Sinking of the Lusitania

The Sinking of the Lusitania

RMS Lusitania was a British cruise liner that was sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. It is second only to the Titanic as the most famous and deadly civilian maritime disaster and one of the world’s famous shipwrecks. Like the Titanic, it has a strong Ireland connection. The Titanic was built in Belfast in Northern Ireland and its last port of call on its way to New York was at Queenstown (now Cobh) in the Republic of Ireland. The Lusitania was on its way from New York to England and sunk close to Queenstown.

Sinking of the Lusitania - The Ship's Construction

The Lusitania was conceived with a similar outlook as the Titanic – to be a large, fast and very luxurious ocean liner that would carry passengers quickly and in style between Europe and the US. The operator would be Cunard Line, the main competitor of White Star Line which commissioned the Titanic.

The first model of the Lusitania was built in 1902; the keel was laid in 1904; she was launched for trials in June 1906; and went into service in 1907. The construction was done in Clydebank, Scotland. The ship displaced 44,000 tons (Titanic 46,000) and was nearly 240 meters long (Titanic 269). It could carry up to 2,200 passengers and a crew of 850. It served successfully in the Atlantic completing a total of 201 voyages and on several occasions setting a speed record on transatlantic crossing. It could reach nearly 27 knots at full speed (Titanic 23). Compared therefore to the Titanic, it was smaller but faster. Both ships (and their sister ships) were the ultimate in luxury and the pride of their owners.

Sinking of the Lusitania - Dangerous Waters

In 1915 the First World War was in full swing. Britain had blockaded German access to the sea using the mighty Royal Navy. The Germans who were not able to match the strength of the Royal Navy sent their u-boats (submarines) into the Atlantic with the aim to disrupt the flow of supplies to Britain. Fearing that the destruction of passenger liners would have a strong negative impact on its image the German embassy in the US published a warning to passengers to avoid traveling on liners carrying the British Flag.

Sinking of the Lusitania - Fateful Journey

On May 1, 1915 the Lusitania departed New York with 1959 people on board, 1,257 were passengers and 702 crew. Captain William Turner was confident that despite the presence of German submarines the Lusitania would be safe by virtue of the fact that it was ten knots faster than the fastest German submarine. On the morning of May 7, 1915, after an uneventful journey, the Lusitania was approaching the southern coast of Ireland. The previous day captain Turner had received warnings of submarine activity in the area. As a precaution he had ordered a blackout; lifeboats to be swung out on their davits so that in the event of an emergency they could be launched quickly; had posted a double look out; and had closed all watertight doors.

At 11:00 he received another warning and altered his course towards the Irish coast in the hope that submarines would be less likely to operate close to land. In the case of an emergency he would also be able to reach land quicker.

Meanwhile the German submarine U-20 was sailing along the western coast of Ireland. It had already sunk three merchant vessels and low on fuel and with only three torpedoes left (of which two had to be kept for self defense) it had surfaced for faster sailing and was heading home. At 13:20 its sailors spotted the Lusitania about 12-14 miles away. The German captain ordered the submarine to dive and prepare to engage.

The Sinking of the Lusitania

Because of the submarine sightings in the area, the Lusitania had been ordered to head to Queenstown instead of its original destination, Liverpool. Unbeknown to captain Turner, he would be passing in front of the U-20 lurking in the distance. When Lusitania came within 650 yards the submarine fired one torpedo. On the ship's bridge the captain was scanning the horizon. Suddenly he heard the quartermaster who was acting like a lookout shout: “Torpedo coming on the starboard side”.

Before he could do anything there was a loud explosion followed by a second even louder. The clock said 14:10.

The explosion opened a gaping hole and water began to pour in. Captain Turner knew the Lusitania was doomed and gave the order to abandon ship. Within minutes the ship began to list. Even though the lifeboats were ready for launching the listing made this difficult. Those on the starboard side where too far out to be boarded easily. Those on the port side would hit the hull of the ship as they were being lowered.

Within 18 minutes Lusitania had sunk. About 1,200 people died. The bodies of 289 were recovered. They were buried in Queenstown or in the church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The remaining dead were never found.

Sinking of the Lusitania - the Aftermath

The sinking of the Lusitania created outrage in Britain and even the US not least because among the dead were American citizens. Some wanted action but US President Wilson urged caution. Some historians mark the sinking as one of the events that moved America towards declaring war on Germany, though that came two years later.

Within Germany the reaction was mixed. Officially, the German government tried to justify the sinking on the grounds that it was an Armed Merchant Cruiser and that it was carrying large quantities or war materiel. The first assertion was wrong. It is true that the British government often subsidized the construction of ships, including the Lusitania, on condition that in cases of emergency they could be conscripted and used by the Royal Navy. While the Navy had considered conscripting the Lusitania, they had not done so.

The assertion that the Lusitania was carrying war material has been debated. The ship did carry some small arms cartridges but that would not constitute war material in any reasonable sense. The British government vehemently denied that it carried anything more and so did the Port Authority of New York.

Beyond official explanations in support of the sinking, many Germans were shocked by it and declared so publicly. The result was that the German navy changed its policy on the use of submarines and their code of action.

Sinking of the Lusitania - The Wreck

The exact position where the Lusitania sunk is known and the wreck has been found. Some initial explorations have been done but further study and recovery of artifacts has been hindered by legal wrangles over ownership of the wreck and its contents.

Nearly 100 years after the sinking of the Lusitania the disaster is testimony to the ravages of war where innocent civilians often become unwitting victims.

Read about other shipwrecks of Ireland

Apart from this page about the sinking of the Lusitania you can also read about the following shipwrecks.

The Girona, a Spanish Armada Galleass that was sunk off Lacada Point in 1588.

The HMS Drake sunk outside Belfast Lough in 1778.

Another warship named HMS Drake, sunk off Rathlin Island in 1917.

The SS Laurentic sunk in 1917 just off the coast of Northern Ireland.

And of course, the Titanic.

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