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 in 1912 that lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes. We’ve all seen the popular movie, so imagine Rose and Jack having just 18 minutes to escape the sinking ship.
In 1915, World War I was not even a year old. 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 war zone. Brits and Americans boarding the Lusitania in New York City saw advertisements in newspapers, posted by the German embassy, warning them of the 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!
Passengers ignored the warning as surely Germany would not target a civilian ocean liner. Also, they were told 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 Lusitania left NY on 1 May 1915 bound for Liverpool. Unknown to her passengers, she also carried a secret cargo of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort.
Tensions finally grew onboard once Lusitania entered British waters. They had good reason to be worried. German submarines had had already sunk 2 steamers off the coast of Ireland. 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 hit.
But with foggy visibility and wanting to save coal, Captain Turner reduced speed to only 15 knots and sailed in a straight line, just 11 miles off the south Irish coast, within sight of a 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! At 2:09, Schwieger order a single torpedo fired.
At 2:10 p.m., Lusitania’s lookouts spotted a torpedo streaking rapidly towards them, a white, frothy line in its wake. By that time, it was too late 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 engine trouble. 30 seconds later however, a 2nd, much large explosion erupted from deep within the vessel, sending out clouds of black smoke. The Lusitania immediately began a tilt wildly to starboard.
It was not a 2nd torpedo. 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 Lusitania no longer responded to the ship’s wheel. The captain ordered an immediate SOS and to reverse all engines. When the engine room could not comply, he knew they were finished and ordered all passengers to life boats.
At 2:14 pm, electricity failed and the interior of the ship plunged into darkness.
With the decks tilting, a manic chaos set in, with passengers racing to find life jackets and life boats. One survivor described it as a swarm of bees without the queen. Parents were separated from children. The electric lifts stopped working, trapping people between decks! Water began flooding the lower decks faster the people could escape.
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 swing back over the deck and when released, slide to the bow, crushing passengers. Those dropped over the railing splintered against the riveted hull or capsized, killing dozens.
Things were no better on the starboard side. Those that were dropped, swung away from the railing and fell into the ocean far from the ship. Those that reached the water overturned or went in nose first. Some flipped either in the air, or when they hit the sea, dumping screaming passengers into the frigid sea.
When it became apparent the lifeboats were failing, passengers jumped into the ocean.
On the starboard side, they began sliding down the decks into the 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 rose out of the water as the pointed bow sank beneath the sea. Once the bow went under, the sinking accelerated. Further explosions blew as cold seawater hit the red hot boilers.
On 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.”
Captain Turner ordered his men to abandon ship and remained on the bridge until it too was submerged. He was somehow washed clear of the bow as the ship sank. He survived after spending 3 hours in the cold water, clinging to a deck chair.
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 were among the dead. Lusitania sank in a mere 90 meters (300 feet) of water.
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 grey and fall out. Local authorities set up makeshift morgues to handle the hundreds of floating corpses being collected.
The killing of US citizens enraged Americans. President Woodrow Wilson protested loudly, and public opinion in the US began to turn against Germany. It would still be another 2 years however, 1917, before the US joined the Allies in the trenches.
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 of the 2nd explosion. The British denied it. Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, explored the Lusitania in 1993, hoping to 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 explosions were reported by the surviving crew. 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, rival of the Titanic in both size and tragedy.
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