The wreck of the Titanic was hit by an adventure firm's submarine last year but the crash was kept secret by the US government, a court has heard.
Officials never revealed that an underwater vehicle hired by a British company had hit the sunken liner, according to legal papers seen by 'The Daily Telegraph'.
Last night, the expedition leader admitted that a £27m (€32m) Triton submersible ran into the wreck in July when "intense and highly unpredictable currents" caused the pilot to lose control.
Eyos Expeditions, an adventure firm based in the Isle of Man, took scientists from Newcastle University to the Titanic in the first visit to the site for 14 years. The submersible is the only one in the world capable of diving below 7,000 metres - more than four miles.
On its return, the expedition made headlines around the world after revealing that the captain's bathtub had disappeared inside the deteriorating wreck, lost to bacteria and salt water corrosion.
Rob McCallum, the Eyos expedition leader, confirmed last night that there had been "contact" with the Titanic but insisted any damage could only have been minor. "We did accidentally make contact with the Titanic once, while we were near the starboard hull breach, a big piece of the hull that sticks out," he said.
"Afterwards we observed a red rust stain on the side of the sub. But the submersible while underwater is essentially weightless - it's not a battering ram."
The claims emerged ahead of a landmark court battle set to decide the future of the wreck, more than a century after it went down in the North Atlantic.
Next month a US salvage firm, RMS Titanic Inc (RMST), will seek permission to retrieve artefacts from inside the rusting wreck for the first time, including a Marconi wireless described as the "voice of Titanic".
The company has been the official salvor in possession of the wreck since 1994. However, its plans are fiercely opposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US government weather agency, which holds responsibility for protecting deep-sea wrecks.
In a legal filing at the District Court of Eastern Virginia ahead of the hearing, RMST will attempt to cast doubt on NOAA's stewardship of the Titanic, alleging it knew that the two-man EYOS submarine had struck the Titanic in July but officials monitoring the dive failed to inform the court even though an NOAA observer was on board the surface ship. Instead it took more than five months for EYOS to admit the collision.
An NOAA spokesman said: "NOAA takes its role in protecting the Titanic wreck and wreck site from disturbance very seriously. NOAA first learned of EYOS' accidental contact with the sea floor and on one occasion the Titanic through EYOS' report.
"After NOAA completed its review of the EYOS report, NOAA reminded EYOS legal counsel of EYOS' obligation to provide a copy of the report to the court and RMST, which EYOS did on January 8."
If RMST wins the court case, the company plans to recover the Marconi wireless this summer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)