RMS Lusitania (1906)

The Last Voyage of RMS Lusitania

In August 1914, World War One broke out and as a result the Lusitania was requisitioned for wartime service. She had to be refitted for the purpose. Her four funnels were fully painted black to conceal her identity from enemy ships.

The Lusitania left New York on 1 May 1915. Before she left the Authorities warned her that she would inevitably cross the war zone to reach Liverpool. Despite warnings, she left New York after several delays just after 12.30 p.m. Passengers from the Cameronia were transferred to the Lusitania when it was requisitioned early that morning.

German Embassy notice Despite warnings (see the German Embassy notice), under Captain William Turner, the Lusitania sailed uneventfully for five days until she reached the War Zone on Friday 7 May 1915. The usual precautions of blackening out the portholes and doubling the watch were obeyed.

The lookouts watched at their posts. At about 1.30 p.m., Leslie Morton saw a torpedo heading towards the Starboard side travelling at about 22 knots. He gave the alarm shouting “Torpedo coming in the Starboard side.” The Bridge was slow in reacting to his warnings.

Above: The Imperial German Embassy in Washington D.C. warning British passengers of the risk of crossing the “war zone” April 22 1915.

Another lookout, Thomas Quinn, also saw the torpedo and sounded the alarm but it was too late. The torpedo struck the ship and detonated before Captain Turner could do anything. Power was suddenly lost so that the watertight doors could not be closed. Radio distress signals had to be sent using battery power.

At 2.10 p.m., passengers were sat in dining rooms waiting for their desserts, when they heard the sound of an “arrow entering the canvas and straw of a target magnified a thousand times,” “a pearl of thunder,” and “the slamming of a door.”

A second explosion came within seconds. Suddenly, the ship took a 15° list to starboard, which soon increased to 16º then 17º. Once the list became 25º the ship could not survive. With the list so severe, the officers could not swing the lifeboats clear of the ship.

Panic set in amongst the passengers. Some jumped into the water and swam for their lives. Captain Turner jumped into the water when the Bridge flooded and swam for three hours before being rescued by a lifeboat.

It had taken only 18 minutes for the ship to roll over and sink with the loss of 1,195 passengers. Only 289 bodies were recovered. 764 people survived.

What sank RMS Lusitania?

May 1915 had proved to be a busy month for the Germans. Captain Walther Schwieger was in command of the German submarine, U20. His mission was to seek and destroy enemy vessels. He had already torpedoed and sunk three ships: The Earl of Lathom, the Candidate and the Centurion.

Fuel was running low on the U-boat so Schwieger decided not to head for Liverpool as originally planned but to head back home. It was inevitable that U20 and the

Lusitania would pass each other at some point in the Irish Channel.

On 7 May 1915, U20 was still patrolling the Irish Channel. At 1.20 p.m., the captain of the submarine wrote in his log.

“Starboard ahead four funnels and two masts of a steamer with course at right angles.”

When the Lusitania was in firing range, he fired a torpedo which hit the ship.

The New York Times Saturday 8 May 1915
The New York Times Saturday 8 May 1915

Aftermath and Inquiry

There was only time for 8 of the 22 wooden boats to be launched. Some made it to Queenstown, Ireland. The rest of the boats were either damaged during the rapid sinking or were not lowered at all because the chains prevented easy release and went down with the ship.

On 10 May 1915, Winston Churchill made a statement to the House of Commons regarding the sinking of the Lusitania after the Admiralty had been criticized because of its failure to safeguard the vessel. Lewellyn Williams introduced charges against the Germans which he wanted to have referred to the signatories of the Hague Convention.

Winston Churchill stated that “the Admiralty had general knowledge of the German warning issued in America and from that knowledge and other information concerning submarine movements, it sent warnings to the Lusitania and directions as to her course.” He did not want to give detailed explanation until a full investigation had been made, and especially did not want to throw blame on Captain Turner.

The questions which were raised by the British government and referred to the Mersey Commission were:

    What was the Lusitania's speed?

    Was the Old Head of Kintale patrolled?

    Had the Admiralty received warnings issued from the German Embassy in America?

    Was it not known that submarines were patrolling?

    Should the Admiralty have sent a convoy to safeguard the Lusitania?

The British Wreck Commission Inquiry

The formal investigation was held at the Central Buildings, Westminster between 15 and 18 June 1915, at the Westminster Palace Hotel on 1 July, and at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, on 17 July, before the Right Honourable Lord Mersey, Wreck Commissioner. He was assisted by Admiral Sir F. S. Inglefield, K.C.B., Lieutenant-Commander Hearn, Captain D. Davies, and Captain J. Spedding.

Several survivors testified that the crew of the Lusitania were incompetent. According to the Richmond Evening Journal, a passenger named Baker testified that Naval Commander Anderson had announced when lowering one of the boats, “The ship isn't going to sink - Stop lowering the boat!” A few passengers had heard Captain Turner tell other passengers to leave the boats. Captain Turner admitted when on oath, that he did not realize for ten minutes that the ship was actually sinking.

The investigation turned to the speed at which Lusitania was sailing. The Lusitania had been fitted with four propellers making it faster than most. Alfred A Booth, Chairman of the Board of the Cunard Steamship Company was asked by the Attorney General, Sir Edward Carson, why the Lusitania sailed at 18 knots when she was capable of an average speed of 25 knots. Mr Booth explained that speed would not matter to a U-boat because of the sheer size of the ship. Traveling at periscope depth, a submarine commander would have ample time to aim, fire and destroy a ship of the Lusitania's size and length. Able Seaman Quinn supported this view.

The safety of the ship was also in question.

Captain Turner was recalled to the stand and asked why the collapsible boats were not released and used. He testified that he feared that the boats would slide about when the ship listed and knock passengers overboard. He also admitted that some boats were strapped on top of others.

The verdict of the Commission
“The Jury find that this appalling crime was contrary to international law and the conventions of all civilized nations, and we therefore charge the officers of the submarine, and the German Emperor and the Government of Germany, under whose orders they acted, with the crime of wilful and wholesale murder.”


British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry 15 June 1915

These are the questions and findings of the Inquiry.

1.      When the Lusitania  left New York on 1 May 1915 

(a) What was the total number of passengers on board, and how many of them were women and children? See below.

 (b) Were there any troops on board? No.

 (c) What was the total number of her crew and their respective ratings?

 (d) What cargo had she on board and where was it stowed?

The number of passengers on board the Lusitania when she sailed was 1,257, consisting of 290 Saloon, 600 Second Cabin, and 367 Third Cabin passengers. Of these, 944 were British and Canadian, 159 were Americans, and the remainder were of seventeen other nationalities. Of the British and Canadian 584 perished. Of the American 124 perished, and of the remainder 77 perished. The total number lost was 785, and the total number saved was 472. The 1,257 passengers were made up of 688 adult males, 440 adult females, 51 male children, 39 female children, and 39 infants. Of the 688 adult males, 421 were lost and 267 saved. Of the 440 adult females, 270 were lost and 170 were saved. Of the 51 male children, 33 were lost and 18 were saved. Of the 39 female children, 26 were lost and 13 were saved. Of the 39 infants, 35 were lost and four were saved. Many of the women and children among those lost died from exhaustion after immersion in the water.

The cargo was a general cargo but part of it consisted of a number of cases of cartridges (about 5,000). This ammunition was entered in the manifest. It was stowed well forward in the ship on the Orlop and lower decks and about 50 yards away from where the torpedoes struck the ship. There was no other explosive on board.

2.      Did the Lusitania before leaving New York comply with the requirements of the Merchant Shipping Acts, 1894 and 1906, and the Rules and regulations made thereunder? YES.

3.      Were any instructions received by the Master of the Lusitania from the owners or the Admiralty before or during the voyage from New York as to the navigation or management of the vessel on the voyage in question? Did the Master carry out such instruction? YES.

4.      Were any messages sent or received by the Lusitania with reference to enemy submarines during the voyage? YES.

5.      What was the state of the weather and sea on the 7 May, 1915? Was the position, course, or speed of the Lusitania on that day on any way affected by the weather? Fine and Calm.Were any submarines sighted from the Lusitania on or before the 7 May 1915? If so, when and where was any submarine sighted, and what was the position, course, and speed of the Lusitania at such time? None before the attack.

6.        Was the Lusitania attacked by a submarine on the 7 May, 1915? If so, can the submarine be identified? Did the submarine display any, and if so, what flag? Was it a German submarine? – Yes. It was not identified - It displayed no flag - It was a German submarine.

7.      When and how and in what circumstances was the attack made by the submarine on the Lusitania? At 2.10 p.m., when ten to fifteen miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, the weather being then clear and the sea smooth, the Captain, who was on the port side of the lower bridge, heard the call, There is a torpedo coming, sir, given by the second officer. He looked to starboard and then saw a streak of foam in the wake of a torpedo travelling towards his ship. Immediately afterwards the Lusitania was struck on the starboard side somewhere between the third and fourth funnels. The blow broke number 5 lifeboat to splinters. A second torpedo was fired immediately afterwards, which also struck the ship on the starboard side. The two torpedoes struck the ship almost simultaneously. Both these torpedoes were discharged by a German submarine from a distance variously estimated at from between two and five hundred yards. No warning of any kind was given. It is also in evidence that shortly afterwards a torpedo from another submarine was fired on the port side of the Lusitania. This torpedo did not strike the ship, and the circumstance is only mentioned for the purpose of showing that perhaps more than one submarine was taking part in the attack.

8.      Before and at the time the Lusitania was attacked -

a)      What was her position, course, and speed?

b)      Was such position, course, and speed proper in the circumstances?

c)      Was the master in charge of her? Yes.

d)      Had a proper look-out been set, and was it being kept?  Yes.

e)      What flag was the Lusitania flying? None.

9.      Before the submarine made the attack -

a)      Was any, and if so, what warning given to the Lusitania by the submarine of her presence or intention to attack, or was any, and if so, what signal was given or communication made by the submarine to the Lusitania? No.

b)      Was any, and if so, what request made by the submarine to the Lusitania to stop? No.

c)      Was any, and if so, what opportunity given to any persons on board the Lusitania to leave her? No.

10.  Was any, and if so, what action taken by those on board the Lusitania before she was attacked -

a)      To escape from the submarine? No.

b)      To resist visit or search? No.

c)      To avoid capture? No.

d)      Or otherwise in reference to the submarine? No.

11.  Was the Lusitania armed? If so, how was she armed? No.

12.  Was the Lusitania struck by one or more torpedoes? Where was she struck? What interval was there between the time the Lusitania sighted the submarine and the time she was struck? By two practically simultaneously. The ship did not sight the submarine.

13.  What was the effect on the Lusitania of being struck by the torpedo or torpedoes? Did any cargo or other thing on board the Lusitania explode or ignite or increase the damage caused by the torpedo? No cargo or other thing exploded or ignited.

Did the Lusitania take any and what list? If so, what caused the list? Yes, a heavy list to starboard.

How long after the Lusitania was struck did she sink, and what caused her to sink? The inrush of water. About 20 minutes: the inrush or water through holes made by the torpedoes.

14.  What measures were taken on the Lusitania after she was struck to save her or the lives of those on board her? The Captain was on the bridge at the time his ship was struck, and he remained there giving orders until the ship foundered. His first order was to lower all boats to the rail. This order was obeyed as far as it possibly could be. He then called out, Women and children first. The order was then given to hard-a-starboard the helm with a view to heading towards the land, and orders were telegraphed to the engine room. The orders given to the engine room are difficult to follow and there is obvious confusion about them. It is not, however, important to consider them, for the engines were put out of commission almost at once by the inrush of water and ceased working, and the lights on the engine room were blown out. Leith, the Marconi operator, immediately sent out an S.O.S. signal, and, later on, another message, Come at once, big list, 10 miles south Head Old Kinsale. These messages were repeated continuously and were acknowledged. At first, the messages were sent out by the power supplied from the ship's dynamo; but in three or four minutes this power gave out, and the messages were sent out by means of the emergency apparatus in the wireless cabin. All the collapsible boats were loosened from their lashings and freed so that they could float when the ship sank.

15.  Were such measures reasonable and proper or otherwise? Was proper discipline maintained on board the Lusitania after she was struck? Reasonable and proper.

16.  How many persons on board the Lusitania were saved, and by what means, and how many were lost? What was the number of passengers, distinguishing between men and women and adult and children, who were saved? What was the number of crew, discriminating their ratings and sexes, who were saved? The total crew consisted of 702, made up of 77 in the Deck Department, 314 in the Engineering Department, 306 in the Stewards' Department and of 5 musicians. Of these, 677 were males and 25 were females. Of the males, 397 were lost, and of the females, 16, making the total number lost 413. Of the males 280 were saved, and of the females, 9 making the total number saved, 289.

17.  Was any loss of life due to any neglect by the master of the Lusitania to take proper precautions or give proper orders with regard to swinging out of boats, or getting them ready for use, clearing away the portable skids from the pontoon-decked lifeboats, releasing the gripes of such boats, closing of watertight bulkheads or portholes, or otherwise before or after the Lusitania was attacked? No.

18.  Were any other vessels in sight at the time the Lusitania was attacked or before she sank? If so, what vessels were they and what were their relative positions to the Lusitania? Did any render any, and if so, what assistance to the Lusitania or any of her passengers or crew? No other vessels were in sight.

19.  What was the cause of the loss of the Lusitania? What caused the loss of life?  The loss of the Lusitania and the loss of life was caused by the sinking of the ship by torpedoes from a submarine.

20.  Was the loss of the Lusitania and/or the loss of life caused by the wrongful act or default of the master of the Lusitania or does any blame attach to him for such loss? No.

21.  Does any blame attach to the owners of the steamship Lusitania? No.

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