The Titanic Switch conspiracy theory takes us back to 20th September 1911 when the RMS Olympic, Titanic's older sister, collided with HMS Hawke on the Solent. This was only the Olympic's fifth voyage, and she was left with two large holes in her hull (flooding two watertight compartments) and a twisted propeller shaft. It took two weeks at Southampton to patch her up for the journey to dry dock at Belfast, and a further six weeks to complete the repairs when she got there. Worse, the inquiry into the incident sided with the Royal Navy: though found not liable for damages, the White Star Line was still left with over £100,000 worth of repairs to carry out, and about another £50,000 in loss of revenue.
None of this is disputed. What the conspiracy theory contends, however, is that the damage to Olympic was more ominous than was publicly admitted. Drawings still held by Harland & Wolff suggest that up to 115ft of hull plating was in need of replacement, and beneath it may well have been serious structural damage. The Olympic, just a few short months into active service, was now nothing but a liability - and perhaps would not even get a renewed seaworthiness certificate in May 1912. The answer, the theory alleges, was to get rid of the Olympic in such a way that the insurance company would pay out. By switching the damaged Olympic with the brand new Titanic, the latter could sail on for years as her sister ship, while the former could be scuttled and the bulk of her costs recouped.
Was it possible?
In February 1912 Olympic was once again at Belfast. She had lost a port propeller blade on the return trip from New York, so the ship builders took one from Titanic, pushing back the date of the latter's maiden voyage. By March 4th Olympic was ready to resume service - but the weather had other ideas. Eventually it was decided to try something which had never been attempted before; Olympic was moved out of dry dock on the same tide that Titanic was moved in, leaving Olympic free to wait at the fitting out wharf for better conditions. She finally left Belfast on March 7th. Though this timescale sounds ideal for a switch, in truth Titanic would have been nowhere near ready to start masquerading as the Olympic.
There is however some evidence to suggest Olympic was back in Belfast again before Titanic began her ill-fated maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller recalled that last minute staff changes, demoting him from First to Second Officer, were necessary because the Olympic was 'laid up' following a minor collision in the English Channel. After arriving at Southampton around 30 minutes late on March 30th, and allowing passengers and cargo to disembark, Olympic left her customary berth and was presumably moved elsewhere for repairs. This could have been Belfast and, theoretically at least, there would have been some time to make any final adjustments and perform the switch before Titanic's sea trials which, though scheduled for April 1st, due to bad weather took place on the 2nd. Either way, a ship bearing the name 'Olympic' left Southampton for New York on April 3rd, exactly as scheduled, while one named 'Titanic' arrived in Southampton not long afterwards. The verdict? It would have been a very close call, but possibly doable.
Some of the necessary changes aboard ship might also have been manageable. One of the readily noticeable differences between the two was the addition of windowed screens on the forward part of Titanic's A Deck promenade, to shield passengers from sea spray. These could have been moved from one ship to the other fairly easily. The nameplate too, with its incised letters for ease of painting, could have had the letters filled with lead and been painted over. Footage of the wreck shows some of the letters have worn away, leaving a light blue surface - perhaps the reaction of the lead with saltwater. Evidence shows that Olympic was fitted with a crew galley skylight the same as her sister's around this time, and a ventilation shaft in front of the No. 1 funnel was swapped out on both ships for another which looked like its opposite number.
Other differences would have been more insurmountable. For instance, the Olympic had full length promenades on A and B deck, but the latter had proved to be little used in practice. On the Titanic this space was used for luxury First-Class suites, an extension to the a la carte restaurant, and the Cafe Parisien. Similarly, the wheelhouse on the Olympic was bow fronted, while on Titanic it was straight (as it is on the wreck). Olympic's was only changed during a later refit. At least officially. Perhaps it is the case that some of the 1913 alterations were carried out earlier, and only officially recorded later, as seems to have happened with those front C Deck portholes. Overall though, it is highly unlikely that all features could have been changed in the limited time available, though some of the major differences could certainly have been glossed over.
For many that might have been enough. Although the perception today is that Titanic's departure on April 10th must have inspired nationwide excitement, the truth is a little different. Titanic had a slightly greater tonnage (i.e. cargo carrying capacity), but it was the same size as the Olympic, and the luxurious fittings on both ships were almost identical. Though there was widespread media coverage for the new kid on the block, the pictures and footage of her were largely recycled from the Olympic meaning the Titanic was subject to far less physical scrutiny. Fewer people attended the joint launch of Titanic and sea trials of the Olympic in May 1911 than had attended the launch of Olympic alone in October 1910. And, when Titanic passed her own less vigorous sea trials on April 2nd 1912, she went straight onto Southampton and waited quietly to begin service proper while her fitting out was completed. Olympic, by contrast, had made a courtesy stop at Liverpool and was viewed by thousands of people when opened up to public inspection at Southampton.
Evidence for a Switch
In 1971 James Fenton, an elderly boatswain serving aboard the Australian cargo ship Kooliga, told colleagues about his experiences aboard the Titanic. Although Fenton is absent from all the available crew lists, it doesn't immediately negate his story - the lists are not infallible, and we all saw how Leonardo Di- er, Jack Dawson blagged his way aboard in the movie. Anyway, Fenton maintained that when he joined the crew rumours were already circulating below decks that the ships had been switched for an insurance scam. Some of the ships portholes had been painted on, Fenton maintained, and the boiler rooms were clearly not new.
There is evidence to back Fenton up. The first national coal strike had only just ended on April 10th, and coal shortages were still widespread, limiting the number of ships operating and therefore the amount of work available. Yet, when Titanic arrived at Southampton the bulk of the transit crew refused to sign on for the main voyage, a significant circumstance even accounting for the number only interested in short passages. Family history among Harland & Wolff's workforce also records unease and speculation about a planned insurance scam. Carpets were laid over the expensive linoleum tiles, perhaps to cover up the wear and tear of the last fourteen months, and paint was being applied and finishing touches completed right up until the last moment.
If the ships were switched, large numbers of the crew would have at least suspected it - not least because many of them had been serving on the Olympic until the week before. Senior officers would have had to have known about any switch, as there simply wouldn't have been time to complete a full makeover, and the lower ranks, while not officially informed, would also have noticed any number of telling similarities. But many survivor accounts comment on all the differences. Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had transferred from the Olympic, described in her memoirs the many minor changes which had been made to make the crew's lives easier - private wardrobes in shared crew quarters, improvements to the bar layouts, etc. On the other hand, the large movement of personnel from Olympic, including her Captain and Chief Officer, might also mean the sudden changes to that ship went unremarked upon.
Passengers provide a mixed account too. Olympic's maiden voyage had been virtually fully subscribed, Titanic was less than half full in spite of the reduced number of ships on the transatlantic route because of the coal strike. Over 50 first class passengers - the type of people who could have been warned by those in the know - infamously cancelled their passage at the eleventh hour, while first class passengers booked on delayed voyages were only offered second class berths if they transferred to the Titanic. Still, Kate Buss and Lillian Asplund, travelling in third class, remembered the strong smell of fresh paint.
Another potential piece of evidence in favour of the switch theory is the documented vibration problem with the starboard engine. This was allegedly acknowledged by Thomas Andrews himself during a dinner on April 14th with Captain Smith and, among others, Constance & David Evans who, though not on any of the official passenger lists, had been given free first class passage as part of the guarantee group. Fellow first class passengers Mahala Douglas and her husband Walter also noticed vibration, especially around the grand stairway which was directly above the reciprocating engines, as did Lawrence Beesley. Second Officer Lightoller overheard the Captain, Andrews, and Bruce Ismay debating the issue hours before tragedy struck. This vibration could have been caused by the damage Olympic had sustained from HMS Hawke, or by the replacement propeller parts appropriated from her sister ship. But, it must be remembered that vibration was a common problem, and other survivors commented on how little vibration Titanic suffered from.
The general view among the theory's supporters is that Titanic was rushing toward a rendezvous for a staged accident when she struck the iceberg. From that moment on everything went wrong. Many believe that the SS Californian, owned by the White Star Line's parent company IMM, was on a pre-arranged mission to collect Titanic's passengers. She had been able to rush across the Atlantic with no passengers and a cargo of cotton and woolens, despite the coal strike back in Liverpool. Upon reaching the ice field Captain Stanley Lord ordered a stop, though the engines were to be kept ready for an immediate move, and told his officers to report anything noteworthy. When he was told that white flares had been seen from a mystery small steamship in the distance he did nothing except quiz the colour. Some speculate he may have been waiting for a coloured company signal as his call to action.
But, then, the story of the Californian is about as convoluted as it gets in Titanic history. Lord maintained they were around 20 miles away from the Titanic at the time, and couldn't have seen their lights or distress rockets. Those on the Titanic maintained that lights could be seen from a ship some five miles away which eventually moved off in the opposite direction. It could have been the Californian, which later covered its tracks at the inquiries. Or it might have been the Samson, a small Norwegian steamer illegally seal poaching in territorial waters, or so said crewman Hendrik Naess before his death. Perhaps it was HMS Sirius, a naval cruiser also believed to be in the vicinity that night. Then again, it could have been the SS Mount Temple which terminated its attempt to reach Titanic because of ice. Whatever the truth of the matter, Captain Stanley Lord became the convenient scapegoat of the Titanic tragedy, thanks to the widespread belief that he could and should have rescued its passengers.
It was certainly the case that a number of officers thought help was imminent. Some passengers were allegedly told not to worry as the Californian was on its way, though there had been no wireless contact between the two ships since Titanic's senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, had told the Californian's to 'Keep out. Shut up. I'm working Cape Race!' hours earlier. The truth was that Titanic was going down fast, the situation possibly exacerbated by an explosion in the coal bunker where fire had been raging since Belfast.
The delay in evacuation is well documented. Titanic was carrying well over the legal requirement of lifeboats, for all the shortfall that represented, and in 1912 they were viewed more as a means of getting passengers from ship A to ship B, not something they'd spend hours upon hours in after a ship had actually sank. Two boats were duly instructed to row towards the 'mystery ship', unload its passengers, and then return. It wasn't to be. Survivors complained too of the lack of lanterns, provisions, and leaks in the boats. What this suggests to some is that, rather than brand new fully equipped lifeboats dogged by untrained individuals unable to find the provisions lockers under the gangboards or put in the rainwater drain plugs, these were boats which had been in place for 14 months with curious passengers rifling through and pilfering from them. Unsubstantiated rumours abounded that, when the lifeboats were in harbour at New York, they were found to bear Olympic's name...
RMS Carpathia finally arrived on the scene at 4am and spent the next four hours loading the survivors and salvageable lifeboats on board. Passengers' names were collated and, via Carpathia's wireless operator Harold Cottam and survivor Harold Bride, got straight to work forwarding them on to land. Yet all through Monday reports were received that Titanic was being towed into port, and that all aboard had survived. The White Star Line and IMM offices assured reporters throughout the day that the Titanic had not sunk, only changing their position after the stock market had closed.
It was April 18th when the Carpathia docked at New York - Bruce Ismay, Second Officer Lightoller, and other relevant crew members had had three days in which to get their stories straight. While the officers and a number of crew were subpoenaed to appear at the New York inquiry, the rest of the surviving crew (167) were herded off the Carpathia and along to the Red Star Line SS Lapland for the journey back to England. The Lapland arrived in Plymouth on April 28th, greeted by White Star Line and government officials who detained the crew overnight and made them sign a pledge under the Official Secrets Act - at least that's what they were told - on pain of 20 years imprisonment and never working again.
Indeed the two inquiries held into the disaster were something of a shambles, with Lightoller outright describing the evidence he gave in London as a 'whitewash'. Witnesses alleging that the Captain and senior officers had been drinking heavily at a party were discredited or else conveniently disappeared (see HERE). Frederick Fleet, one of the lookouts, claimed a complete lack of spacial awareness despite having previously served four years as a lookout on the RMS Oceanic, and backed down about the numerous attempts he had made to raise the alarm. There was definitely pressure put to bear on witnesses, but whether this was to ensure the insurance pay out went through smoothly, or to cover up something more sinister is open to speculation.
Titanic, like all the White Star Line's ships, was said to be under insured by around a third of her build cost (£1.5 million) and ships that were in a far more pathetic state than Olympic's worst case scenario could be and were repaired. If the payout wasn't going to cover the build, let alone the loss of revenue, it really would make the whole exercise pointless. In the event the actual payout was £3.1 million, completed within 30 days of the disaster. Rumours continued to circulate, but no hard proof of a scam came to light.
The wreck, which could provide concrete proof one way or the other, was only officially discovered in 1985 by Dr Robert Ballard - though it is likely its position, some miles away from its last documented location, was known long before then. Though disputed, some claim that in August 1953 the salvage ship HELP, complete with Royal Navy escort, was using underwater explosives in the area to map the ocean floor. In 1977 the Navy seemed to confirm this location when testing out new sonar equipment, information which was subsequently passed on to Ballard. It is even alleged that photographs were taken of the wreck at around this time.
As mysterious as it all is, the wreck does however appear to confirm that the ship which sank was the Titanic. A propeller blade has been found to be stamped with 401, Titanic's yard number, although it is the case that one of Titanic's may have been used to patch up the Olympic. Less ambiguously, plenty of internal fittings were taken off both ships stamped with their correct yard numbers of 400 and 401, and nothing untoward was found during the Olympic's continued service into 1937 as passenger liner and occasional troop ship. Robin Gardiner, the key proponent of the theory, maintains that this means little as fittings could have been being switched from September 1911, in the immediate aftermath of the Hawke and Olympic collision.
For me, the theory falls short of convincing. The switch might have been possible, but it doesn't seem plausible - the reputational impact of a sinking would have been catastrophic. But, then again, stranger things have happened....
☆ RMS Olympic (John Hamer, 2013)
☆ Titanic: the ship that never sank? (Robin Gardiner, 2013)
☆ Titanic or Olympic: Which Ship Sank? (Steve Hall and Bruce Beveridge, 2012)