Titanic’s hero: RMS Carpathia – the greatest steamship of all time

The phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" never applied to a ship more than Cunard’s RMS Carpathia. She was a hero-in-waiting but, upon first glance, no one likely realised it

To be honest, RMS Carpathia was about as run-of-the-mill as ships came.

Designed to take the slack from larger vessels, akin to an ocean-going dogsbody destined for unglamorous yet necessary donkey work, the humble Cunard steamship was never built to set society alight.

Yet – almost like a board meeting between destiny, fate and history – circumstance would lay foundations for RMS Carpathia’s celebrity status, before wartime heroism sealed her fearless reputation. And, just like all great ships, she was born of the ‘grim North’.

Crafted by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson of Newcastle, RMS Carpathia was built as a modest twin screw steamer that carried four masts and a single – yet distinctive – bright-red funnel, complete with a fashionable topping of black paint.

Measuring 558 feet lengthways and just over 64 feet in breadth, Carpathia was considered an intermediate vessel at a meagre 13,564-tons – making her somewhat diminutive when compared to the celebrated likes of RMS Olympic.

Possessing eight-cylinder quadruple engines that hailed from the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co – situated just a mile down the Tyne from the Swan Hunter shipyard – Carpathia had a service speed of roughly 14 knots; which was practically walking pace when compared to bigger and more luxurious vessels.

She wasn’t bound for immediate greatness as a societal juggernaut, either. Carpathia would chiefly serve within the immigration service, alongside two similarly-endowed Cunard liners, the SS Ivernia and RMS Saxonia.

As one of three unofficial sister ships, Carpathia’s upcoming career would see her crisscross the North Atlantic between Europe and America, but not in the saluted format that luxury liners demanded.

She would support RMS Aurania - almost twenty years her senior – as well as traversing the Boston route from Liverpool when needed. Her inventory largely had to fit around the industry leviathans, filling in the gaps left by Cunard's flagships.

Although respected by those within Cunard Line and also by those who sailed aboard her, the media fixation on larger and more decadent vessels ensured that RMS Carpathia lurked on the outer rungs of culture’s radar.

That was, until one fateful event in 1912 splashed her name across the headlines, earning the recognition she deserved.

RMS Carpathia offered hidden luxuries to those who travelled aboard. Credit: Picryl

RMS Carpathia: A class of her own

To facilitate her duties, Carpathia initially held accommodation for some 1,600 third-class and 200 second-class passengers. At launch in August 1902, there was no first-class section aboard – leaving society’s elite aghast.

Where would they get their caviar served on fine-bone china when onboard? Would they have to mingle with the proletariat? Swoon.

However, Carpathia gave no reason to be ashamed. She boasted a high-quality fitout that easily superseded rival liners of a similar level. It was (and still remains) the Cunard way.

Unusually for the time, meals were included within the third-class fares while the space available to passengers was generous enough to offer provisions in several communal rooms.

Amongst the rich upholstery, mahogany furniture, golden port curtains, stained-glass dome and walnut panelling, even if a passenger opted to sail third-class with Carpathia, they could still hold their head high knowing that their third-class passage was superior to others.

Christened by Miss Watson – daughter of Cunard’s vice-chairman – RMS Carpathia departed on her first voyage from Liverpool on May 5, 1903 and aimed for New York via Queenstown. She quickly became a firm favourite among her leisure cruisers, earning a loyal following.

As she plied her trade, Carpathia proved a slightly odd but successful union of modesty combined with recognised generosity – a characteristic trait that would rise to the fore when it truly mattered.

The Titanic disaster claimed the lives of over 1500 people. RMS Carpathia rescued 705 from the icy waters. Credit: Picryl

The Titanic disaster

On April 11, 1912, RMS Carpathia gently nudged out into the River Hudson. Commencing a routine voyage and departing from New York, as she glided out of the port’s smooth waters, nobody expected any abnormal developments.

The voyage paled in comparison to White Star Line’s RMS Titanic, setting off on a well-publicised maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, but that didn’t faze Carpathia’s passengers. After all, Carpathia’s offerings remained the best kept cruise secret on the market.

The two ships would tread the same route from opposite sides of the North Atlantic, unaware that kismet would splice both names into the history books as a duo.

"CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD SOS. Come at once. We have struck a berg. CQD old man."

Titanic’s unexpected post-midnight call relayed her position as 41.46 N., 50.14 W. Carpathia was 58 nautical miles away from the given coordinates, and, once made aware of the situation having been awoken from his sleep, Captain Arthur Rostron immediately ordered Carpathia to be brought about.

Headed towards Titanic as quickly as possible
, Carpathia told Titanic they were on their way, with all speed, but that they would take four hours to reach her. All anyone could do was pray that Titanic didn’t sink before Carpathia got there.

Despite the potential damage to the powerplant, Captain Rostron asked Carpathia – who usually travelled at 14 knots or under – to give all she had. Extra firemen were ordered to her boiler room while hot water and heating systems were shut off to direct all steam to the engines.

She picked up pace, speeding through the night at 17-17.5 knots, running her boilers until they over-pressurised and inflicted damage on the engines. It was an all or nothing as a mercy dash, but ultimately too late for RMS Titanic. The 'unsinkable' liner plunged into the depths at 2:20am on April 15.

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

Titanic’s hero

In the water where Titanic had met her demise, lifeboats and survivors were fighting against the bitter cold of the North Atlantic, just one degree above freezing.

Within the lifeboats, survivors listened to the hundreds more who were fighting for, but ultimately losing, their lives. These were people they knew – the crew who had served them, people they’d worked alongside, friends, family, husbands, wives and children.

The nearing Carpathia now began to navigate between icebergs and growlers in the ice field where Titanic had foundered. Forced to frustratingly weave what must’ve seemed an inefficient course towards where she was needed, Carpathia was finally greeted by a horrific scene.

It was now 4am and an island of debris marked where Titanic had gone down. Around this spot were numerous dead, many wearing their lifejackets and floating frozen in the water. The engines from Wallsend, which had given so very much, were stopped.

Titanic’s lifeboats began making their way towards Carpathia, their survivors numbed with cold, in shock and weeping. Captain Rostron ordered priority be given to the lifeboat survivors for many of the boats were overcrowded and could capsize at any time.

Where a lifeboat struggled to come over, Carpathia instead picked her way through the ice to meet them. Under her notable load of sorrow, the Cunard steamship then commenced her return to New York.

Shortly after the Titanic disaster, RMS Carpathia and her crew were naturally keen to resume normality. Regular voyages - which had so often taken her back and forth to the Mediterranean – then restarted with greater popularity than before, largely down to her world-famous rescue.

For the next two years, the ship enjoyed elevated status on the cruise scene. She was the hero of the decade, and worshipped by travellers and socialites. If you turned up to check the timetable and Carpathia was your scheduled vessel, it was an outright cause for celebration - but there was trouble on the horizon.

The great RMS Carpathia photographed when shiny and new. Credit: Picryl

To war

In June 1914, the purpose and fate of many a Cunard ship was about to change. The Great War had broken out, and it wasn’t long before the British government requested Cunard politely undertook its wartime duty.

In England, thanks to an agreement dating from 1903 that had revolved around the construction of both the Lusitania and Mauretania, Cunard knew both of these ships would be pressed into service.

The line obliged, and soon Cunard ships began ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops, and several million tons of cargo, across the globe.

Still modest but as willing as she’d ever been, RMS Carpathia was also requisitioned for military purposes. She was tasked with transferring Canadian and American forces over to Europe. While enlisted, her distinctive red funnel took on a more sombre hue of battle grey.

As she performed her wartime duty, Carpathia usually travelled in convoy. This was the case on 15th July 1918 when she departed from Liverpool to head for Boston. Aboard were 166 crew as well as 57 passengers.

By this time, it was common for ships like Carpathia to travel in a less efficient zig-zag course. This was dictated by military procedure, for submarine attacks were entirely possible - even for non-fighting ships.

There was a thinking of ‘safety in numbers’ and the voyages were deliberately abstract to confuse the enemy and reduce the chances of detection at sea.

The danger was very real. Catastrophically, the great Lusitania had sunk in only twenty minutes just two years prior in one of the most callous and controversial acts of modern naval warfare. Taken down by a torpedo, she foundered within sight of the Irish coast and took 1,988 souls with her.

The horror of Lusitania’s end very much hammered home what was going on in Europe to America, with the widely-acknowledge barbarity being utilised and many subsequently enlisting within Ireland and North America.

Carpathia was neither as large, or as tough, as Lusitania had been - but still she bravely carried on. She was the 'little ship that could'.

The RMS Carpathia sinks following confrontation with German torpedoes. Credit: Wikicommons

Lost to enemy action

On 17th July 1918, Carpathia’s well-known and noble career was to end not long after she’d passed the island of Fastnet on the southern coast of Ireland.

She’d progressed some 120 miles west of this location when, at 9.15am, a similar fate to that of her acquaintance - Lusitania - approached via two torpedoes.

The first of these missiles was spotted on its approach. Carpathia’s engines were thrown full-astern, sharply turning the helm hard a-starboard. It was a similar dodge tactic ordered by Titanic’s First Officer Murdoch in the hope of missing the iceberg that lain dead ahead.

Like Titanic striking the iceberg, Carpathia’s valiant attempt to avoid disaster also failed.

The first torpedo struck the port side, quickly followed by a second that decimated the engine room, killing five on board and effectively removing her ability to escape. This second hit also took out her radio.

Her enemy - the submarine SM U-55 of the Imperial German Navy - cared nothing for her heroic past. Carpathia had been reduced to a target without hope and she began taking on water.

At this point, Captain William Prothero used flags to signal the other ships in their convoy. He requested that they send out wireless messages. They did so while, simultaneously and as would be expected in such a situation, the convoy broke up and steamed away at full speed from SM U-55.

Desperate rockets fired from Carpathia to attract the attention of nearby patrol boats while Prothero gave the order for 218 survivors to abandon ship.

Carpathia’s lifeboats were dispatched as quickly as was humanly possible while the Captain and his officers busied themselves with throwing confidential books and documents overboard. Soon after, one of the lifeboats re-approached, collecting the final few on board. Carpathia was now on her own.

U-55 surfaced once more, and fired another torpedo at Carpathia. This third strike hit the gunner’s room, igniting a huge explosion that ensured Carpathia would never see service again. U-55 turned and began to approach the lifeboats with murder in mind.

Thankfully, Carpathia’s rockets had been sighted and here entered HMS Snowdrop, an Azalea-class naval sloop, who opened fire on U-55 and drove her away.

Just look at her. What a ship. RMS Carpathia may be gone, but she's not forgotten. Credit: Picryl

Resting off Ireland

Meanwhile, Carpathia had slipped under the waves. This added to the cruelty of the war on Cunard, who had by now lost five steamships in as many weeks. Only five more remained from their previously large pre-war fleet.

Much as Carpathia had admirably done for the survivors from Titanic, over the next two hours, HMS Snowdrop located Carpathia’s lifeboats and picked up her survivors. They and HMS Snowdrop arrived in Liverpool the following evening on 18th July, heavy-hearted by further wartime loss.

The Carpathia then fell into legendary status, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the ship’s wreck was accurately located in 500 ft of water, some 120 miles west of Fastnet.

Smothered in tonnes of fishing nets and subjected to decades’ worth of intense currents, the remains of RMS Carpathia are not in a good way.

Diving operations to RMS Carpathia are rare
, with the wreck’s location proving dangerous and difficult to access. Entombed within inky blackness and engulfed by solitude, history’s greatest steamship deserves better.

Her legacy as Titanic’s hero, and also as a war veteran, ensures that Carpathia’s name remains a firm part of our cultural DNA, routinely spoken about and respected by new generations. And that’s just the way it should be.

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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.

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. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.