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Warship In Disguise

Divers Find Military Cargo In The Lusitania’s Hold

By James Donahue

A century-old controversy over the reasons a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the Cunard liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915 was partly solved when an Irish dive team recovered samples of a cargo of military rifle shells from the wreck.

The team, led by Eoin McGarry, was guided by a remote-controlled vehicle to reach the Lusitania which lies about 300 feet deep just 12 miles off the coast of Ireland. Recovered were Remington .303s, the official military rifle cartridge of the British military in 1915.

Conspiracy theories have abounded because of the strange events leading up to the sinking of the 787-foot-long, four-stack liner and the deaths of 1,959 passengers and crew members on its decks. Many were Americans on their way from New York to London.

That the U-20, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, fired a torpedo into the side of the liner at all was deemed a violation of a time-honored law of the sea in that era. The rule was that no merchantman shall be sunk without warning. The German U-boats were said to stop merchant ships under enemy flags, announce an intention to sink the vessel, but first give the passengers and crew time to escape in the ship’s lifeboats.

It was a strange gentlemanly art of warfare apparently brought to an abrupt end with the sinking of the Lusitania. Or was it?

Before Lusitania departed Pier 54 in New York on May 1, the German Embassy in Washington published a warning in the New York and Washington newspapers that travelers must be aware that a state of war existed between Germany and the British Isles and that passengers on ships flying the British flag will do so at their own risk.

Nevertheless, 139 U.S. citizens booked passage on that fatal voyage. Of these, 128 of them died in the sinking.

Captain William Thomas Turner, the master of the Lusitania for that final trip, assured anxious passengers that they were not to worry. He reminded everyone that the Lusitania was among the fastest ships afloat and could easily outrun any attempted attacks by U-boats.

What the passengers did not know, but the Germans obviously did, was that the Lusitania was built with the financial assistance from the British Admiralty, and was built to specifications that allowed for the quick refitting of the steamer for service as a navy cruiser. She was fitted with gun mounts concealed under the teak decks, all ready for the addition of the guns when needed.

What the passengers also were not told was that the Lusitania was carrying a secret cargo of war material including munitions for the English war effort. The ship’s manifest included 4,300 cases of cartridges “for small arms” that were not for the military. The recent findings by the Irish dive team, however, have proven otherwise.

At the time, England and Germany were locked in a brutal war that involved most other nations of the world. The war which began in 1914 was at a stalemate with thousands of soldiers dying in the trenches of Europe. It was said that Winston Churchill, then serving as first Lord of the British Admiralty, may have planned the Lusitania disaster in an effort to draw the United States into the war. He was aware that Americans were usually aboard the liner when it crossed the Atlantic.

As the liner approached the Irish and British coast, Church was well aware that U-20 was on its way toward Fastnet, as was the Lusitania. The British cruiser Juno had been assigned to meet the Lusitania and escort her safely into harbor. But Churchill cancelled the escort and called the Juno back to port. Why would he do this? He later said the cruiser was an obsolete vessel and was especially vulnerable to U-boat attack. Obviously a giant liner laden with passengers also was vulnerable and Churchill left the Lusitania to its own fate when the steamer and U-20 crossed paths.

As the story is told by the Germans, U-20 was almost at the end of a highly successful cruise in which it sank three merchant ships, the Candidate, the Centurion and a schooner, Miss Morris off Fastnet Rock. When the Royal Navy sent a warning to all British ships, Captain Turner took what he thought were prudent precautions. He closed watertight doors, posted double lookouts, ordered a blackout of ship’s lights and even ordered the lifeboats swung out on their davits so they could be lowered quickly if anything happened. He also turned the liner on a course closer to the Irish coast, believing that the U-boat would be more likely operating in the open sea.

In the meantime, U-20 was preparing to return home to Germany. The vessel was low on fuel and had only one torpedo left. The submarine was operating on the surface at top speed when a lookout spotted a large ship on the horizon. Captain Schweiger ordered U-20 to dive and his drew to take battle stations. That ship was the Lusitania.

During its earlier operations, Schweiger allowed the crews of the doomed merchant ships to take to the boats before he sank them. But he was aware of a recent order by Cunard that its ships should attempt to ram German U-boats that surface, and was even offering a cash bonus to crews that successfully rammed and sank one. Knowing that the Lusitania was among the largest and fastest steamers operating on the high seas, and knowing she was a navy cruiser in disguise and reportedly carrying arms for England, he chose a surprise attack.

Schweiger was aided by the fact that the Lusitania had been steaming through fog and Turner ordered her speed lowered to 18 knots. And as luck would have it, the liner crossed within 750 yards, directly in the path of the awaiting submarine. He had one shot and he couldn’t miss.

Standing watch on the liner’s bow, lookout Leslie Morton was the first to spot the lines of foam racing toward the ship. He raised his megaphone and shouted “torpedoes coming on the starboard side!”

Seconds later the torpedo struck Lusitania just under the bridge. There was a massive blast that sent a plume of debris, steel plating and water high into the air. Survivors said this was followed by a second and even more powerful explosion. Many believed U-20 fired two torpedoes, with the second one hitting munitions stored below deck. Another theory suggested that the blast from the first torpedo flooded the engine room and that the second explosion was caused by the cold sea water flooding the heated boilers.

Schweiger recorded in his log: “Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy explosion takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?) . . . The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow . . . the name Lusitania becomes visible in golden letters.”

Aboard the doomed liner, a wireless operator sent out an SOS and Turner gave the order to abandon ship. The ship was flooding fast and was listing 15 degrees to starboard. Turner told his helmsman to turn toward the Irish coast in the hope of beaching the liner, but the helm would not respond. The blast had knocked out the steam lines to steerage.

Turner also discovered, to his horror, that he had no way to slow or stop the ship which was still moving forward at about 18 knots. The torpedo and subsequent blast had possibly killed everyone in the engine room. Consequently the lifeboats overturned the moment they were lowered and touched the ocean at that speed. It wasn’t until the ship eventually slowed on its own that some lifeboats safely got away. By then the vessel was listing too far for any boats to get away on the starboard side. Those lowered on the port side were sliding down the listing steel sides of the ship, grinding against the rivits. This was later given as a major cause of so many deaths to passengers.

There was very little time for anyone on the Lusitania to escape. The ship sank in 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 souls on that ship, 1,198 were killed.

Churchill could not have planned a plot to draw America into the war any more cleverly. The disaster raised the ire of the people. But President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan worked hard to avoid the inevitable. The German government argued that they were right in sinking the Lusitania because it was laden with military cargo. England and the U.S. authorities denied this.

In August that year the White Star liner Arabic was torpedoed and sunk with a loss of 44 lives, three of them Americans. The British press circulated a story that in some regions, German school children were given a holiday to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania.

German medalist Karl Goetz who was producing a series of satirical medals as a running editorial styled commentary on the war, struck a run of medals attacking the Cunard Line for conducting “business as usual” during wartime. One side of the medal showed a gun-laden Lusitania sinking with the words “No Contraband.” On the other side was a skeleton selling Cunard tickets. The words “Business Above All” appeared on this side. It was significant that Goetz got the date of the sinking wrong and the medal showed the event occurring two days earlier on May 5.

The British Foreign Office got a copy of the medal, photographed it, and sent the picture to the New York Times, where it was published on May 5, 1916. Various magazines then published the picture and somehow it was falsely claimed that the medal was awarded to the crew of U-20.

Naturally the fact that the German medal contained a date that was two days before the Lusitania actually sank, generated a belief that the disaster was premeditated.

The British next produced thousands of copies of the Goetz medal and sold them with a propaganda leaflet.

It was not long before Churchill got his wish and America entered the war and chose to fight against Germany. The American presence in the war quickly tipped the scales against Germany and her allies.