A cool breeze swept across the River Hudson as passengers waited to board the Cunard Line’s luxury ship Lusitania that would take them 3,310 miles across the Atlantic to Liverpool.
The splendour and scale of the world’s largest and fastest liner was obvious to all as the crew prepared for her 202th crossing of the vast ocean. Lusitania, named after the old Roman province in the Kingdom of Portugal, towered above everything else in the misty harbour.
The palatial 31,550 ton four-funnel ship with a speed of 25 knots was 787 ft long. She had nine passenger decks, a 24-bed hospital and could accommodate over 3,000 passengers and crew.
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A certain social prestige was attached to travelling on the liner, launched in 1906 at the John Brown yard on the Cyde in Scotland. She was known as the Greyhound of the Seas, could cross the Atlantic faster than any other vessel afloat and had the capacity to prepare and serve 10,000 meals a day.
The 26,000 steel plates it took to construct her were held together by four million rivets and her turbines were powered on each Atlantic crossing by 6,000 tons of coal, enough to fill 22 trains comprised of 30 ten-ton trucks.
Her three anchors each weighed 10 ton and her main frames and beams placed end to end would cover 30 miles. A person would cover a mile by just walking three times around her promenade deck. She had 1,200 windows and sidelights while artificial iluminations were provided by 5,000 electric cables stretching to 200 miles while 60,000 pieces linen had to be ironed for every trip.
Lusitania, with a full crew capacity of 850, was described during her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1907 as palatial.
A reporter from the Cork Examiner was taken aback by the ship’s size when she stopped at Queenstown on that maiden voyage.
“We felt we were face to face with the latest and greatest exhibition of human ingenuity and enterprise — a miracle wrought by man for his fellow man,” the reporter wrote. Lusitania was the pride of Britain, a great maritime nation that dominated the seas for centuries until 1903 when she was eclipsed by German ships in terms of speed and prestige.
The British Government, worried about the risk this posed to her commerce and security, gave Cunard a £2.6m low interest loan and other financial help to build two liners that were to be fast, smart and powerful.
However, as a caveat for the loan, Cunard had to design the ships for easy conversion into armed merchant cruisers, should the need arise, and they were also to be placed at the disposal of the Admiralty in the event of a war.
Britain and Germany with their allies had been fighting each other for nine months in the Great War, as Lusitania, still a passenger ship, lay at anchor in New York, being prepared for her departure that May Day a century ago.
America was still neutral and not involved in the hostilities but a large number of her citizens were among those about to travel.
That morning the German Embassy in Washington had a two-inch single column display advertisement published in some 40 Amercan newspapers. It appeared alongside details of Cunard’s own scheduled sailings in some papers.
It reminded intending passengers that the war zone included the waters adjacent to the British Isles, that vessels flying the flag of Britain or any of her allies were liable to destruction and that travellers sailing through it on such vessels did so at their own risk.
But the warning did not appear to have any signficant impact on the travel plans of those about to go on board Lusitania. There were just few known cancellations. Many of the passengers arriving at Pier 54 also received telegrams with bogus signatures warning them not to travel. One message read: “Have it on definite authority, the Lusitania is to be torpedoed. Better cancel passage immediately.”
Another telegram warned that the Lusitania was doomed. People were handed leaflets containing similar messages. Some passengers were also advised on the quay side by men with German accents not to travel.
But the excited expectation of travelling on the liner and the confidence that the Lusitania would be too fast for any submarine overcame any niggling fears the passengers might have had.
They also dismissed as unthinkable the idea that a liner whose passengers included women, children and even infants in “Moses Baskets” would be attacked. They also believed the British Navy would protect the ship, which carried 48 lifeboats.
German’s Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff, described his Embassy’s note as more of a general friendly warning. Others saw it differently and the departure of the Lusitania was delayed for almost three hours.
Every passenger was required to identify each piece of luggage to prevent “infernal machines” (bombs) being smuggled on board.
Secret Service agents, immigration officials, detectives and Cunard personnel mingled with those on the pier and scrutinised every passenger. Yet, three suspicious German speaking stowaways were later detained on board. They were to be questioned further on arrival in Liverpool.
Dozens of reporters, photographers and newsreel camera crews were despartched to Pier 54 following the publication of the German warning. They sought out anyone who would talk and half-joked that they were there to record the last voyage of the Lusitania.
Chatting on the promenade deck were Capt William Turner, ship’s commander, Albert Vanderbelt, the American multi-millionaire and Charles Frohman, noted theatre producer. Reporters asked them about German submarines and torpedoes.
“Why should we fear German submarines? We can outdistance any submarne afloat,” Vaderbelt said.
Captain Turner put his gold braided arm on Vanderbelt’s shoulder and laughed off the question with one of his own: “Do you think all these people would be booking passage on board the Lusitania if they thought she could be caught by a German submarine?”
To the cheers of the flag and handkerchief waving crowd on the pier, three tug boats edged the luxury skyscraper liner out into the River Hudson to start her journey down river, past the Statue of Liberty and out towards the sea and Liverpool.
At the other end of the ship some of the Royal Gwent male vloice choir from Wales, who had been touring the United States, performing in the principal cities and giving special recitals before President Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, sang the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Some 1,960 passengers and crew settled down for the voyage on what was described as a floating luxury hotel. The food was good, the parties lively and the fog of New York had long since given way to sunshine.
Yet, some of those on board felt uneasy. They could not sleep. They even had premonitions of death. The ship’s cat also jumped ship the previous night and that too was seen by some as a bad omen.
The day before Lusitania left New York, a slate grey U-20 submarine, with a crew of 35 under the command of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, moved out from the German naval base at Emden on the North Sea. It proceeded around the north of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland.
Schwieger’s orders were to enter the Irish Sea and target ships going in and out of Liverpool. He sank three ships on May 5 and 6. Warnings were soon being issued by the British Admiralty that submarines were active off the south coast of Ireland.
News reports from Cork Examiner correspondents along the coast reported similar sightings. Police at Kilcrohane had reported that a German submarine was seen off the coast in Dunmanus Bay. There was another sighing near Roche’s Point. Years later, David Healy, a coastguard official, who was on duty in the wireless statation at Brow Head, the most southerly point of mainland Ireland, near Crookhaven, recalled seeing a German submarine break surface and how its crew came on deck playing a game of touch.
“We established communications by means of a flash lamp and received the following message: ‘Kind regards to Mr Churchill: wish him well tonight,’”
Healy was reported as saying this message was immediately transmitted by wireless to Queenstown and later to the Admirablty where Winston Churchill was the First Lord.
Since leaving New York the previous Saturday a total of 23 merchant ships had been torpedoed in the waters along the Lusitania’s route. There was every reason for caution as the liner now moved through the German-declared war zone.
King George V was having a scheduled meeting with President Wilson’s adviser Colonel Edward House and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in Buckingham Palace when America’s reluctance to enter the war came up in conversation.
The King asked a question that was extraordinary in its timing.“Suppose the Germans should sink the Lusitania with American citizens on board?”
Senior British Navy officer, Vice Admiral Charles Coke, who had served the King as his aide-de-comp eight years earlier, was at that time sending a coded warning message of submarine activity to the Lusitania from his Queenstown base.
Cape Clear trawlerman Paddy (Mountain) O’Neill, who was fishing on the trawler Sophia, would recall how he was contacted by the liner for a navigational bearing to Liverpool. But not having it, O’Neill, who later went to reside in Los Angeles, provided a bearing to Queenstown.
Lusitania was first observed by the U-20 at 1.20 pm. There was no sign of any British naval escort but Schwieger, looking through the periscope, did not think his submarine and the liner would be in a line suitable for attack.
Coastguard Watchkeeper John J Fitzgerald, on duty at the look-out staton at Ballincolla, on the hill opposite Glandore village, saw the trail of the submarine on the water for some time before it rose to the surface and travelled quickly for about 1,000 yards.
“I knew at once that the submarine was on the track of the Lusitania. It struck me that her intention was to get in line of the Lusitania somewhere off Clonakilty Bay.
“There was no patrol boat or battleship of any kind visible on the water at the time. I immediately rushed down and reported the matter to the chief officer.
“I said to one of the men at the time that we would be likely to hear some strange news in the morning.”
The Lusitania took a navigational four point bearing off the Old Head of Kinsale, a complex action that required it to travel in a straight line for about 45 minutes at a fixed speed.
Schwieger, seeing the Lusitania change course, could not believe his luck. The liner was now in line for an attack. It was “a sitting duck.” He brought his U-20 into position.
At a range of 700 metes, he ordered one torpedo to be fired without warning. It travelled just beneath the water surface at a speed of some 22 knots per hour (25 mph) as calculated by Schwieger or about 45 knots (50 mph) as estimated by Turner. Either way the impact was devastating.
Passengers on the deck of the liner could see a bluey white foam on the calm sea as the metal torpedo weighing more than a ton headed towards the Lusitania. The look-outs shouted a warning but little could be done.
The 20 ft long torpedo containing 350 lbs of a TNT-like explosive hit Lusitania on the starboard side just beneath the wheelhouse. A massive internal explosion followed which rocked not alone the ship but the German submarine as well. Showers of debris and steam rained down.
Captain Turner, knowing the great liner was doomed, soon gave the order to abandon ship but stayed on the bridge hmself directing the frantic efforts to save as many lives as possible. Terrible scenes were witnessed as the Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes.
In keeping with the code of the sea, Captain Turner went down with his ship but was later rescued from the water while Schwieger, who had watched the unfolding horror, brought his periscope down and pointed his U-20 towards the open sea and headed for home, satisfied he had achieved a perfect hit.
The waters had hardly closed around Lusitania’s grave when the blame game began. Ahead lay inquests, inquiries, accusations, talk of conspiracies and arguments that the ship was carrying illegal munitions of war for Britain. There were also spirit lifting stories of heroism, compassion, chivalry and kindness.
But nothing would ever change the grim fact that c.1,200 people on the greatest ocean going liner of her day lost their lives due to what happened on that sunny May afternoon 100 years ago in the placid waters off the Old Head of Kinsale.