“Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!”: Last Voyage of the Lusitania

The Lusitania at end of record voyage Courtesy Library of Congress

The date was May 1, 1915, the Great War had engulfed Europe as Lusitania loaded cargo and passengers. The Imperial German Embassy had just issued a warning to passengers traveling aboard the Lusy. Security was strengthened as law enforcement patrolled the area, on the lookout for saboteurs and spies. Unrestricted U-boat warfare had already sunk a number of British ships and Lusitania would be no exception. Just the day before, the German U-20 commanded by Lieutenant Walter Schwieger had left Germany in search of victims.

Not long into the voyage three German stowaways were discovered. Rumors floated around and suspicions ran high as people speculated whether they were saboteurs. The three later perished in the sinking, so this was never determined.

William Thomas Turner Courtesy Library of Congress

Cunard, the company that owned Lusitania, had ordered Captain William Thomas Turner to shut down one of the four boiler rooms. This cause a reduction in speed – the slow going travel and the fact that they were nearing U-boat territory put many people on edge.

A mist that had enshrouded the Lusitania in the early hours of May 7 soon cleared and the southern coast of Ireland was made visible.

U-20 Second from Left Courtesy Library of Congress

At 1:20 p.m. a cautious U-20 surfaced spotting Lusitania. At first it appeared that Lusitania would get away as she changed course but then an amazing thing happened. Lusitania again changed course and was headed straight for the U-20. A perfect target, Schwieger prepared to fire at the mammoth ship. Technically, Turner was suppose to be traveling in a zig-zag pattern. In the inquiry following the disaster it was stated:

In the first place, to escape from direct pursuit by a submarine, the faster a ship goes the better chance she has of getting away; and, secondly, I think that a fast ship zig-zagging covers a large area of ground, a much larger area than a smaller ship, and, therefore, reduces the chance of any single submarine being in a position to attack her.

At 2:10 PM Schwieger fired the torpedo that would end the lives of over 1000 people. Many of those on board seen the torpedo coming. A few who seen the torpedo described it as in the following:

Lookout Leslie Morton: Torpedoes coming on the starboard side.

William Thomas Turner at the Inquiry:

95. Did you say that you yourself saw the wake of the torpedo?
– I saw a streak like the wake of a torpedo.

96. Somebody cried out that there was a torpedo?
– Yes, the Second Officer, on the bridge.

Following the impact of the torpedo, was a second explosion. Historians debate on whether this was a shipment of illegal arms exploding or coal dust igniting causing the second explosion. Wireless operator Robert Leith sent out the SOS, as people scrambled about the ship wondering what had happened.

Unlike Titanic, passengers would not have to worry about lack of lifeboats. Lusitania carried an adequate complement of boats. What she would lack was order and time. She went down in approximately 18 minutes compared to Titanic‘s 2 hours. The ship’s list became so bad that it was nearly impossible to lower the lifeboats. Contributing to the problem was the fact that the crew was mostly inexperienced. With the war in Europe, much of the sailors had either been drafted or deserted their ship while in neutral ports.

Alfred Vanderbilt at Cunard Pier Courtesy Library of Congress

Millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and his valet Ronald Denyer, both of whom died in the sinking, rounded up children and tossed them into lifeboats. Nurse Alice Lines, upon feeling the impact of the torpedo, took her young charges Stuart and Audrey Pearl up on the boat deck. Stuart was placed in a lifeboat, but because the boat was filled, Lines was not allowed to board. She was trapped on the ship with Audrey. With no alternative but the drastic, Lines jumped overboard with baby Audrey. Landing in the cold Atlantic, she found herself next to Stuart’s boat. Fortunately someone was able to grab her hair and her haul her aboard.

Gardner Brothers, Survivors Courtesy Library of Congress

The U-20 after witnessing the disaster, dived beneath the Atlantic waves.

On the Irish coast, some of whom had witnessed the tragedy unfolding, responded by sending boats out in hopes of picking up as many survivors as possible. First on the scene of the disaster was the Peel 12, a fishing vessel.

On May 10 a funeral procession wound its way through Queenstown, carrying the victims to the cemetery. Many were buried in mass graves. The survivors numbered 768 with a loss of 1,198. Germany went on to issue an apology to the US for the 128 American lost on the voyage. Nevertheless, U-boat warfare would continue. The U-20 ran aground near Jutland in late 1916. Schwieger and his crew destroyed her, in hopes of no one making use of  the U-boat. Schwieger’s death came when the U-88 he was commanding hit a mine.

Source: Ballard, Robert. Robert Ballard’s Lusitania; Preston, Diane. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy