'John George "Jack" Phillips (11 April 1887-15 April 1912) was a British wireless telegraphist who died whilst on the Titanic after it hit an iceberg; he was serving as senior wireless operator on board the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. As the Titanic was sinking, Phillips worked tirelessly to send wireless messages to other ships to enlist their assistance with the rescue of the Titanics passengers and crew. While Phillips has borne criticism for having told the radio operator of the Californian, "Shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race!" when interrupted on-air by his counterpart telling him that his ship was surrounded by ice, similar warning messages earlier that day had been delivered to the captain and a lookout had been posted.
John George "Jack" Phillips was born in Farncombe, Surrey, England to George Alfred Phillips and Anne Sanders. Phillips finished private school in Godalming in 1902 and began working at the Godalming post office where he learned telegraphy. He started training to work in wireless for the Marconi Company in March 1906 in Seaforth and graduated five months later in August.
Phillips' first assignment was on the White Star Line ship Teutonic and he later worked on board the Campania, the Corsican, the Victorian, the Pretorian, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. In May 1908, he was assigned to the Marconi station outside Clifden, Ireland, where he worked until 1911, when he was assigned to the RMS Adriatic and later, in early 1912, to the Oceanic.
In March 1912, Phillips was sent to Belfast, Ireland, to be the senior wireless operator on board the Titanic for her maiden voyage. He was joined by junior wireless operator Harold Bride. Stories have appeared that Phillips knew Bride before the Titanic, but Bride insisted they had never met before Belfast. The Titanic sailed for New York City from Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912 and during the voyage Phillips and Bride sent out passengers' personal messages and received iceberg warnings and other navigational information from other ships. Phillips celebrated his 25th birthday the day after the voyage began.
On the evening of 14 April, in the wireless room on the boat deck, Phillips was sending messages to Cape Race, Newfoundland, working to clear a backlog of passengers' personal messages that had accumulated when the wireless had broken down the day before. Bride was asleep in the adjoining cabin, intending to relieve Phillips at midnight, two hours early. Shortly after 9:30 pm, Phillips received an ice warning from the steamship Mesaba reporting a large number of icebergs and an ice field directly in the path of Titanic. Phillips acknowledged the Mesabas warning and continued to transmit messages to Cape Race. The Mesabas wireless operator waited for Phillips to report that he had given the report to the bridge, but Phillips continued working Cape Race. The message was one of the most important warnings Titanic received, but it was never delivered to the bridge.
Second Officer (Second Mate) Charles Lightoller reports in Chapter 31 of his autobiography: Later, when standing with others on the upturned boat, Phillips explained when I said that I did not recollect any Mesaba report: "I just put the message under a paper weight at my elbow, just until I squared up what I was doing before sending it to the Bridge." That delay proved fatal and was the main contributory cause to the loss of that magnificent ship and hundreds of lives. Had I as Officer of the Watch, or the Captain, become aware of the peril lying so close ahead and not instantly slowed down or stopped, we should have been guilty of culpable and criminal negligence. After 11:00 pm, Phillips was again interrupted by another ship, this time the SS Californian. The Californians only wireless operator, Cyril Evans, was reporting that they were stopped and surrounded by ice. The Californian was very close and the signal was strong and loud in Phillips' ears. Phillips quickly sent back, "Shut up, shut up, I am busy working Cape Race!" and continued communicating with Cape Race while Evans listened a while longer before going to bed for the night. This communication had important consequences. Firstly, Evans gave a warning of ice, which if heeded could have prevented Titanics sinking. Secondly, Californian was the closest ship to Titanic. As the radio had been switched off by Evans, Phillips had no way of communicating with Californian should Titanic require immediate assistance, which it very soon did.
Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 pm that night and began sinking. Bride had woken up and began getting ready to relieve Phillips when Captain Edward Smith came into the wireless room and told Phillips to prepare to send out a distress signal. Shortly after midnight, Captain Smith came in again and told them to send out the call for assistance and gave them Titanics estimated position. Phillips began sending out the distress signal, code CQD, while Bride took messages to Captain Smith about which ships were coming to Titanics assistance. At one point, Bride jokingly reminded Phillips that the new call was SOS and said "Send S.O.S., it's the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it." A myth developed after the disaster that this was the first time SOS was used, but it had been used on other ships previously.
After taking a quick break, Phillips returned to the wireless room, reporting to Bride that the forward part of the ship was flooded and that they should put on more clothes and lifebelts. Bride began to get ready while Phillips went back to work on the wireless machine. The wireless power was almost completely out shortly after 2:00 am when Captain Smith arrived and told the men that they had done their duty and that they were relieved. Bride later remembered being moved by the way Phillips continued working. While their backs were turned, a crew member (either a stoker or trimmer) sneaked in and attempted to steal Phillips' lifebelt. Bride saw and grabbed the man as Phillips stood up and knocked the crew member out. The water was beginning to flood the wireless room as they both ran out of the wireless room, leaving the unconscious crewman where he fell. The men then split up, Bride heading forward and Phillips heading aft. This was the last time Bride saw Phillips.
For many years there has been conflicting and contradictory information regarding the exact manner in which Phillips met his death. Many researchers have expressed the belief that Phillips managed to make it to the overturned lifeboat B, which was in the charge of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, along with Harold Bride. In Lightoller's autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, he writes, "Phillips, the senior wireless operator, standing near me, told me the different ships that had answered our call..."
"...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."
Harold Bride reporting seeing Phillips's body as he boarded the Carpathia.
However, Lightoller's and Bride's claims about Jack Phillips are contradicted elsewhere by Archibald Gracie who made it clear that the wireless operator who cheered up the occupants of the upturned collapsible by calling out the names of approaching ships was Harold Bride, not Jack Phillips (as Lightoller thought in 1934.) It is also clear from the accounts of Gracie and Lightoller that only one body was transferred from the collapsible onto boat #12. Bride stated that he knew the body of "the man lying aft" was transferred to #12 -- which was undoubtedly the body of the crewman mentioned by Gracie and which Lightoller (in 1912) *agreed* was the body of a crewman. Harold Bride's assumption that the body of Phillips (which he never saw) was *also* taken on board the Carpathia was just that -- an assumption (since he obviously did not see Phillips's body laying abandoned in #12 after the boat was emptied of living passengers.)