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
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
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
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