MARK CHIRNSIDE INTERVIEW, JUNE 22ND, 2004
On the afternoon of Tuesday June 22nd 2004, I was interviewed for Sky 1’s then upcoming documentary on author Robin Gardiner’s ‘switch’ or ‘conspiracy’ theory, which explored whether the Olympic and the Titanic were swapped as part of an insurance fraud. While the documentary first aired in September 2004, due to the nature of television documentaries much material from the various interviewees did not make the final version, and none of my own interview ended up being shown.
Prior to the interview, Richard Sanders of Sky TV had sent me a list of general and specific questions regarding my views on various aspects of the theory. In order to get my thoughts together for the interview, which was loosely based on the list of questions I had been sent, I made the following notes. Some of my answers are deliberately brief, although I followed them up more fully during the interview itself. They are presented here in the event that they are of interest to any readers, and as part of an effort to ensure that the material is not wasted. Prior to the interview, we enjoyed a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion, ranging from all things maritime, to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s 1966 World Cup football team, the fall of France in 1940, and the tragic present-day situation in Iraq.
For anyone interested in reading more about the theory itself, by far the best book that I can recommend is Bruce Beveridge and Steve Hall’s Olympic & Titanic: The Truth Behind The Conspiracy, which was published by Six Star Publishing on March 26th 2004. I consider myself honoured that I was able to offer some small assistance with the Olympic’s history. In my view, the photographic evidence alone that is presented in the book as to the differences between the two ships is overwhelming and proves that the two ships were not swapped, and that the ship that sank in the
IN GENERAL TERMS…
Question 1. What is your view of the theory that the Titanic was switched with the Olympic as part of an insurance scam?
A. I see the ‘conspiracy theory’ as far-fetched and illogical, with no strong evidence to back it up. I’d go so far as to say that it was impossible for the two ships to have been swapped.
Question 2. What do you think are the strongest arguments both for and against the theory?
A. In my view, there are no strong arguments in favour of the switch theory that stand up to proper scrutiny and debate. There are many facts that might, taken together at first glance, point to a switch, but after proper consideration the case falls apart (see, for instance, my answers to questions 16-19).
After Titanic sank, panelling was found in the sea bearing her Harland & Wolff yard number, 401; when Olympic’s fittings were auctioned off in 1935, they had her yard number, 400. That proves conclusively that the two ships were not swapped, because it took seven months to complete Olympic’s interiors after she was launched. After September 20th 1911, there was no seven-month period in which both ships were out of service and in the same place.
A key point that the theory rests on are the similarities between Olympic and Titanic, yet a great number of differences are overlooked in published pro-switch arguments. For instance, Titanic’s bridge and officer’s deckhouse as they were in 1912 differed significantly from Olympic’s, and Olympic’s configuration would not be changed until after the Titanic sank. There were also a host of differences from deckhouse vents to interior design. Thanks to recent exploration of the wreck, it was discovered that there were more pillars in the Titanic’s first class reception room on D-deck than had been previously thought, since it had previously been assumed that her reception room would have been identical to Olympic’s. The fact that the room’s design was not completely identical to Olympic’s simply highlights that there may have been many more differences than have been documented so far between the Olympic’s and Titanic’s interiors. As far as I can see, Gardiner’s theory makes no attempt to address even well-known differences such as the bridge and officer’s deckhouse on the boat deck, for instance, and merely assumes (incorrectly) that the two ships were much more similar than was the case.
Aside from the differences between the two ships that the switch theory overlooks, the idea that a large liner such as the Olympic or Titanic could be sunk deliberately in an insurance scam is highly improbable. There is no question that the Titanic did sink as a result of her collision with an iceberg, yet the likelihood of the ship being damaged as badly as she was in the collision was extremely low. Prior to the disaster, few people had considered that any liner could suffer such extensive damage in any collision, yet even so it is remarkable that the Titanic nearly survived. She could have floated with four of her forward watertight compartments flooded, and when we consider that five forward compartments were flooding uncontrollably following the collision, then if just one compartment fewer had been flooded, in all likelihood the Titanic would have survived.
Question 3. Could you talk us through the origins of the Olympic and its construction?
A. In 1907 the White Star Line’s new flagship
Question 4. Which was the better known of the two ships prior to the disaster?
A. It’s generally agreed that the Olympic was the better known of the two ships prior to the Titanic’s sinking, and it seems likely that she would have remained so if her sister had not sank on her maiden voyage. Between May 1st 1911 and April 14th 1912, there were well over one hundred articles with references to Olympic in a prominent American newspaper; yet during the same period there were less than thirty articles with references to Titanic, several of which only mentioned her in connection with Olympic. As the older ship, much of Olympic’s fame must be traced to her popularity and success in 1911, when she was described by Bruce Ismay as ‘a marvel.’
Question 5. How much fanfare was there around the launch of the Olympic?
A. There was considerable interest in the shipping press and the country about the Olympic’s launch in 1910. At the time the new ship was by far the largest in the world and newspapers called her ‘a floating palace,’ as well as being the new ‘Queen of the Seas.’ There was much comment about Great Britain’s need to maintain maritime supremacy, and optimism about the future of British shipbuilding. She was seen to be ushering in a new class of large ocean liners, much more so than the Titanic was seen to be when she was launched the following year, since she was seen as a similar but moderately improved version of Olympic.
Question 6. How similar were they? What differences were there?
A. Olympic and Titanic were very similar. Essentially, they shared the same hull size and design and were constructed from the same set of plans; however, particularly after Olympic’s maiden voyage, Titanic was improved in a number of ways. By the time she entered service, Titanic’s forward promenade deck had been glass-enclosed; on B-deck, her first class á la Carte restaurant had been expanded and a Café added, while all the first class suites were expanded and improved, with two ‘parlour’ suites even getting their own private promenades. These were major structural changes. There were a great deal of subtle differences, too many to list here, from different colour schemes for public rooms, different décor in some first class cabins, to deckhouses and vents.
Question 7. Did their appearance evolve in the months prior to the disaster? In what way?
A. As a result of in-service experience, some changes were made to Olympic again, vents were modified or altered, fans were added to improve ventilation (1911 was a particularly hot summer), and her lifeboats’ paint scheme was altered. A number of minor interior alterations were completed, although there was no major change in Olympic’s appearance.
Following her launch, Titanic slowly began to look more and more like a finished ship, and as she neared completion her appearance continued to move further from that of Olympic. The most obvious development was the change to B-deck in 1911, and then the glass-enclosure of the forward promenade deck shortly before sailing in 1912.
Question 8. Would this lend support to the conspiracy theory?
A. No, if anything it helps to refute it.
Question 9. Could you talk us through the accident suffered by the Olympic in Southampton Water on September 20, 1911.
A. Olympic left Southampton on her fifth voyage to New York on September 20th 1911, and was set to carry a record number of passengers on the voyage which had to be abandoned as a result of her collision with the HMS Hawke.
After departure, to get from Southampton Water to the open sea the Olympic had to execute a turn into Spithead. The turn was completed at 12.43 p.m., and Olympic began to accelerate up to a speed of twenty knots; Hawke was coming into Spithead at about the same time, and three minutes later the collision occurred. The exact circumstances surrounding the collision will always be disputed, but it is beyond doubt that the Hawke collided with the Olympic’s after starboard quarter, her bow and underwater ram penetrating the Olympic’s hull.
The collision was hotly-debated at the time and since they believed that Olympic and her crew were innocent of blame, the White Star Line eventually took their case to the House of Lords, who dismissed it in 1914. Following the collision, Olympic was out of service until the end of November 1911 and missed what should have been several profitable voyages.
Question 10. How significant was the damage to the Olympic?
A. Olympic was damaged badly enough to force the voyage to be cancelled. Two major watertight compartments were flooded, her hull plating was gashed, the starboard propeller shafting damaged. Photos after the collision show the liner down at the stern.
Question 11. Is it possible the damage was more significant than was admitted at the time? Why?
A. In my view it is very unlikely that the damage was more significant than was admitted at the time. The hearings following the Olympic/Hawke collision included a damage assessment of the Olympic which was agreed upon by both White Star and the Royal Navy, and stated that the Hawke’s bow had penetrated eight feet into Olympic’s hull. (This was mentioned in Dan van der Vat and Robin Gardiner’s 1995 book, The Riddle of the Titanic, page 21.) I think it is impossible that the Olympic’s keel was damaged in the collision, as Robin Gardiner speculates in his 1998 book Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? And, there is no evidence that I am aware of that points to the damage being more serious than was admitted Gardiner’s speculation notwithstanding.
(However, according to Harland & Wolff in January 1997, some of Olympic’s forward hull plating was removed or repaired following the Hawke collision; it is probable that this minor damage occurred at another time, and was simply repaired following the Hawke collision although it was not a result of it. I do not see this as relevant to the conspiracy theory, and indeed it does not seem to be widely known.)
Question 12. What sort of problems would this have created for the White Star Line?
A. Assuming that the damage was more serious than admitted at the time, it would have added to the Line’s financial losses, although I think it impossible that the damage was serious enough to ever render Olympic an economic loss.
Question 13. Is it possible Olympic was fitted with Titanic’s propeller when she went back into dry dock in the autumn of 1911?
A. Olympic was fitted with Titanic’s starboard propeller shaft. There is no evidence that Harland & Wolff ever used one of Titanic’s propellers, or propeller blades, on Olympic; there is every reason to believe that they would have had a spare Olympic propeller in any case.
Question 14. Does the idea of an insurance scam make sense? How much was the Titanic insured for? How much was the Olympic insured for? If the Olympic had been as badly damaged as Gardiner and others suggest, what would have been the practical problems of getting insurance for it? Would a switch have resolved these problems?
A. I am of the opinion that the idea of an insurance ‘scam’ does not make sense.
I do not remember ever seeing any source that suggests Olympic was insured differently to Titanic. Titanic was insured for two-thirds of its value (about $5,000,000) with the remaining third being carried by IMM. At the American inquiry into the sinking, Maurice Farrell (the Managing News Editor of Dow, Jones & Co.) said that the net loss to IMM as a result of the sinking might be ‘$2,000,000 to $3,000,000,’ which ‘ought not’ to ‘break a company like the International Mercantile Marine.’
Why would the White Star Line or IMM deliberately sink a ship that was liable to loose them some $2,500,000, particularly when (even if the damage to Olympic was worse than accepted) the Olympic could be repaired at what would most probably be a lower cost? And, if a loss of $2,500,000 could be withstood by IMM/White Star after their flagship sank, how could the damage to the Olympic ever have been serious enough for them to take the drastic indeed, criminal measure of ‘swapping’ the ships in an insurance scam?
Even if Olympic had been as badly damaged as Gardiner suggests, I can’t see the White Star Line doing anything other than moving heaven and earth to get their flagship into service again. She had proved extremely popular in 1911. Assuming the repairs were carried out and she was structurally sound once more, I cannot see any barrier to obtaining insurance or a new seaworthiness certificate (which had to be issued each year).
Swapping the two ships and sinking the Olympic, disguised as the Titanic, could hardly be expected to improve the White Star Line’s financial situation or resolve its problems. Indeed, it is unlikely in the extreme that a successful company such as the White Star Line would conspire to sink their newest ship, the largest and most luxurious in the world, on her maiden voyage think of the bad publicity! To make matters worse, they would only be left with one of the two sisters for their express service, with the third liner still incomplete, at a time when rivals such as Cunard and Hamburg-Amerika were on course to be operating three-ship services within a very few years, not to mention the cost of building a suitable replacement.
Question 15. Would a switch have been feasible in practical terms? How many people would need to have been in on the secret? Could they really have been kept quiet?
A. In practical terms, I would go so far as to say that a switch was impossible. Even if the two ships were as similar as Gardiner’s theory indicates, you simply cannot pass off a one-year-old ship for a new one. Too many people would have noticed things such as the inevitable wear and tear, particularly the crew who joined Titanic in 1912 having served on the Olympic beforehand. Stewardess Violet Jessop, who served on both ships, writes in her memoirs about how ‘improved’ Titanic was when compared to Olympic, which amply demonstrates differences that might not sound significant, but were nevertheless noticeable to a ship’s crew. Olympic proved herself very popular in 1911 and carried over 17,000 passengers, setting a number of records. A number of Titanic’s passengers had sailed on Olympic before and it is hard to believe that they would not have noticed that they were travelling on exactly the same ship. With regard to how many people would have had to be in on it, the answer is ‘too many to keep quiet’ particularly when we consider the subsequent horrific loss of life when the Titanic sank.
Question 16. The Titanic left Belfast and then Southampton in something of a hurry, with none of the fanfare of the Olympic: one day of sea trials, no stop in Liverpool, and no opening to the public in either Belfast or Southampton. Do you find this odd?
A. I don’t find the Titanic’s relative haste odd at all in the circumstances. The maiden voyage had been postponed by three weeks in October 1911, as workers were diverted to repair Olympic; it was always going to be ‘tight’ to meet the April 10th 1912 date, and when we consider that Titanic’s trials were postponed for a day due to bad weather it is not odd at all. Since finishing touches were still being put to the ship’s accommodation, it’s hardly surprising that the public was not allowed onboard at Southampton.
Question 17. Remarkably few of the Belfast crew of the Titanic signed up again for the flight across the Atlantic (Gardiner suggests this was because of rumours of a switch and an insurance scam). Is this significant?
A. To the best of my recollection, Gardiner is the only author to have stated that ‘remarkably few’ of the Belfast crew signed on for the voyage from Southampton. If Gardiner suggests that this was because of rumours of a switch and/or insurance scam, then one wonders why these crewmen did not speak out after the disaster?
Question 18. J.P. Morgan and fifty other first class passengers, including Ismay’s wife and children, cancelled at the last moment. The Titanic sailed just two thirds full. Again, is there any significance in this?
A. When the Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage in April 1912, the number of passengers that she was carrying was very similar to the number that were booked onto Olympic for her maiden voyage the year before. It’s natural that there will be cancellations and while more than fifty might sound like a high number it’s hard to see that there is much significance in this fact as regards the switch theory.
If a number of people had cancelled because of some sort of fear of a switch or insurance scam going on, it is seems very likely that they would have spoken out after the disaster. There is no record of anyone doing so.
Did Ismay’s wife and children ‘cancel at the last moment’? In his book Titanic: An Illustrated History, respected historian Don Lynch states that they did not accompany him on the maiden voyage because ‘they had instead chosen to spend the time on a motor holiday through Wales.’
Question 19. Could you talk to us about how, in the newsreels of the time, the ship we are looking at is often the Olympic rather than the Titanic. Why did this happen? Could this be the original source of the confusion?
A. As the first of the sisters, Olympic had been in service for approaching a year by the time the Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage. Naturally, interest in her was particularly high as the first of White Star’s ‘Olympic’ class and since there was a year of service during which to film her compared to the Titanic’s short service life, that seems to be the most likely explanation. It’s certainly common to see film, or photos, of the Olympic shown as ‘Titanic’ footage, but beyond that it seems questionable if it contributes anything to the switch theory.