DESCRIPTION: Lusitania sails from New York for Ireland. "Three thousand souls she had on board ... Until those cruel German dogs, for her they lay unseen, And shattered her to fragments with their cursed submarine" Vanderbilt gives his life-belt to a mother.
EARLIEST DATE: 1948 (Ranson)
KEYWORDS: drowning sea ship wreck sailor war
May 7, 1915: "At lunchtime ... a torpedo from U-20 struck the _Lusitania_. A further explosion rent the ship and she sank in two hours with the loss of 1200 lives" (source: Bourke in _Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast_ v1, pp. 117-118)
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ranson, p. 76, "The Lusitania" (1 text)
Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan 2, "The Lusitania" (1 text, 1 tune)
Tom Lenihan, "The Lusitania" (on IRTLenihan01)
NOTES: The Lusitania's tragic story tells a great deal about the peculiar circumstances of the early twentieth century. The British, though long known for their merchant fleet, were losing the edge in passenger service, especially high-speed passenger service; the German lines NDL and HAPAG were taking over the market (Ramsey, pp. 5-8).
Britain had only three companies competing in this market, Inman, White Star, and Cunard. Inman had sold out in the late nineteenth century, and J. P. Morgan by the early twentieth century owned the remnants of Inman and was controlling the White Star Line as well (Brinnin, p. 325; Ramsey, p. 12; Fox, pp. 391-393, says that it was one Clement A. Griscom who organized the combinations, but it was Morgan who managed the financing. Eventually Morgan took charge once Griscom had laid the groundwork; Fox, p. 394). Brinnin, p. 328, and Barczewski, p. 260, say that Morgan was sniffing after Cunard as well, hoping to create a dominating transatlantic cartel.
To add to the British problems, the German lines were in alliance with their government (Ramsey, p. 10) and had a working arrangement with Morgan (Brinnin, pp. 325-327).
Cunard had long built its reputation on an amazing safety record (no passengers lost, *ever*, to an actual sailing accident; see Brinnin, pp. 272, 275, etc.; Preston, p. 62), but now, seeing its position drastically affected, it had little choice but to get into the alliance game itself. Dangling the threat of a Morgan takeover, they negotiated with the British government (Brinnin, pp. 328-331), and came away with a big subsidy in return for rights to requisition Cunard ships in event of war.
The first ships to come under this arrangement were the Caronia and Carmania -- but the real prize, for Cunard, was an agreement to build two fast liners that could be requisitioned by the British navy and converted to auxiliary cruisers. These were the Lusitania and her sister the Mauretania.
The idea of liners that could be converted to warships was not new; the first such to be designed was the White Star Line's Teutonic of two decades earlier (Fox, pp. 361-362). But the ships' primary task was of course to carry passengers, not to fight.
"Speed, as ever, carried the day. The final specification called for ships 790 feet long and 88 feet wide, of 32,500 tons, driven by four screws and four turbine engines humming out 68,000 horsepower. All these dimensions leaped far past any other vessel, either running or planned.... [T]hey would be the first British ships topped off by four smokestacks" (Fox, pp. 402-403). The four screws were also a new design technique, which forced designers to work out a method of putting the outer screws much ahead of the center screws (Fox, p. 409).
It was difficult to design such ships; PeekeEtAl, p. 4, say that the designers were called upon to combine "the bottom third of the latest Admiralty design for a heavy cruiser [with] the top two-thirds of a super-liner." It didn't work; they ended up having to widen the beam (and, as we shall see, the result still wasn't as stable as a slower ship).
There were other interesting "naval" touches -- e.g. the equipment on her bridge was similar to that used on navy ships rather than civilian vessels, to make it easier for naval crewmen to use her should she be taken over (PeekeEtAl, p. 23).
When she was launched in 1907, the 30,396 ton Lusitania was the largest ship afloat, capable of over 26 knots for brief spells (Ramsey, p. 24). She soon won the Blue Riband for fastest transatlantic crossing, making the trip in less than five days and averaging almost 24 knots for the entire trip (Ramsey, pp. 27-28). She thus became the first-ever "four day ship" (Brinnin, p. 342). The only ship to compete with her in speed was her sister Mauretania, which proved to be ever so slightly faster and in fact held the Blue Riband for an incredible 22 years (Brinnin, p. 344). Mauretania also managed the astonishing feat of completing all her crossings over a long period in a time that varied by only about ten minutes (Brinnin, p. 345).
We should note that a misconception found in many histories is false. The Lusitania and Mauretania were *not* the fastest ships in the world -- contrary even to an assertion made by Lusitania's crew to her passengers in 1915; see Simpson, p. 112. The sisters were the fastest *liners*, but by 1915, there were all sorts of ships capable of catching her. Taking the data in Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I, the 1912 battlecruiser Tiger could reach 28 knots, the 1913 light cruisers of the Aurora class averaged about 28, and the 1911 "K" class destroyers hit 31 knots. Even the battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class could reach 24-25 knots. And ships with an even higher turn of speed were produced during the war.
Germany had no Queen Elizabeths, but they had battlecruisers and destroyers that could catch Lusitania and Mauretania. It's just that their submarines couldn't. Nor would any knowledgeable person have denied the existence of faster ships; even her builders at the time of her launching claimed only that he could move "at a speed only previously accomplished by a torpedo boat destroyer" (PeekeEtAl, p. 16).
In any case, warships, although capable of high speeds, usually sailed at a more economical cruising speed, which also saved wear and tear on the engines. The liners went at full steam the entire way, so although they were not the fastest ships in a sprint, they were the fastest way to cross the Atlantic, bar none.
Apart from being fast, the sisters was also allowed passengers luxuries never before seen (and not to be matched until White Star produced the Olympic and Titanic four years later). They used electricity for many functions previously done by hand or hydraulically, and their cabins were half again as large as previous liners (Brinnin, p. 342). They even had shipboard elevators -- the first on a British liner (Fox, p. 404). As designed, the Lusitania had four boiler rooms and capacity for 552 first class passengers, 460 second class, 1186 third class, and 827 crew (Ramsey, p. 25).
They were also magnificently decorated (Fox makes the ironic note that the idea of shipboard design was to make passengers think that they were ashore, and says on p. 403 that Lusitania's interior designer James Miller had done all his previous work on land projects.)
There were a few glitches in the basic design. As originally built, Lusitania vibrated so badly at high speed that she had to be taken in for a major refit (Ballard, p. 22; Preston, p. 62; Fox, pp. 404-405, blames it on the fact that no one fully understood the fluid mechanics of the turbines and propeller at the time -- which is hardly surprising, fluid mechanics to this day remains one of the most intractable areas of classical physics). The repairs succeeded, for the most part, but they perhaps indicated some other structural problems -- PeekeEtAl, pp. 25-26, says that the problem was the lack of decent reduction gearing to allow fast-running turbines to drive the screw propellers (which operate better at a lower rotation rate) at a reasonable speed.
Other than that, the ship performed better than expectations in every regard. But, reading PeekEtAl, I can't help but note how much time Lusitania spent in the dock, getting new screws, having her turbine blades repaired, or having the structure reworked -- just generally being fiddled with. Not the best testimony to her strength of design.
Despite her design problems, Lusitania was in many ways a stronger ship than her slightly later contemporary, the Titanic; Titanic had only 16 watertight cells, Lusitania 34 (Ballard, p. 23). Unlike Titanic, even though she was designed earlier, she was pretty close to iceberg-proof.
But, of course, she never ran into an iceberg. The surprise was that she proved so vulnerable to man-made attack. This was at least partly due to the many demands placed on her design. A 1907 heavy cruiser had a displacement in the 14,000 ton range. Lusitania was over twice that. Which meant a lot of boilers, which had to run most of the width of the ship, as did the coal bunkers.
The boiler rooms and bunkers were so large that, if flooded, they would cost the ship most of its buoyancy. The only solution was "longitudinal bulkheads" -- that is, instead of a full honeycomb, with from one to three bulkheads along the length of the ship and assorted bulkheads across the width, in the area of the boilers and bunkers, the boilers took up nearly the whole width of the ship, with only small compartments to the port and starboard sides for additional protection (PeekeEtAl, pp. 6-7). The arrangement really was iceberg-proof -- but if, somehow, one of those longitudinal bulkheads was breached, it meant that the ship would lose power and also would run the risk of sinking. If hit just wrong, so that two such bulkheads were breached, she would almost certainly sink.
And there was more. To keep the ship moving at full speed required huge amounts of coal. And the only place to put it, given that the rest of the ship was spoken for, was in the longitudinal bunkers. Which meant cutting doors in the wall. And it turns out that they were almost impossible to close, once opened, because of all the coal and coal dust in them. This wasn't considered a major concern at the time; the designers had thought of icebergs, and plunging shellfire -- but not torpedo hits below the waterline (PeekeEtAl, p. 7; Larson, pp. 11-12, although Larson is of the opinion that the coal was regarded as armor protection -- p. 12 makes the absurd claim that she was "a passenger liner... with the hull of a battleship" -- which is simply wrong; she was a passenger liner with the hull FORM of a heavy cruiser).
Oil fuel would probably have cured most of this, but oil-only vessels were years away.
It's also worth noting that Lusitania wasn't really suited to be a warship, despite the gun mountings built into her original design (which were actually fitted at a refit in 1913; PeekeEtAl, p. 37); to achieve her high speed, she was very long and lean -- and tall, because the propulsion system took up the entire size of the hull, so "the design team had nowhere to go but up when deciding where to place the passenger accommodations" (Harding, p. 60).
This meant that she (and Mauretania as well) was not particularly stable; in heavy weather, the bow could pitch wildly into the air, then bury itself in the seas; she was a very "wet" ship (Barczewski, p. 261). This would have made her a poor gun platform; battleships in particular -- by contrast to cruiser designs like the Lusitania -- tend to be very broad of beam, to help keep the guns on target. Indeed, the Admiralty soon after the start of the War refitted the Carmania as an auxiliary cruiser, and she succeeded in sinking a German refitted liner, the Cap Trafalgar -- but the experiment showed how ineffective the Carmania was as a warship (Payne, p. 93; Brinnin, pp. 407-409 points out that there was severe damage to the Carmania as well; both ships needed dozen of hits to sink their opponents. Brinnin, p. 410, calls it a "Gilbert and Sullivan gunfight").
This should probably have been obvious all along. Most converted liners -- "auxiliary cruisers" -- were armed with guns in the four inch to six inch range, with no more than twelve fitted, and obviously none of them centerline mounted. This meant that most liners would have offensive power somewhere between a destroyer and a weak light cruiser (and without a destroyer's antisubmarine weapons or torpedoes). But the liner needed at least as many men as a light cruiser, was slower than some cruisers and all destroyers, and burned more coal. Armed merchant cruisers weren't useful offensive weapons. The Admiralty largely abandoned the idea of arming the luxury liners; they just weren't effective enough for the task (Preston, p. 386).
Indeed, Lusitania had been requisitioned at the start of the war, and promptly turned back to Cunard; her coal demands were too high (Massie, p. 24).
(This is not to say that the auxiliary cruisers were useless. By late 1914, converted liners were doing most of the work of maintaining the blockade on Germany; Massie, pp. 510-511. But they were a very expensive way to do this work; it would have taken fewer men and less coal to patrol the area with light cruisers -- if Britain had had the light cruisers to do it.)
The plans for the Lusitania apparently specified a dozen six inch guns (Ramsey, p. 188). The Lusitania would thus have been in the light cruiser range, but unarmored and making a much bigger target. Nor would there have been a good place for an optical platform to centrally direct the guns.
The Admiralty had other uses for requisitioned liners, though. Britain had a lot of soldiers to move, and a lot of freight to haul, and liners were excellent for the first function and could be refitted to do the latter also. Lusitania would be one of the ships so modified.
It's at this point that things get a little murky. That Lusitania underwent a refit is certain. But many claims have been made about what was done during the refit. Simpson, pp. 27-28, claims that she actually was given guns at this time during a dockyard stay beginning August 8 (pretty amazing, given that the war had started only four days earlier).
But even Simpson allows that she never sailed as an auxiliary cruiser (p. 37), and seems to admit that she never went out armed. Harding, p. 62, points out that the United States inspectors never classed her as a combat ship -- and while they might have missed ammunition in the hold, they certain wouldn't have missed heavy guns on the deck! A member of the expedition of John Light, who dived to the ship in the 1960s, thought he saw guns (O'Sullivan, p. 36) -- but he worked in very bad conditions, in which mistakes were quite possible (Preston, pp. 386-387); O'Sullivan admits that "to date nothing has been found to substantiate his claims." The passengers' accounts uniformly denied seeing weapons (Preston, p. 387), even though at least one specifically searched for them (Preston, pp. 133).
A few paranoids have suggested that Lusitania carried guns in her holds which could be put into the gun rings when needed -- but this is simply ridiculous; you don't take 6" guns and casually haul them up an elevator and drop them in a gun mounting. And even if you did, the guns would need to be calibrated (Ramsey, p. 188).
Ramsey, pp. 186-192, documents how the story that she was armed arose, but also shows why it is false. Even if you doubt the British records, Ballard's exploration (much more thorough than Light's) would have shown guns on her decks, and evidence of secondary explosions from her shells, and it showed neither.
So what was the Admiralty doing to Lusitania during the refit? Primarily converting her to carry more cargo. They opened out some passenger space for storage and other purposes (Ramsey, p. 36; PeekeEtAl, p. 43), incidentally affecting her stability somewhat and worsening that pesky vibration (Ramsey, p. 39; Simpson, p. 45). It also caused significant inconvenience for the passengers. But the navy left her in merchant service, though it began to control her route, schedule, and loading (Preston, p. 64; PeekeEtAl, p. 43).
This was all against Cunard's wishes. With the war on, transatlantic traffic fell dramatically. Lusitania didn't have enough passengers to make a profit (PeekeEtAl, p. 43, estimates a two thousand pound loss per trip), but the Admiralty wouldn't let Cunard change her schedule; they wanted her bringing supplies. The government's only promises were to continue the subsidy to the ships, to pay for cargo space, and to insure the ship (Simpson, p. 38). The Admiralty would determine her course and sailing time.
It was a recipe for big losses. The only answer Cunard could find was to close down one of her four boiler rooms (to save coal; Ballard, pp. 30-31, and also to reduce the number of stokers needed; Simpson, p. 85). The shut-down of the boilers allowed her to roughly break even despite the reduced passenger load, but it also reduced her speed significantly -- and all that time spent fiddling around in the shipyard also reduced her efficiency and caused some of her equipment to deteriorate (Ramsey. p. 51).
Larson, p. 130, says that the passengers did not know about her reduced speed, but surely they must have noticed that it took her five days, not four, to cross the Atlantic! It doesn't seem to have caused much worry, though.
There does not seem to have been any fear at the time that a submarine would attack her; the Germans did not start unrestricted submarine warfare until later, and in any case, no submarine had sunk a ship moving faster than 14 knots (Preston, p. 93), and she would still easily exceed that. There had been a story that, early in the war, she was chased by a German cruiser -- a story which Simpson accepts. But PeekeEtAl, p. 42, shows that this simply did not happen.
The war didn't just cause the Lusitania to change what she carried and how she sailed. It also cost her most of her more experienced crew; the sailors ended up in the navy and some of the stewards and such were in the army. Their replacements were inexperienced (Simpson, p. 102, says that she managed to find only 41 able seamen for the last trip, though she was supposed to have at least 77), and such crew as could be found had a significant tendency to desert upon reaching New York (Ballard, p. 59). Some who did serve on her spoke poor English, and few knew their way around the ship.
Topping it all off, Lusitania's schedule was reduced to one round trip per month, making it harder for the crew to become accustomed to their tasks (Ballard, p. 208).
It was not a good combination should there be an emergency. And as for lowering the boats -- well, unlike the Titanic three years earlier, they had boat drills, but a passenger reported that they involved only two boats, and even those were not actually lowered (Ballard, p. 63; Preston, p. 131, and PeekeEtAl, p. 58, describe a few crew members simply climbing into a selected boat and then getting out -- PeekeEtAl, pp. 58-59 argues that this was about all that could have been done, since the boats could not be lowered while the ship was moving, but surely the passengers could at least have been shown how to board). Obviously the crew and passengers would not be ready in the event of disaster. (Simpson, p. 102, is of the opinion that the crew simply lied about her disaster preparedness; PeekeEtAl, p. 59, thinks the boat drills were solely to reassure the passengers.)
During the war, the ship continued to run primarily passengers, but she did carry some war-related cargo on her final voyages. (The British naturally concealed some of this until after the war, contributing to Simpson's air of paranoia.) O'Sullivan, p. 117, notes that under American law "no vessel could legally sail with any explosives likely to endanger the health or lives of passengers or the safety of the vessel."
The question, of course, is whether her cargo did in fact violate the American rules. It appears, contrary to O'Sullivan, that it did not. Just what she was carrying on her last trip is slightly uncertain; some of it was munitions -- some four million rifle cartridges (Hoehling, p. 96, calls them practice cartridges, but most sources seem to think they were for ordinary military use) and 5000 3-inch shells (Ramsey, p. 56). Ballard, p. 27, notes that these were considered legitimate items to transport on a passenger liner even in wartime, since they were not explosive (cf. O'Sullivan, p. 133; Preston, pp. 368-369, which has some of the court evidence on the matter). Brinnin, p. 422, says that the shell casings were not loaded with explosives (they were "filled," i.e. the shrapnel had been loaded -- but shrapnel is not itself explosive; O'Sullivan, pp. 131-132. The actual charges would be installed in England).
This has actually been verified; a handful of unfilled fuses have been brought up from the wreck (Preston, p. 389), and the measurement of the weight of the shells shows they were unfilled (Preston, p. 390).
Simpson says that the British were playing a bit fast and loose with cargo manifests at the time. In effect, they submitted one well in advance with her "standard" cargo, then another with last-minute changes. Not too surprisingly, most of the last-minute changes involved perishable items like food -- given Britain's need for foodstuffs, the local buyers would naturally take whatever they could lay their hands on and find space for in the cargo holds (which had to be loaded very carefully, since the ship wasn't really designed for cargo-hauling and didn't have elevators or passages designed for freight). But it would presumably have been easy to slip in some contraband with the last-minute items.
A suspicious mind could have a field day with the manifest for the final trip. Simpson makes a great deal about 3863 large boxes of cheese (p. 105), which PeekeEtAl, p. 100, notes was unrefrigerated (though a cargo hold near the bottom of a ship in the North Atlantic needn't have been too hot, we should note. Cheese might well survive. There was, however, also butter listed in the shipment, which sounds pretty strange). Stranger still was something listed on her cargo manifest as 205 barrels of oysters, which would certainly go bad before they could be distributed (Ramsey, p. 57). The obvious assumption was that they were actually military materials. The flip side is, even if those oysters were actually explosives (say), 205 barrels of explosives weren't going to change the outcome of the war.
Others have questioned a consignment of furs -- but in fact some of the furs floated to shore after the wreck (Preston, p. 390).
The German government issued warnings in 1915 threatening unrestricted submarine attacks on "civilian" shipping sailing too close to the British Isles; one such message was published in a newspaper just as the Lusitania started her final run (Ramsey, p. 53; Ballard, p. 31, and Preston, p. 91, print a copy of the ad). Supposedly some of the passengers also received warnings, but these had an air of the crank about them (Ballard, p. 32; PeekeEtAl,p. 53, says that it was newspapermen seeking a story, not Germans, who sent them). Few changed their plans. Simpson, p. 114, claims there was a melancholy air about the passengers as they went aboard, but cites no source for this claim.
After all, the Lusitania, even with her speed reduced, was faster than any German submarine (her new cruising speed was about 18 knots, and according to PeekeEtAl, p. 44, she could still hit 21 in a pinch -- twice the speed of a submerged submarine, and at least five knots faster than a submarine on the surface), so no attempt was made to give her an escort (Paine, p. 311. Preston, p. 399, notes that there had been an attempt to give her an escort on a previous trip -- and, given the need for radio silence, the escort had never found her; cf. Ramsey, p. 245). Indeed, had she been given a naval escort, it would have made her a legitimate target in any reckoning.
On May 1, 1915 Lusitania sailed from New York with nearly two thousand people on board. This was by no means a full load; she had only 291 passengers in first class (53% of capacity); there were 601 second class passengers (31% over capacity). Steerage was almost empty, with only 31% of berths filled: 373 out of 1186 possible (Ballard, p. 37).
Nonetheless, it was the largest load of passengers she had had on the eastbound route since the start of the war (Preston, pp. 102-103), in part because passengers from other ships had been put aboard when the other ships had been rescheduled or requisitioned (Larson, p. 114). For some reason, the number of children was unusually high (Preston, p. 128).
To make things doubly unfortunate, the Germans had sent a number of submarines to the area where she was sailing. This, ironically, was in response to British disinformation: To mask the invasion of the Dardanelles, the British were trying to give the impression they would launch an amphibious assault on Germany. The Germans took the bait and sent submarines to try to interfere (Preston, p. 163).
On May 6, Lusitania entered Germany's declared "war zone." The claims that she made no attempts to avoid her fate are, however, false; Ballard, p. 72, notes that she extinguished her lights at night, closed several watertight doors -- and swung out her boats, just in case (cf. PeekeEtAl, p. 62). Larson, p. 192, says that the crew wasn't very good at doing this (lack of practice, no doubt) -- but the boats were ready to go when the ship was off Ireland.
On the other hand, no serious attempts were made to shut the portholes; many of them were apparently left open, and they probably caused the ship to flood even faster than she otherwise would have, and increased the list that was to make it so hard to lower the boats (Preston, p. 368).
She did receive some warnings of submarines (PeekeEtAl, p. 63). It's just that they didn't describe how severe the danger was (fully 23 ships in the area had been sunk since Lusitania left New York, including several sunk by Lusitania's nemesis U-20; O'Sullivan, pp. 85-88, though this report is marred, e.g., by calling H. M. S. Juno a "battle cruiser"; Juno was a light cruiser from the 1890s, meaning that, rather than being one of the fanciest and newest ships in the fleet, she was a piece a junk the British would have been better off without. It's like calling a Yugo a Mercedes). The commander in Queenstown (Cobh), in fact, issued a specific advisory that a U-boat was operating off the south Irish coast (Preston, p. 166), and a specific order was given to make sure the Lusitania was warned (Preston, p. 179; Hoehling, p. 100).
Other ships were warned in detail and redirected; Lusitania was not (O'Sullivan, p. 87). Of course, Lusitania was not expected to be anywhere near the Old Head of Kinsale at that time. Except -- she was.
In the absence of detailed knowledge of conditions in the area, Captain Turner chose to sail past Ireland at 18 knots, well below his available speed; Lusitania was big enough that he needed the right tide or a pilot to enter Liverpool, and he didn't want to have to sit around outside the bar, where he would be an even better U-boat target (Ballard, p. 78; Preston, p. 326). (I can't help but think that Turner didn't like having to make tight maneuvers, either; Larson, p. 20, notes that ships he had captained had already had two accidental collisions.) So he ignored what were claimed to be standing orders to proceed at full speed near harbors, to sail away from headlands, and to zigzag in the war zone (Ballard, p. 79), later claiming, possibly truly, that the rules had not been made sufficiently clear (Larson, pp. 146-147, claims this instruction had perhaps not been circulated when the Lusitania sailed).
According to PeekeEtAl, pp. 83-84, while en route, he also was wirelessed a secret order to head to Queenstown (a fact which never came out during the inquiries, because it was secret -- according to PeekeEtAl, it was also hidden by the removal of the relevant page from the Admiralty's signal log).
It was unfortunate that the Lusitania had encountered a lot of fog in the days before she reached the Irish coast (PeekeEtAl, pp. 67-68; Hoehling, p. 100). That left her dependent on dead reckoning. And the ship, when it left the fog, proved to be slightly off its dead reckoning position -- it was too far from shore. Captain Turner, when he spotted Ireland, of course realized where he was (it was hard to mistake the Old Head of Kinsale, especially as it was marked by a lighthouse with a distinctive white-and-black paint job; PeekeEtAl, p. 70) -- but for some reason he ordered what is known as a "four point fix" to determine his exact location. That meant he had to sail a straight course for some 20 minutes while the fix was being taken (Preston, p. 185, with details on the fog spread over the preceding pages; Larson, p. 231, claims the fix would have taken fully half an hour).
Ramsey, p.162, notes that "other captains had testified that an accurate position could be obtained by taking cross bearings in only three minutes." On pp. 284-285, he notes that it was usually accurate to within a mile, with current and wind being the main things which affected its accuracy. It was used in circumstances when only one landmark with a known location could be seen.
I can't help but note that the Lusitania was 787 feet long. If accurate bearings were taken simultaneously from bow and stern, and the angles compared, there would have been a significant difference -- on the order of a degree if the estimated distance from the coast was correct. So, given proper equipment and crew, even the three minute course was not needed. If navigators hadn't developed the trig tables to perform that particular calculation, it was time they did so!
But forget all that and just look at the map on p. 532 of Massie. If Turner could see the Old Head of Kinsale -- and we know he could -- then he could have sailed into Queenstown based solely on visual observation. And, presumably, once docked, even he would have known his position.
The four point fix was surely the greatest gift Turner could possibly have given to an attacking vessel; what was he afraid of -- that Ireland had moved overnight? I have seen dozens of excuses for Turner, most of them valid -- but nothing can excuse the four point fix when the ship's position was adequately known.
Early in the afternoon of May 7, off the Kinsale coast not far from Queenstown, while taking the four point fix, Lusitania encountered the U-20 under KapitanLeutenant (Lt. Commander) Walter Schwieger. By this time, the weather was clear and bright (Ramsay, p. 223), so the German had no trouble tracking the liner. Even so, she would have been out of his reach -- except that Turner kindly turned the ship to do the Four Point Fix. Schweiger would later say, "She could not have steered a more perfect course if she had deliberately tried to give us a dead shot" (Larson, p. 232).
Schwieger was actually giving up on this cruise; he was low on fuel and had already had several run-ins with British merchant ships. That left him with just three torpedoes, and it was standard policy to save two for the voyage home (Larson, pp. 204-205). Rather than risk digging into his reserve stock, he fired only one torpedo.
In a major stroke of luck, Schwieger's one torpedo hit Lusitania squarely, and exploded properly (many German torpedoes at this time were duds -- Preston, p. 165, says that 60% misfired in one way or another), and caused a secondary explosion.
(Some sources, including Marshall, p. 166, says there were two torpedoes; it appears this was based on the first British investigation, for which see O'Sullivan, p. 122; this claimed two torpedo hits, one forward and one aft. This was presumably inspired by the fact witnesses agreed there were two explosions; cf. Ramsey, p. 269. The claim of two torpedoes was at various times affirmed and retracted by Captain Turner -- Ramsey, p. 274; Preston, pp. 325, 402. Preston seems to think this was because Cunard wanted there to have been two torpedoes, presumably so they wouldn't look so bad, and the Admiralty also wanted two, because it would spare them having to explain a secondary explosion. A few passengers went so far as to claim three torpedoes; Preston, pp. 368, 402. The British investigation, of course, had no access to the German records showing only one torpedo -- the intelligence service may have known, but it wasn't talking -- so it may have seemed logical to assume two explosions meant two hits. It was nonetheless wrong).
The ship instantly started listing, and sank within 20 minutes (Paine, p. 311), relieving Schwieger of the need to decide whether to fire another torpedo (Ballard, p. 90). Indeed, he found the sight "too horrible to watch" (Brinnin, p. 420).
Captain Turner was quickly on the bridge, but his actions were a bit questionable. According to Larson's reconstruction (pp. 252-253), he first ordered the engines full astern (there was no response, which is very strange). He then ordered the ship to turn toward land; for the moment, she answered the wheel. He then ordered another course change; this time, she did not answer. Only *then* did he order the watertight doors closed! He then ordered the boats lowered to the rails so passengers could board (although it should be remembered that they could not be put in the water until the ship stopped moving).
At about 2:25, fifteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the ship's bow was down 25 degrees, and Turner told the helmsman to leave the bridge and save himself, but did not leave the bridge himself until he was swept away as the ship went down.
The speed with which the ship sank turned what could have been a relatively minor incident into a disaster. The crew began evacuating almost at once -- but it took time to round up the passengers and lower the boats. This was all the more problematic because the ship was listing so heavily; within minutes, it was difficult to walk or even stay balanced. It was also hard to lower the boats and keep passengers in them (Simpson, p. 22, claims that a list of five degrees -- which could be caused by only one compartment flooding -- would makes half her boats inoperable, and Preston, pp. 132-133, reports that Cunard had refused to install better davits when they upgraded her lifeboats after the Titanic sinking).
Plus Turner apparently wouldn't let the boats be lowered until several minutes after it was clear Lusitania was sinking (Preston, p. 215). His argument was that the ship was moving too fast to allow the boats to enter the water safely. This was obviously true for a few minutes, though the ship surely slowed rapidly. (Larson, p. 272, claims it was still moving at four or five knots shortly before the ship sank. I frankly find this incredible.)
Many passengers never even made it to the deck; the ship's electrical system failed only minutes after the explosion, so many below decks would have had no lights to guide them upward (Ballard, p. 99; Preston, p. 209, says it took only four minutes for the power to go out as the boilers lost steam. PeekeEtAl, p. 74, attributes the quick failure to a decision by Captain Turner to order "full astern" to stop the ship -- an order caused the piping to blow off an end cap, probably because it caused certain damaged-and-not-easily-repaired valves to fail).
By the time Turner allowed the boats to go, the list was so severe that the portside boats could not be lowered without hitting the hull, at minimum damaging them and dumping passengers; many could not be launched at all (Preston, pp. 218, 220). Those on the starboard side, by contrast, swung far away from the ship and were difficult to enter (Preston, p. 219; Larson, p. 259, says that people had to jump into them or build bridges of deck chairs. No one seems to have thought of counter-flooding -- which, in this case, might even have kept the boat afloat longer -- but it was probably impossible anyway, because all the power and control systems were out. Apparently the designers never considered how disastrous a power failure could be on a ship this size; the Titanic had had power to the end, so no one had reason to think about it). In the end, only six boats made it to the water intact (PeekeEtAl, p. 78).
Turner had stayed with the ship. His watch, which presumably stopped when he went into the water as the ship made its final plunge, read 2:36 (Larson, p. 278), or about 25 minutes after the torpedo hit.
It took time for rescue to come. Although the authorities responded quickly, the ships they sent out were slow and small -- fishing boats and trawlers and minor naval vessels -- and none had a wireless (Preston, p. 260; Larson, p. 289). The Juno, which despite its age was the largest and fastest ship available, was not allowed to engage in rescue operations as it would have made too vulnerable a U-boat target (PeekeEtAl, p. 79. There had earlier been talk of sending her out as an escort, but she was withdrawn for the same reason; PeekeEtAl, pp. 59-60). The decision not to send her probably added hundreds to the casualty list.
There were 764 survivors (Paine, p. 311; Ramsey, p. 94 says they consisted of 474 passengers and 290 crew). There were about 1200 casualties, though the number is slightly uncertain (Brinnin, p. 417, says it took months even to come up with a number). According to Keegan, p. 265; also Paine, p. 311, a total of 1201 lives were lost. On the other hand Marshall, p, 166, Barczewski, p. 289, Brinnin, p. 417, and O'Sullivan, p. 27 say that 1198 people were killed, which is also the figure we find if we subtract 764 from the 1962 people Ramsey claims were on board (p. 94). Simpson, p. 1, prefers the figure 1201, explaining on p. 9 that the figure of 1198 excludes three stowaways (!) not on the official passenger list; similarly Preston, p. 303, and PeekeEtAl, p. 80. (The stowaways were thought to be German spies; PeekeEtAl, p. 55, tells of the capture of their cameras and reports, which were probably preserved though no one seems aware of what they revealed). Ballard, p. 13, says that 1195 died.
Preston, p. 303, breaks this down: 785 of 1257 registered passengers were lost, and 413 out of 702 crew. She says 94 of 129 children were killed, including fully 35 of 39 infants (cf. PeekeEtAl, p. 80). Ramsey, p. 100, adds that Liverpool suffered particularly heavily, since Liverpool was Lusitania's home port. The losses might have been worse had the day not been calm and the waves slight (Larson, p. 328); anything else might have swamped some of the boats and the flotsam that people clung to.
Most sources seem to agree that 128 of the victims were Americans (Ballard, p. 13, says there were 123 Americans; O'Sullivan, p. 89 gives the number as 140 but on p. 107 says there were 127 Americans), producing a diplomatic crisis (Preston, p. 311, talks of how the description "Hun" for the Germans became common at this time).
President Woodrow Wilson took a while to respond (Larson, p. 329), but when he did, his words were forceful enough that his pacifist Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned (Larson, p. 332) -- a move which, ironically, probably brought war closer, because Wilson's cabinet became more hawkish. But Bryan never did have good timing.
Although the uproar did not at the time lead to war, Germany was forced for a time to back off from unrestricted submarine warfare.
The search for bodies was officially ended on June 4, but at least one corpse washed ashore as late as July 15 (Larson, p. 304). The bodies were so many that most of them ended up in a mass grave. (The mass burial eventually became an issue, since families wanted to bury their relatives individually, but the bodies stayed where they were; Larson, p. 310.)
Among the songs played at the group memorial service were "Abide with Me" and "The Last Post" (Larson, p. 309) -- an interesting choice, given that the British were denying that the ship was involved in military activities!
There has been much argument over whether the sinking was justified. Some, like Simpson, seem to think it entirely justified. Others think it a pure atrocity. The truth is surely somewhere in between: The ship *was* carrying military materials, and the Germans probably knew that -- though the submarine commander didn't; he supposedly didn't even know it was the Lusitania at the time he fired -- but the ship was neither armed nor armored, and it could have been given proper notice and sunk after the boats were off -- which was the essence of the American position (Massie, p. 534).
Indeed, it would have been more reasonable to stop her: She was clearly a target worth sinking, just based on her size, but the chances of one torpedo sinking such a big ship would ordinarily be small even if the torpedo hit -- and it would have been easier to hit her were she standing still. By stopping her, the crew of U-20 would have been much more certain to put her under, *plus* there would have been no risk to innocent lives. (Sez I. But back to our story....)
The Vanderbilt of the song is Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who died on the Lusitania (though he wasn't one of the more famous Vanderbilts; his wealth was primarily inherited; Ballard, p. 32). According to Ramsey, p. 85, he did indeed give his lifebelt to a female passenger, Alice Middleton. (Though, in the salt water off Ireland, the real threat was not drowning but being washed away from land, plus hypothermia -- the water temperature was about 53F/11C; Preston, p. 249, which since water has a higher heat capacity than air, means that the cold could cause unconsciousness and death in as little as an hour or two; Larson, p. 285. And a person with no training in water might drown despite the fact that his body would float, because water might get into his lungs.) Ballard, p. 116, reports that Vanderbilt made no effort to save himself (he could not swim); his body was never found.
Indeed, Brinnin, p. 425, says some 900 bodies were not recovered; either they were swept out to sea or they went down with the ship. The disaster produced an amazing flurry of messages as Cunard tried to figure out who had actually been aboard, so they could figure out who was lost (Larson, pp. 300-301); since they had never lost a passenger before, their system for tracking who was aboard ship had never been tested. Sadly, as with the Titanic disaster, there are reports of passengers already in boats refusing to help those who were not (Preston, p. 250).
Brinnin's comment (p. 421) may help explain the notoriety of what happened: "Dresden, Hiroshima, Biafra, My Lai [to which we might now add Armenia, Bosnia, 9/11, Iraq, Darfur....] -- after [these and] all the other names and instances of the murderous course of the middle years of the twentieth century, it is all but impossible to recapture, even to understand, the sense of outrage, 'the universal shout of execration,' generated by the sinking of the Lusitania."
There was of course an inquiry held after the sinking, but it being wartime, very little was done to punish Cunard or the captain and crew for sloppiness; instead, the blame was placed squarely on the Germans. Lusitania became just another atrocity story, used to inflame American opinion against Germany, causing the Germans to temporarily abandon unrestricted submarine warfare.
It is interesting to observe that, although the Germans briefly celebrated the sinking of the Lusitania, they later quieted down. And, when it came time to publish the U-20's war log, skipper Schwieger signed off on every page except that for May 7 (Preston, p. 314). There is also evidence that the record was fiddled with and even "humanized" (Preston, pp. 416-418; she calls the record "institutional afterthoughts"). Sadly, we do not know what Schwieger originally wrote; the original log has perished, and we have only the official transcription. Plus he died in the course of the war; the U-20 was later sunk (with the wreck being discovered in 1984; Hoehling, p. 119), and Schwieger died in the U-88 in 1917.
An anonymous woman who said she was Schweiger's fiancee (apparently in 1919) claimed he felt immense regret about the loss of life (Larson, p. 292), but there is no other sign of it; soon after sinking the Lusitania, Schweiger was going after other targets, and obviously he stayed in the submarine service.
O'Sullivan's chapter on the aftermath of the sinking is entitled "The Sham Tribunals." A sham they obviously were in that it was certain the Germans would be blamed for sinking the ship (though it can hardly be denied that they did so!). But the inquiries could at least have sought to find out what else went wrong -- and they didn't. O'Sullivan accuses the Admiralty of suppressing evidence (pp. 118-121), offering several particulars but not documenting any of them -- and it must be confessed that the tribunal, at least in its open sessions, skipped over a lot of important material. And the Admiralty made sure that certain information was not revealed in open court (Preston, p. 320) -- though this is hardly surprising in a period of wartime secrecy.
They were a sham in another sense, too, in that one of the parties tried to fix the outcome. It seems certain that the Admiralty was out to "get" Captain Turner. O'Sullivan accuses the Admiralty of making Turner the scapegoat; p. 115. Preston, pp. 316-319, 325-327, 403, documents the case the Admiralty built against Turner, sometimes on flimsy evidence; she notes on p. 405 that he probably did not receive some of the orders allegedly sent to him. Larson, pp. 317-318, also says the government was out to get Turner. Even the pro-British Ramsey says that the Admiralty, not Cunard, was getting most of the blame in the press (Ramsey, p. 113), so the officers were determined to find someone else to suffer the odium.
PeekeEtAl, p. 82, say explicitly, "Reading the collective correspondence in its original, unedited state would have made it abundantly clear to anyone that Captain Turner... had followed his Admiralty instructions to the letter. This is why Oliver and Webb were now busily 'tailoring' the Admiralty signals register...."
In fact, PeekeEtAl, p. 84, says that Turner was shown the evidence against him, which made it clear that it was being faked -- and yet Turner somehow didn't do anything to protest or correct the record. According to PeekeEtAl, p. 88-89, Turner was saved only because there were two different editions of the evidence against him (Ramsey, p. 148), and when Lord Mersey discovered this, he realized what was going on and effectively halted the hearings. And since there was a government change at this time, the Admiralty was shaken up and no longer needed a scapegoat as much, so they let things drop.
Mersey's conclusion was that Turner may have ignored Admiralty advice, but he consistently obeyed his actual orders (PeekeEtAl, p. 90). Mersey retired as Receiver of Wrecks shortly thereafter, and preserved the documents needed to show what happened.
The tribunal's final conclusion was all of two paragraphs long, "placing the entire blame for the disaster on Germany" (Ramsey, p. 154), with a ten-page addendum exonerating everybody in sight (Preston, p. 330). ***
In defence of Captain Turner, we should probably note that, although very experienced overall, and a former captain of the Lusitania, he had little wartime experience on the refitted Lusitania; her previous captain, David Dow, had had something of a breakdown shortly before the final voyage (Preston, p. 110; PeekeEtAl, p. 48; Larson, pp. 20-21, says that he refused to accept responsibility for the safety of passengers in enemy-patrolled waters). Turner in fact sent a number of letters complaining of the Lusitania's state, and saying he would not sail her again unless the problems were repaired.
On the other hand, these problems do not appear to have contributed to her demise (except perhaps for a minor problem with her ballasting). And Turner had told a reporter before the sailing, "It's the best joke I've heard in many days, this talk of torpedoing theLusitania" (Preston, p. 108). He may have simply been trying to calm nervous potential passengers -- but it sounds like complacency. Especially since he generally disliked having anything to do with the passengers, whom he once called "bloody monkeys" (Preston, p. 108). In fact, Turner requested the services of an assistant in this regard; he was assigned Staff Captain John Anderson to deal with the passengers (PeekeEtAl, pp. 50-51).
Even if we accept that Turner followed his orders exactly, there is still the idiocy of the four point fix. And it also came out during the investigations that Turner had not ordered the passengers to learn how to put on their life belts. And the belts had to be fitted properly to work -- and, with many of the passengers being non-English speakers, it proved impossible to instruct them at the last moment (Preston, pp. 206-207, describes some of the problems it caused. Several passengers would die from wearing the belts wrong). Nor had Turner ordered them to wear them, or even keep them close at hand, in the danger zone (Ballard, p. 132). Many would die because they could not find their belts.
And, of course, Turner had not ordered adequate boat drills (Ballard, p. 135; Preston, p. 325, in fact reports that Turner said in open court that his crew was not proficient in handling boats, to which he added a grumble about the crews available in 1915 compared to those in his youth. PeekeEtAl, p. 57, tells of him challenging his officers to tie a knot he had learned to tie aboard a sailing vessel in his youth. All of them being trained for steam, only one knew how. Turner really does sound like he was still living in the nineteenth century). Nor had the ship's daily newsletter told the passengers anything useful (Preston, p. 183).
Preston, p. 406, notes that the passengers would have taken ill to boat drills and lifebelt practice -- even though the lifebelts were a new, tricky model that even many experienced travelers would not have known how to use. That the passengers would have resented the drills is likely enough. I can't see how this justifies not having them, though.
I can't help but think, reading Captain Turner's responses at the inquiries, that he sounds like a senile old man. Preston declares that his answers were monosyllables, and that "He seemed anxious and, on occasion, confused" (Pretson, p. 326). Admittedly he had just lost his ship, which might account for his befuddled state (Preston suggests post-traumatic stress, and the description in PeekeEtAl, p. 79, certainly sounds like it) -- but his behavior *before* the sinking, if not befuddled, is certainly inexplicable.
Presumably Turner could no more believed that the Germans would attack without warning than could the passengers. He was, more or less, exonerated (Preston, p. 404).
To put this in perspective: A similar tribunal, under the same man (Lord Mersey) had earlier investigated the Titanic sinking, and had exonerated Captain Smith of sailing too fast in an ice zone.
My personal verdict on Turner would have to be, Not guilty of malice or criminal intent, but much, much too casual. In light of that, the failure of Lord Mersey's tribunal to blame anyone but the Germans may have been unfortunate, since Captain Turner was given another ship -- which also ended up being torpedoed and sunk (Ballard, p. 137; Larson, pp. 346-247, describes how he was first given a horse carrier, then a more important vessel). Turner again survived, but apparently that finally caused authorities to put him on the beach.
It is peculiar and sad to note that, although Turner survived two ships being sunk under him, during World War II, his son Percy Wilfred Turner -- a mere Able Seaman, not a merchant officer -- was killed when a U-boat sunk his ship in 1941 (Larson, p. 348).
Captain Turner retired from the sea in 1919 and died in 1933 at the age of 76. His marriage had ended decades earlier, and he became a near-recluse (Preston, p. 431). Reportedly he claimed that he had not been given a "fair deal" (Preston, p. 432), claiming e.g. that he had never been instructed to zigzag.
Few of my sources really talk about theeffects of zigzagging (probably because the authors are not mathematicians) -- e.g. Ramsey, in discussing it on pp. 224-225, merely says that it was costly, since it used more fuel, and would be uncomfortable for the passengers.
This is certainly true if the ship had gone through the sorts of sudden turns, of up to ninety degrees, recommended by the Admiralty for navy ships. But smaller turns would not be so bad. And they might well have saved the ship.
There is much we don't know about the geometry of the Lusitania and the U-20. Schweiger (quoted by Ramsey, p. 81, and implicitly by Preston, p. 191) estimated the distance at 700 meters. If anything, he probably estimated low, since the Lusitania was surely bigger than he expected. Nonetheless, PeekeEtAl, p. 72, give the distance as 550 meters. The Lusitania was moving at 18 knots, or about 9 meters per second. I've seen estimates that place the torpedo's speed as high as 38 knots, or 20 m/sec, but fromeverything else I've read, a speed more on the order of 18 m/sec is more likely. That means the approximate time from firing to impact was about 40 seconds.
The best guess is that Schweiger's torpedo hit somewhere around the boundary between #1 and #2 boiler rooms. Both flooded, which was enough to sink the ship.
If the Lusitania had changed course by 15 degrees at the moment the torpedo was fired -- a course that surely would not have caused the passengers too much discomfort -- the hit would have been about 15 meters further forward, taking out #1 boiler room but possibly reducing the damage to #2 enough that the ship, even if she sank, would at least have gone down more slowly, allowing better evacuation. Had Lusitania turned 30 degrees at the time the torpedo was fired, the hit would have been 50 meters forward, and she might have been saved, since only boiler room #1 would have been threatened. Had Lusitania turned 45 degrees, the strike would have been 110 meters forward, and she certainly would have lived; she might not even have been hit. Even if she had started a hard turn just 15 seconds before impact, she probably would have taken the impact only to boiler room #1, and she would have slowed down more rapidly, reducing the water inflow slightly and also making evacuation safer. Thus the straight course of the four point fix was a major cause of the disaster.
I would add that, though Turner was certainly guilty of taking the four point fix, which was the final cause of the disaster, he was not the first cause. The Admiralty certainly bears blame on several grounds. (Hardly a surprise, given its disastrous disorganization; there really was no central coordinating authority short of the First Sea Lord, who simply could not do everything; Ramsey, pp. 233, 250-251, etc.) The information sent to the Lusitania and to Turner was probably inadequate. But the real problem was their penny-pinching and limitations of the Lusitania's schedule. The crew's desperate lack of experience was largely due to this niggling. Had the navy paid enough, they could either have sailed the ship more regularly, allowing the crew to gain experience -- or they could have kept the crew on duty while the Lusitania sat in port, allowing them to practice with the boats. This was something Cunard could not afford to do on its own.
The bad crew also may have contributed to actual torpedo hit. We know that a watchman, Leslie Morton, saw the torpedo long before it hit (Ramsey, p. 82, etc.). Had he not been an untrained nitwit who failed to pass the message to the bridge, the ship would have had a few more seconds to avoid the torpedo -- which, as the geometry shows, might have saved boiler room #2 and the ship. But Morton was an untrained 18-year-old who hesitated, shouted a message into the communicator, and ran off to find his brother without even making sure his message was heard. Best guess is that it wasn't heard.
On the other hand, the Admiralty can hardly be faulted for failing to provide a destroyer to escort her. Destroyers were in short supply, and at this time, destroyers did not have sonar or radar or any other means of detecting submarines except to see them or their torpedoes. Even in World War II, when sonar was universal and radar coming into use, destroyers didn't keep U-boats from sinking the vessels they escorted; they just made them more miserable afterward. There is little reason to think an escort would have saved Lusitania.
There would later be an American court case (Preston, pp. 366-370); this didn't really bring out much in the way of new facts, but it supported the claim that the Lusitania was not an actual warship: the plaintiffs admitted that the ship was not armed, that she was not carrying Canadian troops (something alleged because of the curious coincidence that a lot of the passengers listed Canadian addresses; Ramsey, p. 195), and some lesser points supporting the contention that she was not a legitimate target.
Unlike the other great disaster of the period, Lusitania's transatlantic rival the Titanic, the Lusitania went down in relatively shallow waters, and the wreck was visited as early as the 1930s. But it wasn't until the late twentieth century that Ballard really investigated the wreck with adequate equipment.
The question of why she sank has long been a topic of controversy: What caused the second explosion, which most passengers thought the larger of the two?
Many have speculated that it was in fact an explosion of war materials she had secretly taken aboard (Ballard, p. 14; Preston, p. 448). Against this is Captain Turner's testimony; he said that there was no cargo near the area where (he thought) the torpedo hit. Ballard's exploration also argues against this; he notes on p. 151 that there was only one hole in her hull. The second explosion, then, did not do further damage to the exterior, but damaged the interior and destroyed her watertight integrity.
It is Ballard's belief, based on the opening in the hull and the distribution of coal around her grave, that the second explosion was caused by coal dust: Since the ship was nearing her destination, her bunkers were relatively empty, except for dust. The torpedo sent the dust up into the air, and then sparked it, and the explosion of all the coal was what brought the ship down (Ballard, p. 195).
Larson, p. 326, argues however that the coal was too damp for the dust to be very flammable. PeekeEtAl, p. 93, argue that Ballard's exploration did not turn up facts sufficient to justify his conclusions, and Ramsey, pp. 209-210, also doubts this, on the grounds that no similar instances of coal dust explosions are recorded. The latter strikes me as weak -- it is true that there are no verified instances of coal dust explosions on shipboard, but coal dust most definitely explodes (ask any coal miner!) Until World War I, there were no coal-carrying ships torpedoed, and few of the ships torpedoed in that war were examined as closely as the Lusitania, and by World War II, most ships were fueled by oil, not coal. So the lack of verified coal dust explosions proves very little.
O'Sullivan, pp. 134-136, holds out for an explosion caused by powdered aluminum (which can attract oxygen from water, causing the leftover hydrogen to burn. Powdered aluminum in fact is used in fireworks, with an oxidizer, to produce the very fast-burning "salutes," which are responsible for the loudest banging noises). There was aluminum in the cargo -- a lot of it (50 barrels and 94 cases, according to Larson, p. 182, who also lists 50 cases of bronze powder although no one else seems to consider that a fire hazard) -- though the aluminum, unlike the coal, was carefully packaged. And aluminum, even if powdered (as O'Sullivan says it was, though he as usual does not cite a source) is certainly a legitimate cargo.
Ramsey, p. 209, offers strong evidence that aluminum was not the cause -- while fine-ground aluminum can produce an explosive flash, coarser particles are more likely to simply burn, and 1915 aluminum powder was not very finely ground.
Another possibility is that her boilers blew up (Preston, pp. 451-452; Larson, p. 326) -- not an unusual occurence in ships of this period; it was part of what had caused the Atlantic tragedy forty-odd years earlier. But there wasn't much time for that to happen.
After examining all of these theories, and noting their weaknesses, Preston, pp. 452-454, argues for a failure of her steam lines -- or even a series of failures, perhaps accounting for the quick failure of the electrical system and the fact that the second explosion seemed to be heard everywhere; it may have been several explosions.
Under any of these theories, it is an "industrial accident" (O'Sullivan, p. 137).
Arguing against this are PeakeEtAl, p. 103, who suggest that the torpedo hit in the vicinity of the ammunition the ship carried, and that the ammo caused the second explosion, blowing out many bulkheads. Sadly, because the ship settled on its starboard side, we cannot entirely disprove this (if we could see the hole of the explosion, we could observe whether the metal is twisted inward or outward), but unless there were hidden munitions, I frankly don't see how enough explosive could go up at any given moment to cause damage exceeding that of the torpedo hit.
Preston, p. 443, notes that the corridors in passenger liners were often smaller than in other ships, meaning that the pressure wave from the explosion(s) could not dissipate as easily as in a cargo ship. This would have increased the damage in the area of the torpedo hit. Her ultimate conclusion is that the torpedo hit in just about the worst possible spot, and the Lusitania simply wasn't designed to take that sort of damage.
Ramsey says explicitly (p. 206), "Although earlier authors have generally ascribedLusitania's loss to the second explosion, current opinion suggests convincingly that the effect on the liner's stability resulting from the impact of Schweiger's torpedo was by itself sufficiently lethal to secure her destruction." (This because so much water would enter the starboard side that she could not stay on an even keel; Ramsey, p. 208.) He also suggest that there was a leak in a steam pipe somewhere, leading to rapid loss of boiler pressure (pp. 209-211), aggravated by mishandling of the situation (pp. 212-213). This would not have sunk the ship (the torpedo leak did that), but it was responsible for the rapid loss of power and propulsion.
Reading all the arguments, I am inclined to think we will never know with certainty what happened, or what caused the second explosion, though I too incline toward the "industrial accident" belief; contrary to the claims by Simpson and his followers, the evidence for a large ammunition explosion seems weak.
Apart from causing a diplomatic incident, there was one other effect of the sinking: The Admiralty gave in to the economics of the situation. For the remainder of the war, there was no British passenger service on the Atlantic (Brinnin, p. 426).
An interesting side note is that the Titanic, three years before, inspired almost too many songs to count. The Lusitania seems to have inspired just this one, and it not particularly well-known. Why? It can't be just the war, since the Lusitania got plenty of coverage. Maybe it's that the disaster couldn't so easily be blamed on "the hand of God." Though, in fact, the fault in both cases was largely "the hand of complacency."
The last survivor of the Lusitania is believed to have been Audrey Lawson-Johnston -- a member of a very fortunate family; although several children were lost, her parents, her brother, and the three-month-old Audrey herself were saved. According to a BBC story, she died at age 95 on January 11, 2011. She of course did not remember the disaster, although she did hear stories of it from relatives.
As mentioned, Lusitania is in shallow water (a depth of only 312 feet, according to Preston, p. 372, with parts of the hull 82 feet higher). The wreck has been visited many times as a result. The first was in 1935, but the equipment of the time was so bad that the diver actually thought the ship was resting on its port side; explorations since have shown that it lies on its starboard side (Preston, p. 373).
In the 1960s, the aforementioned John Light and colleagues tried to explore using newer technologies; this is the group that thought they saw guns (but Preston, p. 373, notes that this was still the era of nitrogen/oxygen breathing mixes; the divers suffered from cold and nitrogen narcosis). They did not produce usable film of the weapons. (We might add that the problems Light experienced pretty well demolish the theory that the British could have disarmed the wreck, and the hull was intact enough that the Admiralty could hardly have depth-charged it, as is claimed, e.g., by PeekeEtAl, p. 91.) Light hopes to eventually publish, but all that came of his work was Simpson's volume, which Light himself disputed.
A few artifacts were brought up by a 1982 television expedition (Preston, pp. 374-375); interestingly, these did not sell well at auction. Ballard took his turn in 1993, and produced the first good documentation of the wreck. A team of free divers working in 1994 largely reaffirmed his conclusions (Preston, pp. 376-377), and also discovered the annunciator which relayed speed and drive instructions to the engine room. This showed the ship still in forward drive -- contrary to what Turner said he ordered. Of course, since the engines failed within minutes, it hardly matters. But it makes you wonder what else Turner got wrong.
A curiosity about the whole story is the way the Lusitania legend still grips people. The Titanic fascinates people, but there is little real controversy about the history (yes, Hollywood distorted the story, but that's Hollywood). But the Lusitania continues to inspire polemics and conspiracy theories -- a common one is that the Churchill and/or Fisher (the men most responsible for naval policy) sent out the Lusitania as live bait in an attempt to get the Americans involved in the war. This is patently absurd -- not because Churchill or Fisher were above such things (in fact, Churchill hinted at the idea of live bait in a letter -- PeekeEtAl, p. 47), but because it just wasn't likely to work. The Lusitania was faster than any ship sunk by submarines to date; she also had good underwater protection that would make her hard to sink. And, if the Admiralty wanted her sunk, would they have put aboard such war materials as they did put aboard?
Preston, pp. 395-396, also makes the argument that the British in 1915 did not want the Americans in the war; they would be too likely to meddle with the peace.
Such logic does not stop the polemicists. Larson, p. 324, quotes a British intelligence officer, Patrick Beesly, was "reluctantly compelled" to think there was a British plot to have the Germans sink the ship. Both Simpson's and O'Sullivan's books both strike me as screeds intended to place as much blame as is possible on the British authorities. (O'Sullivan's in fact seems almost to be the work of two authors -- half the time he's going straight after the Admiralty; the other half, he calms down and tries to be objective. Was there a hidden ghost writer who only did half the book?) The reason defeats me -- whatever their faults, the men they would blame are long dead, and their policies dead with them.
And the need for polemic produced books that are clearly bad. Simpson's book is littered with small errors of fact -- e.g. he can't even spell "blue riband," consistently calling it "blue ribbon" (O'Sullivan, p. 17), and Preston, p. 374, observe that Simpson was criticized even by John Light, whose research originally inspired what was to have been a collaboration. O'Sullivan may be even worse; his unfootnoted work has its own set of substantial errors, some of which distort the whole history of World War I.
The question of "a legitimate target" is still argued today; Preston, e.g. has a chapter with that title, noting that, within days of the tragedy, a coroner in Ireland offered the verdict "wilful murder." We must remember, as the American judge later wrote, that the incident must be viewed in light of the knowledge of the time (Preston, p. 383). (Which is surprisingly easy to do, given that the British Admiralty is still concealing records, either by refusing to release them or by blanking out pages, and some of the papers Simpson claims to have seen have now vanished; Preston, p. 384).
Preston, p. 393, probably has the best last word: "The truth was that no government, British, German, or American, was entirely free of blame for the situation leading up to the attack. Nor, in its wake, was any government hesitant to twist the facts, or use the disaster, to its own political ends."
On pp. 424-426, Preston makes another point: Two weeks before the Lusitania was sunk, the Germans had launched the first gas attack. A few weeks afterward saw the first bombing of civilians from the air. Germany, for a short time, backed away from unrestricted submarine warfare (a mistake, in Preston's view, and I think she's right: Once Germany started, they would have been better off to keep it up). But Germany did not back away from gas, or bombings, and it built the "Big Berthas" to shell Paris. The age of limited, civilized warfare was over.
I would add only one more thing: whoever was "to blame" for the Lusitania tragedy, many hundreds of complete innocents perished needlessly. In this regard, the song knows what the true issue was, and the polemicists do not. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Ballard: Dr. Robert D. Ballard with Spencer Dunmore, Exploring the Lusitania (Warner, 1995)
- Barczewski: Stephanie Barczewski, Titanic: A Night Remembered (Hambledon Continuum, 2004)
- Brinnin: John Malcolm Brinnin, The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic (1986; I use the 2000 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Fox: Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isumbard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, Harper Collins, 2003
- Harding: Stephen Harding, Great Liners at War, Motorbooks, 1997
- Hoehling: A. A. Hoehling, Ships that Changed History (1992; I use the 2007 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Keegan: John Keegan, The First World War (Knopf, 1999)
- Larson: Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Crown Publishers, 2015
- Marshall: S. L. A. Marshall, World War I (American Heritage, 1964)
- Massie: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel, Random House, 2003
- O'Sullivan, The Lusitania (1998; I use the 2000 Sheridan House edition)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
- PeekeEtAl: Mitch Peeke, Kevin Walsh-Johnson, Steven Jones, The Lusitania Story, Naval Institute Press, 2002
- Preston: Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (Walker, 2002; I use the 2003 Berkley edition)
- Ramsay: David Ramsay, The Lusitania: Saga and Myth (Norton, 2001)
- Simpson: Colin Simpson, The Lusitania (Little Brown, 1972)
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