The commander of the German U-20 submarine who ordered the devastating torpedo to be fired at the Lusitania and the officer who launched the strike have sidebar links to another dramatic event in Irish history — the 1916 Rising.
A year after Captain Walther Schweiger, an experienced and sometimes ruthless operator, had sunk the Luisitania off Kinsale, he had been scheduled to take Roger Casement from Germany to Ireland in the same submarine and sail into Tralee Bay, having linked up with the arms ship Aud. However, the submarine developed rudder problems and the assignment was handed over to Captain Raimund Weissbach in U-19, which proceeded to the Kerry coast.
It was unable to make contact with the Aud which had 20,000 rifles and other munitions on board for the 1916 Easter Rising, due to start in three days.
Captain Weissbach, who had served under Schweiger aboard U-20 and was responsible for launching under orders the torpedo that sank the Lusitania, put Casement ashore near Banna Strand.
The British soon arrested Casement, took him to London, charged him with treason and hanged him while the Aud was also apprehended and escorted to Cork Harbour where it was scuttled by the captain, Karl Spindler.
Weissbach was later captured by the British and interned, but he survived the war and lived in Hamburg. His U-20 commander was not as fortunate. Captain Schwieger was killed in 1917 when his then submarine U-88 hit a British mine and sank. He was 32 and had been one of Germany’s top naval World War 1 commanders, having sunk 49 ships with three submarines on 34 missions.
His sinking of the Lusitania was initially hailed as a great victory in Germany, but the hostile global reaction eventually forced Kaiser Wilheim to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in what was seen as a bid to keep the US out of the war.
Four months after he had dispatched Lusitania to a watery grave, Schwieger sank another liner, Hesperian, which also doubled as a hospital ship. He was ordered to Berlin and forced to apologise for going against orders.
A sad feature of that sinking was that the liner was carrying the body of a Lusitania victim, Frances Stephens, making her twice a ‘victim’ of the U-20 which was itself grounded off the Danish coast in November, 1916. The crew destroyed it with explosives the following day.
After his death, Schwieger was given Germany’s highest decoration, the Iron Cross, as was Raimund Weisback, his torpedo officer.
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