The Lusitania sailed on May 1st 1915 from New York bound for Liverpool. The sinking of the Lusitania was thought to have made a major impact on America and World War One, but America did not join the war for another two years.

A survivor’s sketch of the Lusitania sinking

As the Lusitania had sailed from New York, she had on board American civilians and in 1915 America was neutral in World War One. As she left New York, the dock was crowded with news reporters as New York newspapers had carried an advert in them paid for by the German Embassy that any ship that sailed into the “European War Zone” was a potential target for German submarines. Some newspapers printed the warning directly next to Cunard’s list of departure dates.

Regardless of this, the Cunard liner was packed with passengers. Many had received an anonymous telegram advising them not to travel but the ship was billed by Cunard as the “fastest and largest steamer now in the Atlantic service” and it was generally believed that the Lusitania had the power to outpace any ship above or below the water. Many of the passengers came to the simple conclusion that a luxury liner simply was not a legitimate target of the Germans as it had no military value. Any passenger who had doubts was given further confidence when many famous and rich people boarded. It was assumed that the likes of multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and wine merchant George “Champagne King” Kessler and the like would have had access to information from the highest of sources to warn them if danger really did exist.

As the 32,000 ton luxury liner left New York, the passengers turned their attention to what the liner had to offer them as fee paying customers. One female passenger said:

I don’t think we thought of war. It was too beautiful a passage to think of anything like war.”

The Lusitania crossed the half-way point of her journey at night on May 4th. Around this time, the U-boat U20 appeared off the Irish coast off the Old Head of Kinsdale. U20 was captained by Kapitän-leutnant Schwieger. In all, there were about 15 German U boats in the “European War Zone” – the zone that the Lusitania was about to move into. U20 had left its base at Emden on April 31st 1915. In its journey to the Atlantic it had attacked a Danish merchant ship but let it go once its Danish flag had been spotted. An old three-masted schooner was also attacked by U20; its crew was allowed to escape in their life rafts and then the schooner was sunk. But Schwieger did not consider this ‘action’ as he and his crew would have appreciated.

May 6th brought better targets for U20. Medium-sized liners called the ‘Candidate’ and the ‘Centurion’ were both attacked and sunk. Neither sinking led to any casualties – though Schwieger had not given a warning to either ship. At 19.50 on May 6th, the Lusitania received the first of a number of warnings from the Admiralty about U-boat activity off the south coast of Ireland. The crew went through a number of safety drills and some watertight bulkheads were closed. But the night passed without further incident.

The next day, May 7th, the Lusitania came into sight of the Irish coast. The ship’s captain, Captain Turner, became concerned as he could see no other ship ahead of him – more especially, he was concerned that he could see no protective naval ships. It was as if all other ships had cleared the waters as a result of the Admiralty’s warning.

At 13.40 on May 7th, Turner could see the Old Head of Kinsdale – a well known sighting for any experienced sailor in the region. At around the same time, the Lusitania was spotted by U20. The first torpedo was fired at 14.09. At 14.10, Schwieger noted in his log:

“Shot hits starboard side right behind bridge. An unusually heavy detonation follows with a strong explosion cloud…”Schwieger noted later

“great confusion on board… they must have lost their heads.”

The Lusitania took just eighteen minutes to sink. The speed and the angle of sinking made it extremely difficult to launch the life boats and the first one that did get into the water spilled its occupants into the sea.

1,153 passengers and crew drowned. 128 of them were Americans. There was understandable anger throughout America and Great Britain. But some questions remained unanswered by those who condemned the attack:

why did the liner only take 18 minutes to sink? The log of U20 stated clearly that the submarine had only fired one torpedo and Schwieger stated that this was the case. His log also noted that the torpedo caused an unusually large explosion.

why was a second explosion seen if no second torpedo was fired?  This second explosion presumably speeded up the whole process of the Lusitania sinking.

with such a high profile ship crossing the Atlantic and after warnings from the Germans and the Admiralty, why were there no British naval boats in the vicinity to protect the Lusitania?

It is thought that a second explosion occurred because the Lusitania was carrying something more than a liner should have been carrying. In the hold of the Lusitania were 4,200 cases of small arms ammunition – an insignificant quantity when compared to the millions of bullets being used in each battle on the Western Front. However, by carrying ammunition, the Lusitania was carrying war contraband and she was therefore a legitimate target for the German U boat fleet in the Atlantic. The British propaganda machine went into overdrive condemning the sinking as an act of piracy. The “Times” referred to the sinking by condemning those who doubted German brutality:

“the hideous policy of indiscriminate brutality which has placed the German race outside of the pale. The only way to restore peace in the world, and to shatter the brutal menace, is to carry the war throughout the length and breadth of Germany. Unless Berlin is entered, all the blood which has been shed will have flowed in vain”

To placate the Americans, the Germans gave an informal assurance to President Wilson of America, that there would be no repeat of the Lusitania and the ‘sink on sight’ policy was called off on September 18th 1915 – though it was re-introduced on February 1st 1917.