July 17, 1918: Whatever Happened to the Ship That Saved the Titanic Survivors?

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A Brief History

On July 18, 1918, in the latter stage of World War I, the RMS Carpathia, a ship made famous for rescuing 705 of the passengers of the infamous RMS Titanic when she sank in 1912, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by German submarine SM U-55 and sunk, losing only 5 lives in the process, a far different circumstance than the Titanic.

Digging Deeper

Carpathia, completed in 1903, was built for the Cunard Line of shippers, an intermediate sized ship not designed to compete with the very largest and fastest ocean liners, but to operate economically at a profit. Designed originally to carry only 800 passengers and a large quantity of frozen meat (or other cargo), Carpathia had a passenger capacity of 1700 when finally launched. Only 2 years later, in 1905, she was refitted to carry a quite respectable 2550 passengers. Capable of only about 15 knots top speed, she was 558 feet long and displaced 13,555 tons. Boasting only a single funnel at a time when the number of funnels (aka smokestacks) were a matter of prestige, Carpathia was intended to carry passengers of more modest means, such as immigrants than the luxury clientele sought after by more impressive ships. Only 100 of her passengers could travel in First Class, and another 200 in Second Class, the remainder in Third Class. In this regard Carpathia succeeded, helping Cunard remain profitable and independent.

Colour profile view of Carpathia as she appeared from 1903 to 1905

On April 14-15, 1912, Carpathia responded to the SOS distress call from the RMS Titanic, which had struck an iceberg and was sinking. Captain Arthur Henry Rostron quickly grasped the dire nature of the call and issued orders for Carpathia to respond to Titanic’s location with all haste. All steam was ordered directly to the engines and extra men were assigned as stokers. These measures enabled Carpathia to exceed her designed speed by a couple knots, and Carpathia arrived at the disaster scene 58 miles away only 3 ½ hours after receiving the SOS call. The prompt response and urgency directed by Carpathia’s captain and the life saving efficiency of her crew resulted in a remarkable rescue of over 700 of Titanic’s passengers from the icy waters. Rescue preparations continued from the time of the SOS call until all survivors had been taken aboard. These preparations included pre-lowering Carpathia’s lifeboats, having blankets and hot drinks standing by with attendants, the medical staff alerted and in position to assist, spaces made available for survivors, and even quickly jury-rigging chair lifts to hoist children and infirm people aboard Carpathia, all this done while en route to the disaster. Captain Rostron and his crew were given great accolades for their excellent rescue efforts. Rostron was awarded a Gold Medal by the American Congress and later became Commodore of the Cunard Fleet and was Knighted. Interestingly, this highly regarded seaman was a devout believer in sea serpents!

Arthur Henry Rostron, R.D., R.N.R., as master of RMS Carpathia

During World War I Carpathia was pressed into service by the Royal Navy and was used to transport Canadian and then American troops and cargo to and from Europe. Some trips were made as part of a convoy, and some voyages were solo affairs. On July 15, 1918, Carpathia carried only 57 passengers and 166 crew when she left Liverpool with a convoy for Boston. While off Ireland she was spotted by the German submarine, SM U-55, which fired a torpedo while submerged at the big ship, striking a severe blow to the Carpathia. A second torpedo followed the first, also striking the hapless liner. U-55 surfaced and fired a third torpedo, also striking the doomed ship. Incredibly, all but 5 of the crew and all the passengers were safely evacuated and rescued by another ship after the U-55 was approaching Carpathia’s life boats and was scared off.

Carpathia sinks after being struck by three torpedoes fired by U-55 west off Land’s End

In 1999, the wreck of Carpathia was believed to have been discovered, but rough weather prevented a positive identification of the wreck. In 2000, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) led by author Clive Cussler (writer of adventure and thriller novels often featuring his daring character, “Dirk Pitt”) located the actual wreck in 500 feet of water, the ship having landed on the bottom upright. The wreck is owned by Premier Exhibitions Inc., a company known for its display of relics from the RMS Titanic and an exhibition called “BODIES… The Exhibition” featuring human cadavers in various poses, located in China.

Promotional poster.

One thing we were unable to determine about the RMS Carpathia… the origin of her name! There is a region in Europe called “Carpathian Ruthenia” in what is now the Ukraine, and there are “Carpathian Mountains,” but there is no actual place called “Carpathia.” Not only that, but we were unable to find any reason the Cunard Line decided to give their ship this name. If you know, please share that information with us!

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Baird, William. RMS Carpathia: Triumph and Tragedy of the Titanic Rescue Ship. CreateSpace, 2017.

Clements, Eric. Captain of the Carpathia: The seafaring life of Titanic hero Sir Arthur Henry Rostron. Conway, 2016.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.