Although not as famous as the 1908 tragedy of the Titanic, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania played a major role in world history. The 32,000-ton ship, built by built by John Brown & Co Ltd in Glasgow, England sunk May 7th 1915 in the Atlantic of the south Irish coast by a German U-boat, on the return leg of its 101st roundtrip voyage. The RMS Lusitania had a sister ship built by the same company, the RMS Mauretania that was in service until being scrapped in 1934.
The liner had 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 people were drowned, including 128 Americans. This played part to, America and other Allied countries, changing their opinion of Germany. The RMS Lusitania was deemed the fastest ship of her time in regards to crossing to the Atlantic Ocean. She was only beat by her sister-ship the Mauretania but eventually broke that record too. She was also the first ship to cross the Atlantic in under 5 days. The Lusitania left New York on the same day Great Britain declared war on Germany, 4 August 1914. She was then painted a grey color to make her hard to see in the stormy North Atlantic. On 4 February 1915, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone.
i On 1 May 1915, the New York Tribune had published an article advising that the Imperial German Embassy had issued a warning stating, “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters, and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”ii Having said that, the Lusitania continued on with the return voyage on the way from New York to Liverpool, departing on 1 May 1915. May 7th 1915, the ship was hit by a torpedo from German U-boat, “U-20” and within 20 minutes it had fully sunk. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the ship was hauling a little over 4 million rounds of rifle rounds, about 1,200 cases of shrapnel shells and 18 cases of non-explosives that were hidden in its cargo holdiii, which was all legal tender at the time of neutrality for the United States. This was hidden from the rest of the world and especially America, in hopes of embroiling the American attitude towards the Germans. In fact, the warning form the German Embassy was published hours before the liner left from New York, giving passengers a chance to read the paper and know about the warning. The ship was also carrying many Americans who didn’t know about the cargo on board.
In London, an old Admiralty building was a secret British surveillance task force called “Room 40”. Room 40 was monitoring and decoding German Naval relays and had confirmation of the German Navy in the area off the coast of southern Ireland. Winston Churchill was the First Lord of Admiralty at the time and knew about the German U-boat “U-20″which had sunk many British merchant ships in the past 7 days. The aforementioned even put out a put out an order that stated any British vessels that stopped for a German U-boat would be court-martialed.
Churchill did nothing to advert the RMS Lusitania along a northern route or give a naval escort to. It is thought that Churchill “sacrificed” the liner to get American in the war. A letter from Winston Churchill to Walter Runciman, president of Great Britain’s Board of Trade, “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.
For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”iv Aside from the torpedo blast, there was also a second explosion. No one to this day knows what that explosion was. There are many speculations; a steam pipe rupture, super heated boilers meeting cold sea water, ignition of coal dust, and even the hidden cargo on board. The British liner sank in 18 minutes, in comparison, the Titanic sank 2 hours and 40 minutes. Here is an excerpt from William Shwiegers’ diary, Captain of U-20, Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge.
An extraordinary heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge were torn apart; fire broke out; light smoke veiled the high bridge. .
v As you can see, Swhieger only mentioned one torpedo being fired and not two. The excerpt describes, on a first-hand account, some of the events after the torpedo strike took place from an outside perspective