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Was it really the Titanic that struck an iceberg in 1912?

Updated on April 23, 2015

Titanic and Olympic under construction

The two great liners

The White Star Line was a large company that excelled in commissioning and running ocean-going liners, particularly to take advantage of the trans-Atlantic trade that grew during the 19th century as millions of Europeans sought a new life in the Americas.

In 1907 they commissioned two new liners to be built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast, to be called Olympic and Titanic – all the ships of the White Star Line had names ending in “ic”. These were each to be twice the size of any ship in the existing fleet run by the company, with Olympic weighing in at 45,000 tons and Titanic at 46,000 tons – although a third ship, the Britannnic which entered service as a wartime hospital ship in 1915, would be even larger at 48,000 tons.

Olympic was the first to be completed – in 1910 – and she entered service in April 1911.

RMS Olympic

The unfortunate Olympic

Olympic did not have a smooth early life. On 20th September 1911 she hit a Royal Navy ship, HMS Hawke, in the Solent near Southampton. The damage done to the ship was such that she had no choice but to return to Belfast for repairs, where she sat alongside the nearly complete Titanic.

The damage was so extensive that the shipbuilders now had a real problem – should they finish work on Titanic or switch their attention to Olympic? The White Star Line would clearly lose a considerable amount of money if the much-vaunted entry into service of Titanic had to be delayed, and the prospect of having neither ship afloat was one that they wanted to avoid if at all possible.

Another problem was that the Navy refused to accept blame for the Olympic’s collision, and the insurers were not willing to meet the costs of the repairs until the matter was settled. The White Star Line could see their profits disappearing fast.

RMS Titanic

Were the ships switched at Belfast?

This is when the intriguing thought emerges of whether the White Star Line performed a clever trick to get themselves out of trouble. Suppose the Titanic was lost at sea – surely there would be nothing to prevent the insurers paying out on that occasion. But suppose that the ship that was actually lost was in fact the already damaged Olympic? White Star would still have a perfect ship to trade with – namely the Titanic.

The plot – if there was one – was therefore to switch the nameplates of the two ships and make a few cosmetic changes so that people would think that the ship that began its maiden voyage on 10th April 1912 was the Titanic when in fact it was the partially repaired Olympic.

The idea would have been to stage an emergency in mid-Atlantic, safely offload the passengers, then scuttle the ship. White Star would then claim all the insurance money after this undisputed calamity and have a seaworthy ship – namely the real Titanic masquerading as the Olympic – with the prospect of the even larger Britannic to come along in a few years’ time.

As we all know, things didn’t turn out that way. The ship (whichever it was) sailed off into the Atlantic but encountered a real emergency when it hit an iceberg with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

Could it have happened?

It seems highly unlikely! For one thing, how could the “safe” scuttling of the ship possibly have worked? If the idea was to offload the passengers in mid-ocean, this could only have been done by shuttling them across in lifeboats to rescue ships, given that it was known that the lifeboat capacity of the ship was less than half that of the number of people on board.

There would therefore have had to be other ships reasonably close at hand to accept the offloaded passengers. So would White Star have included other ship’s captains in the plot so that they would have been primed to arrive at a pre-arranged location?

If not, the event would need to have been arranged at a place where there was a reasonable prospect of other shipping being reasonably close by, which presumably must therefore have been further on in the voyage than the point at which the real disaster took place.

It would also have inadvisable to stage the “accident” at a point where other ships were close enough to witness what was really going on. It would appear that the plotters would really have been trusting to luck to find a suitable spot.

Apart from that, it would not have possible to disguise one ship as another at Belfast without a huge number of people being aware of what was going on. Even years after the disaster, nobody who worked at Belfast ever admitted to being part of the fraud, so the chances are that no fraud took place.

It sounds like an interesting story, but no more than that. Besides, the wreck of the Titanic has since been found on the bed of the Atlantic, and it is abundantly clear that it is the Titanic and not the
Olympic pretending to be the Titanic!

As for the Olympic, she remained in service with White Star until 1935. The ship was already seaworthy before the maiden voyage of Titanic, and was actually making an East-West crossing at the same time that Titanic was heading west, but the ships were too far apart for Olympic to come to Titanic’s aid.

Had there really been a plot to swindle the insurers, would White Star not have arranged matters so that their two ships, of similar size, were able to keep the whole thing “between themselves”, by “Titanic” coming to “Olympic’s” aid, thus lessening any risk of detection?

In other words, as conspiracy theories go, this one is a non-starter!

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