The RMS Lusitania is likely the second most famous shipwreck after the Titanic. On Friday the 7th, the ship sank in May 1915 after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, U-20.

Submarine Warfare

Before understanding the events that led to the destruction of the Lusitania, it is important to understand what it was like to navigate the oceans during the First World War. During the way, the German government used submarines to conduct war, almost without restriction. At first, the submarines were sent after warships, but as time progressed and the war became more desperate, the U-boats began to target merchant ships.

Germany's declared war zone around the British Isles
Germany’s declared war zone around the British Isles

When the war first broke out, Germany possessed twenty-eight submarines. But they soon realized what a powerful weapon these relatively light and quick craft could be against the British fleet. Starting in February of 1915, Germany declared the area around Britain a war zone. This meant that merchant ships were sunk without warning, known as “unrestricted submarine warfare.” This tactic was abandoned temporarily after the Lusitania fell victim to just such a surprise attack.

Why did the Lusitania Sink?

The Lusitania sank on March 7th, 1915, after being torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20. It sank, amazingly, in only eighteen minutes. The Lusitania, like the Titanic, was deemed unsinkable. The ship sank off the coast of Old Head of Kinsdale, Ireland. Unfortunately, the ship was attacked early in the war, so much so that later tactics for avoiding such attacks had yet to be conceived. The ship did not have a chance to evade the attacking U-boat.

Interestingly, only two days before U-20 sank the Lusitania, it sank Earl of Latham but chose to let the crew escape before firing. This is what should’ve been required under the cruiser rule. Schwieger stated that he could’ve allowed the Lusitania the same time for the crew and passengers to get to safety but felt that the risk of being rammed was too great.

Before the fateful encounter between U-20 and the RMS Lusitania, the Admiralty had altered normal orders for the journey across the Atlantic. The ship was ordered not to fly any flags while in the war zone to disguise the ship’s origin. Unfortunately for the passengers, the ship was well-famed for its funnels and size, making it easy to spot from a distance. Captain William Thomas Turner was also placed in command of the vessel, which he’d previously held.

Captain Turner
Captain Turner

It took several hours for help to arrive and many of the passengers who were floating in life jackets succumbed to the cold before then. Eventually, 289 bodies of the 1,195 lost were recovered. William Thomas Turner, Captain of the Lusitania, survived the sinking, as did several other prominent figures of the day.

Why was the Lusitania Attacked?

This is one of the most controversial parts of the loss of the Lusitania. The ship was attacked as part of Germany’s offensive in the First World War. U-boat captains were encouraged to sink ships; the bigger, the better. The higher tonnage, the better it looked for the captain at the helm. The Lusitania was 31,550 GRT, and 787 feet (239.9 m) long, making it an irresistible target for a captain with the gall to attack such a well-known passenger vessel.

Drawing of RMS Lusitania sinking
Drawing of RMS Lusitania sinking

Years of investigations followed the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Germany justified its targeting of the ship because it was carrying war munitions and ammunition. This, in combination with the end of a policy that required U-boats to surface before firing (to give the crew and passengers time to evacuate), meant that the ship didn’t have a chance. It staled through one of the most dangerous areas of the Atlantic Ocean during a period when tensions were incredibly high. Germany also claimed that the ship was a non-neutral vessel in a war zone and would’ve had rammed submarines if the captain had had a chance.

The British government pushed back against the German claims, citing the hundreds of passengers on board and claiming no munitions were present. It was not until 1982 that the Foreign Office finally admitted that there was a large amount of ammunition on board the ship. This included 4 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, nearly 5,000 shrapnel shell casings, and 3,240 brass percussion fuses. The presence of this dangerous cargo is one of the main reasons salvage operations have been unsuccessful.

Impact of the Sinking of the Lusitania on WWI

The results of the destruction of the ship are as important as the loss of the ship itself. After the Lusitania sank, protests began in the United States due to the 128 Americans who lost their lives and set off a massive shift in public opinion about WWI. Until this point, the vast majority of Americans believed that the United States should not concern itself with this European conflict. But these deaths changed that. It was one of the reasons, two years later, that America finally declared war.

For a time after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, Germany backed off their unrestricted submarine warfare. That is, until early 1917 when the Zimmerman telegram declared that Germany planned to return to the rule. This would now include ships carrying American passengers. It was not until April 1917 that the United States Congress voted to declare war on the Central Powers.

Timeline of Events

  • 4 February 1915: Germany declares the seas around the British Isles a war zone.
  • 18 February 1915: Germany started sinking Allied ships without warning, ignoring the cruiser rules.
  • 30 April 1915: U-20 left Borkum.
  • 1 May 1915: The Lusitania left New York for Britain, two hours behind schedule.
  • 2 May 1915: U-20 reached Peterhead and went north along the coast of Scotland.
  • 6 May 1915: U-20 sank Candidate and failed to sink Arabic. Captain Turner was sent a warning message in the evening.
  • 11:00, 7 May 1915: Another warning was issued to all ships by the Admiralty. It read, “U-boats active in the southern part of Irish Channel. Last heard of twenty miles south of Coningbeg Light Vessel”. Turner adjusted his heading northeast.
  • 1:25, 7 May 1915: U-20 submerged to intercept Lusitania.
  • Afternoon, 7 May 1915: The ship was torpedoed by U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger.
  • 18 minutes later, on 7 May 1915: The ship sank, ending the lives of 1,198 passengers and crew.
  • April 1917: The United States declared war on the Central Powers.

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