Newsletter 2012

Wireless, Jack Phillips and The Titanic Disaster

The centenary of the sinking in mid-Atlantic of the White Star liner SS Titanic falls this year. This article centres on the bravery and dedication to duty of the ship’s senior radio officer, Jack Phillips, who lost his life in the disaster. It is taken from chapters 12 and 13 of ‘Wireless at Sea – the first fifty years’ by HE Hancock, (MIMCO, 1950)

There is no doubt that wireless telegraphy was rapidly advancing in popular appreciation; but a far greater event was soon to emphasise the value of this comparatively new science, when the greatest sea disaster of all time, the sinking of the Titanic, on her maiden voyage, shocked the world. The Titanic was the latest and greatest product of British shipbuilding. She was the largest ship in the world and on this, her maiden voyage, was carrying 1348 passengers and a crew of 860. The story has been told so often that it is not necessary again to go into the harrowing details of the disaster. It suffices to say that of those on board the Titanic, a total of 1503 were lost; 504 passengers and 201 of the crew survived, and were picked up by the Cunard liner Carpathia. One tragic feature of the disaster was that possibly many hundreds of other lives might have been saved had it occurred an hour or so earlier; for it was later established that another ship, with one radio officer, was only twenty miles away. Her radio officer, however, had gone off duty after a long day’s work and so did not get the Titanic’s message.

At the time of the collision with the iceberg, the Senior Radio Officer, John (Jack) Phillips, was on watch; within a few minutes of the accident he was joined in the cabin by the Junior Radio Officer, Harold Bride. Almost immediately Captain Smith, the commander of the Titanic, entered the room and said: “We have run against an iceberg; the men are looking round to see what damage has been done, and perhaps it would be as well if you got ready for a call; however, don’t send it until I tell you to do so’.

About ten minutes later the captain was back again looking very serious, but his voice was steady as he said, ‘Call help at once’, and Phillips, using the main transmitter, radiated both the CQD and SOS distress signals calling for help.

The first ship to reply was the German steamer Frankfurt, which was 153 miles south-west of the Titanic’s position. While the operator of the Frankfurt was reporting the news to the bridge, Cottam, the Radio Officer of the Carpathia, established communication with the Titanic, as a result of which the Carpathia immediately altered course to the scene of the accident. On board the sinking liner Phillips spent the last hours of his life in anxious activity, disturbed in his intent listening by the noise of escaping steam, the engines having been stopped for fear of an explosion. As there were no amplifiers of any sort, signals were very weak and could hardly be heard. After Captain Smith had informed both Radio Officers that the ship was not likely to remain afloat more than another half-hour, they began to get their things ready, putting on lifebelts and warm clothes. Then Phillips returned to the transmitter and sent another SOS. At that moment Captain Smith reappeared and said: “You have done everything that can possibly be done; now leave your post and think of yourself”. Phillips, however, worked on for another ten to fifteen minutes. He replied to the Olympic which had just sent the message, ‘Hastening as fast as we can’, ‘Come at once; engine room already flooded’. It was two o’clock.

Wireless Officer’s Bravery

Phillips died at his post – as many a radio officer has done since that date. An eye-witness has told how, with the fore well-deck awash – when the women and children had been placed in the boats and cleared – the captain told the radio officers to ‘shift for themselves’, as the ship was sinking. Instead ‘Mr. Phillips took the telephones up again when the captain had left and restarted work. Mr. Phillips tried to call once or twice more, but the power was failing and there were no replies’. Phillips was last seen standing on the deck house.

The news of the loss of JG Phillips was a source of great sorrow among his colleagues, but his splendid example of self-sacrifice gave them a feeling of pride in his bravery and cool demeanour in time of danger. Those who knew him personally knew that such conduct was characteristic of him. Phillips was a native of Godalming, and was educated at the local grammar school. He started his career as a telegraph learner in the Godalming Post Office, and in March 1906 he joined the Marconi school at Liverpool. In August of that year he was appointed to the operating staff, and sailed on various ships, including the Teutonic, Pretorian and Oceanic. He had also served on the operating staff of the high-power transatlantic wireless station at Clifden for three years until July 1911 (see ‘Marconi in Connemara’, page 6). His example is one of the noble instances of devotion to duty which brighten the annals of wireless telegraphy.

There is, at Godalming, a memorial to John Phillips. It is in the form of a cloister near Godalming Parish Church. It has three cloistered sides and an arcaded wall, from the arches of which charming views are obtained. Around the memorial is a garden planted with shrubs and plants. On a memorial tablet is the inscription:

This cloister is built in memory of John George Phillips, a native of this town, chief wireless telegraphist of the ill-fated SS Titanic. He died at his post when the vessel foundered in mid-Atlantic on the April 15th, 1912.

Those two or three years before the war of 1914-1918 were a tragic period in the history of merchant shipping. The disaster to the Titanic, which occurred in 1912, was followed in 1913 by the burning of the Folturno and the sinking in 1914 of the Empress of Ireland. On no occasion since then, with the exception of the war years when enemy action was responsible for the loss of many a fine ship, has British shipping suffered a major disaster with heavy loss of life.

Marconi himself had said many times that the aspect of wireless which gave him, personally, the greatest gratification was its use in saving life and property at sea. The first application of wireless was to ensure the safety of those who go down to the sea in ships and of the ships in which they sailed. Apart from the means whereby ships could communicate with other ships or with the shore, subsequent applications of the principles of wireless telegraphy have provided additional safety factors, such as the broadcasting of weather reports, time signals, warnings of dangers which might lie ahead, as well as checks on a ship’s position by wireless direction-finding and the depth of water under her keel by echometer sounding device. In the sphere of safety at sea wireless has proved its greatest value, not only in the number of lives saved after disaster may have occurred, but in the prevention of accidents and avoidance of danger as a result of which the number of lives which have been saved is incalculable.