This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


On 7 May 1915, Oliver Bernard, a young British theatre designer, was taking a post-lunch stroll on the deck of the luxury Cunard liner RMS Lusitania when he saw to starboard what appeared to be the “tail of a fish” in a sea so still it looked like an “opaque sheet of polished indigo”.

Convinced the object was a submarine periscope, he stared hard until he picked up “the fast-lengthening track of a newly launched torpedo, itself a streak of froth”. He stared open-mouthed as an American woman beside him asked: “This isn’t a torpedo is it?” Bernard felt sick, unable to answer. It was left to a broad-shouldered American male to state the obvious: “By heavens, they’ve done it.”

Seconds later the torpedo hit the side of the ship below the bridge, causing a “slight shock through the deck” and then a “terrific explosion”. An immense column of water rose 60ft above the deck, followed by an eruption of debris. Then came a “sullen rumble in the bowels of the liner” and a second, even louder explosion. Others watched in horror as “bits of wood, iron and cinders were blown up through funnels and fell down” on the roof of the Verandah Café and the smoking room at the end of the boat deck.

Warned seconds before the impact by a shout from a look-out, Captain William (‘Bowler Bill’) Turner, a 58-year-old veteran of more than four decades at sea, had raced up the narrow steps from his cabin to the bridge in time to see the bubbles from the torpedo as it hurtled towards the ship. Choking and temporarily blinded by coal dust, Turner ordered the helmsman to turn hard-a-starboard and make for the nearby Irish coast. He tried but the ship would not respond. Its steering mechanism had locked.

Next, Turner tried to slow the ship’s speed so that lifeboats could be launched. But his order for the engine room to make full speed astern was in vain. The steam pressure had dropped from 190 pounds to 50, and the engines were useless. The Lusitania was running under its own momentum as water poured through the gigantic hole in its side.

As the sea claims the Lusitania and Uncle Sam shakes his fist in rage, a smiling Kaiser Wilhelm II writes a letter of condolence to the Americans in a cartoon that appeared in the French magazine Le Rire on 22 May 1915. (© Getty)
As the sea claims the Lusitania and Uncle Sam shakes his fist in rage, a smiling Kaiser Wilhelm II writes a letter of condolence to the Americans in a cartoon that appeared in the French magazine Le Rire on 22 May 1915. (© Getty)

Seek and destroy

Such an attack on a British-owned liner was inevitable once the Germans had declared unrestricted submarine warfare on hostile shipping on 4 February 1915, adding two weeks later that the waters round Britain, bar a small stretch north of Scotland, was a war zone in which all enemy ships “would be destroyed even if it is not possible to avoid thereby the dangers which threaten the crews and passengers”. Even neutral ships, continued the announcement, might be hard to identify and sunk as a result (a reference to the practice of British ships flying ‘neutral’ flags to fool the Germans).

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The policy was the brainchild of Admiral von Tirpitz, the German grand admiral, who saw it as the most effective way to counter the British blockade of the German coast. Yet it worried others in the German government because it overturned established maritime law and custom that exempted non-military ships from unprovoked attack, allowing only that they could be stopped and searched to establish their identity and the nature of their cargo. If neutral, they should be allowed to continue; but, either way, proper provision had to be made for the safety of the ship’s passengers and crew.

Tirpitz rejected these archaic Cruiser Rules on two grounds: to comply with them would make submarines highly vulnerable to attack while their crew searched a suspicious vessel; and many hostile ships, the Lusitania included, were using fake neutral flags to fool the Germans.

The response of US president Woodrow Wilson to Germany’s declaration was unequivocal: it violated the rights of neutral countries, and Germany would be held to “strict accountability” for any loss of American life. But the Germans were unconcerned, sinking a British passenger-cargo ship, the SS Falaba, off southern Ireland on 28 March 1915, with an American mining engineer among the fatalities.

On 1 May, the day the Lusitania left Pier 54 in Manhattan on its final voyage, the German embassy in Washington took out an advertisement in the New York Times to remind “travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage” that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction” in the war zone “adjacent to the British Isles”, and that any travellers who crossed by such means did so “at their own risk”. Most of the 1,257 passengers booked on the Lusitania ignored the threat, trusting on the ship’s maximum speed of 21 knots to get them through safely.

Skirting with danger

With the German position clear, the British Admiralty had issued secret guidelines to merchant skippers: to “avoid headlands, near which submarines routinely lurked and found their best hunting”; to steer “a mid-channel course”; to operate at “full speed”; and to zigzag rather than sail in a straight line. For various reasons, Captain Turner ignored all these guidelines as the Lusitania skirted the south coast of Ireland on 7 May.

He knew that danger lurked. On 6 May the U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, had torpedoed two medium-sized merchant ships, the Candidate and the Centurion. That evening, Turner received the wireless message: “Submarines active off south coast of Ireland.” Five further Admiralty warnings were sent that night and the following day, culminating in the last at 12.40pm on 7 May.

Part of the reason for Turner’s overconfidence was that he expected a naval escort, telling his passengers on the evening of 6 May that they would soon “be securely in the care of the Royal Navy”. At 10am on the 7th, having slowed for fog, he ordered the speed back up to 18 knots. But this was still 3 knots less than his ship was capable of, even with one of four engine rooms out of commission (to save coal). The method behind this madness was Turner’s plan to sail through the Irish Sea during the hours of darkness, timing his arrival at the Mersey Bar to catch the early tide. That way he could steam straight over the Bar without waiting for a pilot, reducing the danger of attack in an area known to be infested with submarines. Yet by minimising the risk to his ship near Liverpool, he increased it as he steamed past Ireland.

But arguably the truly fatal decision that Turner took on the 7th was to order the fixing of Lusitania’s position – a laborious process that took two hours and necessitated a steady course, constant speed and proximity to land – in case the weather deteriorated again. This explains why, when the U-20 attacked it at 2.10pm, the Lusitania was neither zigzagging, at top speed, nor in mid-channel.

Watching through his periscope, Schwieger remembered “an unusually heavy detonation” as the torpedo struck, followed by a “very strong explosion cloud”. He wrote in his diary: “The ship stops immediately and quickly heels to starboard, at the same time diving deeper in the bows. She has the appearance of being about to capsize. Great confusion on board, boats being cleared and part lowered to water. They must have lost their heads. Many boats crowded come down bow first or stern first in the water, and immediately fill and sink… Submerge to 24 metres and go to sea. I could not have fired a second torpedo into this throng of humanity attempting to save themselves.”

The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, taking 1,198 of its 1,959 passengers and crew with it. Among the dead were 128 Americans and 94 children (including 35 out of 39 babies), causing British newspapers to condemn “The Hun’s Most Ghastly Crime” and the sinking as the latest in a “long and terrible list” of unprincipled acts of war.

President Wilson was quick to condemn the sinking: “No warning,” he thundered, “that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation of that act” or abate “the responsibility for its commission.”

A contrite kaiser

Alarmed that the US might be about to enter the war on the Allied side, the kaiser’s government apologised for the loss of American life and ordered its submarines not to sink neutral shipping or passenger liners. It also claimed that it was justified in torpedoing Lusitania as a tit-for-tat for the Royal Navy’s blockade of the German coast (causing starvation) and because the liner had “large quantities of war materiel in her cargo”.

The British government vehemently denied the latter charge, knowing that the sinking of a non-military ship with the loss of almost 1,200 lives was a useful means of swaying American opinion in favour of entering the war. It eventually had the desired effect, in April 1917, when the US declared war on Germany, condemning the recent resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks as “warfare against mankind”.

After the conflict, successive British governments, worried about their ongoing relations with the US, continued to deny that there were munitions on board the Lusitania. They were lying. Government papers released in 2014, and recent dives on the wreck, have confirmed that the Germans were right all along: the ship was indeed carrying war material.

When the first salvage operation was about to take place in 1982, the British Foreign Office voiced its concern that the ship could “literally blow up on us”. It added: “Successive British governments have always maintained that there was no munitions on board the Lusitania (and that the Germans were therefore wrong to claim to the contrary as an excuse for sinking the ship). The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous.”

A subsequent dive in 2008 confirmed the presence of more than 4 million .303 rifle bullets and tons of munitions – shells, powder, fuses and gun cotton – “in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters”.

Some have concluded that it was these munitions that caused the second explosion on the Lusitania, and that therefore the British authorities must accept a share of the blame for the rapid sinking and the huge loss of life. This claim was challenged in 2012 by scientific tests at a US government-funded research facility in California that seemed to show the second blast was a boiler explosion that did not itself cause significant damage. But even if the 2012 research is accurate, it does not absolve the British of all responsibility.

The presence of munitions may not have caused the Lusitania to sink, but it did transform the liner into a legitimate military target. The ship might still have escaped had not its experienced captain ignored secret Admiralty guidelines – in effect, turning it into a sitting duck. A German U-boat may have fired the fatal shot. But it was British actions that both justified that aggression and helped the torpedo find its mark.

How the Lusitania sailed into trouble

1 May, 12.20pm Lusitania leaves New York with 1,959 passengers and crew. All have ignored a German warning in the New York Times that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain” will be “liable to destruction”.

5 May, evening German submarine U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, sinks a small three-masted schooner off the south coast of Ireland.

5 May, 10.30pm The British Admiralty begins broadcasting a message at regular intervals to all ships that a U-boat is active in the Irish Channel.

6 May, morning Schwieger’s U-20 torpedoes two merchant ships off Ireland.

6 May, 7.52pm Captain Turner of the Lusitania receives a wireless signal that submarines are “active off south coast of Ireland”. He receives five more warnings.

7 May, 8am Encountering fog, Turner orders the Lusitania’s speed to be decreased from 21 to 18 knots, and then to 15.

7 May, 10am Having emerged from the fog, Turner increases the liner’s speed to 18 knots, still three knots below its maximum.

7 May, 1pm Turner orders the fixing of the Lusitania’s position, a laborious process that takes two hours and requires a steady course, constant speed and proximity to land.

7 May, 2.10pm A torpedo, fired from U-20, strikes the starboard side of the Lusitania below the bridge, causing two explosions.

7 May, 2.28pm The Lusitania sinks with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 94 children.


Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author whose books include 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won 1914-1918 (Hodder, 2014).