Thursday, 17 March 2016


The Harlow account is controversial for a number of reasons including what caused the two distinct flashes of light? According to Chief Engineer Alfred Harris the first rose about 500 ft. into the sky and was distinctly a bright red light which persisted. The second flash a minute or so later rose almost 1000 ft. into the sky and again was a dazzling red light which persisted for up to two minutes. Captain Bruce referred to a dazzling red light in the chart room. An informed Waratah commentator commented that distress rockets of the time were a bright white, not red. Quite so, and only about the time of the Second World War were distress rockets changed to red light.

But this is not the full story. In addition to distress rockets, most ships including the Waratah, were supplied with deck flares, socket signals and blue lights. The socket signal replaced the use of a standard gun to fire two distress shots a minute apart. These socket signals met the requirements for foreign-going steamers such as the Waratah. A small charge of tonite enclosed in a cartridge was fired at roughly one minute intervals. The cartridge was dropped into a socket, which then blew the charge 600 ft. or more into the air, where it exploded. At the moment of explosion, brilliant stars / flashes could be seen at great distance.

"The cartridges could be fired from a gun or rockets. the hole down the center came blocked up with a peg. This would be removed prior to firing, and a friction tube (detonator) would be inserted into the brass tube as far down as it would go. Then a lanyard would be hooked to a wire loop at the top end of this friction tube. When this lanyard was pulled, it would fire the charge in the signal’s base and light a timed fuse. The shell would then be propelled to a height of about 500 to 600 feet" (Lightoller, Titanic).

The following, however, throws a different light on the subject and describes distress signals by day or by night (circa 1909):

BY DAY — A gun or other explosive signal fired at intervals of about a minute; − The International Code Signal of Distress indicated by NC; − The distant signal, consisting of a square flag, having either above or below it a ball or anything resembling a ball; − A continuous sounding with any fog-signal apparatus.

 BY NIGHT — A gun or other explosive signal fired at intervals of about a minute; − Flames (i.e., signal fires) on the vessel (as from a burning tar-barrel, oil-barrel, etc.); − Rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, fired one at a time, at short intervals; 5 − A continuous sounding with any fog-signal apparatus.

In order to introduce colour into the socket signal, the case was loaded with rammed discs of a composition that would burn for a considerable time in the colours that were desired. With this design the brass firing tube was located on the side rather than down the centre of the signal, allowing for bright light which would burn for considerably longer. Alfred Harris referred to the dazzling red light persisting for up to two minutes.

Mr Boxhall of the Titanic, when interviewed, remarked "I am hardly in a position to state that, because it is the first time I have seen distress rockets sent off, and I could not very well judge what they would be like, standing as I was, underneath them, firing them myself. I do not know what they would look like in the distance". This suggests that although crew knew what bright white distress rockets implied, very few had actually seen them from a distance, compounded by the use of coloured socket signals to confuse everybody, and in particular, the crew of the Harlow.

Generally speaking coloured socket signals were reserved for private signals at night. But let us consider the conditions on board Waratah, afire, astern of the Harlow. It was night, the conditions relatively clear, but circumstances on board Waratah deteriorating rapidly. One moment the Waratah's lights were visible and then a short time after seeing the flashes of light, all evidence of the Waratah was gone. Whatever happened in those crucial moments prevented Captain Ilbery from taking any reasonable action to save his passengers. Instead of firing a gun at one minute intervals, signalling distress, one of the officers probably grabbed the socket signals and got off two shots - whatever the colour they happened to be and in this case, dazzling red light which persisted as described above. I simply can't imagine the crew of the Waratah sending private, friendly signals to the desolate shores of the Transkei on a winter's night, can you?

If an explosion had accounted for the flashes of light there should have been the sounds of explosions and more importantly debris scattered far and wide - readily discovered the next day.

No, the crew of the Harlow witnessed distress signals but were conditioned to expect bright white light, not dazzling red light which persisted beyond a few seconds. They had probably never heard of the new-fangled socket signals deploying coloured light which lasted for....yes, up to two minutes!!


Mole said...

That is an amazing breakthrough, Andrew. All hinging on the colour of the flares seen by the Harlow. I didn't know that at that date distress flares were white to be replaced by the colour socket signals. So very interesting.

andrew van rensburg said...

Thank you Mole. Distress rockets were also used interchangeably, confusing the issue. But what is important is a plausible explanation for the flashes seen. Best, Andrew.