Loss of the Lusitania


On what proved to be her last voyage the Lusitania had sailed from Pier 54, New York on 1st May 1915. This was her 101st trip and she was commanded by the experienced Captain 'Bowler Bill' Turner. On 7th May she sighted the Irish coast and reduced her speed to 21 knots in order to delay her time of arrival in Liverpool as she could only cross over the Liverpool Bar at certain stages of the tide. It was almost axiomatic in U-Boat practice that a ship exceeding 20 knots speed could not be hit by a torpedo and these big powerful ships depended for their safety, on their speed. For the Lusitania to arrive off Liverpool too early would be to court disaster, as it would mean a period of cruising around outside the port at very slow speed in waters regularly patrolled by U-Boats. As she cleared the Fastnet lighthouse, realising that her time of arrival would still be too early Turner reduced speed to 18 knots thus effectively sealing her fate.

The criticism of the Captain victim of the need, at that time, always to find a scapegoat has to be unjust as, in modern terminology, he was in a catch twenty-two situation. He had two alternatives, stay well off-shore, speeding through fog, a Titanic type situation without any idea where he was as he could not take celestial bearings or to come in sight of land and take his bearings on coastal landmarks. Choosing the first alternative, keeping up his speed, he would have arrived hours ahead of schedule at the Liverpool Bar and if he survived the risk mentioned before, he risked losing his ship to submarine action as he hove-to there. Choosing the second he ensures the maxim of the shipmaster of that era - always know exactly where you are and where exactly you are going. In effect given the almost certain intention of the German Admiralty to sink his ship he had only two choices, be sunk off Kinsale or be sunk off the Mersey.

At this point it is appropriate to quote the log of U.20 which appeared in several French papers shortly after the Armistice. Schweiger at this stage, after eight days at sea and a long voyage home ahead of him had to be worried about fuel and, in addition, he had only three torpedoes left. The log edited by French News Service after the War says:
"Schweiger was short of fuel and had only three torpedoes left. The U-Boat was on the surface, its conning tower a diminutive silhouette against the Irish sea. Schweiger was eating his lunch on the bridge. It was potato soup and German sausage. His log, in a cold and staccato style, outline the next sequence of events. (The U-Boat's time was German time and was running 1 hour ahead of the Lusitania (GMT). The following times have been altered accordingly).

12.45 pm Excellent visibility, very fine weather. Therefore surface and continue passage; waiting off the Queenstown Banks seems unrewarding.

1.20 pm Sight dead ahead four funnel and two masts of a steamer steering straight for us (coming from the SSW towards Galley Head). Ship identified as a large passenger steamer.

1.25 pm Dive to periscope depth and proceed at high speed on an intercepting course in the hope that the steamer will alter to starboard along the Irish coast. Steamer alters to starboard and sets course for Queenstown so permitting an approach for a shot. Proceed at high speed.

2.20 pm Clear bow shot from 6700 metres (G Torpedo set for 3 metres depth, inclination 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots). Torpedo hits starboard side close abaft the bridge, followed by a very unusually large explosion with a violent emission of smoke (far above the foremost funnel). In addition to the explosion of the torpedo there must have been a second one. The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn apart, fire breaks out, a thick cloud of smoke envelopes the upper bridge. The ship stops at once and very quickly takes on a heavy list to the starboard, at the same time starting to sink by the bow. She looks as if she will quickly capsize. Much confusion on board; boats are cleared away and some of them lowered into the water. Apparently considerable panic; several boats, fully laden, are hurriedly lowered, bow or stern first and at once fill with water. Owing to the list, fewer boats can be cleared away on the port side than the starboard side. The ship blows off steam; forward the name Lusitania in gold letters is visible. Funnel is painted black, no flag on poop. Her speed was 20 knots.

2.25 pm As it appears the steamer can only remain afloat for a short time longer, dive for 24 metres and proceed out to sea. Also I could not fire a second torpedo.

3.15 pm Come up to periscope depth and take a look around. In the distance astern a number of lifeboats; of the Lusitania nothing more can be seen. From the wreck the Old Head of Kinsale bears 358 degrees 14 miles. Wreck lies in 90 metres of water. (Distance from Queenstown 27 miles). Position 51 degrees 226sec. N, 8 degrees 31sec. W. the land and lighthouse clearly visible."

The death toll was 1,195 civilians, 94 of whom were children and 140 of them U.S. citizens.

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