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World War 1: The Sinking of Lusitania

Updated on February 29, 2012
The Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania in New York at the end of  her maiden voyage. 1907
The Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania in New York at the end of her maiden voyage. 1907
Captain Turner
Captain Turner

Captain Turner's Fatal Decision

May 7, 1915, approx 1.40pm

The fog had finally burned off, and Captain Turner of the RMS Lusitania found himself in the unenviable position of not knowing precisely where he was. He had an idea, but he needed a more accurate assessment. Over the last twenty-four hours he had received numerous reports of U-Boat activity in the area, and he was certain they would lay in wait for his ship outside the port of Queenstown, where he had been diverted due to the U-Boat activity. He wanted a clean run into port. Any delay could make him a target.

He ordered the ship to be slowed down, and set on a straight course along the Irish coast Near Old Head of Kinsale, so that he could do an accurate 4-point bearing.

In doing so he sealed the fate of his ship...

The launch of the Lusitania
The launch of the Lusitania
Lusitania arrives in New York at the end of her maiden voyage, September 13, 1907.
Lusitania arrives in New York at the end of her maiden voyage, September 13, 1907.

Footage of RMS Lusitania

A Brief History of RMS Luistania

Lusitania was owned by the Cunard Steamship Line Shipping Company. In 1903, Cunard Chairman Lord Inverclyde took out a loan of £2.6 million for the construction of Lusitania and Mauretania, with the provision that they would become Auxilary Crusiers for the British navy if required. The British Government also agreed to pay Cunard an annual subsidy of £150,000 for maintaining both ships in a state of war readiness, plus an additional £68,000 to carry Royal Mail.

With this money in hand plans were drawn up for the two ships and the keel for the Lusitania was laid at John Brown & Clydebank on June 16, 1904. She was launched on June 7, 1906 and began her sea trials on July 27, 1907. She did not go directly into service, but was returned to the yard where changes were made due to vibrations discovered when the ship travelled at high speeds. She was finally delivered complete and ready for her maiden voyage on August 26, 1907.

The ship was victualled and a crew hired and she left on her maiden voyage on September 7, 1907, arriving in New York on September 13, 1907. In October 1907 she took the e Blue Riband from Kaiser Wilhelm II averaging 23.99 knots (44.4 km/h) westbound and 23.61 knots (43.7 km/h) eastbound.

Lusitania was joined on the Atlantic run by Mauretania in November, 1907 and the two ships began a friendly rivalry for the Blue Riband. The prize was swapped back and forth between the ships for two years before Mauretania became the victor in 1909, and held the prize for twenty more years.

Minor changes were made to the provisioning of lifeboats on the Lusitania following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but other than that it was business as usual for the ships.

In 1914, just weeks before the declaration of war, the Aquitania joined the Lusitania and Mauritania on their New York run. This was what Lord Inverclyde had envisioned from the beginning: a three ship service across the Atlantic. The three ship service lasted three voyages before the great liners were pulled from passenger service and became part of the Royal Navy. War had been declared and the liners had their part to play.

Sister ship Mauretania in war service, as a hospital ship during the Gallipoli campaign.
Sister ship Mauretania in war service, as a hospital ship during the Gallipoli campaign.

The Role of the Great Liners in WW1

When the Lusitania was initally constructed it was with the view that should war be declared she, and her sister ship Mauretania would be converted to Armed Merchant Cruisers. When they were constructed their decks were reinforced with this in mind. When war was declared the Admiralty reconsidered this option and decided that the large liners were unsuitable for this purpose. Their reasoning was as follows:

  • The ships, while fast, consumed a great amount of coal.
  • Their size made them a good target,
  • The ships were very distinctive.

Instead, the Admiralty decided that the larger liners would be converted into troop ships and hospital ships, leaving the smaller, less distinctive liners as Armed Merchant Vessels. The Carpathia, which came to the aid of the Titanic survivors, for example became an Armed Merchant Cruiser, and was eventually sunk in service.

Initially Britain requisitioned the Mauretania for service, leaving the Lusitania to continue on her commercial run. The amount of Atlantic crossings she made was reduced back to one a month and a boiler room closed, reducing her speed to 21 knots.

Lusitania was given a code book so in order to translate radio transmissions from the Admiralty, orders on how to use zig-zagging to confound the enemy guns and orders to ram any submarine that entered its path, among the many instructions for a merchant cruiser while operating in a war zone.

The U-20: The German U-Boat responsible for sinking the Lusitania.
The U-20: The German U-Boat responsible for sinking the Lusitania.

How Sea Warfare Changed at the Beginning of WW1

Traditionally merchant vessels were treated differently when entering a war zone. The custom went back to the age of sail, and the necessity to ensure that there were enough supplies during the war. The custom was as follows:

  1. If a ship was flying the colours of the enemy, the ship was chased and a shot was made across the bow, as a signal to stop and allow boarding. The saying of "Taking a shot across the bow," meaning to stop someone with a warning, came from this custom.

  2. The ship was inspected, and if it was carrying contraband (anything that would aid the enemy) the ship was either seized or sunk.

  3. Before a ship was sunk the crew was either captured, or made to take to their lifeboats.

  4. If the ship was captured, the goods were taken back to port and sold off, and the crew got a cut of the takings. This was known as 'prize money'.

In some cases ships chose to fly colours of neutral countries to get through a war zone, and this tactic was sometimes used by war ships in order to get close enough to attack. As they approached they changed flags back to the true country of the ship. This is where the saying of "Flying false colours" came from.

This all changed at the beginning of World War 1, although not immediately. The biggest factor in bringing around the change was the introduction of the submarine, which by its very nature used stealth as its main weapon. To keep up the tradition it would have to surface, giving the enemy the means to attack it like any other sea-going vessel.

The timeline of events was as follows:

  • August 1914: Germany mines the approaches to North Sea ports, and began stopping and searching ships for contraband. Both British and Neutral ships were stopped and searched. If found to be carrying any goods that would aid the enemy they were sunk, after the crew had abandoned ship.
  • October 1914: The Captain of the U-Boat U-17 stops the British Cargo ship Glitra off the coast of Norway. He boards the ship and inspects it for contraband before ordering all crew and passengers off the ship and into lifeboats. The Glitra is then sunk, and the captain of U-17 tows the lifeboats several miles toward shore.

  • November 1914: Britain retaliates to the mining of the North Sea ports, by planting mines in the North Sea.
  • Seeing a new use for submarines because of the Glitra incident, and in reaction to the mining of the North Sea, pressure builds in Germany to rethink the way submarines are used.

  • February 1915: Germany declares the waters around Britain to be an Unrestricted War Zone. Any ship within the area is fair game. This meant that ships would no longer be boarded, they would be sunk without warning. The submarine was the main beneficiary of this approach.

"It may not always be possible to prevent attacks meant for hostile ships being directed against neutral ships."

- From the German announcement of unrestricted warfare.

The warning from the German Embassy printed underneath the shedule for the voyage of the Lusitania. It was to prove accurate.
The warning from the German Embassy printed underneath the shedule for the voyage of the Lusitania. It was to prove accurate.

The Last Fateful Voyage of the Lusitania

New York, May 1 1915

The Lusitania was ready to sail. She had loaded her cargo, and victualled for the voyage to Liverpool. In her cargo holds were contraband goods, including munitions, which had been not been disclosed to the port authorities, and even more damning a warning had been issued on behalf of the German Embassy warning passengers of the danger in sailing aboard her.

The warning did not deter the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard her. Captain Turner was confident that he could outrun any submarine that crossed their path, and expressed this view to more than one passenger. Little did he know that two days earlier the U-Boat U-20 had departed from Germany, and among her orders were to sink any British Merchant ship that crossed her path, including Lusitania. This had been a standing order passed among U-Boat captains for some time.

The Voyage Across the Atlantic was for the most part uneventful, but in the evening they approached the Irish coast Captain Turner received his first warnings of U-Boat activity in the area. He received an order to divert to Queenstown, and changed course. He took precautions, including asking the passengers to restrict the amount of time spent on deck, swinging out the lifeboats and blacking out all windows and portholes. Still, they proceeded without incident.

That evening they encountered heavy fog, obscuring all landmarks but also making it more difficult for other shipping to see Lusitania. The fog did not clear until about 11am on May 5, and it was only then that Turner realised he needed a better idea of his position. As soon as he found his first identifiable coastal point, the Old Head of Kinsale, he ordered the ship to move toward the coast and he prepared to do a 4-point bearing in order to accurately map his position. This was a fatal mistake: he had already been spotted by the U-20, and they had been ghosting her for an hour.

The change in course had given Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger the chance he had been looking for. The Lusitania was now on a straight course.

He ordered a torpedo to be launched. Deckhand Leslie Morton saw it first, and shouted his warning. By the time that word reached the bridge it was too late, and the ship was doomed. The torpedo struck just below the bridge, causing an explosion as debris and water splashed up the ship. Less than a minute later there was a second explosion and the ship began to rapidly go under.

Video Recounting the Tragedy of the Lusitania

Lusitania Goes to the Bottom

The Lusitania immediately listed to port as water rushed into the ship. Captain Turner, realising the gravity of his situation, ordered the ship to be steered toward the coast hoping to beach her. He didn't have any luck. The torpedo and second explosion had taken out the rudder controls and therefore they had no way of steering the ship.

Turner ordered everybody to abandon ship. She was already listing by 15 degrees as water poured into her side, and the speed made it dangerous to launch the boats. Even worse, the list made it almost impossible to lower the boats into the sea.

The ship was sinking fast, but had finally slowed down, allowing some attempt to get boats in the water. In the end only six of the lifeboats on board were successfully launched.

The Lusitania was under the ocean and only debris remained to mark her passage, only eighteen minutes after the torpedo struck, at 2:25pm. Passengers and crew found themselves in the freezing Irish Sea with little hope of rescue. It is believed that more people died from the freezing ocean than did from the actual sinking.

The distress call had not gone unnoticed, and within hours of the sinking a rag-tag fleet composed mainly of tugs and fishing vessels reached the scene to pick up survivors, including the hapless Captain Turner.

In all, 1,195 men, women and children were killed when Lusitania went to the bottom of the Irish Sea.

The Mersey Inquiry in progress.
The Mersey Inquiry in progress.

The Mersey Inquiry Findings - Assigning Blame

The official Board of Trade Inquiry into the loss of the RMS Lusitania was held at the Central Hall, Westminster, with Lord Mersey presiding. Lord Mersey's last big inquiry was the loss of RMS Titanic, and he was well thought of as an investigator.

Even before the inquiry began, the Admiralty had been building up a case against Captain Turner. Documents from the time show that they had investigated his background in order to determine whether or not he was a spy. They had also begun to build a case against him based on his disregarding Admiralty orders on the navigation of his ship through the declared war zone and his seeming disregard of the U-Boat activity warnings.

When the inquiry began it was clear that questioning would revolve around the issues of navigation and whether or not Turner had obeyed Admiralty instructions, and it did. Turner was intensely questioned in the public and closed sessions on his adherence to orders. The witnesses brought to the stand were likewise questioned about whether Turner had neglected his duty as master of the ship.

Further attention was made to the torpedo hit itself, and the inquiry concluded that more than one torpedo was fired at Lusitania, and this is why she sank so quickly.

It was a surprise, then, when the findings were carried down, and Captain Turner was acquitted of blame.

An excerpt from Lord Mersey's official report to the Admiralty:

"...Captain Turner was fully advised as to the means which in the view of the Admiralty were best calculated to avert the perils he was likely to encounter, and in considering the question whether he is to blame for the catastrophe in which his voyage ended you have to bear the circumstances in mind. It is certain that in some respects Captain Turner did not follow the advice given to him. ... His omission to follow the advice in all respects cannot fairly be attributed either to negligence or incompetence. He exercised his judgment for the best. It was the judgment of a skilled and experienced man, and although others might have acted differently and perhaps more successfully he ought not, in my opinion, to be blamed. The whole blame for the cruel destruction of life in this catastrophe must rest soley with those who plotted and with those who committed the crime..."

What Caused the Second Explosion?

The original board of enquiry insisted that there was a second torpedo fired at the Luistania, and that this caused the second explosion. Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, the commander of the U-20, clearly stated in his log that only one was fired. He had three left on board, intending to keep the last two for the return journey to Germany. Now it it generally accepted that this is true, and the second explosion was caused by something else.

One of the justifications Germany gave for the sinking of the Lusitania was that she was transporting arms to aid Britain in its war effort. They blamed the second, larger explosion on these arms igniting. At the time of the enquiry the British Admiralty denied that there were arms in her cargo holds. This was a lie. The Lusitania was carrying arms. There was a second supplementary manifest, which was not presented to the officials in New York, which detail the arms on board.

When the wreck was rediscovered the presence of arms was confirmed. But did they cause the explosion?

  • At the time of her sinking Lusitania was carrying 4,200 cases of rifle bullets, 1,250 cases of 3.3 inch shrapnel shells (unfilled), and eighteen cases of percussion fuses (with no explosive content).

Without the explosive components it is unlikey that even though these items were on board they caused the explosion.

Robert Ballard, the man who found the wreck of the Titanic, dived onto the wreck of the Lusitania in 1993, and he put forward a second theory: Coal dust ignited when the torpedo impacted and this caused the explosion. This theory has been hotly debated, mostly because while there would have been a build-up of coal dust, the area in the boiler room would not have been dry enough for the coal dust to ignite.

The third theory is that the steam generation plant exploded due to damage to the high pressure steam lines leading to the turbines. This would have caused an explosion like that reported by witnesses.

There will perhaps never be a definitive answer on what caused the second explosion. The wreck is now collapsing in on itself, and the danger of going inside to find out far outweighs the need for an answer. The fact remains that whether or not she was carrying munitions and contraband didn't matter, Lusitania was already a target, and if the U-20 hadn't sunk her, she would still have been in the German's sights.

A photo of the Lusitania at the bottom of the ocean
A photo of the Lusitania at the bottom of the ocean

The Wreck of the Lusitania

Captain Turner's last bearing, taken two minutes before the explosion, was so accurate that the wreck was easy to find. It is about two miles from the position where it was torpedoed.

It lies in 300m of water, on its starboard side, and is slowly collapsing. There are dents along the sides, probably as a result of depth charges used in WW1, and it is covered in fishing nets, making the wreck a hazard for local fishermen and divers alike. The wreck was first visited by Jim Jarret, an Englishman, in 1935 and over the years has been visited on and off by other adventurers wishing to document the wreck, and in some cases they have removed artifacts.

As it is in Irish waters the wreck is now protected under the National Monuments Act (1995), and there are strict terms for anyone wishing to dive to the location.

Other Points of Interest

  • The Lusitania was already targeted by the Germans. Her name crops up frequently in dispatches to the U-Boat service, as do reports on her position. In March 1915 the U-Boat U-27 lay in wait for the Lusitania in Liverpool Bay. Wergner, the commander of the U-Boat, carefully recorded in his diary his actions and the fact that they were authorised by Half-Flotilla Commander Hermann Bauer for this action. These dairies were circulated as usual after his return.
  • One of the reasons that there is a conspiracy theory regarding the Lusitania's sinking is that she was unescorted. This is seen as neglect on the part of the British Admiralty. In practise it was difficult for escorts to meet up with the liners in the open seas. They could not signal a meeting point without giving away their position, or the position of the liner. On March 6, 1915 the Lusitania avoided and then outran two escort ships on her way into port, not knowing if they were enemy ships or friendly one.
  • There were more U-Boats than ever in the North Sea at the time of the attack on Lusitania. Germans spies had gathered information suggesting Troop Ships were being loaded in order to begin a campaign to attack Germany from the north. In fact, there were Troop Ships leaving Britain at the time. They headed south into the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) Campaign.
  • As a result of Unrestricted Warfare on the seas ships were unable to pick up survivors of sunken ships, because they would be put at risk of being sunk themselves. The enactment of submarine warfare increased the death toll from sunken ships for just this reason.

  • The four-point bearing that Captain Turner decided to do was unusual for the day. Most captains were content to do a two point bearing, which would give them an approximate position they could refine as they approached their destination. The reason Turner decided that more accuracy was required was due to the way he was timing the end of his voyage.


Submit a Comment

  • UnnamedHarald profile image

    David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

    This is an excellently written article. It presents the facts in an extremely readable fashion without hyperbole and jumping to conclusions. Well done.

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 7 years ago from Australia

    It was a tragedy, indeed.

  • profile image

    doug 7 years ago

    Well I beleive that the sinking of the Lusitania was a great tragedy.Many loved ones died and many injured surverily.

    Sincerily, Doug

  • profile image

    Louuuuuu 7 years ago

    I LOVE IT!

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    If you saw my house right now you might not say that. ;-)

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 9 years ago from London

    I bow at your feet, oh goddess (-:

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    Yor great-great grandmother must have been an interesting character. :-)

    You're not being rude, I'm very interested. I'll look at your hub later today, after I finish being a domestic goddess. So much for lazy Sunday mornings.

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 9 years ago from London

    She did indeed survive, to the extent that she died in the late 1950s, aged nearly 90. My mother, her great-grandaughter, remembers her well, as does my uncle, 4 years older than my mother.

    At the risk of being rude, you can read about it in my hub on her surviving the Lusitania's sinking:

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    Incredible! I'm glad she survived. It's amazing how these tales go down  the generations. In a weird coincidence, one of my friend's great grandparents had been planning on going back to England from Canada, via New York, aboard the Lusitania, on that very voyage. They had tickets and everything. I can't remember the details, but they had to delay the trip, and rebooked for a later voyage. I bet you can relate to how different things would have been if they had been aboard the ship.

    Thanks for reading! :-)

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 9 years ago from London

    A great hub, thanks. My great-great-grandmother was a stewardess on the Lucy, and lived to tell the tale.

  • profile image

    Andres Hernandez 9 years ago

    This website has a lot of knowledge and information for people that visit it.Thank you for everything! :)

  • profile image

    hector ramirez 9 years ago

    OU ROCK !

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    If you read the Mersey inquiry into the sinking it's pretty clear that they were initially going to in the blame on Turner, right until the findings were announced. It was a propaganda coup for the Allies and they played on it. Given the way the war was going, and by then the losses were starting to mount up, it's understandable, but shocking none the less. The Blame Game is still alive and well today, as you've pointed out.

  • profile image

    Larry Fingar 9 years ago

    It is not uncommon for military and government agencies to cover their own mistakes and oversights by blaming those of lesser rank, such as the officers and/or crew of a ship. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the turret explosion of the USS Iowa are just 2 more recent examples of that same type of thing.

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    In my opinion Captain Turner was not a spy. He did make a series of wrong decisions, and perhaps his main fault was being too meticulous in the wrong place. If he'd done just a two point bearing he would have been faster out of the area. I don't think anyone believed on the Allied side that the Germans, despite their activities in the North Sea, would dare torpedo such a large liner. They were wrong, and Turner, his passengers and crew paid the price for that.

  • profile image

    jessss 9 years ago

    So was Captain Turner a spy? And did they finish the research on him before they hired him?

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 9 years ago from Australia

    The 'what ifs' with the Lusitania are the most haunting part of the whole sinking, IMO. What if the Germans had decided that passenger liners were not to be targets? What if Cunard had taken the warning seriously? Would having a pre-arranged escort have made a difference? What if Captain Turner had decided to take a chance and only do a two point bearing? What would have happened if they changed their destination port at the last minute? Too many what ifs...too many lives lost. And yet I don't think we really learnt the lessons from it.

  • profile image

    Kinzcove 9 years ago

    Im a huge lusitania fan! The story is so sad, one minute happenies the next second drowning people and a ship sinking.... :(

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 10 years ago from Australia

    Hi Audrey.

    Did your grandfather fight at all in the Mediterranean? I just did a little search over at Ocean and they carried a story of the Mauretania avoiding a torpedo attack there in 1916. It also said that shortly thereafter the ship carried two groups of Canadian troops. I wonder if the story was being told on the ship during his voyage over, or if this was another incident.

    Here's a link to the article in question.

  • profile image

    Audrey Schroeder 10 years ago

    I appreciated comments and picture regarding the Mauertania. My grandfather was in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and was on the Mauertania, when it was a troopship. I would like to learn more about the Mauertania. My father said the Mauertania was torpedoed but did not sink. I would like to be able to have documentation on this family story.

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 10 years ago from Australia

    Thanks Newcapo, I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

  • profile image

    newcapo 10 years ago

    Excellent hub Hovalis, thoroughly enjoyed it. Extremely interesting.

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 10 years ago from Australia

    I'm glad you liked it!

  • profile image

    kayleen 10 years ago

    wow that is so interesting

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 10 years ago from Australia

    Thanks. :-)

  • profile image

    wajay_47 10 years ago

    Great hub, hovalis. Very interesting.


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