Sinking of Lusitania

RMS Lusitania, 31,500 tons, was built by the Cunard Line in 1906. (The vessel was named for a province of the Roman Empire, a region roughly corresponding to the Portugal of today.) On 7 May 1915 she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the south coast of Ireland, en route from New York to Liverpool, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, 128 of them American. Allegations of a conspiracy to sink the Lusitania center upon the claim that the first Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, colluded with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jack Fisher, and other senior leaders of the Royal Navy, to place the liner in peril, anticipating that heavy loss of U.S. lives would hasten the intervention of the United States in World War I. While it is accepted that part of the Lusitania’s cargo comprised munitions for the Allied war effort, there have also been suggestions of a conspiracy to conceal both the precise nature of these war supplies and the military capacity of the ship itself.

The emergence of a conspiracy to sink the Lusitania is usually traced to a conference hosted by the British Admiralty in Whitehall on 5 May, two days before the liner was sunk, where a decision was made to withdraw the Lusitania’s naval escort without notifying the ship, in waters where U-boats were known to be active. Among others summoned to attend the meeting was Joseph M. Kenworthy, a lieutenant commander who worked for naval intelligence, and whose only prior association with Churchill had been when Kenworthy submitted a report, commissioned by Churchill, assessing the political outcomes should a passenger liner carrying American citizens be attacked and sunk by the German navy. But the suggestion that Churchill and other senior members of the admiralty conspired to sink the Lusitania is problematic.

Before she left New York on May 1, 1915, the German authorities in the United States published a warning that ships of Great Britain and her allies would be attacked by submarines in the war zone and advised passengers not to sail. Records from the admiralty conference on 5 May indicate that British naval forces stationed in Ireland were instructed to protect the ship. It is also a matter of record that at least eight, and possibly more, warnings of U-boat activity off southern Ireland were communicated to the Lusitania on 6 and 7 May. The millionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt said to have been told, “Have it on definite authority the Lusitania is to be torpedoed. You had better cancel passage immediately.” The warning was not regarded as serious (certainly not by Cunard officials, who publicly denied that warnings of any kind had been received), and apparently the British admiralty did not send radio warnings to the Lusitania on May 6 that there was German U-boat activity in the approaches to southern Ireland.

According to the ship’s sailing orders, she should have been steering a zigzag course and had been instructed to keep off the land, but these instructions were ignored. Notwithstanding the urgency of these warnings, and the admiralty’s awareness of the U-boat threat, a more prosaic explanation for why the liner found itself unguarded in dangerous waters may lie in the complacency of the British military. At 2:15 P.M. on May 7 a torpedo struck Lusitania’s starboard side, fired from the German submarine U-20 (Captain Walther Schwieger). She sank rapidly (her bow was already on the seabed when her stern lifted clear of the water), and because she was listing so heavily and was at so steep an angle with her bow down when she sank, it was extremely difficult to get her lifeboats away. Thus 1,198 people died, including Alfred G. Vanderbilt. There were 761 survivors. One of these, a young American, McMillan Adams, who helped try to launch some of Lusitania’s lifeboats, wrote that “the staff Captain told us that the boat was not going to sink, and ordered the lifeboats not to be lowered.” It took only eighteen minutes for the Lusitania to settle on the seabed.

One theory has it that the second explosion came from the detonation of contraband cargo (although the Lusitania was not herself armed, she was certainly carrying a cargo of munitions). It was also claimed that she was deliberately ordered into the path of the submarine by Winston Churchill, who was at the time first lord of the admiralty, and by Sir John Fisher, first sea lord, in an attempt to bring the United States into the war (the same notion was advanced after Pearl Harbor in 1941). Germany claimed that the Lusitania was an armed merchant cruiser carrying troops from Canada, but London insisted that she carried no troops and no guns and that her only war cargo was 5,000 cases of cartridges; it is also possible that her cargo included a quantity of fuses in addition to the ammunition.

Nevertheless, despite this quantity of munitions in her hold, it was contrary to the rules laid down at the Hague Convention of 1907 for such a vessel to be sunk without first boarding her to establish the fact that she was carrying contraband and then making provision for the safety of her passengers and crew. Suspicions regarding the exact nature of the Lusitania’s cargo have been aroused by discrepancies in the two separate cargo manifests Cunard lodged with U.S. customs, one before and one after the ship’s departure from New York. Yet, in order to keep cargoes secret from German informers operating on the New York docks, it was standard practice for British shipping companies during World War I to file conflicting or incomplete manifests before sailing, and nobody has yet demonstrated convincingly that Cunard actively misled either the U.S. authorities or the public as to the contents of the ship’s hold.

The day after the Lusitania was torpedoed, for example, the New York Times published full details of the liner’s military cargo in its edition of 8 May. The civilian status of the Lusitania has also been challenged, with allegations that the liner carried a hidden arsenal that could be rapidly mobilized for use as necessary. A conspiracy to conceal the Lusitania’s military capacity has even been linked with the unidentified relative of an unidentified future U.S. president. But none of the 109 passengers who eventually testified at the two public inquiries into the disaster recalled seeing guns mounted on the liner.

More intriguing is the debate about what caused the fateful “second explosion” on board the ship. Although the admiralty maintained for some years that U-boat U-20 had hit the ship with two torpedoes, it is now widely accepted that the submarine fired only one torpedo at the Lusitania, and that the second catastrophic detonation, the one that sank the liner so quickly with such huge loss of life, was caused by an unknown object or substance the ship was carrying in its cargo. The second explosion has been explained in a number of ways, ranging from the lurid (the Lusitania was carrying a cargo of secret explosive powder) to the banal (the ship was sunk by a detonation of highly flammable coal dust following the impact of the torpedo). But no comprehensive explanation for the second explosion has ever been offered, and the admiralty’s initial insistence on the “two torpedo” scenario has kept alive the theory of a high-level cover-up regarding the contents of the Lusitania’s holds.

As well as the cause of the second explosion, one further aspect of the Lusitania conspiracy remains unresolved. In the aftermath of the sinking, early accounts estimated that the liner had taken to the bottom of the sea several thousand dollars in cash. By 1922 these estimates had been revised, with some commentators valuing the ship’s cargo at $5–6 million, much of it in gold. During the 1950s the activities of the salvage company Rizdon Beezley around the wreck revived suspicions of Churchill’s involvement in the disaster, with allegations that Churchill had commissioned the company to remove evidence of contraband from the wreck. To this day, no convincing explanation has been offered as to why the Lusitania would have been carrying millions of dollars of gold into a war zone.

(Sources : Conspiracy Theories in American History : “An Encyclopedia” edited by Peter Knight; and Seafaring, Lore & Legend by Peter D. Jeans)

(Pic sources :
Sinking of Lusitania Sinking of Lusitania Reviewed by Tripzibit on 07:37 Rating: 5


  1. This is a good one! It's really tough to say how millions of dollars could be on the ship. With anyone that looks into this case, they have to wonder just what all was on the ship. Would love to see the ship dug up to the surface, but I doubt it will ever happen.

    Nice post my friend!

  2. wow, the ship is very big, its look so old, but stil strong enough

  3. so the ship still exist now ?? cool...

  4. Smells like a conspiracy to me. Interesting presentation and history. I'm not that familiar with this vessel.


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