A salvage company’s divers had been warned in the early 1980s the ship could contain explosives — despite decades of denial by the minister for defence.
Official state papers from 1982, released yesterday by the National Archives at Kew, reveal how secret Whitehall misgivings emerged at that time about the official account of one of the most controversial and tragic episodes of the First World War.
The documents show some officials were so concerned they warned intending salvage divers that the wreck could contain explosives, even though it had always maintained the ship was not carrying any on her final fateful voyage.
The Cunard liner RMS Lusitania, on route from New York to Liverpool, was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Kinsale, Co Cork, on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives — 124 of them American.
Britain always described the sinking as an attack on unarmed civilians. Germany always insisted its action was justified on the grounds the ship was known to be carrying “large quantities of war material”.
Britain did eventually disclose that there had been 5,000 cases of small arms ammunition on board.
However, rumours have always endured that she was also carrying dangerous high explosives which caused a massive secondary explosion after the torpedo struck, causing the 790ft vessel to sink quickly.
The newly released documents show that official concerns about a cover-up of the truth emerged in 1982 when a company announced it was planning to survey the wreck.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) even went so far as to warn divers that the wreck could contain explosives.
The papers show how officials feared it could all “blow up on us” if there were indeed explosives lurking among the debris.
Government lawyers in the Treasury Chambers turned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for advice.
NH Marshall in the FCO’s North American department was appalled at what he was being told.
“The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck,” he wrote. “The Treasury have decided that they must inform the salvage company of this fact in the interests of the safety of all concerned.”
The MoD launched a search of its records but could find no reference to any other munitions among the cargo. Nevertheless it decided it had to alert the salvagers to the potential danger.
Jim Coombes at the Treasury Chambers contacted the Foreign Office to warn them that — so many years on — there could still be political ramifications if it was found there had actually been explosives on board.
The Foreign Office’s own legal department sought to assure ministers that there was not the “remotest chance” of Britain being held liable for the loss of American lives so long after the event.
However, Mr Marshall remained deeply dissatisfied suspecting that the truth was still being withheld.
“I am left with the uneasy feeling that this subject may yet — literally — blow up on us,” he wrote. “I suspect that on reflection the Treasury have decided not to tell all that they know.
“In general, I do not find this a satisfactory basis on which to seek Foreign Office advice.”
Special ceremonies will take place in Cobh next week to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania, and the town’s role in the tragedy.
Several local fishermen put to sea immediately after the sinking to help with the rescue effort, and townspeople provided comfort to the survivors.
Next Monday, prayers will be recited at the Lusitania graves in the Old Church Cemetery at 2pm, followed by the laying of wreaths, before the ceremonies move to the Lusitania Peace Memorial in Casement Square.