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April 09, 2012

Fractious Young Officer Unsung Titanic Hero


David Ellis

A TRAVEL writer mate, Malcolm Andrews has just published a ripper of a book about a little-known Australian adventurer, Sir Hubert Wilkins who amongst other things was a war hero, explorer, the first person to fly over both polar icecaps,   only member of the Australian media ever to win a military medal for gallantry, and for good measure a secret agent at different times for both Britain and the United States.

Malcolm called it Hubert Who? because to most people, even a half-century after his death, the extraordinary Sir Hubert Wilkins is still a virtual unknown.

And having finished that book*, maybe Malcolm could now turn his attention to another work he could title Harold Who? Not about an Australian, but an at-times fractious Welsh Fifth Officer aboard the Titanic who famously told his boss, the Chairman of the ship's owners White Star Line who was onboard the fatal sailing, that he was interfering with rescue operations and "to go to hell," ordered a young man out of a lifeboat at gunpoint to make way for women and children, and commanded the only lifeboat to return to the site of the sinking to collect a second boatload of floundering male passengers.

And yet for all this, like Sir Hubert Wilkins, little known is really known of this Welshman, Harold Lowe – although the 1997 movie Titanic did (incorrectly) portray him rescuing a female First Class passenger from a door floating in the ocean.

Harold Godfrey Lowe was born in North Wales in November 1882, and when his father told him he was to be apprenticed to a local businessman, the 14 year old  showed his rebellious spirit and ran away to join the merchant navy as a Ship's Boy. His ambitious nature saw him gain his Second Mate's Certificate ten years later, and at just 29 years of age, his Master's Certificate.

He joined White Star Line in 1911 serving on its Belgic and Tropic before joining Titanic for her ill-fated maiden voyage.

At 8pm on April 14 1912, four nights after Titanic had sailed from Southampton, Harold Lowe retired to bed and was soon in a deep sleep, not even waking when she hit the Atlantic iceberg. He told a subsequent enquiry "we do not have much sleep, and when we sleep, we die."

When he did wake and realised what was happening, Lowe grabbed his revolver and ran to the deck where he had his altercation with the Chairman of the White Star Line, before assisting in getting women and children into a lifeboat and climbing aboard himself.

Realising there was a young man hidden amongst the women, Lowe pointed his pistol in the fellow's face and said "for God's sake be a man, we've women and children to save." The crying young man left the lifeboat, and when a second tried to get aboard Lowe physically threw him back onto the deck, where he was set upon by angry other male passengers.

As his lifeboat was being lowered, Lowe was forced to fire three shots over the side as even more men tried to rush it, and when it hit the water he quickly ordered his crew to row to where several other lifeboats had gathered 150m away. Taking on an extraordinary role in the 2am darkness, Harold Lowe then organised the redistribution of passengers on the lifeboats so that eventually his was empty but for himself and crew.

After Titanic finally slipped into the depths, Lowe moved cautiously towards the site fearing his lifeboat would be capsized by passengers he could hear screaming in the water. He held off until most of the sickening cries had subsided and eventually rescued just four men, one of whom died soon after being taken aboard.

Lowe's lifeboat was picked up by the vessel Carpathia, and on his return home he was presented with a gold watch before 1,300 of his townspeople.

But at a subsequent American Senate Inquiry, when called to give evidence Harold Lowe again showed the fractious side of his nature when a Senator asked if "he knew what an iceberg was composed of?"

Lowe shrugged and replied: "Ice, I suppose, sir."

Harold Lowe died in 1944 aged 61 from hypertension.

 
(* Hubert Who? is published by ABC Books.)

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] THE Titanic sails out of Southampton on her ill-fated maiden voyage.

[] FIFTH Officer Harold Lowe.

[] TITANIC lifeboat (with mast) with Fifth Officer Harold Lowe at the tiller, an historic photo taken from aboard rescue ship Carpathia.

[] ONLY officers to survive the Titanic sinking: l-to-r Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, Third Officer Herbert Pittman (seated,) Fourth Officer Joseph Boxall.

(Images: Wikimedia and White Star Line Library)

 

 

 

 

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