Lusitania or "Queen of the Seas" as her advertising brochure portrayed her, was the pride of the Cunard line along with her sister Mauretania. She held the Blue Riband for being the fastest ship on the Atlantic run. At 785 feet, she was 5 feet short of her sister who was 790 feet long. Both her and her sister had a displacement of about 40,000 tons. Both ships were powered by the largest and most powerful marine steam turbines and driven by four props. All this power gave both ships a speed in excess of 25 knots, and with a capacity of over 2000 passengers and about 850 crew were fine ships indeed. One way you could tell the two sisters apart was by the difference in the vents. The Lusitania's looked like oil drums with a vent that opened on top, where the vent on the Mauretania were curved at 90 degress at the top with a circular opening.
Her keel was laid in Scotland's Clydebank on June 16th 1904. The Lusitania was the first of the two to be launched on June 6th, 1906. Unlike the White Star Line, Cunard did christen her ships, and while 20,000 spectators looked on she was launched. The owners and builders were sure that the two sisters would capture the Blue Riband for Britain from Germany.
About one year later the Lusitania was finished, and only required her sea trials before Cunard was to take ownership. There was a big problem though. It was found that at high speed her stern vibrated very violently. Investigation showed they had no choice but to remove an entire section including over 140 second class cabins. Extra pillars, brackets, strengthening or any form of bracing was used to repair the fault. These modifications took well over a month and were very costly.
Finally in September 7th, 1907 she set of on her maiden voyage to New York. She sported thirty four electrically closing water-tight compartments, and like the Titanic was declared to be virtually unsinkable.
She made many crossings and in October she did win back the Blue Riband for Britain from Germany. On Friday 30th April, 1915 she was docked in the port of New York on Quay 54. 700 men were loading the magnificent liner, getting her ready for her 202nd crossing. She was due to leave the following morning. Her chief engineer Archibald Bryce, had a problem, number 4 boiler room was shut down so he could only heat 19 of her twenty five boilers due to a lack of sailors caused by the war in Europe and to save on coal. This meant that the crossing would be much longer than the one in 1907 when she had crossed in only 104 hours. Even with only 19 boilers she could still attain a respectable 21 knots, this made her six knots faster than the best of Germany's submarines.
She was carrying a cargo of meat, fat, medical supplies, bacon, oysters, cars, copper, cheese, oil products, equipment, chickens, machinery, bicycles, all valued around three quarters of a million dollars. She was also carrying $6000 in gold which was not mentioned in the Bill of Landing nor on any other papers.
Saturday May 1st 1915, on schedule she left New York on a rainy day. Passenger were reminded that as a state of war existed between Britain and her allies and Germany and her allies, all ships sailing under the flag of Great Britain or her allies were at risk of being attacked, and all passengers travel at their own risk. Most passengers ignored this as they considered her to be an American vessel, and as America was not at war, they would be safe. Commander Turner continued to tell everyone that the ship could attain a speed of 27 knots and therefore could escape from any attack, and said that no-one would "dare" attack the Lusitania.
The whistle blew at half past eleven, exactly on schedule. On board were 1959 people, 159 of them American citizens and 123 children. The orchestra played "Tipperary" followed by the American National Anthem.
No one on board realised that on the evening of 30th April, 1915 a German U-Boat U-20, under the command of Chief Officer Schwieger, a 32 year old, had left the port of Emden, with a mission to search and destroy troops and provisions leaving Liverpool and Bristol for the North Sea via the Scottish coast.
By 4th May, Lusitania had reached the half way mark and U-20 was situated of Kinsale on the Irish coast. There he waited for the Trans-Atlantic flotilla. On the 5th May he attacked and sank a schooner and later that evening attacked a Norwegian cargo boat, but missed and the cargo ship escaped. By this time the sub was running short of diesel, but as he had 3 torpedoes left, he decided to wait and make full use of them. The next day on the 6th, he attacked and sank the 6000 ton Harrison line ship Candidate, with one shot, with little or no loss of life. A few hours later he attacked and sank the Centurion with no loss of life.
On the 7th May, U-20 was off the coast of Ireland and Commander Turner of the Lusitania was warned by the British Admiralty that U boats were in action along the Irish coast. Thirty miles from Cape Clear the liner ran into thick fog. The Commander reduced his speed to 18 knots. It would now be possible to cross the last few miles of the Irish Sea in obscurity and reach Liverpool on Saturday morning at 4:00am. U-20 was sitting in the same water waiting to pounce on its prey.
At around 8:00am Captain Turner ordered a reduction in speed to 15 knots. At the same time the Commander of U-20 noted in his log book that he was heading north in search of better weather. At 10:30am the Lusitania passed Fastnet at a distance of only twenty miles from the coast. Half an hour later the radio picked up a message from the British Admiralty. Once more she was warned about enemy subs in the area of southern area of the Irish Sea. Captain Turner changed course slightly and brought her in close to the Irish coast. At 11:30am the Irish coast was visible from the deck. At 1:45pm she returned to her normal course. Several minutes later look out spotted a periscope and raised the alert but it was believed that the look out was mistaken.
U-20 watched this approaching ship and realised it was the Lusitania then at 2:12pm he fired one torpedo. Immediately the lookout spotted the trail of bubbles and sounded the alarm. The Captain heard the alarm and went to check for danger himself, when the explosion occurred, which shook the ship violently. He hoped to save the ship by grounding it on the beach, the speed was 18 knots, but the intercom was not working at his orders we not heard. Distress calls were sent out informing anyone that she was listing. Officers had already started lowering passengers into the lifeboats when the order from Turner to cease was given. One officer ignored this and continued. The speed of the liner caused the lifeboats to be shatter as it hit the water (or possibly the props) and all in the lifeboat were drowned. Another attempt was made to launch on the other side. The ship listed heavily and the lifeboat was smashed against the side of the ship. They realised that escape in lifeboats was useless, but despite this, there was no panic on the ship. The ship continued to send distress signals, when power failed and the radio operator switched over to battery supply. It was only minutes since the torpedo hit the ship.
Numerous ships had picked up the distress signals, including the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tanker Narrangansett situated about 35 miles away. Her Captain, Commander Harwood acted immediately and set course for the stricken ship. Other ships the Leyland Line Etonian, and the Ellerman's City of Exeter both changed course and headed for the scene. Tugs from Queenstown were also sent out, Juno an old cruiser and several trawlers. A flotilla of small craft from fishing villages along the coast all raced to the area.
Commander Turner was still at his post, he tried to turn the ship to starboard but found the ship would not respond, the rudder jammed and then he ordered full astern, once more the bow pointed to the coast. He believed that he could steam ahead and reach the shore. The ship continued to take on water, the communication system was not working and the turbines broke down. Panic finally happened and the third class passenger rushed the lifeboats, once again the lifeboat failed and its occupants were thrown into the sea. Commander Turner attempted to restore order by telling the passenger that everything was alright.
Lusitania rolled slowly on to her side, some passengers remained on board, others jumped into the sea. One woman Madame de Page, kept calm and helped children into the boats. 35 children were saved and most owed their life to her.
The Captain of U-20 watched all of this happen through his periscope, and he had noted the torpedo hit in his log book. He also noted a second large explosion followed by smoke. He noted two explosion, and believed that either the cargo or boilers had exploded. He noted the ship began to immediately list and the prow was sinking beneath the water. His log also stated that several lifeboats had overturned. After this he dived and made his escape to open sea.
The Lusitania continued to sink further as more passengers jumped into the sea. It was 2:30pm, eighteen minutes had passed since the torpedo hit. Believing he was the last on board, Captain Turner climbed down the ladder and jumped into the sea. Looking back he saw the stern high in the air and the four props were visible. He saw a human clinging to the stern. By this time the bow would have been resting on the sea bed. For a few moments the scene remained the same then with a deafening sound and clouds of spray, the Lusitania disappeared beneath the water. The pride of the Cunard White Star Line was gone. Around him were hundreds of survivors, or bodies floating head downward, lifeless children bobbed up and down on the waves. Unknown to most at that time 1198 people had remained on the ship, including 785 passengers. 94 children had died and 35 of them were under 4 years old.
The entire world was shocked at this "act of piracy". Most Americans who had believed that America should remain neutral in this war changed their minds and ten days later President Wilson sent his first note to Berlin. He told them that neutral shipping should be left in peace. The Germans had realised the anormity of the act and agreed to abide by the statement. But as can be seen from later events, this promise was not kept.
One year later Captain Turner lost another ship by torpedo, the Invernia. He also escaped with his life but fifty soldiers and sailors died. Captain Schwieger went on destroying shipping and sunk a total of 190,000 tons of shipping. In September 1917, returning from defeat his submarine struck a mine field off the Danish coast and he perished along with his crew.
In April 1917, America declared war on Germany. A few weeks prior, German subs had destroyed three American cargo ships and with the thoughts of the Lusitania still firmly implanted in their minds, these latest attacks were the straw that broke the camels back.