Breaking the Titanic

Have two different versions of the Titanic’s final moments…

The first from A Night to Remember (1958)

The second and arguably more iconic from Titanic (1997)…

You may have noticed some subtle differences. But the comparative lack of drama in ‘A Night to Remember’ was not simply the result of cinematography. Depictions of the Titanic pre-1985 (when the wreck was discovered) show the ship sinking in one piece rather than breaking apart dramatically, not because they could not afford the effects to do such a thing but because the consensus was that the ship had gone down as one. In fact, it wasn’t until the wreck was discovered that she was found to have broken apart at all.

But, how did this confusion even exist?

You would think that it would be an easily answered question; did Titanic break apart as she sank? At 175 ft high and more than 882 ft long, she was one of the largest ships on the ocean and seven hundred survivors saw her founder. Yet the question regarding how she sank generated conflicting answers from the outset with some arguing that she had slipped under the water intact and others claiming they had seen her breaking apart. But those who had seen her break could not agree on how she had done so which further confused matters and some even thought she had exploded, which hadn’t so much broken her in tow as blown out her midsection.

At this point we could speculate at why this might be. We might think that it was the people in the boats who had a wide view of the ship that saw it break as opposed to those who were near it who were more concerned with saving their lives than checking out what the ship was doing. Or, it might be those who were last off the ship saw it snap while those further out were too far away to determine what had happened. However, the truth is there was no consistency between the stories of the survivors in this matter regardless of where they were at the time of the sinking. Some in the boats saw the break, some did not. Some of the last off the ship bore witness to it up close, others insisted that it had gone down in one piece.

So what did the witnesses say?

Steerage passenger Olaus Abelseth, one of the last to leave Titanic and said:

“So we could see the water coming up, the bow of the ship was going down, and there was a kind of an explosion. We could hear the popping and cracking, and the deck raised up and got so steep that the people could not stand on their feet on the deck. So they fell down and slid on the deck into the water right on the ship. Then we hung onto a rope in one of the davits. We were pretty far back at the top deck.”

Although he was extremely close to the actual breaking point of the Titanic, Abelseth did not know that the ship had actually broken. The explosion he (and many others) heard was probably the sound of the hull buckling and the ‘popping and cracking’ he describes obviously referred to the breakage seeing as the deck levelled out so quickly afterwards. However, because the Titanic’s lights had gone out by this point, Abelseth did not see what it was he was hearing.

One of the assistant cooks to the first class galley, seventeen year old John Collins, also noted the sound of the explosions but also saw that the force of the supposed explosion had blown the stern so that it floated atop the water for a few minutes before it went down itself. Another of the catering staff, Charles Joughin, the chief baker said that he heard noises much like “the iron parting” before the ship lurched heavily, but did not specifically refer to a breakage. Incidentally, Joughin is accepted to be the last survivor to have left Titanic.

Frank Evans, one of the crew, had already departed Titanic when she sank, having been ordered to man Lifeboat 10. He agreed that the stern floated in the water before it went under, but also claimed to have seen that the Titanic broke specifically between the third and fourth funnels. He was one of the very few who claimed to have seen the ship break with such detail.

Many of the witnesses testified that the ship had gone down by the head and the surviving officers were in agreement that the ship had been intact when it had foundered. Bruce Ismay, the senior surviving representative of the company aboard the ship, thought that he should take an available seat in a lifeboat so that he could give an account to the company as to what happened. Despite this, when the ship sank, Ismay by his own admission, “did not wish to see her go down,” and so could not comment one way or another regarding the state of the ship.

Ultimately, after examining a number of the survivors, the American Inquiry determined:

“The ship went down gradually by the bow, assuming an almost perpendicular position just before sinking at 12.47 a.m., New York time, April 15. There have been many conflicting statements as to whether the ship broke in two, but the preponderance of evidence is to the effect that she assumed an almost end-on position and sank intact.”

In his written account, ‘The Truth About Titanic’ Colonel Archibald Gracie, a passenger in first class, wrote that he had not heard mention of the ship breaking in two until he boarded the Carpathia and overheard John “Jack” B. Thayer Jr. discussing it with someone. He then heard for himself the conflicting accounts of how and if the ship had broken. For himself, Gracie said:

“I also know that the Titanic’s decks were intact at the time she sank, and when I sank with her, there was over seven-sixteenths of the ship already under water, and there was no indication then of any impending break of the deck or ship.”

In his account he makes specific reference to another survivor’s account, that of Laurence Beesley a second class passenger who left the ship in Lifeboat 13. Beesley witnessed the Titanic founder and said of it;

“And then, as we gazed awe-struck, she tilted slowly up…until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained – motionless! As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether. And as they did so, there came a noise which many people, wrongly I think, have described as an explosion; it has always seemed to me that it was nothing but the engines and machinery coming loose from their bolts and bearings, and falling through the compartments, smashing everything in their way.

…Several apparently authentic accounts have been given, in which definite stories of explosions have been related- in come cases even with wreckage blown up and the ship broken in two; but I think such accounts will not stand close analysis.

…No phenomenon like that pictured in some American and English papers occurred- that of the ship breaking in two, and the two ends being raised above the surface. I saw these drawings in preparation on board the Carpathia, and said at the time that they bore no resemblance to what actually happened.

When the noise was over the Titanic was still upright like a column: we could see her now only as the stern and some 150 feet of her stood outlined against the star-specked sky, looming black in the darkness, and in this position she continued for some minutes- I think as much as five minutes, but it may have been less. Then, first sinking back a little at the stern, I thought, she slid slowly forwards through the water and dived slantingly down; the sea closed over her and we had seen the last of the beautiful ship on which we had embarked four days before at Southampton.”

At this point, despite the inconsistencies we start to see the accounts share some common elements.

There was the noise of an “explosion”, which was largely thought to be the result of the boilers exploding though when the wreck was discovered, the boilers were found to be intact. While the sound was also attributed to the Titanic’s fixtures, cargo and basically everything else on board succumbing to the tilt of the ship, it was probably the sound of the hull breaking apart. There was also the position in which the Titanic went down. Regardless of whether they thought the ship had broken in two or not, many of the witnesses agreed that the stern had bobbed vertically or almost vertically in the water for a few minutes before foundering.

The confusion in the accounts comes down to the angle at which the ship sank and the darkness in which it did so. Once the lights of the Titanic were extinguished, the sea was plunged into almost complete darkness, with the lights from the lifeboats helping very little. The occupants of the lifeboats were largely unable to discern the other passengers in their own boats, let alone how Titanic was standing in the water, though a combination of the stillness of the water and what light came from the night sky was enough to give many onlookers an impression.

We can largely reject the height of the angle portrayed in Cameron’s Titanic and even Cameron himself revised the theory shown in the film.

If the ship had broken at such an angle and settled the way it did before rising all over again then it would almost certainly have made it into at least one of the survivors testimony. Instead, Jack Thayer described how;

“Her deck was turned slightly toward us. We could see groups of the almost fifteen hundred people aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great part of the ship, two hundred and fifty feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a sixty-five or seventy degree angle. Here it seemed to pause, and just hung, for what felt like minutes. Gradually she turned her deck away from us, as though to hide from our sight the awful spectacle…
I looked upwards – we were right under the three enormous propellers. For an instant, I thought they were sure to come down on top of us. Then, with the deadened noise of the bursting of her last few gallant bulkheads, she slid quietly away from us into the sea.”

Thayer sketch

So the most likely course of events that allows for the varying accounts is that Titanic broke beneath the water (or at a very shallow angle) but the stern section did not fall back into the water. Instead, it tilted a little before following the forward section down. The shallow angle accounts at least for how so few people actually saw the break and the fact that the stern section only dipped slightly before resuming its descent explains why so many assumed the ship had sunk intact.

In compiling the survivors accounts, Walter Lord wrote of the sinking:

“As the tilt grew steeper, the forward funnel toppled over. It struck the water on the starboard side with a shower of sparks and a crash heard above the general uproar…The Titanic was now absolutely perpendicular. From the third funnel aft, she stuck straight up in the air, her three dripping propellers glistening even in the darkness…Out in the boats, they could hardly believe their eyes. For over two hours they had watched, hoping against hope as the Titanic sank lower and lower. When the water reached her red and green running lights, they knew the end was near…but nobody dreamed it would be like this – the unearthly din, the black hull hanging at 90 degrees, the Christmas card backdrop of brilliant stars…
Two minutes passed, the noise finally stopped, and the Titanic settled back slightly at the stern. Then slowly she began sliding under, moving at a steep slant. As she glided down, she seemed to pick up speed. When the sea closed over the flagstaff on her stern, she was moving fast enough to cause a slight gulp.”

Presumably when Lord describes the noise stopping and the stern settling, albeit slightly, this denotes the moments after the ship had broken apart, but in such a way that only those who had specifically seen the ship tear would have known it had done so.

At the time, White Star Line were keen to quash the idea that the ship had broken for fear that it cast aspersions on the quality of their shipbuilding. Of course, when the wreck was discovered it was beyond a doubt that the ship had broken in two, though it has since been shown that the stresses on the Titanic’s hull far exceeded what any ship would have been expected to withstand.

You might think that would be the end of it, but there is still a lot of speculation, debate and research into how the Titanic actually came to break. Theories include, but are not limited to;

  • That the ship broke at a high angle as shown in Cameron’s Titanic, splitting in the middle from the pressures of gravity on the stern.
  • The middle of the ship was crushed by the opposite forces acting against it, in the water, from above and below, which didn’t so much cause a break as a disintegration of the mid-section.
  • That a series of explosions caused fires which weakened the hull enough for it to break.

But the prevailing modern theory is that the ship broke at a shallow angle after the forward section was almost totally submerged. The stern section then rose high, bobbed a minute or two before settling back at an angle which took it into the depths. The underwater break was not visible even to those who were closest to it, though the explosions they heard was actually the hull separating. The small dip of the stern meant that the average witness did not see any significant change in her trajectory, leaving them to assume that the ship had sunk wholly intact.


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5 thoughts on “Breaking the Titanic

  1. I wouldn’t go to watch that fantasy, garbage, Braveheart. The anti English mel gibson has made a mockery of King Edward I, who was a great warrior king. They should bring out a movie about Agincourt, where the English and Welsh destroyed the much larger French army. Also, the Battle of Dunbar , and the other Battle of Dunbar, where Oliver Cromwell was also vastly outnumbered .English history is the most fascinating in the world. And Good Queen Bess did play a very important role in keeping the country free from the Spanish Armada .

  2. There were 3 different risings of the stern (low angle, high angle, and nearly perpendicular). That’s why there is such a variety in the witness testimonies. The breaking occurred in 2 stages–that’s why there’s such variety in how people talked about the breaking. The primary events in the breakup can be readily found by the survivors’ testimonies:
    1. Ship’s bridge plunging under is the final part of the slow 1st stern rise, at a low angle.
    2. First breaking at keel and superstructure: stern moves downward, causing bow to rise a little.
    3. Big Plunge, including high-angle rise of stern (2nd rise), and all lights going out.
    4. Second breaking: ship bobs up backward; stern crunches down level; bow then tears away.
    5. Stern floats level, tips up almost perpendicular (3rd rise), turns, then plunges down.
    Note also that there were three different times that witnesses spoke of plunging: the beginning of the faster sinking (when the bridge went under), the big plunge, and the final plunge.

  3. Eye witnesses are often the worst sort, especially when light is diminished or removed and perspectives are differential. Theories that depend on witness memories are suspect, while the logic and science of the remains (properly interpreted) are dependable.

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