Did the Titanic Really Sink? The Olympic Switch Theory

In the early hours of April 15th, the British passenger liner RMS Titanic, owned by the White Star Line, collided with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. At the time, some believed the ship to be “practically unsinkable” because of her system of watertight compartments, of which four could be flooded and the ship would still remain afloat. However, the iceberg tore a series of holes along the side of the hull, flooding six compartments, which sealed the ships fate. Less then three hours after the collision, Titanic would lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean…or did it? There is a rather fascinating and compelling conspiracy theory that Titanic was switched with her sister ship, Olympic, and was purposefully sank as part of an insurance scam!

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 6 March 1912: Titanic (right) moved out of the drydock to allow her sister Olympic to replace a damaged propeller blade.

As I have previously said, no event of any significance in the world takes place without generating a flutter of conspiracy speculation, and the sinking of Titanic,  perhaps the most iconic ship in history with its tragic story known worldwide, is no exception. Some believe that it was sank, not by an iceberg, but a torpedo from a German submarine. Supporters of this theory pointed out that several survivors heard explosions after the ship began to sink. Others believe that the presence of a cursed ancient Egyptian priestess mummy named Amen-Ra caused the ship to collide with an iceberg and sink. According to folklore, the artefact which has acquired the popular nickname of the ‘Unlucky Mummy’ has brought nothing but misfortune for those in contact with it. However, the British Museum say not only that there is no truth to any of this, but that rather than currently resting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the Unlucky Mummy (which isn’t actually a mummy) is currently on display in their Egyptian section. By far the most popular conspiracy that was put forward was by Robin Gardiner in his book, ‘Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank’, which theorises that Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, disguised as Titanic, sank that night.

To say reading the book was tedious would be an understatement. I was bored out of my mind and had to constantly fight the urge to put it down. Looking back, I’m surprised I managed to make it to the end, although I did skip the odd paragraph. The reason why I found it really difficult to stay focused was because only a very small percentage of the book is actually dedicated to convincing the reader that there was something nefarious about the sinking of Titanic. The rest of the book is nothing but pointless filler designed to distract the viewer from the fact that very little evidence of a conspiracy is presented in this book.

Titanic- The Ship That Never Sank

Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank

The book theorises that the switch took place after Olympic was damaged in 1911 when it collided with the HMS Hawke. The collision happened as the two ships were sailing parallel to one another when, according to the subsequent Royal Navy inquiry, the Hawke was pulled towards Olympic due to her large displacement. The Hawke’s bow, which was designed to sink ships by ramming them, punctured Olympic’s starboard side, both above and below the water, flooding two of her water-tight compartments, and twisted a propeller shaft. Because Olympic was found to be at blame in the collision, the White Star’s insurers, Lloyd’s of London, allegedly refused to pay out on the claim, which would have resulted in serious financial loss for the company.

Picture of the damage after the collision.

Engineers spent over two weeks making temporary repairs to Olympic, allowing her to return to Belfast, where she was moored next to her sister ship, Titanic. According to the book, it was here where it was discovered that the damage from the collision was more severe than first thought. Her keel had been bent, giving her a constant list to port, and it became apparent that she would need extensive repairs, which were uneconomical. At this point, Olympic had only made four transatlantic trips from Southampton to New York, leaving the White Star Line with a potentially huge financial loss, which could have resulted in the collapse of the company. It was at this time, at least according to the book, that a plan was hatched to allow White Star to not only collect the full insured value of a brand new ship, but also to have a fully working ship that continues to make transatlantic journeys. All they needed to do was to swap Olympic with Titanic, stage an accident where they would sink her, and then claim on the insurance.

Olympic and Titanic are almost identical, with the majority of objects on either being standard White Star issue. The very few items that bore the name of the ship like lifeboats, bells, and name plates, according to the book, could easily be removed and swapped with one another. Once the swap was complete, the plan was then to sink Olympic disguised as Titanic on the way from Southampton to New York. Close to the site chosen to stage the accident was the SS California, who was tasked with picking up survivors. However, whilst faking the sinking of Olympic disguised as Titanic, they accidentally sank Olympic and killed over 1,500 people. The book states that a smaller mystery ship, which was somehow part of the plan accidentally crashed into the side of Olympic and then confused the crew of the California by firing its distress rockets.

This conclusion did not make it into Titanic: The Shocking Truth, the documentary based on the book. Instead, it concludes that Olympic was simply off-course when staging the sinking. It also put forward the hypothesis that this is the reason why the California did not come to the rescue, despite seeing the distress rockets, believing it to be another vessel in trouble.

Technical issues make the documentary almost unwatchable and, despite being less than an hour long, like the book, I struggled to make it to the end. The DVD was published in 2012 but the choice of aspect ratio, low quality of video, and constant soft-focus makes me believe it was shot sometime in the late 90s where it was no doubt trying to cash in on the Titanic craze. It’s also quite clear that whilst recording the documentary they had audio issues, which is why everything the narrator Peter Willis says is badly dubbed over. For all its failings, it does an adequate job of presenting the evidence from the book that a switch did happen. So, in no particular order, here are rebuttals to what I consider the best evidence the book and documentary put forward that a swap took place.

1. Olympic and Titanic Were Practically Identical

At first glance, Olympic and Titanic seem identical after all they were constructed fro the same set of plants however a number of improvements were made to Titanic during Olympic’s construction and after her maiden voyage. Many of these differences were structural, meaning that any switch would have been extensive, time consuming and very expensive undertakings. For example, the forward half of A-deck on Titanic was enclosed with glass screens, whereas Olympic’s deck was open. The two ships also have different spacing between their windows on B-deck, which on Titanic also go back further. B-deck internally was also drastically different on both ships, with Olympic having a promenade, whereas Titanic had guest rooms that were flush with the side of the ship.

Not only does the documentary not mention this glaringly obvious difference between the two ships, but it suggests that all the work needed to swap the ships could be done by a handful of men over one weekend. To give credit where credit is due, the book does mention some of the external differences such as the enclosed sections on titanic, but downplayed the effort it would not only take to make Titanic look like Olympic, but also to make Olympic look like Titanic.

Both the documentary and the book mention one notable difference that those who were tasked with swapping the ships seem to have forgotten. Titanic only had 14 bow portholes whereas Olympic has 16 and clearly, the ship photographed departing Southampton had 16!

At launch, Titanic did indeed have only 14 portholes on the port side on C deck, however, In December 1911, during her fit out, she had 2 added to light the crew galley and wash room. What’s interesting is that at this time, Olympic also only had 14 portholes, and it was not until March 1912, after the Titanic, that two additional portholes were added. Hence why post-Titanic-sinking images of Olympic also have this 16 porthole configuration.

This part of the conspiracy always struck me as a little strange. If I wanted to convince people the ships were swapped, I would point out that Olympic only had 14 portholes, but mysteriously after Titanic sank, she had 16 – the same number as the Titanic. I would also point out that she gained these extra portholes when both her and Titanic where together in Belfast.

2. Keeping the Swap Secret

We all know that the actors in low budget documentaries are never going to win an Oscar, but in Titanic: The Shocking Truth, they take it to another level. It contains a particularly hilarious “re-enactment” of a conversation between two Irish dockworkers, one of which knows that the ships have been swapped. Just as he finishes telling his friend in a thick Irish accent, an English man grabs his head and says the following.

“Listen to me paddy! Any more talk from you about two ships being swapped over and you will end up at the bottom of the River Lagan. So remember that when you get back to your wife and your 17 kids. You Irish scum!”

Looking past the hilariously awful acting and jarring tonal change, this scene is a lazy attempt to cover up a huge hole in the switch theory. As I have previously mentioned, there are major differences between Titanic and Olympic, and it would take more than a handful of men and one weekend, as the documentary states, to accomplish the swap. Are we really meant to believe that all the people involved took this secret to their grave?

3. Titanic’s Propeller Was Found at the Shipwreck

According to both the book and the documentary, Olympic’s starboard propeller was badly damaged after the collision with the Hawke and needed replacing. When she arrived back at Belfast, all resources were pulled from Titanic in order to return her to service as soon as possible. To speed up repairs, the decision was made to install a propeller destined for Titanic on Olympic. When the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985, pictures taken of her starboard propeller revealed Titanic’s serial number, 401, on the blade. This was the same blade that was given to Olympic after the accident with the Hawke, and therefore the ship at the bottom of the ocean is not the Titanic.

The collision with the Hawke damaged Olympic’s propeller shaft, and not her propeller. A replacement was taken from Titanic, allowing repairs to the Olympic to be finished within 6 weeks. It was a few months after the accident with the Hawke that Olympic damaged one of her propellers, which also needed to be replaced. However, this time they could not simply take Titanic’s, as the two ships had differently pitched propeller blades. Not that they would have to, because Olympic had a spare just like Titanic (which was used for memorials after the disaster). Olympic’s spare was installed, and Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage using her own propellers.

4. “Titanic” on Her Maiden Voyage Was Listing to Port

Both the book and documentary state that the collision with the Hawke warped Olympic’s keel and gave her a permanent 2 degree list to port. Coincidentally, photographs taken of Titanic leaving Southampton do show a slight port list, which was corroborated by those who survived the disaster.

It is not unusual, however, for ships even today to have a slight list due to improper ballasting. Whilst it is true that the ship that left Southampton on April 14th was listing to port, conspiracy theories never mention that it only did so for one day. If it was Olympic disguised as Titanic, this list would never have been corrected, which brings me onto my next point – the accident with the Hawke never warped Olympic’s keel to begin with, which is why she operated for months after the accident before the switch allegedly took place!

For the switch theory conspiracy to work, you have to ignore the timing of events and the fact that Olympic was operating for months between her accident and before a damaged propeller forced her home to Belfast. It is here where the switch apparently took place, because up until this point not only was Titanic not complete, but previous repairs to Olympic caused her maiden voyage to be delayed. So, if the accident with The Hawke warped Olympic’s keel, making her unseaworthy, and Titanic was not finished at this point, what was making the crossing to-and-fro over the Atlantic!?!?

5. Letters Fall off Shipwreck to Reveal the Name Olympic

This one has to be seen to be believed! The movie alleges that two of the letters on the Bow of the ship that once said “Titanic” have now fallen off and revealed the letters “M” and “P” underneath.

I don’t know who they are trying to fool. The footage is clearly computer generated, and even for the late 90s/early 2000s, it looks poor. It’s also incredibly lazy and it looks nothing like the actual Bow of the Titanic.

The final nail in the coffin for this conspiracy theory is that the ship that set sail on April 14th was under-insured by $2.5 million. Titanic cost approximately $7.5 million to build, yet it was only insured for a value of $5 million. What’s worse is that, according to a New York Times article published a few weeks after the disaster, the “aggregate property loss is placed by The Spectator at $9,420,000”, which resulted in heavy losses for the company. I am not sure how anyone could look at these facts and come to the conclusion that the sinking of Titanic was an insurance scam.

It’s easy to forget, when talking about the Titanic, that is was a tragedy where over 1,500 people lost their lives. Just like so many conspiracy theories centred around tragic historical events, we should never allow these peoples’ history to be distorted or rewritten. The ship that sank in the Atlantic in 1912 was most certainly the Titanic, and if it wasn’t, you are going to have to show me more than the evidence presented in this book and documentary to prove it to me.

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About Myles Power (671 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

1 Comment on Did the Titanic Really Sink? The Olympic Switch Theory

  1. An excellent and concise debunking of this incredibly annoying theory, thank you!

    A few additional points and corrections I’d like to offer:

    * The Leyland Line steamer was “Californian” with an N at the end. Titaniacs won’t let that one go. ;P

    * In addition to B Deck, there were numerous other differences, most notably the Turkish Bath facility. Its arrangement was totally different and smaller on Titanic, and it’s that arrangement we find in the wreck today. Olympic’s was never changed. Titanic’s Officers Quarters and Wheel House were also quite different, with additional passenger cabins and a smaller Wheel House with a different forward wall. It only adds to the amount of work needed to switch them.

    * There’s another important point: Nearly every piece of paneling (if not all) was stamped with the ships’ yard numbers; 400 for Olympic, 401 for Titanic of course, and 433 for Britannic. When Olympic was scrapped, most of its paneling was auctioned off. All of the pieces which have a stamp all bear “SS 400.” To this day, there has not been one single piece of Olympic paneling found to bear “SS 401” on the back, or any account of there being one. There were thousands, if not almost tens of thousands, of pieces of paneling that would have needed to be switched between the ships to ensure nobody would find such a thing. To me, this is the single best piece of evidence in the fact of how much work it would have taken.

    * Small correction, but it’s “yard number” instead of serial number. Technically Titanic didn’t have a serial number, just a yard number – 401st place in Harland and Wolff’s order book – and registration number, which was 131428.

    * Titanic’s port list was never really corrected. The list was caused by the shifting of coal between bunkers during the coal fire, and while the coal fire was put out before the sinking, the imbalance and list persisted until the sinking. In fact, it’s been argued the port list helped to buy Titanic more time, that the ship would have capsized early on if not for the list.

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