This was my first publication in English language and it was published by the British Titanic Society in their magazine. – It is based on the presumption that the orders given to avoid the collision were „hard a starboard, full speed astern“. However, further research showed, that none of the survivors of the engine room watch at the time of the collision saw „full speed astern“ signalled on the engine room telegraphs. The men saw „stopp“ being signalled on the engine room telegraphs.

© Susanne Störmer, 1994

The Last Manoeuvre In A Different Point Of View

When the iceberg was sighted, William McMaster Murdoch, first officer of the ill-fated Titanic, was officer of the watch. He gave the order ‚hard a starboard, full speed astern‘. Later. experts criticised this action – they said it would have been better, if Murdoch had ordered only the port enginge full speed astern when trying to steer clear. But by ordering all engines astern and also letting the helm to be put to starboard (which causes the bow to turn to port) Murdoch made the collision – so say the experts – even more likely.

I spent a good deal of thinking about that matter, because I was convinced that Murdoch was not that wrong with his actions. Alas, there was one problem: I did not know how to prove this. The only point I had was the fact that Murdoch chose to pass the iceberg on the port-bow, although the iceberg was dead ahead. So I considered there must have been a good reason why this experienced seaman with the reputation of being „the best and smartest sailor afloat“ did not turn the bow to starboard while trying to avoid the collision. Although you could presume that it would have made no difference.

Now I think I have found an explanation for Murdoch’s orders which shows them in another light:

First of all: When going full speed ahead most ships in the world can easier turn to port than to starboard, because most ships have propellers which make right turns, this means they are circling clockwise and by that pushing the stern of the ship always a little bit to starboard, which you have to correct by the helm – but you can use this suction when you have to alter course suddenly. (The Titanic was going with  a full speed ahead, and Murdoch’s orders were to take make a turn to port.)

Murdoch’s intention was to port round the ieceberg. This meant, he had to give another helm order – that time „Hard a port“ – to cause the ship’s bow to turn to starboard when the engines are reversed, because in that case the propellers are circling counter-clockwise and pushing the stern to port.
Maybe I should add, that the ship’s stern is always swinging to the other direction than the bow when you are manoeuvring in tiny waters. [1]
And another thing which you have to bear in mind: In those days, engineers had to stop the engines and then – reversed – start them again. As a matter of fact, it took those men down in the engine-room some time to reverse the enginges. And you have to think of the fact that the engineers aboard the Titanic did not expect the engines to be reversed at that stage of voyage. I can imagine, the engineers were – for a short time – astonished, when they were ordered by the bridge to reverse the engines.

But back to Murdoch on the bridge: His intention was to port round the iceberg, which lay dead ahead. He hard-a-starboarded and by this he turned the bow to port – the faster way for a ship with right-turning propellers to alter course at full speed ahead. He also gave the order to reverse the engines – knowing that it would take the engineers some time. In Murdoch’s calculation this time had to be sufficient for a turn to port which leaves enough space between the berg and the ship.

Murdoch’s orders were „Hard-a-starboard, full speed astern“. And he himself worked the engine room telegraphs. This means that – while Murdoch was operating the telegraphs – the Quartermaster was already turning the wheel to the wanted direction.

Another thing I have to add: As long as a ship is still going you can steer it even if the engines are stopped. And the faster a ship is going (even when the engines already are not working any longer), the more it is heeling over to the helm when you order the helm hard over.

The only unknown thing in that caluclation was: How fast is the Titanic following the helm by going at full speed ahead? – I think that she had her weak point in this, because: On some ships the officers are not allowed to give a hard-a-port or hard-a-starboardorder while going at full speed, because the ships would capsize by doing so. Other ships usually are heeling very strongly over to one side when such an order is given. Nothing of that is reported of the Titanic. [2] When talking of the collision, survivors only mentioned a slight shiver or a tearing, grinding noise – this was why they thought something unusual had happened. But if the Titanic had made a really noticeable hard turn to port, I am sure the survivors must have noticed it and added this to their stories, because that would have been another very unusual thing. Just bear in mind that it was a very calm night where no movements of the ship were to be felt, and the Titanic had already proven her steadiness.

(By the way: Commodore Sir James Bisset once recalled an incident, where the helm of the Caronia was ordered hard over to one side to avoid a collision with another ship when going at full speed. People were thrown over, bottles and glassed had been smashed on the floor – everybody felt that order. In my opinion, it is a little bit surprising, that nobody on the Titanic had noticed the effect of the helm order some seconds before the slight shiver and the tearing, grinding noise occured of which everybody who survived the collision was talking of. I think, this leaves only room for one conclusion: The Titanic did not follow the helm very good. [2])

Murdoch wanted to order the helm hard-a-port when the engines are working reversed – and as far as I know he did that (Quartermaster Olliver stated this at the enquiries). But the Titanic had not turned enough to port before the engines were reversed. So the Titanic let Murdoch down. [2]

Maybe Murdoch – not knowing that the Titanic was not very good in following the helm when going at full speed ahead – did not prefer just to reverse the port engine, because he decided that the way he did chose was the faster one, because it took the engineers some time to reverse the engines (time he needed for his chosen manoeuvre), and he must have seen that time was very precious. And maybe Murdoch also thought that the order „hard-a-starboard“ together with just the port engine working astern would cause the Titanic’s stern to swing too close to the iceberg (remember, the stern of a ship is always swinging to the opposite direction than the bow).

When looking from this point of view on Murdoch’s actions on the bridge while trying to avoid the collision, it is much easier to understand 2nd officer Lightoller, who was sure that if Murdoch had had only half a chance to steer his ship clear, he would have done so.
In fact, I am convinced that Murdoch chose a very good way to avoid the collision, even if he did not so what experts suggested afterwards (but who knows how the situation looked to Murdoch when he decided to act like he did? It is very easy to be an expert – with hindsight!). And I think it is highly unfair to criticise this experience officer who did his best in a very bad situation.

About the author: Susanne is 24 years of age and […] lives in Kaltenkirchen, Germany. Her interest in the Titanic started in 1977 after watching a film on the ship on German television.
„I became interested in William McMaster Murdoch in 1990 while preparing a speech on the Titanic for an English lesson, when I started to wonder what officer was on the bridge of the ship when the collision occured; if it was a reliable officer, maybe the best one for that bad situation.“
Susanne has long been a member of the BTS and was at last years Convention, she will be attending Convention ’94 and hopes to meet old friends and make new ones there.

First published: British Titanic Society, Atlantic Daily Bulletin Number 1 1994

[1] This effect happens in all kind of waters.
[2] The other possible explanation, which I did not discuss in 1994 as I did not dare to think that way, is, that the order „hard-a-starboard“ was never given at all. My German language book „Dampfer Titanic: Eisberg voraus“ discusses the last manoeuvre and explores the possibility of a different last manoeuvre as well.