|"Doomed: A contemporary view of the sinking of the Lusitania off Ireland in May 1915"|
Her sinking with the loss of almost 1,200 lives caused such outrage that it propelled the U.S. into the First World War.
But now divers have revealed a dark secret about the cargo carried by the Lusitania on its final journey in May 1915.
Munitions they found in the hold suggest that the Germans had been right all along in claiming the ship was carrying war materials and was a legitimate military target.
The Cunard vessel, steaming from New York to Liverpool, was sunk eight miles off the Irish coast by a U-boat.
Maintaining that the Lusitania was solely a passenger vessel, the British quickly accused the 'Pirate Hun' of slaughtering civilians.
The disaster was used to whip up anti-German anger, especially in the U.S., where 128 of the 1,198 victims came from. ...
The diving team estimates that around four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets lie in the Lusitania's hold at a depth of 300ft.
The Germans had insisted the Lusitania - the fastest liner in the North Atlantic - was being used as a weapons ship to break the blockade Berlin had been trying to impose around Britain since the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. ...
The discovery may help explain why the 787ft Lusitania sank within 18 minutes of a single German torpedo slamming into its hull.
Some of the 764 survivors reported a second explosion which might have been munitions going off.
A great deal more is being made of this than is warranted. That Lusitania was carrying munitions is in fact not news. When the passenger liner went down, killing 128 (some sources say 123) Americans, it marked a key event in turning American public opinion against Germany.
I first posted about this in 2002 on my first blog, no longer online. But here it is, with a lot more about the back story than the Mail's piece.
In February 1915, three months before the sinking, Germany had declared that the waters surrounding the British Isles were a "war zone," and that enemy merchant ships were subjected to destruction without warning necessarily being given. This practice was a clear violation of the Declaration of Paris of 1856 and its successor, the London Declaration of 1909 (which was never ratified but consensually considered by Western governments to be in force anyway). The laws and accepted customs of naval war required enemy non-combatant vessels to be warned prior to sinking and their crews allowed to heave off in lifeboats. (If the vessel resisted or attempted escape, though, it could be summarily destroyed.) The non-combatant vessel category included cargo ships not armed for naval combat.
At that stage in the war, the German submarine force was small, and under the conditions of the Declarations, a blockade had to be successful to be legal. In other words, the international agreements of the day required that a blockading power actually have the military means to enforce it. However, the German blockade was ineffective because British ships continued to flow mostly unimpeded into and out of Britain's ports.
Even so, the British Admiralty had already armed some merchant vessels with naval cannon as early as March 1914, when First Sea Lord Winston Churchill notified the House of Commons that 40 merchantmen were each equipped with 4.7-inch guns. The Admiralty intended, even before the war erupted, to arm another thirty such ships by March 1915.
British records suggest that the cannon would be located to fire astern only, at pursuers, and that the ships so armed would be loaded solely with food for Britain. (A curious thing, since under the Declarations, ships carrying food were off limits to attack.) The cannon were intended only to enable escape; the ships would be ordered not to fight enemy surface warships and were supposed to surrender if overtaken or threatened with imminent destruction.
This decision was protested by British Admiral Fisher, who wrote the Prime Minister in May 1914, "the recent arming of our British merchant ships is unfortunate, for it gives the hostile submarine an excellent excuse (if she needs one) for sinking them."
After war broke out, the Admiralty instructed British merchantmen to to escape attacks if possible but to resist if not. They were told to ram U-boats if feasible. Subsequently, steamers were directed to fire on enemy submarines even if the submarine had not fired. These orders meant that any U-boat which surfaced to give warning was seriously endangering itself because U-boats were actually quite fragile. German commanders became aware of the British order through signals intelligence and copies from captured ships. Before the sinking of Lusitania, there were two cases of armed merchantmen resisting submarines.
British historians seem mostly to agree that the Admiralty's order to merchantmen to resist submarines by force of arms - orders known to submarine commanders - played a much larger role in the decision of the captain of U-20 to torpedo Lusitania without warning than the presence of war stores in the ship's hold.
There is no clear evidence that the US government knew of the British policy until December 1915. The American public's furor against Germany over the sinking was unrelated to the fact that Lusitania was carrying rifle cartridges and shapnel cases (unfilled fragmentation shells). It was over the fact that Germany sank a passenger liner, without warning, carrying a significant number of Americans, of whom 123 died.
Let's take a look at what arms Lusitania was carrying. There is no dispute that it held 4,200 cases of Remington .303 rifle cartridges, a very large number of cartridges. There were also 1,250 cases of 3-inch artillery shrapnel shells, and with eighteen cases of fuzes (presumably artillery fuzes to go along with the shrapnel shells). The shrapnel shells were filled with their lethal load of shrapnel but not with their explosive bursting charge. Artillery fuzes have a very small amount of non-sensitive explosive designed to be initiated only by impact forces.
(Shrapnel shells were a specific design until artillery shells began to be packed with high explosive near the end of World War I and have not been used since then. What newspaper today call "shrapnel" is actually shell-casing fragments, not shrapnel. Shrapnel shells were named after the British officer who invented them in the 1850s.)
However, the claim that this cargo's detonation caused the ship to sink rapidly lacks evidence, specifically evidence (rather than mere assertion) that Lusitania was carrying highly explosive military stores. Rifle ammunition, even in bulk, does not explode when exposed to fire - I have some expert training in that matter, and also cite a 1910 test by the Municipal Explosives Commission of New York City in which Remington cartridges in bulk quantity were set alight. They burned but did not explode. Remington was then granted license to ship them by coastal steamer, which was the point of the whole drill. The shrapnel shells had no explosive loaded in them, and the fuzes each were not much more powerful than a decent firecracker.
The assertion that the British "covertly" shipped the arms is false as is the claim that presence of munitions is a new discovery. The New York newspapers listed full descriptions the arms cargo in the May 8 editions, only the day after the sinking. Their source was the two manifests filed by Cunard Lines. Churchill openly discussed the arms cargo in public writings in 1923. The contemporary record is that the presence of the arms was well known and was no big deal.
Assertions that artillery propellant cases and other purely explosive stores were shipped must overcome serious obstacles. First, there is no mention on the manifests of them. Second, Britain was successfully shipping enormous quantities of such stores on cargo-only vessels. There was no reason to use Lusitania. The cargo space on Lusitania, a passenger liner, for such shipment would have been minuscule, literally not worth the effort.
Furthermore, it was entirely legal under US, British and international law to ship the rifle ammunition, shrapnel shells and fuzes. Arms sales by neutral nations to belligerents was permitted in 1915 under US law and continued to be legal until enactment of the Neutrality Act in 1935. And the shipment of those specific kinds of material on passenger liners was quite legal.
So the issue regarding whether Lusitania was a legitimate target is not really an issue. It was, but only because both Britain and Germany had cast overboard significant sections of the governing declarations. Under the naval war agreements of the day, U-20 should have warned the liner and given the crew and passengers time to escape on boats. But, as we have seen, there were circumstances that probably reasonably caused the U-boat captain not to give the warning. However, that being said, he used really bad judgment in sinking the ship. It was a singularly brutal act that conferred to Germany no strategic or political advantage.
All witnesses, as well the the British official inquiry, agree that there were two explosions and that the second caused the rapid sinking. The inquiry concuded U-20 fired two torpedos, but U-20's log records only one being launched. That only one torpedo was fired is probably the only settled fact of the whole event.
U-20 recorded that the torpedo hit aft the bridge on the starboard side. This location is just forward of the no. 1 boiler and just aft its coal bunker. This location was determined by U-20s commander looking through the scope. (The attack occurred just after 2 p.m. so there was excellent visibility.) Lusitania's survivors did not agree on the location of the hit.
It is already ruled out that the military stores caused the second, catastrophic explosion. There is also a popular myth that the rushing in of the cold sea water, hitting the nearby boiler, caused it to explode. But that is just a myth. Cold water hitting a hot boiler makes the boiler cold, that's all.
Robert Ballard, who explored Titanic, Yorktown and Bismarck, also explored Lusitania. He concluded that the second explosion was caused by the detonation of coal dust suspended in the air in the boiler sections near the torpedo's strike. This is the most plausible theory; coal mines take strong measures to keep dust down exactly because of the explosive hazard. Unfortunately, the shop settled on its starboard side so Ballard could not see the impact point. So this theory too must remain an educated guess at best.