Friday, 16 June 2017


The following extracts relating to interpreting distress signals at sea are illuminating. Again taken from Editors' The Titanic:

Butler Aspinall of Australia questioned First Mate Herbert Stone of the Californian about the events of that evening:

“ASPINALL: Now, will you tell me what you had seen?
STONE:  First of all, I was walking up and down the bridge and I saw one white flash in the sky, immediately above this other steamer. I did not know what it was; I thought it might be a shooting star.
ASPINALL: What was the nature of the flash?
STONE:  A white flash.
ASPINALL: Was it like a distress signal?
STONE:  It was just a white flash in the sky; it might have been anything.
ASPINALL: I know, but what did it suggest to your mind? What did you say to yourself? What did you think it was?
STONE:  I thought nothing until I brought the ship under observation with the binoculars and saw the others.
ASPINALL: Then you took up your glasses, apparently, and looked?
STONE:  Yes.
ASPINALL: And how many more did you see?
STONE:  I saw four more then.
ASPINALL: What do you think they meant?
STONE:  I thought that perhaps the ship was in communication with some other ship, or possibly she was signaling to us to tell us she had big icebergs around her.
ASPINALL: Possibly, what else?
STONE:  Possibly she was communicating with some other steamer at a greater distance than ourselves.”

Charles River Editors. The Titanic: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Ship from 1907 to Today (Kindle Locations 3249-3252). Charles River Editors. Kindle Edition.

Extraordinary answers on the part of Stone. One would assume that there could be no confusion whatsoever regarding the meaning of white flashes of light emitted from a steamer in the distance. But the use of white socket signals could be confused with starlight and 'shooting stars'. The fact that these flashes were systematically timed apart, strongly suggesting distress signals, did not show Stone in a credible light.


'the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1914. That same convention also made a change to the way distress signals were used. Given what happened with the Californian’s lack of response to the rockets fired by the Titanic, the convention proposed that when red rockets were fired, it was to be interpreted as an unequivocal request for help. The United States made a similar change with the Radio Act of 1912, so as to avoid any mistaken interpretation regarding the firing of rockets by a ship in distress.'

Charles River Editors. The Titanic: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Ship from 1907 to Today (Kindle Locations 3441-3446). Charles River Editors. Kindle Edition.

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. Flashes from explosions DO NOT persist!

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 - the flashes witnessed were about 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 - in this case about 4 miles.

"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, and which did not necessarily include a detonator = explosion. Alfred Harris referred to the dazzling red light persisting for up to two minutes, but NO sounds of explosions.

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 opted for the 'unequivocal request for help' - 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, like Stone and Boxhall, unfamiliar with how they appeared in reality, leading to confusion and self-doubt. If there was a drum on Waratah's fore deck burning oil, the added confusion of what looked like a bush fire on a moving vessel, compounded the confusion even further. 

No wonder the Harlow account became a fiasco!!

Titanic's rockets - white flash as appearing at a distance (no stars)

1 comment:

Mole said...

Fascinating details re the Titanic and an intriguing comparison with the Waratah's flares/flashes or other signals/lights. What did the Harlow captain and crew really see that night? Will we ever know?