The Lusitania was a British passenger liner sunk by a German submarine off the south coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The Lusitania entered service in 1907 as one of a pair (the other being Mauretania) of large four-funnel Cunard Line vessels designed for the prestigious North Atlantic run. The Lusitania was built with a government subsidy, which required that it be made available for admiralty use at times of national need and that all its officers and at least half its crew be members of the Royal Naval Reserve or the Royal Naval Fleet Reserve. Both sister ships were constructed with reinforced decks to allow the emplacement of up to a dozen 6-inch guns for service as armed merchant cruisers.
The Lusitania quickly took the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing and traded that honor with Mauretania over 100 round-trip voyages. When the war began, the Lusitania was determined to be too large for service as an armed merchant cruiser and remained in Cunard service. Partially in response to the tightening British blockade of Germany, Germany declared a war zone around the British Isles on February 4, 1915, warning that any ship within the zone risked submarine attack. A growing number of merchant and naval vessels fell to German torpedoes in the months that followed.
On the morning of May 1, 1915, as the Lusitania prepared to sail for Liverpool on its 202nd crossing, the German embassy published a warning in New York newspapers that Atlantic passengers sailed into the declared war zone around Britain at their own risk. Despite the warning, the Lusitania carried more than 1,200 passengers (its highest total since the war began, although still 1,000 under her capacity) and a crew of about 700. Senior Cunard captain, William Turner was in command.
German navy lieutenant Walther Schwieger had navigated the submarine U-20 from Emden, Germany, a day earlier, bound for the busy approaches to Liverpool to enforce the declared war zone. Over the next week, the U-20 traversed the North Sea around both Scotland and Ireland and entered the Irish Channel. On May 6, 1915, the U-20 sank two small British merchant steamers and, with only three torpedoes remaining, began to retrace its route back to Germany.
The Lusitania received several wireless warnings of submarine activity ahead as it approached Ireland. The ship operated under standard admiralty rules to avoid the coast and steer a mid-channel course, maintain speed (though to save coal, not all its boilers were in service), mount extra look-outs (which were in place), preserve wireless silence (only partially accomplished), maintain a zig-zag course (which it was not doing when struck), and arrive off Liverpool with the tide to allow quick entry into the busy port.
Schwieger sighted Lusitania at 1:20 p.m. off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, and fired one torpedo, which struck the liner almost directly under the bridge. The resulting explosion was followed shortly by another larger blast. The Lusitania sank by the bow in just 18 minutes. Few lifeboats were launched because of the steep angle of the sinking hull. Rescue vessels steamed from nearby Queenstown, but of the 1,959 on board, only 764 survived. Nearly 100 children were lost, as were 128 of 197 Americans on board.
A British Board of Trade investigation in June determined that Cunard and the ship's master made significant mistakes, but that the vessel was lost because of Germany's policy of torpedoing ships without warning. Turner continued to captain smaller Cunard vessels, though Schwieger was lost with the U-88 in September 1917. The Lusitania wreck lies about 300 feet down near the Irish coast.
The sinking created a propaganda blitz of attacks on Germany for killing defenseless civilians. A Lusitania medal that had been designed by Karl Goetz as a limited-circulation German attack on Cunard for trying to continue business as usual during wartime was now reissued in the thousands as anti-German propaganda by the British.
Controversy abounds over the disaster. The second and larger explosion after the torpedo struck was almost definitely from loose coal dust igniting, not exploding cargo. Germany maintained that the Lusitania was armed (guns had not been mounted) and that it carried military cargo (small-arms ammunition were not on the cargo manifest) or soldiers (none on board). Accusations that the British Admiralty conspired to set up the Lusitania as a target to bring the United States into the war still circulate, although there is no proof to support such claims.
See also: World War I, Atrocities during.
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