In a few weeks, my family and I will once again he heading off for a holiday in the English countryside.
We’ll pick up our Hertz Car at London’s Heathrow Airport and drive south to my home town of Southampton on the south coast. We always use Hertz as they have over the years proven to be the most reliable of all the car rental companies.
In Southampton it’s difficult to escape the Titanic for it was from there in 1912 that the world’s most luxurious liner left on her ill-fated maiden voyage across the Atlantic. She struck an ice berg and went down on 15 April 1912, leaving more than 1,500 people dead. The ship had been vaunted as “unsinkable.”
Most of the crew who perished came from Southampton.
The story of the doomed voyage is well known, but less known is the role of a Southampton master mariner whose expertise saved more than 700 passengers and crew from almost certain death.
Sir Arthur Rostron was in command of the Cunard Line ship, RMS Carpathia. She was very much a down-to-earth workhorse ship carrying emigrants westbound and American tourists or returning émigrés eastbound.
On April 11, 1912, Carpathia left New York bound for Europe. At about the same time, RMS Titanic was heading west on her maiden voyage to New York.
The 42-year-old Rostron had been an officer with Cunard since 1895. He lived near Chalk Hill Southampton, not far from where my 91 year-old mother lives today.
He had been master of Carpathia for just three months, and with him on board were 700 passengers.
At 12.15am on April 15, Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam was about to turn in for the night when he received the first SOS from Titanic. Cottam immediately ran to Rostron’s cabin to alert him.
Rostron quickly ordered the ship to change course and race towards the Titanic’s reported position, posting extra lookouts to help spot and maneuver around the ice he knew to be in the area. About 58 nautical miles (93 km) separated his ship from Titanic’s position.
Rostron and his crew skillfully obtained the maximum speed possible from the engines of Carpathia, coaxing her up to 17.5 knots – three and a half faster than her rated speed. Even so, Carpathia, travelling through dangerous ice floes, took about 3½ hours to reach the Titanic.
During this time Rostron turned off heating to ensure maximum steam for the ship’s engines and had the ship prepared for the survivors; including getting blankets, food and drinks ready, and ordering his medical crew to stand by to receive the possibly injured survivors.
At 4am, on reaching Titanic’s position, Carpathia’s engines were stopped as the crew, together with many passengers now on deck having been alerted both by the hustle of preparations and the increasing cold in their quarters, strained to see some sign of the ship.
Suddenly, they saw a green flare fired by Titanic lifeboat number two, and the first survivors came aboard at 4.10am; by 8.30am the final person to be rescued stepped aboard Carpathia.
Now carrying double her original complement of passengers, Carpathia steamed slowly among wreckage and icebergs seeking more survivors, but none were found.
The plucky little Carpathia would end up rescuing 710 survivors out of the 2,228 passengers.
In 1926 Rostron was decorated with the highly distinguished Knight Commander of the British Empire. Though praised and decorated for his calm and exemplary actions, Rostron was reluctant to speak publicly about the disaster.
Many years later he was asked how the little ship could have been coerced to travel at such speed, and how she had progressed safely through ice in the dark, the deeply religious Rostron simply replied; “A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night.’’ Commodore Rostron died in 1940 and is buried in the graveyard of West End Church.
My family and I will look for his grave during our visit so we too may pay our respects to this quiet hero of the Titanic disaster.