23rd November 2017

‘I called…and enquired whether I could assist in any way…’

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has rekindled memories of two Shetlanders who were involved in the tragedy, writes Jim Tait

Scalloway man Walter Gray, who with his wife later founded the Walter and Joan Gray Memorial Home in the village, was working as a radio operator for Marconi on the east coast of Canada at the time of the disaster.

In his book The Life Story of an Old Shetlander,published in 1970, Mr Gray recalls his involvement in the incident:

“My operator friend Philips, who had been the last to bid me goodbye when I embarked on the Empress of Britain, on coming to Canada, was now serving on the SS Oceanic and I made a point of saying ‘How Do’ to him when his ship was in communication with Cape Race.

“During our brief chat – restrictions of these liberties were not nearly so severe then as they became later – he informed me that he was booked to join the grand new ship Titanic as chief wireless operator on her maiden voyage.

“Naturally, as the day approached which would bring the ship within range of Cape Race, we kept an unusually sharp lookout for her. After all, not only was she the wonder ship of the age, with every known safety device incorporated, until she was regarded as unsinkable, but we also had a monetary interest in the fact that with a large number of world-famous passengers on board there was bound to be a heavy exchange of private messages which, of course meant revenue for our station.

“Communication was established early on Sunday, April 14th, and, as anticipated, there were many messages on hand for transmission to us. At this time the ship was upwards of 700 miles SSE of us, a much greater-than-average range in those days.

“That evening I took a trick between 8-9pm and after clearing 35 messages from the ship, held brief conversation with Philips. He emphasized the magnificence of the vessel, the wonderful group of passengers and the good time being had by all.

“Later in the evening the second operator called out ‘Mr Gray the Titanic has struck an iceberg and is calling CQ.D’. I immediately dropped what I was doing and ran to the operating room. Donning the headphones, I heard Philips call for help using both distress calls, CQD and the newly-introduced SOS. His call included the ship’s position in latitude and longitude, weather conditions, and the story of striking the berg.

“When he ceased, I called the Titanic and inquired whether I could assist in any way. Philips thanked me and asked me to stand by.

“Meantime, more than one ship had heard the call and were engaging Philips in communication. Philips had contacted quite a number of ships with a number of them changing course to come to the Titanic’s assistance.

“Of course, it must be remembered that in the early stages, no-one quite realized the gravity of the situation and that for an hour or more there was no thought of the ship sinking, for was not the Titanic an unsinkable ship? Perhaps the master and his officers knew differently, but elsewhere it was not recognised.

“It was only when Phillips announced at 2am ‘we are now sinking slowly by the head, putting women and children off in boats, weather remains clear and calm’, that the horror gripped.

“A short time after 2am a very weak distorted signal was heard and the Virginian being much closer picked up what they thought was Philips’ voice trying to get a message out and that was the last word from the radio operator.”

Lerwick man Thomas Manson, who was later to become editor of the now defunct Shetland News, was a crewman on the ship which went to the aid of the Titanic.

Mr Manson had previously been involved with the Arctic whaling industry but left when guns became involved, a practice he viewed as being wrong. He joined the Cunard Line and became a master of arms on the Carpathia.

The Carpathia, herself a 8,600 ton trans-Atlantic steamer, was sailing from New York to Fiume in Austria-Hungary (now Rijeka, Croatia) on the night of Sunday 14th April 1912.

The wireless operator, Harold Cottam, had missed previous messages from Titanic as he was on the bridge at the time. He then received messages from Cape Race, Newfoundland, stating that they had private traffic for the Titanic. He thought he would be helpful and at 12.11am on 15th April sent a message to the Titanic stating that Cape Race had traffic for them. In reply he received Titanic’s distress signal.

Captain Arthur Henry Rostron was awakened and immediately set a course at maximum speed (17 knots) to the Titanic’s last known position, approximately 58 miles away. Capt Rostron ordered the ship’s heating and hot water to be cut off in order to make as much steam as possible available for the engines.

At 4am the Carpathia arrived at the scene, after working her way through dangerous ice fields, and took on 705 survivors of the disaster from the Titanic’s lifeboats.

Following the rescue the crew of the Carpathia received commendations and medals from the survivors. The ordinary crewmembers received bronze medals, the officers silver medals and Capt Rostron, who was later knighted, a silver cup and a gold medal.
However, Mr Manson disagreed with the honours as it was the crew who did all the work, so he chose to accept a bronze medal only.

The Carpathia was used as a troopship by the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War and was sunk in the Atlantic on 17th July 1918 after being torpedoed by an Imperial German Navy U-boat.

By that time Mr Manson was back in Lerwick working as editor of his family’s newspaper The Shetland News.

The framed certificate which he received along with the medal from the Titanic survivors is now owned by his great-granddaughter Barbara.

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