RMS Carpathia: The full heroic aftermath of Titanic

After completing history’s well-documented rescue of survivors from RMS Titanic, Carpathia had a new but delicate and intense role to play. Here’s the untold story of Cunard’s finest hour

Amid dense feelings that pulsed through the very fabric of Cunard's ship, alongside intensive medical care provided to the survivors of RMS Titanic by three onboard doctors, RMS Carpathia was under pressure.

In addition to safely carrying 1,740 people back to New York with engines that had sustained damage the previous night, under the command of an incredibly weary crew, another emerging issue would rise to challenge RMS Carpathia over the next few days.

The world wanted to know what had happened to White Star Line’s ‘unsinkable ship’ and, courtesy of the eyewitnesses aboard, the RMS Carpathia held all the answers.

On land, anxious relatives were desperate for news of Titanic survivors. Equally, and perhaps more worryingly, the world’s media eagerly awaited any scrap of information that they could instantaneously publish.

The downfall of the illustrious RMS Titanic was going to be one of the biggest stories of the 20th century, a scoop almost as big as the unfortunate ship herself. It was an intimidating situation that went against a likely instinct for nothing other than privacy and dignity.

All that stood between Titanic’s traumatised survivors and the rest of the desperate world was Carpathia’s physical structure and the intuition of an empathetic crew.

RMS Carpathia’s new role, alongside providing safe passage for all who sheltered within her, was to remain a stoic and dignified cocoon. She was to be the stern matron of compassion and protection.

She was not going to let them down.

RMS Carpathia hauls a number of RMS Titanic's lifeboats aboard. Credit: Picryl

RMS Carpathia: dignity For Titanic survivors

As living souls from RMS Titanic were hoisted from the cold North Atlantic, RMS Carpathia’s officers - and their first and second-class passengers - gave up their plush accommodation and moved along to third class, enabling Titanic’s survivors to stay in the more pleasant pockets of the humble ship.

Carpathia travelled over the Atlantic for many days while the ship's Purser worked to put together an exact list of the Titanic survivors onboard. It was crucial this list was precise before sharing, as any incorrect information could cause unnecessary and unintended upset elsewhere. The potential domino effect would be crushing for all involved.

Cape Race, Newfoundland, came within range and Carpathia’s crew were naturally keen to relay survivor details to the station. They wished to send a marconigram while requesting that the contents be passed to the New York branch of the White Star Line as soon as possible.

However, Carpathia’s radio system was not as strong as Titanic’s had been and, although within range of Cape Race, the signal proved frustratingly patchy. Messages struggled to get through, and when they did, there was no guarantee that the full relay was received.

Additionally, it did not help that hundreds of urgent messages were bombarding Carpathia from Cape Race. Demanding press telegrams streamed in, many of which offered impressive fees in exchange for exclusive news.

The offers were heard but all fell flat on their face. Carpathia was saying nothing to the media. It didn’t feel right to sell out and throw Titanic’s already traumatised survivors to the hungry media machine.

Captain Rostron was also aware that, in time, there would be an official investigation into the disaster. It was better to say nothing than to say something incorrect. Besides, he also had more important things to do.

Not long before nearing Cape Race - five days after departing from the rescue site - he had read the burial service over four bodies that Carpathia had collected. The journey had proven too long and all four unfortunate souls had to be re-consigned to the sea.

Media pressure or not, Carpathia was not going to yield. Somehow, and against the odds, all facts would have to come directly from the White Star Line office. It was time to call in the big guns.

Sister ships RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic photographed together, Credit: Picryl

RMS Olympic: broadcasting with strength

With a stronger radio signal and edging closer from around a hundred miles away, RMS Olympic – Titanic’s sister ship - was able to assist.

RMS Olympic took details of the survivor’s list from Carpathia and, in turn, relayed this to the White Star Line in New York. Passing details directly between fleet vessels and headquarters was perhaps more appropriate and, for Carpathia’s crew, it was a relief to hand this matter elsewhere.

RMS Olympic would likely have appreciated this important duty after her sorrowful transmissions with Titanic prior. The deluge of messages to Carpathia continued.

Sadly, Titanic’s wireless operator Jack Phillips had perished with Titanic, but his colleague Harold Bride had been rescued; albeit in a rough state and suffering from frostbite.

Despite his condition, he joined Cottam on Carpathia’s radio and did his best to help. Never before had a team effort felt so necessary.

The Captain of RMS Carpathia - Captain Arthur Rostron. Credit: Wikicommons

A captain’s protection

Finally on April 18th, almost a week after Titanic had first called out in distress, Carpathia approached New York harbour. Through the fog, almost fifty vessels made their way out to meet her - including tugs, ferry boats and yachts.

Some of their approaches were prompted by concern but, for the most part, they represented an unpredictable mixture of curiosity, impatience and desperation. As Carpathia’s engines slowed, a voice bellowed out.

Nobody allowed onboard except the Pilot’ ordered Captain Rostron firmly.

This stubborn command was issued for good reason. Carpathia was surrounded by a wide array of vessels, many of whom beckoned her to lower her gangways to let their occupants on board.

Urgent questions were shouted through megaphones and people held up fistfuls of money in an attempt to buy permission to join them aboard. Others resorted to cheap tricks, with one reporter using a substance to get his mouth to foam, hoping this would gain him sympathy and a subsequent haul into Carpathia.

It was a frenzy. Amongst the frightening clamour, it must have felt like being surrounded by sharks. Carpathia had to hold her nerve.

Pushing on, she passed Battery Point where a crowd of thousands awaited them, standing on the pier in the pouring rain. This would have no doubt been an impressive sight had the crew not been rudely interrupted by a tall and unwelcome intruder.

The crew of RMS Carpathia were rightfully recognised for their acts of heroism. Credit: Picryl

An uninvited guest

Unimpressed by the disruption, Rostron approached James Bissett, Carpathia’s Second Officer and said:

‘This man is on board without my permission. See that he does not leave the bridge. When we get to the Pier, hand him over to the Marine Superintendent for necessary action.’

The stranger seemed rather pleased with himself for getting onto Carpathia. It was an attitude that served only to disgust all around him. The distain amplified further still when the stranger opened his mouth.

‘I'm a reporter from the Globe and, boy, have I got the greatest story in the world? I've scooped them all. I've been interviewing the survivors and your crew. Oh, boy, what a story, WHAT A STORY! But now the Captain won't talk!
And who are you, Mister? What's your story?
Is it true that the Titanic's officers shot the third-class women and children dead, so that millionaires could get into the boats? Is it true that you picked up people floating around on lumps of ice? ls it true that the band played 'Nearer, My God, to Thee'? ls it true that dogs were saved and children left to drown?’

You're to stay here until the ship berths!’ the journalist was sternly told. He was ignored and allowed nowhere else.

Outside, the lifeboats from Titanic made a haunting sight as they were dropped off in White Star Line’s Pier 59. This was where Titanic should have arrived to celebratory fanfare.

Instead, RMS Carpathia gently nudged on, finally berthing within Cunard’s Pier 54.

Some of the Titanic passengers began disembarking, their fear of the crowd dissipating with the possibility that friends and relatives were waiting for them on shore. By this stage, many of them wore clothes belonging to the Carpathia’s other passengers or crew.

Tears of joy erupted as some families reunited. Flashlights lit the scene while keen reporters stood ready by the customs sheds.

As they watched from Carpathia, many thoughts and feelings would have run through the minds of Carpathia’s crew. The more reluctant of the Titanic survivors stuck with and overnighted on Carpathia whilst the White Star Line was keen for her crew members to remain within the vessel pending the official inquiry.

Carpathia had done all that she could and, in the harbour, she and the many still aboard rested for the night.

Elsewhere, on both sides of the Atlantic, flags in prominent places flew at half-mast and memorial services commenced as thousands of bereaved mourned their loved ones across the UK, Ireland, America and beyond.

RMS Carpathia docked in New York. Credit: Picryl

In Titanic’s wake

Shortly after the Titanic disaster, RMS Carpathia and her crew were happy to resume normality. However, a few well-meaning others were keen they were acknowledged and rewarded for their admirable efforts in some of the most extraordinary circumstances.

While Carpathia had been busy safely returning her passengers to New York, a charity had been founded on board by the surviving first-class Titanic survivors. They wished to thank Carpathia’s crew as well as look after the less affluent survivors who may have had little to return to.

To acknowledge the role that Carpathia had played as their saviour, the charity raised $15,000. This paid for the creation of 320 medals of bravery. When Carpathia returned to New York, six weeks after first returning from the Titanic disaster - a medal was given to each member of her crew.

The medals showed Carpathia sailing amidst the ice, with each individual piece giving the name of a crew member as well as the following inscription – ‘Presented to the captain, officers and crew of RMS Carpathia, in recognition of gallant and heroic services from the survivors of RMS Titanic, April 15th 1912.’

As well as one of these medals, Captain Rostron also received a prestigious silver cup from the charity and this was presented to him by the infamous Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown. Throughout the American and British investigations, he was praised for Carpathia’s efforts in relation to the disaster.

Every other crew member who had been on Carpathia that night received at least an extra month’s wage in thanks.

From the President of the United States, Captain Rostron was presented with The Congressional Medal of Honour, whilst in the UK, Rostron was knighted by King George V. Soon after, in 1915, Roston became Captain of the Cunard line’s flagship, the Mauretania.

RMS Carpathia’s regular voyages - which had so often taken her back and forth to the Mediterranean – then resumed and she enjoyed an even greater popularity than before thanks to her world-famous rescue.

For over 30 years afterwards and with the same resolution that had come in so useful against the world’s media and their pressing enquiries as Carpathia had progressed towards New York, Captain Rostron never spoke at length about what happened on the night of Titanic’s downfall.

In 1931, Captain Rostron finally published his autobiography ‘Home from the Sea’ and Manchester’s Bolton Evening News was able to capture the following quote from Carpathia’s former Captain – ‘I made a decision not to discuss the matter after the rescue and I have never broken my decision … it was a brother shipmate’s misfortune.’

This quote, accompanied by a few minimal statements in his book, was all Rostron opted to share.

Given all that RMS Carpathia had borne witness to on that awful night, his determination to maintain a dignified silence for so many years was both perfectly understandable and admirable.

Cunard's RMS Carpathia rightfully deserves hero status. Credit: Picryl
Most recent articles

About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

Starting out on Classic Car titles for Bauer's extensive portfolio, Gillian has since moved onto a successful freelance career covering all manner of heritage aspects as both writer and photographer. She is currently involved with the RNLI's bicentenary and was a proud part of the new Land Rover Defender's launch campaign.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.