Titanic Secrets Revealed
Criminally stupid or just
Titanic sank in 1912, with over 1,500 people losing their lives.
Family secrets which cast new light on the sinking of the Titanic, one
of the most enduring and powerful 20th-century disaster stories, are
revealed today. They tell 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 granddaughter of the most senior surviving officer
from the Titanic, is today revealing family secrets which, she says,
to the heart of why the liner went down overnight on the 14-15 April
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
Titanic kept sailing for all the wrong reasons.
There is a caveat to the revelations. Patten, the wife of former Tory
education secretary Lord (John) Patten and a woman well known in the
City, whose CV includes non-executive board membership at Marks &
Spencer, is making them known because they are a part of the storyline
of her novel out next week.
But Patten said that should not detract from their veracity. "I suppose
because I've known of them for so long, it feels less remarkable than
will to others," she told the Guardian. "I've known since I was 10."
The secrets come from Patten's grandfather, Commander 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 Titanic hit 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.
"Titanic hit the iceberg is because he turned the wheel the wrong way,"
said Patten. By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had
Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull.
Lightoller was also privy to shocking decisions that followed. Shortly
before the Titanic went 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 mistake. He also discovered that after the
iceberg struck, the captain, Edward Smith, was persuaded to keep
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 Titanic moving
forward as criminal," said Patten. Pressing on added to the pressure of
water in 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 Titanic would have floated until help
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
secret revealed because "grandpa had lied", and Patten herself would
have probably gone to her grave with it unless she had been plotting
"I thought, hang on, I know a family secret. That was the only reason.
I've never really discussed it with any one," she said.
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
Titanic for 30 years, said it was not the first time he had heard
around the rudder/tiller orders. "In the Titanic world, it's always
one of those things that's referred to.
"But of course, as we come up to the centenary, this is clearly
interesting. It's a new piece of aural evidence coming in to the public
sphere and it will give rise to a lot of discussion and debate. People
are still fascinated by Titanic because it's like a parable of the
condition, it's a story of profit, pleasure and memorialisation."
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