It was 2:10 p.m. on May 7, 1915. Leslie Morton, a lookout on the Lusitania, screamed, "Torpedoes coming on the starboard side." Two explosions followed. Within 18 minutes the huge liner, once the largest ever built, sank to the bottom of the Celtic Sea. 1,195 out of the 1,959 people aboard died. Walther Schwieger, commander of the German submarine U- 20, who had fired a single torpedo 750 yards away from the ship, later called it the most horrible sight he had ever seen.
The Lusitania entered service between Liverpool and New York on September 7, 1907. Funded by the British Admiralty, the Lusitania, built by the Cunard Steamship Company, was required to double as an auxiliary cruiser in case of war. This was a secret agreement between the Admiralty and Cunard. On May 12, 1913 she was put in drydock to be double plated and hydraulically riveted, as well as modified for the application of guns. War was declared on August 4, 1914, and the ship was sent again into drydock. There she was armed with 12 six-inch guns(Simpson 60).
Britain wanted to ship war materials over the Atlantic, but there was an embargo of shipping munitions on passenger ships. America also tended to publish the cargo manifests so that the Allies as well as the Germans would know what is being shipped. Britain found a loophole in this. New cargo added at the last minute did not go on the original manifest, thus a supplementary manifest would be submitted 4 or 5 days later. Also, due to the embargo, munitions were listed as 'sporting cartridges' and stamped with 'Not liable to explode in bulk'(Simpson 63).
About a week before the voyage, the New York German community tried to run an ad warning about the trans-Atlantic voyage. But the duty officer at the State department did not approve, so no ads were placed. Later George Vierick, who was in charge of placing the ads, convinced William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, that on all but one of the Lusitania's voyages it
carried war materials. Bryan had an advertisement run the morning of departure of May 1, 1915. British Naval Intelligence discovered the ad and gave orders to look out for U-boats, predicting a trap. Turner, Captain of the Lusitania, was told that he would rendezvous with the cruiser Juno about 40 miles west of the southern tip of Ireland. German Intelligence thought that the U-boat lookout order meant that large vessels would be leaving England. U-20 and U-30 were immediately sent to the British Channel and southern Irish waters(Simpson 66-69).
On May 5, Winston Churchill attended a meeting concerning the Lusitania and the U-20. They concluded that Juno would need an escort, so assistance would be given, most likely the destroyer Flotilla. But this did not happen. For unknown reasons, Juno was recalled to Queenstown, and no destroyers were sent(Simpson 70).
On May 5 and 6 three ships were sunk by the U-20, the last without warning. Alfred Booth, Chairman of Cunard, read about this and sent a message to Captain Turner diverting the Lusitania to Queenstown. Schwieger spotted the ship on May 7, at 1:20 p.m. and figured that it was either the Lusitania or the Mauretania, which he knew carried arms. At 1:35 the ship turned directly towards U-20. Schwieger saw his opportunity and shot a single torpedo at 2:10. Two explosions followed, the second was described in the U-20's log as "an unusually heavy detonation. . . with a very strong explosion cloud." The ship tilted about 15 , making the lifeboats nearly impossible to board. Six out of the 48 lifeboats escaped before the ship completely sank 18 minutes later (Simpson 74).
Lord Mersey, the judge conducting the Court of Inquiry, concluded that the Admiralty had tried to falsely blame Captain Turner for the incident. He also found that almost all oaths given by the crew members to all have started with "At the time of sailing the ship was in good order and well found. The vessel was unarmed and possessed no weapons for offense or defense against an enemy and she has never carried such equipment. Boat drill was carried out before leaving New York." He cleared Turner's name and concluded that the explosions came from two torpedoes, and the ship was carrying no contraband(Simpson 80).
Why did the ship sink so quickly? It has been thought that the weapons were the second explosion. In 1972 divers "unanimously testify that the bow was blasted by a massive internal explosion"(Simpson 74). It was thought that this was the area which the weapons would have been, but when the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution explored the wreck in 1994 they found no such hole. So what about the contraband? The manifest for the voyage showed that indeed, the Lusitania was carrying illegal war materials, including 4,200 cases of rifle amunition, 1,250 cases of shrapnel, and 18 boxes of percussion fuses(Ballard 80). There was a total of 173 tons of war materials(Simpson 66).
If ammunition did not cause the blast, then what did? The expedition leads us to believe that the torpedo struck one of the long coal bunkers. Since most of the coal would have been used up, these bunkers would have contained lot of coal dust. The torpedo would have been cruising about 10 feet below the surface, about where the bunkers were. A lot of coal was also found on the sea floor. The Brittanic, sister ship to the Titanic, is also suspected of suffering a similar explosion(Ballard 80).
Today there is a diving ban from Ireland, to protect from looters. Gregg Bemis, a U.S. financier now claims to have purchased the wreck, which the Irish government does not deny. However, they claim that Ireland owns the cargo, including a few priceless paintings by Rubens and Monet. The remains are also rumored to have $350 million in gold bullion, though this has never been proven(Marshall 1).
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