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The Sinking of the Lusitania

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 - a maritime tragedy off the Cork coast.

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The Sinking of the Lusitania
Propaganda Poster from the First World War

The recruitment posters were unambigous - "Irishmen - Avenge the Lusitania!" Asking to join an Irish regiment (in the British army) to fight "the Hun".

After the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania off the Cork coast by a German u-boat (submarine, emotions ran high. And even today the fate of the ship is the subject of discussion and speculation. Here are the basic facts you need to know ...

Lusitania 101

The British ocean liner RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Lusitania was launched as a modern ocean liner in 1907 and served with the Cunard Line. The largest ship in the world at the time of launch, she plied routes in the hotly contested North Atlantic trade between the USA and the United Kingdom. To this end she was fitted out as a fast, comfortable and revenue-friendly vessel - complete with turbine engines (good for a speed of 25 knots), lifts, wireless telegraph and electric lights. This was made possible not only by the Royal Mail contract, but also by an annual subsidy from the military: the ship was built to Admiralty specifications and earmarked as an "auxiliary cruiser" for wartime use. The First World War was looming ...

The technical details of RMS Lusitania are certainly impressive:

  • Tonnage - 31,550 Gross Register Tons (GRT)
  • Displacement - 44,060 Long Tons
  • Length - 239.9 metres
  • Beam - 26.5 metres
  • Height - 18.3 metres to the boat deck, 50.3 metres) to the aerials
  • Draught - 10.2 metres
  • Decks - 9
  • Powerplant - 25 Scotch boilers and four direct-acting Parsons steam turbines producing 76,000 hp
  • Propulsion - originally four triple blade propellers, upgraded to quadruple blade propellers in 1909
  • Speed - 25 knots on average
  • Passenger capacity - 552 First Class, 460 Second Class, 1,186 Third Class (total 2,198)
  • Crew - 850

On May 7th, 1915, RMS Lusitania was hit by a torpedo fired from German u-boat U-20 just off the Cork coast, heavy loss of life ensued with the death of more than 100 US citizens leading to outrage in their home country.

The Sinking

U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, had prowled off the Cork coast for some time, its presence was known and the captain of RMS Lusitania had been warned repeatedly of the danger. Running parallel to the south coast of Ireland towards Liverpool, he was steering a course through waters declared an "exclusion zone" by the German military, in which all British shipping was considered a fair target. Captain Turner took precautions like closing all watertight doors, posting double lookouts, ordering a black-out and having the lifeboats swung out, ready to be deployed.

Shortly after noon on May 7th, 1915, the RMS Lusitania ran right across the firing line of U-20, in broad daylight. Schwieger ordered one torpedo to be fired, which hit the liner starboard, exploding on impact.

Just a moment later, a second, massive explosion rocked the RMS Lusitania, causing much more destruction than the single torpedo would have been able to. Totally disabled and badly listing, the RMS Lusitania sank within a mere 18 minutes. Due to this extraordinary short timespan and the bad listing (which prevented lifeboats from being launched), added to by a delay in help arriving, the death toll was enormous. 1,959 passengers and crew were aboard the RMS Lusitania on her last voyage, 1,195 died or simply disappeared (less than 300 bodies were recovered, most are buried in Cobh, the town also has a moving Lusitania memorial near the waterfront - and is connected to the tragedy of RMS Titanic as well).

A War Crime or Crime Against Humanity?

The discussion is still ongoing on this point - in theory, a civilian vessel should have been stopped and the passengers taken off, before it was fair game to be sunk. In practice, a number of factors made this impractical to impossible. Both the British and US investigations and inquiries into the sinking of RMS Lusitania were deeply flawed and the expected outcome (Germany taking the complete blame for a "crime") no surprise at all.

The Problems

There are many uncertainties that surround the sinking of RMS Lusitania - in fact it may be said that while we know that the ship was sunk ultimately due to U-20 firing a torpedo, we know nothing else for sure. Controversy has surrounded the actual circumstances of the voyage, the possible use of a false flag, the actual cargo and passengers carried and much more. And it also is an exhausting game of semantics - for instance the Cunard Line stated that more than four million cartridges on board could not be classified as "ammunition", as they were for small arms only. A similar "creativity" in the cargo manifest can be suspected in a number of tons of lard, butter and cheese not in refrigeration and destined to be delivered to the Royal Navy's Weapons Testing Establishment.

All these problems apart, the main question connects to the second explosion.

While British and US opinion favoured the idea of Schwieger firing a second torpedo, there is no indication at all that this was the fact. Thus the second explosion was triggered by the damage done with the single torpedo, but ultimately caused by something on board RMS Lusitania. German opinion favoured the idea that the torpedo explosion triggered a secondary explosion of ammunitions and explosive material illegally carried in the cargo hold.

The real cause might be far less exciting in its simplicity. One school of thought maintains that the initial torpedo hit triggered an "earthquake" throughout RMS Lusitania. At this time, the ship was near the end of her fuel and the bunkers would have been filled with little coal, but lots of coal dust. This coal dust would then have been shaken up into a massive cloud, spreading throughout the lower decks and finally igniting in a catastrophic explosion - ripping RMS Lusitania apart from the inside out.

Curious Aftermaths

The art collector Sir Hugh Percy Lane died during the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. His will bequeathed his collection to the National Gallery in London, an un-witnessed later codicil to the Dublin Municipal Art Gallery (the Hugh Lane). In a compromise, both museums are now swapping Hugh Lane's artworks at a regular basis.

SM U-20, the submarine that sunk RMS Lusitania, was earmarked to carry Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement from Germany to Ireland in time for the 1916 Easter Rising. After U-20 developed engine trouble, U-19 was used instead.

Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger was Germany's sixth-highest "scoring" u-baot-commander in the First World War, killed in action off the Dutch coast in September 1917. He managed to stoke the Lusitania controversy and blacken his name even in Germany when he attacked the ocean liner Hesperian near Fastnet Lighthouse in September 1915 - against official orders.

The wreck of the RMS Lusitania still lies off the Irish coast and could answer many questions ... had it not been used for explosives practice by the British Navy. The totally unnecessary (not to mention insensitive) choice of the wreck as a target has only fuelled the conspiracy theories. In effect, the British destroyed evidence that might have helped modern investigators.

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