The Ship that Sank in Eighteen Minutes – the RMS Lusitania

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RMS Lusitania moored in the Mersey. Image Courtesy: mirror.co.uk

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.

Lusitania was built at John Brown & Company shipyards in Clydebank, Scotland in 1907 for the Cunard Line. Her sister ship was the Mauretania. For a few months in 1907, Lusitania was the fastest ship on the North Atlantic until her sister Mauretania took the Blue Riband and held it until 1929. Both were also the largest and most luxurious ships in the world. The competing White Star Line constructed the Olympic and Titanic in response to the Lusitania and Mauretania. When World War I broke out, Lusitania was not requisitioned by the Royal Navy and was allowed to continue transatlantic crossings for Cunard.

Wealthy passengers boarding the Lusitania, a 32,000-ton luxury Cunard liner, in New York saw an advertisement issued by the US German embassy warning them of the risk: Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Yet, any concern passengers may have harboured were brushed aside in the belief that the Germans would surely not target a civilian cruise liner. And also, with a top speed of 21 knots-per-hour, far higher than any other ship at the time, the Lusitania could easily outpace a German U-boat with a top speed of a paltry 13 knots. Carrying 1,959 people (1,257 passengers and 702 crew), the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd Atlantic crossing on 1 May 1915. The British, knowing of the potential danger as the ship approached the Ireland, gave the captain, William Thomas Turner, specific instructions. He was told that as he approached the coast he should sail at top speed and in a zigzag fashion, hence making it far more difficult for a U-boat to score a direct hit. But with thick fog and poor visibility, and wanting to save fuel, Captain Turner sailed at only 15 knots per hour and, fatefully, in a straight line. He was also told to avoid Ireland’s jutting coastline. Yet on May 7, he was within eleven miles off the coast of southern Ireland, within sight of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse. In the waters of the Celtic Sea, the ship was hit by an exploding torpedo on its starboard side. The torpedo blast was followed by a larger explosion, probably of the ship’s boilers. The ship then sank within just 18 minutes of being hit.

This British ocean liner traveled the route between Liverpool, England and New York City, including a port of call at Queenstown, (now Cobh) Ireland. Germany justified the attack by stating, correctly, that the Lusitania was an enemy ship, and that it was carrying munitions. It was primarily a passenger ship, however, and among the 1,201 drowned in the attack were many women and children. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, contributed to the American entry into World War I and became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns of why the war was being fought.

Historians have debated whether the Lusitania had been purposefully allowed to fall into a German trap and sunk as a means of persuading the US into joining the war. Up to this point, the US had firmly remained isolationist. In the event, it would be another two years, 6 April 1917, before the US joined the Allies but the sinking of the Lusitania and the killing of American citizens certainly played a large part in swaying the opinion of both the president and US public opinion.

References: History.com, Historyinanhour.com, Wikipedia, Oddee.com, Shipwreckworld.com

Sea News Feature, May 10