Ocean liner Titanic leaving Southampton on maiden voyage to New York on April 12, 1912
Ocean liner Titanic leaving Southampton on maiden voyage to New York on April 12, 1912

Forgotten hero of the Titanic

AS WATER from the ocean deep began to fill the room, John Phillips refused to slow down.

He had earlier shooed away the closest ships who had sent dire warnings of being "surrounded" by ice - and now he was trying to get them back.

Nicknamed Jack, the 25-year-old was the RMS Titanic's Chief Wireless Operator at the time and he was under intense pressure to find a nearby saviour - the ship was sinking fast and there were not enough lifeboats to save its 2224 passengers on board.

It was 2.17am on April 15, 1912 and the British passenger liner's side had ripped through an iceberg nearly three hours earlier. He could see the forward part of the ship flooding and knew time was of the essence.

Stopped in the dark of the night in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, slowly slipping towards a watery grave, Phillips continued to shoot messages across the sea in the hope of salvation.

But it was too late, there were only minutes left - and the ship lost power. She started to tilt upwards.

Captain Smith entered the wireless room and relieved them of their duties. There was nothing left to do, except survive.

Phillips' fate has been largely debated by scholars for decades. What we do know, however, is that his body was never recovered, and ever since, he's been known as the man who tried to save the Titanic.

Phillips' story is one that has resonated throughout history but for Lyn Wilton, his has a bigger significance - the Australian recently discovered she was a relative of the fallen wireless operator on her father's side.

"This was a total surprise for me. I was pretty excited about it," said Lyn, from Ambervale in Sydney's southwest.

Using Ancestry, Lyn said she had already completed the bulk of her family tree when she was "starting to go up the branches to see the bits I missed out" when she made the discovery.

"I saw some poor bugger had died on the Titanic, thinking it was really sad. I realised what an important role he played on the ship and I didn't know what to do with myself."

John ‘Jack’ Phillips, Titanic’s chief wireless operator. Picture: National Archive UK
John ‘Jack’ Phillips, Titanic’s chief wireless operator. Picture: National Archive UK

HOW PHILLIPS TRIED TO SAVE THE TITANIC

Phillips was promoted to senior wireless operator just one month before boarding the Titanic under the Marconi company. He was sent to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland to join the White Star Line's newest recruit on her maiden voyage. He spent his 25th birthday on board, two days before the disaster.

At the time, the Titanic was a marvel - an "unsinkable" mother ship, the largest passenger ship in the world that would float seamlessly along the sea. In 1911, the Belfast Morning News published a report touting the Titanic's new era of modern technology: watertight compartments and electronic, watertight doors.

Crowds line the dock as Titanic leaves Southampton in 1912
Crowds line the dock as Titanic leaves Southampton in 1912

The Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912 and for four days, she steamed ahead towards New York City.

When Phillips stepped aboard, he was joined by a junior wireless operator by the name of Harold Bride. Together, they installed the wireless equipment that would allow communications between passengers on and off board and allow communications with other ships nearby to warn of potential dangers at sea, notably icebergs.

Eventually, the pair would become the beacon that would help save at least some lives - 705 out of an estimated 2224 passengers on board.

Titanic junior wireless operator Harold Bride
Titanic junior wireless operator Harold Bride

On the night of April 14, 1912, Titanic made contact with an iceberg just before midnight, at 11.40pm. Titanic had received numerous warnings from ships cautioning her of the icy conditions ahead, but she kept moving.

At around 9.30pm, Phillips acknowledged a warning from the ship Mesaba reporting a large number of icebergs directly in Titanic's path but it was never delivered to the Titanic's bridge crew.

The Titanic steams out of Southampton on April 12, 1912
The Titanic steams out of Southampton on April 12, 1912

One of the last warnings came from the ship Californian, who was closest to the Titanic at the time, who was trying to warn the ship that it was surrounded by ice. The Californian had been forced to stop its engine after it too was surrounded by bergs.

"Shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race," Phillips snapped back to the Californian just 40 minutes before the ship struck.

Some say if more attention had been paid to these messages, the Titanic might have lived to see another day.

Picture of a log from the Titanic including Jack Phillips
Picture of a log from the Titanic including Jack Phillips

That night, Phillips had been working tirelessly to clear a growing backlog of passenger messages after the system had broken down the prior day, sending them via Cape Race in Newfoundland, Canada.

Bride had entered the wireless room to take over Phillips' shift just before midnight when Captain Smith entered the room and told Phillips to send out a distress signal and call for assistance. The news was grim.

Both Phillips and Bride worked tirelessly to send out SOS calls following instructions from Captain Smith. Both men carried on transmitting until Titanic lost power at 2.17am. The wireless room was flooding. She sunk just minutes later, at 2.20am.

First class passengers on the Titanic
First class passengers on the Titanic

Bride made it to an upturned lifeboat but Phillips' fate has been widely debated since he was last seen alive heading towards Titanic's aft.

Charles Lightoller, the second officer on board who survived the sinking, later said that he saw Phillips on upturned lifeboat B, the same boat Bride had managed to swim to safety.

This dramatic picture was taken from the deck of the rescue vessel Carpathia at daybreak as Titanic survivors prepare to board
This dramatic picture was taken from the deck of the rescue vessel Carpathia at daybreak as Titanic survivors prepare to board

"Phillips, the senior wireless operator, standing near me, told me the different ships that had answered our call," he wrote in his autobiography, Titanic And Other Ships.

"As it turned out, the information from Phillips, and the calculation, were about right, though poor old Phillips did not live to benefit by it. He hung on till daylight came in and we sighted one of the lifeboats in the distance...

"I think it must have been the final and terrible anxiety that tipped the beam with Phillips, for he suddenly slipped down, sitting in the water, and though we held his head up, he never recovered. I insisted on taking him into the lifeboat with us, hoping there still might be life, but it was too late."

Three playing cards, with the distinctive White Star Line logo, which were taken from the Titanic by a first class passenger as he escaped the sinking ship. Picture: Peter Jordan
Three playing cards, with the distinctive White Star Line logo, which were taken from the Titanic by a first class passenger as he escaped the sinking ship. Picture: Peter Jordan

Bride also reported seeing his body on the rescue ship Carpathia.

Yet according to experts, he most likely died "at the stern section with 1100 other people."

The Titanic’s bow, 2.5 miles under the North Atlantic
The Titanic’s bow, 2.5 miles under the North Atlantic

- Share your story: youngma@news.com.au

- Discover your family history at Ancestry.com.au



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