Captain E.J. Smith - R.M.S. 'Olympic' and Two Collisions
The White Star Line launched a new class of ship - known as the Olympic class - and as one of the most experienced sea captains Smith, now holding the rank of commander, was called upon to take command of the maiden voyage of RMS Olympic from Southampton to New York in June 1911.
At 45,324 gross register tons, 882ft 9 inches in length and 9 decks tall, the largest ship in the world, attracted great attention, with the White Star Line timing the start of her first voyage to coincide with the launch of her sister ship Titanic.
But as the ship was docking at Pier 59 in New York harbour on the 21st of June 1911, one of twelve tugs assisting was caught in the backwash of the Olympic, spun around and collided with the larger ship and was momentarily trapped. However this was a minor incident compared to later in the year.
The Hawke Collision
The first indications of what was to come occurred on Olympic's fifth voyage on September 20th, 1911, when she had her hull badly damaged in a collision with the Royal navy cruiser HMS Hawke while leaving Southampton. The warship lost her prow and the collision left two of Olympic's compartments filled and one of her propeller shafts twisted. No one was seriously injured or killed and the Olympic was able to return to Southampton under her own power. Although the ship was technically under the control of the harbour pilot, Captain Smith was still in command of Olympic at the time of the incident. The Admiralty inquiry found that the Olympic had indeed been responsible for the collision but absolved Smith specifically of blame, for his ship was under compulsory pilotage.
However, the incident turned into a financial disaster for the White Star Line, as the voyage to New York had to be abandoned and the Olympic taken to Belfast for repairs, which took a good six weeks and also slightly delayed the construction of Titanic.
It was not until 11th of December, 1911, that Smith rejoined his ship. During the remainder of the time that he served aboard Olympic there were two further -though lesser- incidents, striking a sunken wreck and having to have a broken propeller replaced in February 1912, and nearly running aground while leaving Belfast.
Photographs and Film Shot on the Olympic
Due to the publicity surrounding the maiden voyage of the Olympic we fortunately have quite a number of photographs and even some movie footage of the ship and its captain.
Firstly there is a series of photographs on the boat deck of the Olympic with Lord William J Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders behind the new Olympic class ships, taken during June 1911.
Above and right: Captain Smith on the boat deck of RMS Olympic, June 1911, with Lord William J Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff (click to enlarge).
According to The Titanic and Silent Cinema by Stephen Bottomore, the footage of Captain Smith was "probably filmed in the summer of 1911 in New York. The ship's name on the bulkhead has been inked out frame by frame to suggest that this was filmed on the Titanic."(56.)
Rare film footage: Captain EJ Smith, in summer uniform, on the starboard wing bridge of the R.M.S. Olympic in 1911. (Click to play the video.)
There are two shots of Captain Smith. The first is him, in summer uniform, on the starboard wing bridge of the Olympic. The name on the bulkhead has been later inked out frame by frame to suggest it was filmed on Titanic. Smith is noticeably uncomfortable about being filmed and wanders around nervously, smiling at the camera at the end.
The second is a medium close up of Captain Smith, also on the starboard wing bridge, with the wheel house behind him and to his left is a pedestal for a pelorus, a dial with a sighting device on top enables one to sight an object and determine what angle it is to the bow of the ship. It is a brief shot, in many reels repeated several times to make it appear longer.
The following are some of the many portraits taken of Captain Smith aboard Olympic during 1911, mostly in his summer white uniform: