The ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a German torpedo in 1915 and sunk within sight of the Irish coast in just 18 Minutes! Compare that to the rather luxurious sinking of the Titanic three years earlier in 1912 that lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes. We have all seen the popular movie, so just imagine our protagonists Rose and Jack having just 18 minutes to escape the sinking ship.
In 1915, World War I was not even a year old in Europe. In response to Great Britain’s naval blockade, Germany announced that it would begin ‘UNRESTRICTED SUBMARINE WARFARE.’ In other words, U-boats would torpedo ANY ship in the Atlantic war zone. Brits and Americans boarding the Lusitania in New York City saw advertisements in city newspapers, posted by the German embassy, warning them of that risk:
Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her Allies, are liable to destruction in the war zone, and travelers sailing on such ships DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK!German Embassy newspaper advertisement
Passengers ignored the warning since surely Germany would not target a civilian ocean liner. Also, they were told by the Cunard line that, with a top speed of 21 knots, far faster than any submarine, the Lusitania could easily outrun any German U-boat. Dubbed the “Greyhound of the Seas,” she had won the Blue Ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing.
With 1,257 passengers and 702 crew aboard, the RMS Lusitania left New York City harbor on 1 May 1915 bound for Liverpool, England. Unknown to her passengers, she also carried a large, secret cargo of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort.
Tensions finally grew onboard Lusitania once the Atlantic crossing neared its end and they entered British waters. They had good reason to be worried. German submarines had already sunk 2 steamers off the coast of Ireland that week. Nevertheless, the British Admiralty never sent a destroyer to escort Lusitania! Instead, they instructed Captain William Turner to avoid the Irish coast at top speed and in a zigzag pattern, making it difficult for a U-boat to score a torpedo hit.
But with visibility obscured by thick coastal fog and wanting to save coal, Captain Turner reduced speed to only 15 knots. He sailed Lusitania in a straight line, just 11 miles off the south Irish coast, within sight of Old Head Lighthouse. Turner was ignoring every one of the Admiralty’s directives. Whether or not the Captain’s decision was justified, it doomed his ship, passengers and crew.
Lurking beneath the Irish waters was U-20, led by Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger.
U-20 had already sank a few smaller vessels and now, at 2 o’clock in the early afternoon, he spotted a four stack ocean liner through his periscope. What a prize for the Kaiser! he thought. Knowing full well it contained hundreds of civilians, at 2:09 pm in the afternoon, Schwieger gave the command to load and fire a single torpedo at the ship. He then watched anxiously through his periscope.
At 2:10 p.m., Lusitania’s lookouts spotted a torpedo streaking rapidly towards them, a white, frothy line in its wake. “Torpedo off the starboard bow!” they told the bridge. By that time, it was too late for the large ship to avoid. The captain barked out orders “Hard to Starboard!” The German torpedo struck the Lusitania on the starboard side between mid-ship and the bow.
The detonation sent a low rumble through the ship. Passengers reacted with mild concern. After all, it could just be trouble with the ship’s large steam engine. They continued their reading or conversations. 30 seconds later however, a 2nd, much large explosion erupted from deep within the vessel’s belly, sending out clouds of black smoke. The Lusitania immediately began a tilt to starboard.
It was not a 2nd torpedo, however. Captain Schwieger always maintained that he fired only one. The source of the 2nd explosion is Lusitania’s greatest mystery. What had caused it? The bridge crew discovered the Lusitania no longer responded to the ship’s wheel. The captain ordered an immediate wireless SOS sent out and to reverse all engines. When the engine room could not comply to his orders, he knew they were finished. The ship‘s tilt to starboard continued to worsen. He immediately ordered all passengers to life boats.
At 2:14 pm, electricity failed and the interior of the ship plunged into darkness.
Unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania had enough lifeboats for all. However, with the decks tilting wildly, a manic chaos set in, with passengers racing to find life jackets and then life boats. One survivor described it as a swarm of mad bees without the queen. Parents were separated from children in the rush of bodies. The electric lifts stopped working, trapping people between decks! Water began rapidly flooding the lower decks faster than people could escape them. The hallways and staircases became jammed with humanity.
Within 5 minutes, the Lusitania’s list was already 15 degrees to starboard, then 20, then 25! by 2:25 pm. Crewmembers attempted to launch the lifeboats, but the tilt of the sinking ship made this near impossible. On the port side, many boats swung back over the deck rather than the sea. Those that were released over the railing splintered against the riveted hull on their way down, or capsized completely on the way down, killing all those inside.
Things were no better on the starboard side. Those lifeboats that were released, swung out far away from the railing, too far for people to board. Those that reached the water overturned or went in nose first because of the sinking bow. Some flipped over, either in the air, or when they hit the water, dumping screaming passengers into the frigid Irish sea.
When it became apparent the lifeboats were failing, passengers jumped into the ocean.
On the starboard side, they began sliding down the steep decks into the churning water. Once in the sea, they fought to hold onto any piece of floating wreckage they could find. Most never had a chance. The ship’s massive propellers at the stern rose out of the water as the pointed bow sank beneath the sea. Once the bow went under, the sinking accelerated. Further explosions blew below decks as cold seawater hit the red-hot boilers.
On submarine U-20, Captain Schwieger watched through his periscope and noted the result in his log, “The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing at the bow. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some lowered into the water. In connection therewith, great panic reigns; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately.”
Onboard the Lusitania, Captain Turner ordered his men to abandon ship as well and remained on the bridge until it too was submerged beneath him. He was somehow washed clear of the bow as the ship sank. He survived after spending 3 hours in the cold water, atop a deck chair. He was pulled from the sea unconscious.
At 2:28 pm, within 18 minutes the giant ship slipped beneath the sea, leaving a bubbling, swirling, frothy whirlpool in its wake. 1,198 of the 1,924 aboard died, including 128 Americans, 59 children and 35 infants. Lusitania sank in a mere 90 meters (300 feet) of water. Kapitänleutnant Schwieger lowered his periscope and ordered his submarine back out to sea. He was lauded as a war hero in Germany, and later died in 1917 when his U-boat hit a mine off the British coast.
Rescue ships were dispatched from the Irish port of Queenstown and arrived within 2 hours. They managed to pick up only 761 survivors. Some were in such a state of shock their hair began to turn grey and fall out. Local authorities set up makeshift morgues to handle the hundreds of floating corpses being collected on the sea.
The killing of US citizens enraged Americans. President Woodrow Wilson protested loudly, and public opinion in the U.S. began to turn against Germany. It would still be another 2 years however, 1917, before the U.S. finally joined the Allies in the trenches of France. At a Board of Trade Inquiry, Captain Turner, the Cunard Company, and the Royal Navy were all absolved of any negligence. All blame was placed on the German government.
So what had caused the mysterious 2nd explosion?
Lusitania had been carrying 173 tons of ammunition. The Germans maintained this made her a legitimate target and caused the 2nd explosion. The British continued to deny it. Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, explored the Lusitania in 1993, hoping to finally solve the mystery. The sad wreck lies in just 295 feet of water on her starboard side, obscuring the area where the torpedo hit.
Conspiracy theorists claim the Brits deliberately sank the ship to hasten America’s entry into the war. Ballard found no evidence of this. Nor was there any evidence of an explosion in the hold where munitions were stowed. No boiler room explosion was reported by the surviving crew at the time the torpedo hit. Ballard concluded the torpedo ripped open a coal bunker, causing the huge 2nd explosion. The blast ripped open a much larger hole and doomed the ship to its rapid death.
So ended the life of the once proud Lusitania, grand rival of the Titanic in both size and tragedy. It sits today on the bottom of the murky cold sea, within tantalizing sight of the coast of Ireland.
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