The Cunard liner's captain expected a safe Atlantic crossing, but a German U-boat would bring Lusitania's journey to a devastating end.
By John M. Taylor
Shortly after noon on a drizzly spring day in 1915, the Cunard liner Lusitania backed slowly away from Pier 54 on New York's Lower West Side. It was Lusitania's 202nd Atlantic crossing, and as usual the luxury liner's sailing attracted a crowd, for the 32,500-ton vessel was one of the fastest and most glamorous ships afloat. In the words of the London Times, she was "a veritable greyhound of the seas."
Passengers, not yet settled in their accommodations, marveled at the ship's size and splendor. With a length of 745 feet, she was one of the largest man-made objects in the world. First-class passengers could eat in a two-story Edwardian-style dining salon that featured a plasterwork dome arching some thirty feet above the floor. Those who traveled first class also occupied regal suites, consisting of twin bedrooms with a parlor, bathroom, and private dining area, for which they paid four thousand dollars one way. Second-class accommodations on Lusitania compared favorably with first-class staterooms on many other ships.
People strolling through nearby Battery Park watched as three tugs worked to point the liner's prow downriver toward the Narrows and the great ocean beyond. While well-wishers on the pier waved handkerchiefs and straw hats, ribbons of smoke began to stream from three of the liner's four tall funnels. Seagulls hovered astern as the liner slowly began to pick up speed.
The early years of the twentieth century belonged to the great ocean liners, and Lusitania was one of the elite. A Scotsman who was present at her launching in 1907 recalled his awe at the sight:
Was it the size of her, that great cliff of upperworks?... Was it her majesty, the manifest fitness of her to rule the waves? I think what brought the lump to the boy's throat was just her beauty, by which I mean her fitness in every way; for this was a vessel at once large and gracious, elegant and manifestly efficient. That men could fashion such a thing by their hands out of metal and wood was a happy realization.
In 1908, on one of her first Atlantic crossings, Lusitania broke the existing transatlantic speed record, making the run from Liverpool to New York in four and one-half days, traveling at slightly more than twenty-five knots. Like her sister ship, Mauritania, she could generate sixty-eight thousand horsepower in her twenty-five boilers. Lusitania was also versatile, for the government subsidy that helped pay for her construction required her to have features that would facilitate her conversion to an armed cruiser if necessary. The liner's engine rooms were under the waterline, and she incorporated deck supports sufficient to permit the installation of six-inch guns.
It was May 1, 1915, and Lusitania, with 1,257 passengers and a crew of 702, was beginning a slightly nervous crossing. War was raging in Europe, and although no major passenger liner had ever been sunk by a submarine, some passengers were uneasy. The German embassy had inserted advertisements in a number of American newspapers warning of dangers in the waters around the British Isles.
Because this warning appeared only on the day of sailing, not all of those who boarded Lusitania saw it. Yet for travelers with an apprehensive turn of mind, there were alternatives to the Cunarder. The American Line's New York, with space available, sailed the same day as Lusitania, but she required eight days to cross the Atlantic as opposed to Lusitania's six.
Despite the warning posted by the German embassy, Lusitania's captain was not nervous. When Captain William Turner was asked about the U-boat threat he reportedly laughed, remarking that "by the look of the pier and the passenger list," the Germans had not scared away many people.
By the spring of 1915 the land war in Europe had settled into a bloody stalemate, but one in which the Central Powers held the advantage. A decisive German victory at Tannenberg had all but taken czarist Russia out of the war. The initial German thrust for Paris had been repulsed, but even as Lusitania sailed, the British were being mauled in the month-long Second Battle of Ypres.
The war at sea, however, was a different matter. The Royal Navy's numerical superiority made it perilous for the German fleet to venture out of port and enabled the Allies to move troops and materiel by sea. Most important of all, Allied control of the sea had cut the Central Powers off from overseas supplies of food and raw materials. When the increased range of shore-based guns prevented the British from maintaining a traditional offshore blockade of German ports, the Royal Navy mounted a long-range blockade instead. British cruisers patrolled choke points well away from German ports, halting all vessels suspected of carrying supplies to Germany and enlarging the traditional definition of contraband to include even raw materials and food.
Not all contraband was headed for Germany. Lusitania carried some forty-two hundred cases of Remington rifle cartridges destined for the Western Front. Her cargo also included fuses and 1,250 cases of empty shrapnel shells. Although the Germans had no knowledge of this cargo, it is clear that British authorities were prepared to compromise Lusitania's nonbelligerent status as a passenger liner for a small amount of war materiel.
The growing effectiveness of the Allied blockade had forced Germany to take drastic measures. Germany's most promising offensive weapon at sea was the submarine, but international law of the time prohibited its most effective employment. If a submarine encountered a vessel that might belong to an enemy or might be carrying contraband, the U-boat had to surface, warn her intended victim, and "remove crew, ship papers, and, if possible, the cargo" before destroying her prey.
In response to Britain's unilateral redefinition of a naval blockade, Germany issued a proclamation of its own, declaring the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland to be a war zone. From February 18, 1915, on, Berlin had declared, enemy merchant vessels found within the zone would be subject to destruction without warning.
The day before Lusitania sailed from Pier 54, U-20, skippered by thirty-two-year-old Kapitänleutnant (Lt. Cmdr.) Walther Schwieger, left the German naval base at Emden on the North Sea. Schwieger's orders were to take U-20 around Scotland and Ireland to the Irish Sea. There he was to operate in the approaches to Liverpool for as long as his supplies permitted. His orders allowed him to sink, with or without warning, all enemy ships and any other vessels whose appearance or behavior suggested that they might be disguised enemy vessels. The British were known to dispatch ships under neutral flags.
Submarine warfare was still in its infancy, and Germany had only eighteen seagoing subs, of which only about one-third could be on station at any one time. Schwieger's U-20 displaced just 650 tons, making it about half the size of a fleet submarine in World War II. The boats were crowded and damp, and the eight torpedoes they carried were often unreliable. But the men who commanded the U-boats included some of the boldest officers of an elite service, and U-20 had a reputation as a "happy" ship. The scion of a prominent Berlin family, Schwieger was popular with his officers and crew. One of his colleagues recalled him as "tall, broad-shouldered, and of a distinguished bearing, with well-cut features, blue eyes and blond hair--a particularly fine-looking fellow."
On May 3, U-20's fourth day at sea, Schwieger spotted a small steamer just north of the Hebrides. Although the vessel was flying Danish colors, Schwieger concluded that she was British and fired a torpedo at her from three hundred meters. The torpedo misfired and his quarry escaped, but the incident said much about Schwieger's interpretation of his orders. He would not risk his boat by questioning possible neutrals. Rather, he would make full use of his authorization to sink ships without warning.
On the sixth day of his patrol, Schwieger rounded the southern tip of Ireland and entered the Irish Channel. There he encountered a small schooner, Earl of Lathom, under sail. Schwieger considered her so minimal a threat that he surfaced, allowed the schooner's five-man crew to abandon ship, and destroyed the vessel with shellfire. Later the same day he attacked a three-thousand-ton steamer flying Norwegian colors, but the single torpedo he fired missed.
The next day, May 6, brought better fortune. That morning U-20 surfaced and pursued a medium-sized freighter, bringing her to a halt with gunfire. Schwieger believed in shooting first and identifying later, but in this case he was vindicated, for his prey turned out to be a British merchantman, Candidate, out of Liverpool. Schwieger dispatched her with a torpedo. That same afternoon U-20 sighted another ship of undetermined nationality. Schwieger stopped her with one torpedo and watched as her crew took to the boats. He then sent her to the bottom with a second torpedo. This victim was Centurion, sister ship to the fifty-nine-hundred-ton Candidate.
After sinking Centurion, Schwieger made a critical decision. Although his orders called for him to press on to Liverpool, he had only three torpedoes left and was near the end of his cruising range. Schwieger would expend one more torpedo in his current operational area and then begin the return voyage, confident of finding targets en route for his remaining two torpedoes.
Although Lusitania had left New York City with much of the pomp of a peacetime crossing, not all was well aboard the liner. To conserve coal, six of the ship's twenty-five boilers had been shut down, effectively reducing her top speed from twenty-five to twenty-one knots. Perhaps most important, there was a shortage of experienced seamen on Lusitania. The Royal Navy had called up most reservists, leaving Cunard to recruit crewmen as best it could.
Nevertheless, the ship was in the hands of one of the most experienced skippers on the Atlantic run. Captain Turner, sixty-three, had been assigned to Lusitania just before her previous crossing, but he was a veteran commander. One of his officers, Albert Worley, saw his skipper as a typical British merchant captain, "jovial yet with an air of authority." The son of a sea captain, Turner had signed aboard a clipper as a cabin boy at age thirteen and had served as a junior officer on a variety of sailing vessels. Some believed that Turner's blunt speech and unpolitic manner were liabilities, but no one questioned his seamanship. In 1912, while captain of Mauritania, he had won the Humane Society's medal for rescuing the crew of the burning steamer West Point.
Much would later be made of Turner's seeming lack of concern about the submarine menace. But the skipper knew that no ship the size and speed of Lusitania had ever fallen victim to a U-boat. Even steaming at a reduced speed, Lusitania could outrun any submarine, underwater or on the surface.
The liner plowed ahead on its northeasterly course, averaging about twenty knots. The normally festive atmosphere on board had been dampened somewhat by the war; indeed, Cunard had obtained a full passenger list only by reducing some fares. The only gilt-edged celebrity on board was multimillionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, en route to Britain for a meeting of horse breeders. Vanderbilt was fortunate in more than his inherited wealth; three years earlier he had booked passage on Titanic's maiden voyage but had missed the fatal cruise because of a change in plans. Other first-class passengers included Broadway impresario Charles Frohman, scouting for new theatrical offerings, and Elbert Hubbard, the homespun writer of inspirational essays such as "A Message to Garcia."
On Sunday, May 2, the first day out, Captain Turner conducted church services in the main lounge. The following day found the liner off Newfoundland's Grand Banks. On May 4, Lusitania was halfway to her destination. The weather was fine, and Turner had reason to anticipate an easy crossing. Even so, the war was never entirely forgotten. On the morning of May 6, as the ship prepared to enter Berlin's proclaimed war zone, some passengers were startled by the creak of lifeboat davits. Early risers on B deck saw the Cunard liner's lifeboats being uncovered and swung out over the sides of the ship, where they would remain during the final, most dangerous portion of the voyage.
That evening Turner was called away from dinner to receive a radio message from the British Admiralty that warned of submarine activity off the southern coast of Ireland. There was no elaboration; the Admiralty did not mention the recent losses of Candidate and Centurion. Forty minutes later, however, came an explicit order to all British ships: "Take Liverpool pilot at bar, and avoid headlands. Pass harbors at full speed. Steer midchannel course. Submarines off Fastnet."