian”? - That was the only one.
Now, be very careful. Is it the only one that you heard anything at all about while you were on the “Titanic”? - The only one.
Had you any conversation with Phillips about ice messages? - I cannot recall any.
Can you recall any conversation with Phillips in which he mentioned an ice message having been received by him? - No.
Then, so far as you know from your own knowledge, or from conversation which you had with anybody on board the ship, there was no ice message received, except the “Californian’s”? - As far as I am concerned, that was the only one.
The only one you either know of or heard of? - Yes.
In conclusion, and in what I hope may prove to be the last I shall ever write of that unforgettable tragedy, may I
say. I regret that either Mr Bride or Mr O'Donnell should have found it necessary to make these statements or question known, facts.
I fully realise that some things would have been best left unsaid, therefore let me assure these gentlemen that in replying and quoting from the formal evidence I am trying to correct wrong impressions only.
I blame no one and justify no one. Captain Smith. Murdoch. and Phillips played their parts as men living up to
the highest traditions of the sea, and all three finally made the great sacrifice.
Let no man question but that they acted up to their very highest ideals in that supreme tragedy—the loss of the
Titanic. I am etc.,
C. H, Lightoller
Commander R.N.R. (Ret.)