On February 4, 1915 Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone of World War I.
The Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was scheduled to arrive in Liverpool on March 6, 1915. The British Admiralty issued her specific instructions on how to avoid submarines.
Admiral Henry Oliver ordered HMS Louis and Laverock to escort the Lusitania, and took the further precaution of sending the Q ship Lyons to patrol Liverpool Bay.
However, the escort ships did not have the codes used to communicate with merchant ships, and the Lusitania arrived in Liverpool unescorted.
Before the Lusitania left on her next voyage, her funnels were painted a dark grey to help make her less visible to enemy submarines and she was ordered not to fly any flags in the war zone.
Captain William Thomas Turner, known as “Bowler Bill” for his favourite shoreside headgear, was also assigned to replace Captain Daniel Dow as the commander of the Lusitania as he had commanded her before.
On April 17, 1915, the Lusitania left Liverpool and arrived in New York on April 24th.
Then at noon on May 1, 1915, the Lusitania departed Pier 54 in New York for her traditional transatlantic route back to Liverpool some two hours late.
After departure, Captain Turner tried to calm his passengers by explaining that the ship’s speed made her safe from attack by submarine.
However, Cunard ordered the shut down one of the Lusitania’s four boiler rooms to reduce costs on sparsely subscribed wartime voyages, reducing her top speed from 25.5 to around 22 knots.
As the Lusitania steamed across the Atlantic ocean, the British Admiralty had been tracking the movements of German U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, through wireless intercepts and radio direction finding.
The submarine had left Borkum on April 30, heading north west across the North Sea. On May 2nd, the German Uboat U-20 had reached Peterhead and proceeded around the north of Scotland and Ireland, and then along the western and southern coasts of Ireland, to enter the Irish Sea from the south. Although the submarine’s departure, destination, and expected arrival time were known to Room 40 in the Admiralty, the activities of the decoding department were considered so secret that they were unknown even to the normal intelligence division which tracked enemy ships or to the trade division responsible for warning merchant vessels. Only the very highest officers in the admiralty saw the information and passed on warnings only when they felt it essential.
On May 5th, U-20 stopped a merchant schooner, the Earl of Lathom, off the Old Head of Kinsale, examined her papers, then ordered her crew to leave before sinking the schooner with gunfire.
Then at 10:30 pm on May 5th, the Royal Navy sent an uncoded warning to all ships – “Submarines active off the south coast of Ireland” – and at midnight an addition was made to the regular nightly warnings, “submarine off Fastnet”.
On May 6th, U-20 fired a torpedo at Cayo Romano from Cuba, a British steamer flying a neutral flag, off Fastnet Rock missing by a few feet.
On May 6th, U-20 sank the 6,000 ton steamer Candidate. It then failed to get off a shot at the 16,000 ton liner Arabic, because although she kept a straight course the liner was too fast, but then sank another 6,000 ton British cargo ship flying no flag, Centurion, all in the region of the Coningbeg light ship.
Aboard the Lusitania, Captain Turner was given a warning message twice on the evening of May 6th, and took what he felt were prudent precautions. He closed watertight doors, posted double lookouts, ordered a black-out, and had the lifeboats swung out on their davits so that they could be launched quickly if necessary.
That evening a Seamen’s Charities fund concert was scheduled and the captain was obliged to attend the event in the first class lounge.
May 7, 1915
By 5:00 am on May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was 120 miles west southwest of Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland.
By 6:00 am, heavy fog had arrived and extra lookouts were posted.
As the Lusitania approached Ireland, Captain Turner ordered depth soundings to be made and at 8:00 am he reduced speed to 18 knots. He then slowed the ship to 15 knots and sounded the foghorn.
Some of the passengers were disturbed that the ship appeared to be advertising her presence.
But by 10:00 am the fog began to lift and by noon it had been replaced with bright sunshine over a clear smooth sea. Captain Turner increased speed back to 18 knots.
Also on the morning of May 7th at about 11:00 am, the Admiralty radioed another warning to all ships, probably as a result of a request by Alfred Booth who was concerned about Lusitania: “U-boats active in southern part of Irish Channel. Last heard of twenty miles south of Coningbeg Light Vessel”.
Captain Turner adjusted his heading northeast, not knowing that this report related to events of the previous day and apparently thinking submarines would be more likely to keep to the open sea, so that Lusitania would be safer close to land.
The same morning, German commander Schwieger, low on fuel and with only 3 torpedoes left, decided to head the U-20 for home.
Schwieger surfaced the U-20 at 12:45 pm.
At 1:00 pm, another message was received aboard the Lusitania, “Submarine five miles south of Cape Clear proceeding west when sighted at 10:00 am”. This report was entirely inaccurate, however, as no submarine had been at that location, but gave the impression that at least one submarine had been safely passed.
At 1:20 pm, Schwieger was summoned to the conning tower of U-20 as one large steamer appeared over the horizon.
At 1:25 pm, the U-20 submarine submerged to periscope depth of 11 meters and set a course to intercept the liner at her maximum submerged speed of 9 knots. When the ships had closed to within 2 miles, the Lusitania suddenly turned away.
Schwieger feared he had lost his target, but the steamer turned again, this time onto a near ideal course to bring her into position for an attack.
At 2:10 pm on May 7, 1915, when the steamer came within a range of 700 meters, Schwieger ordered one gyroscopic torpedo fired, set to run at a depth of three meters.
Schwieger watched through the periscope of U-20, as he recorded in his own words in the log of U-20:
Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one [boiler or coal or powder?]… The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow… the name Lusitania becomes visible in golden letters.
On board the Lusitania, Leslie Morton, an eighteen-year-old lookout at the bow, spotted thin lines of foam racing toward the ship. He shouted “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” through a megaphone, thinking the bubbles came from two projectiles.
The torpedo struck Lusitania under the bridge, sending a plume of debris, steel plating and water upward and knocking lifeboat number five off its davits.
“It sounded like a million-ton hammer hitting a steam boiler a hundred feet high,” one passenger later said.
A second, more powerful explosion followed, sending a geyser of water, coal, dust, and debris high above the deck.
At 2:12 pm, Captain Turner ordered Quartermaster Johnston stationed at the ship’s wheel to steer ‘hard-a-starboard’ towards the Irish coast, which Johnston confirmed, but the ship could not be steadied on the course and rapidly ceased to respond to the wheel.
Turner signaled for the engines to be reversed to halt the ship, but although the signal was received in the engine room, nothing could be done.
Steam pressure had collapsed from 195 psi before the explosion, to 50 psi and falling afterwards.
Lusitania‘s wireless operator sent out an immediate SOS, which was acknowledged by a coastal wireless station.
Shortly afterward he transmitted the ship’s position, 10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale.
At 2:14 pm, electrical power failed, plunging the cavernous interior of the ship into darkness. Radio signals continued on emergency batteries, but electric lifts failed, trapping passengers and crew; bulkhead doors closed as a precaution before the attack could not be reopened to release trapped men.
Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. Water had flooded the ship’s starboard longitudinal compartments, causing a 15-degree list to starboard.
Lusitania‘s severe starboard list complicated the launch of her lifeboats.
By 2:16 pm, the Lusitania’s forecastle began to submerge.
By 2:20 pm, the crew began attempting to put life boats in the water.
The lifeboats on the starboard side, however, had swung out too far to step aboard safely.
While it was still possible to board the lifeboats on the port side, lowering them presented a different problem.
As was typical for the period, the hull plates of Lusitania were riveted, and as the lifeboats were lowered they dragged on the inch high rivets, which threatened to seriously damage the boats before they even reached the water.
Many lifeboats also overturned while loading or lowering, spilling passengers into the sea; others were overturned by the ship’s motion when they hit the water.
Crewmen even lost their grip on the falls—ropes used to lower the lifeboats—while trying to lower the boats into the ocean, and this caused the passengers from the boat to “spill into the sea like rag dolls.”
The Lusitania had 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but only six were successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. Lifeboat 1 had overturned as it was being lowered, spilling its original occupants into the sea, but it managed to right itself shortly afterwards and was later filled with people from in the water.
Lifeboats 9 and 11 managed to reach the water safely with only a few handfuls of people, but both later picked up many swimmers.
Lifeboats 13 and 15 also safely reached the water, each overloaded with around seventy people.
Finally, Lifeboat 21 managed to reach the water safely and cleared the ship only moments before her final plunge.
A few of Lusitania’s collapsible lifeboats washed off her decks as she sank and provided refuge for many of those already in the water.
Two lifeboats on the port side did manage to clear the ship as well.
Lifeboat 14 was lowered and launched safely, but because the boat plug was not in place, it filled with seawater and sank almost immediately after touching down into the water.
Later, Lifeboat 2 managed to float off the ship with new occupants (its previous ones having been spilled into the sea when they upset the boat) when water began surging over the bow. It was connected to a single davit, the fall of which was cut by the men working to free the boat. The people inside also got the boat away from one of the ship’s “tentacle-like” funnel stays, and then subsequently rowed away from the ship only seconds before she sank.
Captain Turner remained on the bridge until the water rushed upward and engulfed the whole bridge, washing him overboard into the sea. He took the ship’s logbook and charts with him. He managed to escape the rapidly sinking Lusitania and find a chair floating in the water which he clung to. He survived, having been pulled unconscious from the water after spending three hours there.
There were 761 survivors that day, and tragically 1,198 people lost their lives including 128 Americans.
Schwieger had been observing the panic and disorder through U-20′s periscope, and after surveying the area at 2:25 pm, he dropped the periscope and headed out to sea.
Note: later in Word War I, Schwieger was killed in action when, as commander of U-88, he was chased by HMS Stonecrop, hit a British mine, and sank on September 5, 1917, north of Terschelling. There were no survivors from U-88’s sinking.
The sinking of the Lusitania turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, contributed to the American entry into World War I and became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns of why the war was being fought.
However, the contemporary investigations both in the UK and the United States into the precise causes of the ship’s loss were obstructed by the needs of wartime secrecy and a propaganda campaign to ensure all blame fell upon Germany. Argument over whether the ship was a legitimate military target raged back and forth throughout the war as both sides made misleading claims about the ship. At the time she was sunk, the Lusitania was carrying a large quantity of rifle cartridges and non-explosive shell casings, as well as civilian passengers. Several attempts have been made over the years since the sinking to dive to the wreck seeking information about precisely how the ship sank, and argument continues to the current day.
Now WE know em