Conspiracy Corner: Olympic or Titanic?


Conspiracy Corner

Conspiracy theories, much like supermarket tabloids, enjoy a large and hidden following which probably explains the ample rack space dedicated to the latter and the proliferation of the former. Theories range from the patently irrational, such as the 9-11 “truthers” or the notion that our world leaders are in reality extra terrestrial lizards, to those that at first seem absurd but on closer scrutiny lose some of their absurdity and gather a mantle, if not of truth, at least of plausibility. In this Conspiracy Corner section I will present alternative explanations to the accepted ones because it is always good to question conventional wisdom, if only for the mental exercise.  After all, as the old saying goes “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not after you”

Titanic or Olympic?

In 1902, American financier and railroad magnate John Pierpoint Morgan bought the White Star Line from J Bruce Ismay, forging the first link in a chain of events that culminated in the greatest peacetime maritime disaster in history. Morgan’s goal was to monopolize the lucrative Atlantic shipping trade and to that effect, he set up a huge holding company, the International Mercantile Marine Co., or IMM. The White Star was a British line and it sailed British ships, subject to Crown requisition in case of war and therefore foreign ownership was forbidden by law.  Morgan was American and therefore not allowed to own British ships ; he found a loophole in the law and had ownership of White Star passed to IMM but in reality, because Morgan owned IMM, he was the ultimate owner of the ships.

In the quest to establish a shipping monopoly, IMM owned the American Line, Red Star Line, Leyland Line and Dominion Line; in addition they had a profit sharing deal with the German Hamburg Amerika Line and the North German Lloyd Lines; all this made IMM over-leveraged with an inadequate cash flow, a fact that would have serious and unexpected repercussions later on.

In 1907 White Star was in a fierce competition with the Cunard Line, which sailed the largest and fastest ships of the time, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. Morgan, Ismay and William Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff, exclusive shipbuilders to White Star, decided that since they could not compete in speed they would build the most luxurious ships and, accordingly, made plans to build three spectacular floating palaces, to be called Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (which after the Titanic disaster had its name changed to Britannic)

Olympic was the first of the trio,  launched October 20th 1910 and had its maiden voyage June 14th 1911 under the command of Captain and Commodore of the White Star Line Edward John Smith, while Titanic was still under construction. Olympic proved to be a bad luck ship, what sailors called a Jonah. On her maiden voyage, she collided with a tugboat in New York harbor and had other incidents but nothing in the scale of the one that took place on September 20th 1911, off the Isle of Wight, where Olympic collided with HMS Hawke, a British Royal Navy cruiser, fitted with an underwater battering ram on her re-enforced bow, as many of the 19th Century British cruisers were. Olympic was hit on the starboard side and damage was severe: thousands of broken rivets, buckled steel plates on both sides of the ship (which might indicate damage to the stern and a possibly buckled superstructure, basically a broken back), a bent propeller shaft and a warped keel, which gave Olympic a permanent 2 degrees list to port. She limped back to Southampton, where she disembarked her passengers, leaving them to make other arrangements and was patched up enough to enable her to get back to Belfast, crawling at some 10 knots. In Belfast, the shipbuilders determined that the warped keel could only be corrected by rebuilding half of the ship, meaning it would cost almost as much as building another vessel.

In the meantime, the Royal Navy Admiralty conducted a hastily convened inquiry which promptly determined that Olympic was solely responsible for the accident, alleging that her huge displacement generated an underwater sucking action that pulled HMS Hawke into her side as she passed nearby. The verdict rendered White Star’s insurance void. Olympic had cost some $10 million (or $120 million today) with an equal cost for Titanic and the same amount projected for Gigantic. The staggering cost of repairing Olympic, coupled with the loss of her passenger-generated income, plus the cost of building Titanic, put a severe strain on IMM’s inadequate cash flow, placing White Star in an untenable position. Morgan and Ismay were staring at bankruptcy and possible receivership. In other terms, Olympic was scrap and White Star could soon follow.

The two ships were berthed side by side because in 1912 Olympic threw a propeller and had to return to Belfast, where a propeller from Titanic was used as replacement and it was perhaps at this juncture, according to the theory, that the decision was made to switch the ships’ identities; after all, both Olympic and Titanic were almost identical sister ships, with just minor differences that would be difficult to notice unless one specifically looked for them. Olympic was patched up enough to make her seaworthy and was fitted with a longitudinal bulkhead in the stern in order to strengthen the stern and keel. The plan was to sail Olympic, made up to look like Titanic, sink her in an inaccessible part of the Atlantic, collect the insurance and thus save White Star. They switched the ship’s bells, letterheads, names on life belts and lifeboats. The ships names were etched on the sides and stern because at the time welding had not been invented yet, so to solve the problem, lettered, four-foot high plates were riveted over the ships’ names.

The idea, however, was to commit insurance fraud, not murder and accordingly, plans were made to have a rescue ship waiting very close to the chosen point of sinking. Enter the SS Californian, of the Leyland Line, owned by IMM and thus, by J.P. Morgan. Californian, 6223 ton passenger and cargo vessel, with a capacity for 47 passengers and 55 crew members, hastily left Liverpool  headed for Boston, Massachusetts , with no passengers and a cargo of 3000 sweaters and 3000 wool blankets and fully coaled, this in the midst of a general coal strike that had made it virtually impossible to find coal for other cargo ships. She sailed April 5th, 1912, five days before “Titanic”, because she was only capable of some 12 knots. In the haste, it is reported that she carried either obsolete or the wrong navigational charts

Titanic”left Belfast for Southampton, where, upon arrival, all but 2 of the firemen, boilers and greasers got off the ship and refused to work on her, deciding instead to wait and look for work on another ship, possibly because though the appearance of the vessel could be changed to look like Titanic, the boilers, coal bunkers and the likes looked exactly like Olympic’s, all too familiar to them and realized that something fishy was afoot and wanted no part of it. “Titanic’ left Southampton on April 10th 1912, arrived at Cherbourg, France to pick up more passengers and from there proceeded to Queenstown, in Ireland, from where she set sail for New York with 2223 passengers. Missing were a large number of first class passengers, including J.P. Morgan, who claimed illness -though he was later seen with his mistress in France- and Mrs Ismay, who decided instead to take the children on a motoring tour. Bruce Ismay, though, sailed on, perhaps to make the “accident” look legitimate. Lawrence Beesely, 2nd class passenger and science teacher -and survivor- noted that ‘”Titanic” had “a slight but permanent list to port” Before she sailed, Morgan, a dedicated art collector, had two very valuable bronze statues removed from the ship.

All the pieces were in place; “Titanic” was on her way to meet Californian who would wait for her at the agreed upon North Atlantic location, but as the deadline approached, things began to unravel. On the night of April 14th, at 22:20 (10:20pm) Californian stopped in the middle of an ice field south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and waited for “Titanic” and it is at this point that different versions of the story surface.

The night of April 14th was a very cold, moonless night with only bright starlight illuminating a dead calm sea, conditions that were highly unusual. The position was very close to where the cold water of the Labrador current meets the warmer Gulf Stream current; the air temperature was very cold, creating ideal conditions for a cold water mirage, which results when warmer air sits on top of very cold air; this raises what is called a “false horizon” and creates severe refraction and distortion of objects; this, combined with Californian’s questionable charts, set the stage for the tragedy.

Some versions of the story include a third ship, which was either placed in position to help in the rescue of “Titanic’s” passengers or to stage a collision with the liner and indeed, some survivors recounted seeing the lights of a third ship, but conditions were so distorted on that night that is difficult to corroborate their testimony. Another version states that the original plan was for the liner to collide with the so-called third ship; the collision with the iceberg though, was not planned and given the already fragile condition of “Titanic”,  proved to be a fatal blow. An additional version relies on testimony given at the British Inquiry stating that a smoldering coal fire was burning in the forward starboard bunker 6, in the aft corner of Boiler Room 6, with reports that the steel on the watertight transverse bulkhead between Boiler Rooms 5 and 6 became cherry red. At any rate, given that Californian was out of position and probably because of the existing atmospheric refraction she mistook “Titanic” for a different and smaller vessel -which is one of the phenomena of cold water mirages. “Titanic” hit the iceberg at 23:40 on the night of April 14th and it took a very long time for the order to lower lifeboats to be given and even longer for rockets to be fired because, according to the theory, they expected to be rescued directly; when it became obvious that rescue was not coming, then evacuation preparations really began in earnest; at 2:20 in the morning of April 15th 1912, she broke apart and foundered, taking 1500 souls with her. Two hours later, RMS Carpathia of the Cunard Line appeared on the horizon and was able to rescue 705 survivors. The curtain was drawn on the greatest peacetime maritime tragedy of all time.


These are the basic elements of the theory which, after close examination do present a strong element of plausibility. Switching the ships’ identities would not have presented insurmountable difficulties; after all, both ships were almost 99% identical to begin with and it would not have taken a great number of workers to have carried out the task. In 1912, there were no such things as unemployment insurance or laws protecting workers. They would do what they were told or else and that, plus monetary remuneration would assure silence; besides, any such talk could be promptly dismissed as idle gossip. Nevertheless, there were whispered rumors in 1912. Morgan, Ismay and Pirrie were 19th century ruthless tycoons, used to fierce, cutthroat competition; faced with the specter of bankruptcy they would not have hesitated to pull all the stops, up to and including insurance fraud in order to save the company. Morgan increased Titanic’s insurance to $12.5 million, $2.5 million over the cost of the ship. Besides the aforementioned trio, others, such as Captain Smith and his senior offices plus Stanley Lord, Captain of Californian needed to be in the know. Both Smith and First Officer Murdoch died in the disaster; Second, Third and Fourth officers would of necessity hold their tongues or be subject to prosecution and this leaves Captain Lord. The plot had failed and the death toll was staggering; someone had to be the fall guy and Lord fitted the bill.  He was saddled with the charge of having failed to render assistance and for the rest of his life bore that stigma, despite numerous protestations and objections on his part. He died in 1962, unable to clear his name.

And now we come to the real stumbling block. How could the plotters, all experienced transatlantic liner operators have expected that Californian, a 6223 ton cargo vessel with room for 47 passengers could possibly hold the more than 2200 passengers and crew members of “Titanic”? And for that matter, how could they have expected to ferry all those passengers from ship to ship? “Titanic” carried 20 lifeboats (14 standard boats, 4 collapsible and 2 emergency cutters) and Californian carried 6. The logistics are heavily against it. The other point is the so called “smoking gun”: Californian’s cargo manifest of 3000 sweaters and 3000 wool blankets, all indicating that she was on a rescue mission. Unfortunately, the manifest has never been found.

Incredibly, in 1985, Robert Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute located the wreck of “Titanic” at a depth of some 2 ½ miles in the North Atlantic. In 1986 Ballard, along with the French National Oceanographic Institute explored the wreck and noticed a longitudinal bulkhead in the stern section, which was never in the Titanic drawings. In some places, where the ship’s black paint has rusted off, some small patches of grey undercoating are visible. Olympic had an undercoating of grey paint in order to showcase the ship’s lines in photographs, because at the time photography was still in its infancy. Titanic’s undercoating was black from the beginning; in addition, they noticed that on the bow, where the name Titanic was riveted in 4-foot high letters, the rivets holding the letters A and N had rusted away and the plates had fallen to reveal the letters M P etched in the steel underneath.


SS Californian went on to Boston. On 9th November 1915, she was sunk by a U boat W of Cape Matapan, Greece.

RMS Carpathia, hero ship of the rescue, served in WWI as a troop ship. She was torpedoed by U55 and sunk SE of Ireland and W of the Isles of Scilly on 17th July 1918

RMS Gigantic, the largest of the White Star liners was laid down on November 30th 1911. After the Titanic sinking it was decided to drop the grandiose names and thus was renamed Britannic. She was completed on December 12th 1915 and entered service as a hospital ship. She struck a mine and sank on November 21st 1916 near Kea, in the Aegean Sea.

HMS Hawke, Edgar Class cruiser. The collision with Olympic destroyed her bow, which was later replaced (should give an idea of the force of the collision) On October 15th 1914 she was torpedoed by U9 and capsized with a loss of 524 officers and men, including Captain Hugh P. E. T. Williams. There were only 70 survivors.

J Bruce Ismay returned to his post as Managing Director of the White Star Line. He was never able to live down the perceived stigma of having survived by entering a lifeboat reserved for women and children. It haunted him to his dying day.

Lastly, RMS “Olympic” continued on for the White Star Line; she served as a troop transport ship and earned the name of “Old Reliable” After 1918, she returned to the transatlantic passenger service and continued on until the government sponsored merger of the White Star and Cunard Lines. In 1935 she was retired, victim of obsolescence and of the growing air traffic and sold for scrap. In all of her 23 years of continuous service, she never had to undergo any major repairs, which is curious, given the magnitude of the damaged sustained by the collision with HMS Hawke. No one who sailed on her reported  any “small but permanent list to port”.

For further reference, some pro and some con








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