Text excerpted from Lost Liners, courtesy of Madison Press Books
The Lusitania carried a healthy complement of American passengers when she departed New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915, despite a published warning from the German authorities that appeared in U.S. newspapers the morning of her departure.
By this time a number of British merchant ships had been sunk by German subs, but the famous liner's speed still seemed the best guarantee of safety. Certainly her captain and crew should have been on high alert. As the Lusitania neared the end of her crossing, a German U-boat sank three British ships in the waters south of Ireland through which she was about to sail, and he received repeated warnings that U-boats were active on his intended course. Yet on May 7, as the Lusitania entered the most dangerous part of her passage, Captain William Turner actually slowed down, apparently worried by patchy fog.
The Lusitania sets sail from New York. Credit
In fact, Turner was ignoring or at least bending every one of the Admiralty's directives for evading German submarines. He was steaming too close to shore, where U-boats loved to lurk, instead of in the relative safety of the open channel. He was sailing at less than top speed, and he wasn't zigzagging (later he claimed to believe that zigzagging was a tactic to be adopted only after a U-boat was sighted). In his defense, it must be stated that Turner was steering the Lusitania farther from shore than had the ship's previous commander on several wartime crossings. And his many years as a merchant captain undoubtedly inclined him to trust his own instincts over bureaucratic directives he didn't fully understand. It can also be argued that so important a ship merited a destroyer escort for the most perilous part of its voyage.
Whether or not Turner's behavior can be justified, it doomed his ship.
When U-20 under the command of Kapitšnleutnant Walther Schwieger found a huge four-stacker in its sights just south of Queenstown, Ireland, it was able to kill her with a single torpedo, penetrating the hull just below the waterline. The initial explosion set off a violent secondary blast. The ship sank in 18 minutes, with a lost of 1,195 of the 1,959 on board, including 123 Americans. Captain Turner was washed clear of the bridge as the ship sank, and survived after spending more than three hours in the water.
The Lusitania is struck by a torpedo. Credit
The lost of the Lusitania provoked great outrage in the United States and helped create the climate of public opinion that would later allow America to join the war. It also marked the end of any delusions that the "civilized" manners of 19th century warfare could survive into the 20th.
Exploring the Lusitania
by Robert Ballard
We came to the wreck of the Lusitania in the summer of 1993 hoping to solve its greatest mystery: What caused the violent secondary explosion that undoubtedly led the ship to sink so quickly? Some have
argued that it was contraband munitions. Conspiracy theorists have even claimed that the British sank the ship deliberately to hasten America's entry into the war. But even if we found no "smoking gun" on the seafloor off the southern Irish coast, our technology would allow us to bring back a complete visual record of what remains of this great lost liner, preserving her for posterity.
The wreck of the Lusitania. Credit
Unfortunately for our investigation, previous visitors had already tampered with the evidence. The wreck lies in just 295 feet of water, making it relatively easy pickings. Reports of blasting and salvaging operations, some apparently conducted by or for the Royal Navy, dated back to 1946. In the 1980s, salvagers had removed two of the bow anchors and three of the four bronze propellers. But nothing prepared us for the actual scene of devastation.
The hull is in two torn and twisted pieces, a sad echo of its former glory. It is probable that the bow section tore free of the rest of the ship when it hit bottom. The wreck is pocked with holes that were probably caused by depth charges. The Lusitania lies on her starboard side, obscuring the area where the torpedo hit, but our careful inspection of the port side of the hull revealed no evidence of the gaping hole reported by scuba diver John Light, who made numerous dives to the wreck in the early 1960s. We also discovered that the hull has collapsed to roughly half its original width.
This fact helps explain how the superstructure has become such a chaotic disaster area, where almost nothing is recognizable. The decks have slid down to starboard and much of the upperworks of the ship has collapsed into a heap of rubble on the seafloor. To make matters worse, the forecastle was festooned with fishing nets, making this part of the upperworks extremely dangerous for our vehicles to explore. Only the foremost part of the bow seemed somewhat recognizable as belonging to the famous Blue Riband holder. The bow is upturned to an angle of about 45 degrees, and the outline of the ship's name is visible-one of the biggest highlights of our exploration.
Directing exploration operations on the Lusitania wreck was a little like parading a marching band through a minefield at midnight -- literally as well as metaphorically, since we saw a number of unexploded depth charges, presumably a remnant of Irish naval exercises. I constantly had to worry where each of our three vehicles was. And because the wreck lies close to shore, there are strong tidal currents that can play havoc with underwater positioning and cloud the area with sediment. Despite all our care, we had at least one underwater collision and several near misses. And those nets were hellish. At one point our tiny submarine Delta, with three people onboard, sucked a net into its propeller and had to drop its tail to escape. On another occasion, divers had to cut Jason free of nets in which it had become caught.
In the end, we sailed home with many haunting images of the wreck,
including a single ladies' shoe and a bathtub complete with shower apparatus. But we found nothing to suggest the ship was sabotaged. Nor was there any evidence of an explosion in the area of the ship's magazine, which is presumably where contraband munitions, if any, would have been stowed. The other strong possibility, a boiler explosion, seems highly unlikely since none was reported by any of the survivors from the three boiler rooms in operation. We finally concluded that the only real clues to the cause of the secondary explosion were the many lumps of coal that lay scattered across the seafloor near the ship and must have fallen from her as she sank.
Memorial plaque for Lusitania. Credit
The torpedo likely ripped open the ship at one of the starboard coal bunkers, nearly empty at the end of the transatlantic crossing. The violent impact kicked up clouds of coal dust, which when mixed with oxygen and touched by fire becomes an explosive combination. The resulting blast, the reported second explosion, ripped open the starboard side of the hull and doomed the ship.
So ended the life of the Lusitania. She is now a faint ghost of the ocean greyhound she once was, one of the saddest wrecks I've ever seen. But when I visualize her upturned bow, I can imagine the pride of those who once sailed on the swiftest ship in the world.
View a comparision chart of the five liners.