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The Man Who Torpedoed the Lusitania

Updated on October 19, 2014

Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger

The captain was known to his men as a kind man in his civilian life and a dedicated man in his military career.
The captain was known to his men as a kind man in his civilian life and a dedicated man in his military career. | Source

The Hunt

Of the 1959 souls who sailed aboard the Lusitania, 1198 perished. Of the 159 Americans, 124 perished. Of the 129 children onboard, 94 perished.

The Kapitanleutnant is likely aware of the humanity on board as he studies the vast ship in his periscope. He may have paused in his consideration. As he studied the angles and determined the placement, his thoughts were likely of the huge opportunity before him.

This is war. This is his first patrol aboard a U-boat in a war not yet a year old. Other German submarines are also on patrol in a determined struggle to sever Britain's lifelines of commerce. The British Admiralty is aware of the U-boat threat. For the last twelve hours warnings flashed across the airwaves.

Still in the Irish spring morning as the thirty-year old Walther Schwieger looked from his submarine surfaced in the misty air, he is first and foremost a hunter. His weapon is the 650-ton U-20 submarine manned by thirty-five well trained men and three other officers. His focus is to find and sink ships in unrestricted war. He would have no reason to consider the passengers. Ships were equipped with lifeboats.

About noon the fog cleared. Through his binoculars, Schwieger could see the landmark of the Old Head of Kinsale. He took a sure bearing. His submarine is naked on the surface and he keeps a constant 360 degree watch as the batteries recharge and the air-exchangers hum.

Then, shortly after 2:00 P.M. Schwieger picks up a rapidly materializing speck coming at him from the west. He wrote in his log:

Right ahead appear four funnels and two masts of a steamer with course vertical to us. [She steered from SSW coming toward Galley Head.] Ship is made out to be a large passenger steamer.

There was something special in the air on the day of May 7, 1915.

New York Times Illustration

The drawing accurately depicts the time-delayed torpedo explosion but does not account for the second explosion inside the ship.
The drawing accurately depicts the time-delayed torpedo explosion but does not account for the second explosion inside the ship. | Source

The Shot of a Lifetime

The order "Diving Stations" electrifies the crew. The U-20 could make only nine knots submerged. Yet below the surface is where she belongs. Invisible under the water is her hunting stance.

Schwieger receives the engineer's report by voice tube:

"Hands at diving stations! All clear for diving!"


Petty officers at a station beneath the control room open the vents. Pumps force air out of ballast tanks.

"Both motors slow ahead!"

The submarine slides under the surface swells. Schwieger levels the sub at thirty-three feet, periscope depth.

"Rudder amidships! Steady as you go! Full speed ahead!"

Again he noted:

2:05 P.M. Submerged to 11 meters and travelled with high speed on course converging toward steamer, hoping she would change course to starboard along Irish coast.

Schwieger races for the position to fire a bow torpedo. His orders ring out as he adjusts the trim of his submarine with precision. He looks away from the periscope for fractions of a second to study the depth-gauge. The gramophone is off. The crew is tense and serious.

The sub already assumes the rank odor familiar to Schwieger. His quarry loomed larger and larger, filling the optical glass screen of the periscope. Walther Schwieger notes that he did not know "who" the giant ship was.

He has the advantage. Apparently no one on board the Lusitania is aware of his presence. Schwieger watches the vast ship adjust course. The ship turns slightly to 87 degrees or almost due east maintaining a speed of exactly eighteen knots.

Schwieger wrote:

2:50 P.M. The steamer turns starboard, directs her course toward Queenstown, and mkes possible an approach for a shot. Ran at high speed until 3:00 P.M. in order to gain position directly ahead.

The Lusitania presented a U-boat captain's dream. The ship sailed in an undeviating line at a moderate fixed speed. Reflective thought had no place in the articles of war of hi country nor of his enemies. He had to maneuver into final position. He had to fire a torpedo or lose his opportunity.

The voice of the torpedo officer, "The torpedoes are cleared for firing!"

"We are at them!"

The huge liner cleaved the water into two bow waves. The white of her superstructure shone in the sunlight. He could not miss, and he did not miss.


The Lusitania Disappears in Minutes

Amidst panic and confusion few life boats were properly lowered into the water.
Amidst panic and confusion few life boats were properly lowered into the water. | Source

The Sinking

Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger watched the torpedo's wake. He reports:

Clean bow shot from 700 meters range (G torpedo three meters depth adjustment) cutting angle 90 degrees. Estimated speed twenty-two sea miles.

At 2:10 P.M. U-boat Commander Schwieger continues his log:

. . . shot hits starboard side right behind bridge. An unusually heavy detonation follows with a very strong explosion cloud (high in the air over first smokestack). Added to the explosion of the torpedo there must have been a second explosion (boiler, coal, or powder). The superstructure over point struck and the high bridge are rent asunder and fire breaks out and envelopes the high bridge. The ship stops immediately and quickly heels to starboard. At the same time diving deeper at the bow . . .

The U-20 was hushed, silent.

She has the appearance of being about to capsize.

Great confusion on board, boats being cleared and some of them lowered to the water. They must have lost their heads. Many boats crowded come down bow first or stern first in the water and immediatey fill and sink. Fewer lifeboats can be made clear owing to the slant of boat. The ship blows off, in front appears the name Lusitania in gold letters. The stacks were painted black, no stern flag was up.

Go to 11 meters and take a look around. In the distance astern are drifting a number of lifeboats. Of the Lusitania nothing is to be seen.

The Lusitania sank from view in less than a half an hour. The U-20 returned to prowling along beneath the waves. In his diary Schwieger noted that he considered a second torpedo which was standard procedure but he could not fire into the swarming. panicked mass of humanity struggling to abandon the sinking ship.

The rapidity of the sinking was due to the second explosion inside the ship. This second explosion has long been considered evidence of military cargo. In Germany the U-boat captain was hailed as a hero.

Schwieger was killed in action when his U-boat hit a British mine, and sank on 5 September 1917, north of Terschelling.

At the time of his death, Schwieger had sunk 49 ships with 183,883 gross register tons with three submarines on 34 missions. He was the sixth most successful submarine commander of World War I. His body remains entombed in U-88.

Notes from U-20 Log

Schwieger made detailed logs of his sighting and sinking of the Lusitania
Schwieger made detailed logs of his sighting and sinking of the Lusitania | Source

The Last Voyage of the Lusitania - Source for log notes used in this writing

Included with Advertisement is a Warning

The German Embassy warned that the U-boats were practicing unrestricted warfare.
The German Embassy warned that the U-boats were practicing unrestricted warfare. | Source


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    • Donna Nitz Muller profile imageAUTHOR

      Donna Nitz Muller 

      3 years ago from 509 Pluto Court

      Thank you. He hurt so many in the name of duty.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Nice work. I often have wondered what would have happened if he had survived the war. Pariah? Forgotten in victory? Voted up and shared.


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