III. Armament and Cargo

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Some liners, including LUSITANIA and her sister MAURETANIA, were slated for service as auxiliary cruisers in the event of war; the two Cunarders had been built under government subsidy and were designed to facilitate such conversion. There was not a secret. Both Britain and Germany converted merchant ships to armed merchant cruisers in both world wars, the Germans for use as commerce raiders and the British for use as patrol ships and convoy escort. There was nothing illegal or underhanded in the practice. Armed merchant cruisers were commissioned naval vessels, not to be confused with the defensively armed merchantmen discussed above.

Soon after the war broke out the British government decided to retain LUSITANIA in commercial passenger service, while it took over MAURETANIA, which served as a trooper and later a hospital ship. The only known major modification to LUSITANIA at this time was the deactivation of six of her twenty-five boilers, to save on coal and personnel; this reduced her top speed from 25 to 21 knots.

Colin Simpson claims, though, that LUSITANIA received a secret modification as well--the installation of twelve 6-inch guns. His principal sources for this are three witnesses of extremely dubious credibility. A German named Curt Thummel served briefly as a steward on LUSITANIA while secretly in the employ of the German military attache in the United States, Franz von Papen [note 1]. Thummel reported to the German consulate in New York that he had seen four guns on LUSITANIA. Another German, Gustav Stahl, filed an affidavit after the sinking claiming that while helping a friend load baggage on LUSITANIA he had seen concealed guns. Stahl later pleaded guilty to perjury for making this statement.

Finally, we have a mysterious "lady whose family to this day forbid her name to be mentioned, possibly because one of them in due course became a President of the United States." Her letter, allegedly found in Secretary Lansing's private papers, claims that while she was having tea in London with Clementine Churchill, Admiral Fisher stopped in. She asked the Admiral for help in getting a passage to New York. Fisher told her that she should travel on LUSITANIA or OLYMPIC, because both had a concealed armament. She took LUSITANIA and inquired of a steward about the concealed guns. "The steward, realizing her connections, showed her how the decks could be lifted to reveal the gun rings and confided that it would take about twenty minutes to 'wheel the guns into position.'" While in Simpson's book this woman's story is only one of several on LUSITANIA's armament, in a letter to Life magazine, quoted by Bailey and Ryan, this becomes his accepted version: the guns "were stored in the forward part of the shelter deck, which was sealed off from the rest of the ship by the Admiralty. If the need arose, the guns could be wheeled out of their hiding place and mounted on their rings in 20 minutes.'"

The credibility of this story should speak for itself, particularly Lord Fisher's casual revelation of this dark official secret to a visiting American woman. It is extremely difficult as well to imagine which female relative of a future President would have been moving in these social circles in 1914-1915, except possibly Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Although Franklin Roosevelt was at this time Assistant Secretary of the Navy, his wife can be ruled out: FDR and Churchill did not meet face-to-face until the Atlantic conference of August 1941 [note 2]. There are at least three strong points against Alice Roosevelt's authorship of this alleged letter: she would naturally be described as the daughter of a former President, not the distant cousin of a future one; she was still very much alive when Simpson wrote his book and--never being famous for her reticence--would not have required her family to speak for her; and finally, both Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter had a well-documented dislike of Churchill, and she was an unlikely guest at his home [see note 3 at the end of this section].

In fact the entire story of LUSITANIA's concealed battery is absurd. Twelve six-inch guns is heavy armament, equivalent to the main battery of a large World War II light cruiser. It would require at least a hundred men to man such a battery, and probably considerably more [note 4]. To hide a contingent this large, in a crew of about 700, would be impossible. It is equally implausible that LUSITANIA's own crew could have manned these guns; every account, including Simpson's, indicates that she had a largely inexperienced crew of wartime recruits who were deficient even in basic seamanship, and the notion that they were covertly trained in gunnery is not believable (nor does Simpson make such a claim; he simply does not address the issue of the manning of these guns).[note 5]

Beyond this point is the senselessness of such an armament. LUSITANIA was in commercial service, not operating offensively as an armed merchant cruiser. If her alleged weaponry was for defensive purposes, of what possible use against a submarine or a raider was a battery that would take twenty minutes to unlimber and unmask? If LUSITANIA was so armed, why were these guns not manned and in position on the afternoon of 7 May 1915, when she was sailing into a channel known to be frequented by submarines? What earthly reason was there for LUSITANIA to be armed as Simpson describes?


There are two distinct issues pertaining to LUSITANIA's carriage of munitions: the cargo of rifle cartridges and shrapnel cases, whose existence is not in dispute; and the allegations that she was carrying a larger and much more dangerous cargo of smokeless powder (guncotton). These are pertinent both to the legality of LUSITANIA's cargo and to its possible role in the second, fatal explosion following the detonation of U-20's torpedo.

It is necessary first to return briefly to the broad question of war trade. Trade between a neutral and a belligerent, even in arms, was normal and legal--both under international law and, until 1935, under U.S. law. Colin Simpson distorts this issue and virtually all else related to the subject of munitions shipments aboard LUSITANIA. Simpson states that "the American administration was in confusion as to whether or not to allow military materials to be shipped to belligerent powers, and eventually agreed that individuals could ship to individuals." It seems unlikely that there was any such confusion in the U.S. government, which to the best of my knowledge never seriously considered the cessation of arms trade with belligerents. There was no need for a deliberate decision to permit commercial transactions of this nature, nor was the allowance of such trade a special dispensation as Simpson implies; on the contrary, it would have required a specific act of Congress, like the Neutrality Act of 1935, to stop such trade. Having in his way conceded that such trade was legal, Simpson then for some reason speaks of the need "to disguise the shipments so that they appeared to be an innocent transaction between one trader and another." [Simpson, p. 50, ch. 3]

Although the shipment of munitions of all kinds to the Allies was legal, there were restrictions on the kinds of munitions that could be transported in passenger vessels. Federal law stated that no passenger ship could carry explosives "likely to endanger the health or lives of the passengers or the safety of the vessel." Here Simpson discovers what he regards as a subterfuge to allow the transport of cartridges, like those carried by LUSITANIA, in passenger ships. In 1910 Remington, desiring to transport cartridges by fast coastal steamers, had asked the Municipal Explosives Commission of New York City to witness a demonstration of the safety of such a cargo. The cartridges were ignited and burned, but did not explode spectacularly. The "commissioners, who were respectively a lawyer and meat importer, were mightily impressed by this public relations exercise and granted permission for cartridges to be shipped on passenger ships and trains provided they were stamped 'Non-explosive in bulk'." Cunard seized on this ruling during the war to allow the shipment of rifle cartridges on liners. [Simpson, pp. 51-52, ch. 3]

Colin Simpson leaves some pertinent facts out of this story, which fortunately is well covered in Bailey and Ryan. For all of Simpson's sneers, rifle cartridges--in which a very small amount of explosive is confined in a metal case--are in fact "non-explosive in bulk," cooking off rather than detonating en masse, as numerous tests have shown (and as common sense should indicate). Simpson also does not tell us that in 1911 the Federal Government, specifically the Department of Labor and Commerce, ruled that small arms ammunition could be transported without restriction on passenger ships. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 101-2]

LUSITANIA sailed with 4200 cases of Remington .303 rifle cartridges, a thousand rounds to a box, with 1250 cases of shrapnel shells, and with eighteen cases of fuzes (which Bailey and Ryan describe as nonexplosive, but that does not sound right). The shrapnel cases were officially described as non-explosive. Simpson quotes a shipping note referring to the shrapnel as "1248 cases of 3 inch Shrapnel shells filled," and refers to this as a "fairly lethal load." Patrick Beesly, seizing on the adjective "filled," assumes the official description to be a lie, and the cases to in fact be a highly explosive and dangerous load. It is difficult to see how this interpretation can be made by anyone who understands what shrapnel is; it would seem extremely obvious that a non- explosive but filled shrapnel case is by no means an oxymoron, but refers to shells containing the metallic fragments of shrapnel without the fuzes and the small gunpowder charge used to scatter the shrapnel. [Bailey and Ryan, p. 96; Simpson, p. 106, ch. 8; Beesly, pp. 113-14]

This cargo was not included in the initial manifest filed before LUSITANIA sailed, resulting in another of the enduring controversies on the incident. The British fairly commonly filed an initial manifest before the ship sailed, and a fuller supplementary manifest later; among the likely reasons for this practice were to keep the cargo seceret from German informers on the waterfront, and to allow for last-minute corrections of the passenger list. LUSITANIA's cargo of small-arms ammunition and shrapnel cases was listed in the second manifest.

Simpson of course sees something sinister in this, and refers to \ LUSITANIA's initial manifest as a "false manifest." It was "standard British practice to obtain clearance to sail on the basis of a false manifest and false affidavit and some four or five days after sailing to turn in a supplementary manifest which gave a true picture of the ship's cargo. This subterfuge was acquiesced in" by Customs Collector Dudley Field Malone, a favorite and undeserving object of Simpson's scorn. By hiding the arms shipment in the "false manifest" LUSITANIA could obtain clearance to sail. The sinister second manifest was hidden for years, in Simpson's apparent view; as Bailey and Ryan note, they dramatically end the first edition of their book with a memorandum to FDR in 1940, detailing the secret presentation to him of the supplementary manifest.

There are several serious distortions in this argument. The two manifests together constituted the ship's complete manifest, and were equally legal. The first manifest was entitled "Shipper's Manifest--Part of Cargo," and thus did not purport to be a complete listing of the ship's cargo. There was no particular secret about the second manifest. Bailey and Ryan found full descriptions of the arms cargo in New York newspapers of 8 May 1915, the day after LUSITANIA sank. Churchill mentions the cargo of cartridges and shrapnel in "The World Crisis," published in 1923- -seventeen years before the supposedly furtive delivery of the manifest to Franklin Roosevelt. Finally, there is a fundamental contradiction in Simpson's entire treatment of these small-arms shipments: after first telling us of the supposedly fraudulent "public-relations exercise" that resulted in the legalization of cartridge shipments on liners under the description "non-explosive in bulk," he then says that the British issued a false manifest to conceal these very shipments to obtain clearance to sail. One is struck here and elsewhere by Simpson's eagerness to find duplicity not only where there is no evidence of it, but where there is no reason for it. [Simpson, pp. 50-52, ch. 3; Bailey and Ryan, pp. 102-4]

The shipment of propellants and high explosives on liners, unlike that of rifle cartridges, certainly was illegal. Simpson spins a long and convoluted tale purporting to show that there was a large concealed shipment of powder on LUSITANIA. Much of this is based on shipping bills and other evidence that cannot readily be checked. But we can sample one assertion that is open to examination. Simpson contends that an ostensible shipment of furs was actually concealed explosives. His primary evidence for this is that part of the shipment came by "barge from Rheaboat, Maryland and by railcar from the Hopewell freight station of the Pennsylvania Railway. Neither Rheaboat nor Hopewell were fur storage depots, both had branches of Dupont de Nemours." I can find no record of a Rheaboat, Maryland, and cannot address that contention. Simpson tells us that a shipment of furs on the Pennsylvania Railroad at some point appeared in a Pennsy freight depot; it is not immediately obvious why this should be cause for surprise or suspicion. There is a further problem, though, that renders the point moot. Du Pont did indeed have a large powder factory in Hopewell, Virginia. This town lies on the James River southeast of Richmond, or roughly 125 miles south of Union Station, Washington--the southern terminus of the Pennsylvania Railroad. [note 6]

Simpson alleges further hidden munitions in disguised butter and cheese parcels. What he never does explain is why Cunard and the British should go to such heroic lengths to transport illegal munitions in the tiny holds of passenger liners (equalling about 1 percent of the enclosed volume of such a ship) when, as Bailey and Ryan quite correctly state, "the British companies, including the Cunard Line, could legally transport from America in their own freighters much larger shipments of munitions than the LUSITANIA was transporting, and they were doing so. In these circumstances, why should they go to the trouble to camouflage explosives as cheese?" [Simpson, pp. 107-8, ch. 8; Bailey and Ryan, pp. 99-100, 108]

In fact Simpson, by inference, would have us believe that the great bulk of munitions shipments from the United States to the Allies were made in the fashion he alleges. After describing the use of the classification, "non-explosive in bulk" for the shipment of small-arms cartridges, Simpson states that "from October 1914 until they entered the war, the United States sent the Allies over half a million tons of cordite, guncotton, nitrocellulose, fulminate of mercury and other explosive substances, all franked with such a certificate, and the cooperative Malone allowed them to pass." [Simpson, p. 52 of the Penguin edition, ch. 3]

Simpson has now made an abrupt jump from the shipment of small quantities of cartridges in the small holds of liners, to the large-scale bulk shipment of smokeless powders [note 7], while associating both with the certification "non-explosive in bulk"--which is correct for small-arms but obviously preposterous for powders. This figure--which is of course undocumented--requires examination. Precise statistics are hard to come by: I can find no exact figure on U.S. munitions exports to the Allies, and it is not always clear whether a statistic refers to all military explosives or only to smokeless powder, the primary propellant (although the tonnage of propellants produced would far outweigh that of high-explosive bursting charges, like TNT and picric acid, in any case). The great preponderance of powder made in the United States was produced by Du Pont, which made an estimated 40 percent of all military explosives used by all the Allied powers in the First World War. Simpson's half-million tons is equivalent to 68 percent of Du Pont's wartime production and about 27 percent of all military explosives used by the Allies--all, if one follows Simpson's logic, shipped illegally in the miniscule holds of passenger liners under the false label "non-explosive in bulk," when it could easily and legally have been shipped in the vastly more capacious holds of freighters, far more numerous than liners and designed for the purpose. The physical impossibility as well as the incomprehensible irrationality of such a practice should be clear. [see note 8 for an explanation of the statistics in this paragraph]

Notes for this Section

Note 1: Von Paper is much better known for his role in the downfall of the Weimar Republic, during which he served briefly as Chancellor. Simpson describes him as a captain, which seems an extremely low rank for an attache in a major country and is probably incorrect. (Return to text)

Note 2: FDR did give a speech at a banquet attended by Churchill in 1918, but was disappointed in later years that Churchill did not remember it. [Joseph P. Lash, "Roosevelt and Churchill 1939- 1941," pp. 193 and 394; reference courtesy of Marshall Newman] (Return to text)

Note 3: Although Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would appear in many ways to be kindred spirits, TR and his family had a dislike of Churchill going back to the turn of the century. In 1900, when Roosevelt was Governor of New York, Churchill visited his Oyster Bay home for some reason. The Roosevelts were appalled by what they regarded as his rudeness, particularly his failure to rise when a lady or elderly gentleman entered the room. Ex-President Roosevelt made an effort to avoid Churchill at the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910. In August 1914 Roosevelt wrote a letter to Arthur Lee stating that "I have never liked Winston Churchill," although he went on to praise Churchill's vigor in mobilizing the fleet at the outset of war. In March 1940 Roosevelt's son Kermit, who evidently did get on well with Churchill, had a meeting with him in which they discussed, among other subjects, why his father had always disliked Churchill. Kermit suggested it was because TR believed that while in Africa Churchill had on one occasion knowingly exposed his native bearers or servants to tsetse flies, a charge Churchill adamantly denied. Alice, for her part, was quoted late in her very long life still expressing her distaste for Churchill, commenting that she had found him "generally obnoxious"--this apparently hearkening back to the unfortunate visit in 1900. Sources for this are: H.W. Brands, "TR: The Last Romantic," p. 663; Nathan Miller, "Theodore Roosevelt: A Life," p. 541; Alice Felsenthal, "Alice Roosevelt Longworth," p. 265; and Peter Collier and David Horowitz, "The Roosevelts: An American Saga," pp. 395-96. I am indebted to Mr. Marshall Newman for this point and for these references. (Return to text)

Note 4: While I have been unable to find the exact complement for a British six-inch gun of the type allegedly fitted on LUSITANIA, a comparable U.S. weapon of the same era, the open-mount 5in/51, required a crew of eleven men. (Return to text)

Note 5: Contrary to a claim made by Simpson and repeated by others, the 1914 edition of "Jane's Fighting Ships" did not characterize LUSITANIA as armed, but merely included silhouettes of all liners with speeds of over 18 knots in the chapters for each navy. [Simpson, p. 72, ch. 5] (Return to text)

Note 6: Whether Simpson has confused Hopewell, Virginia, with another Hopewell--none of which hosted Du Pont factories--is not clear. Hopewell, Pennsylvania was close to the Pennsylvania Railroad, but was actually served by a small coal-hauling line calling the Huntington & Broad Top Mountain (which did share some track with the Pennsy a few miles from Hopewell). Hopewell, New Jersey and Hopewell Junction, New York were not on the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Return to text)

Note 7: Fulminate of mercury is not a smokeless powder, but as an explosive used mainly in fuzes, primers, and percussion caps the quantity would be comparatively small in any case. (Return to text)

Note 8: Du Pont gained a monopoly in American production of smokeless powder by about the turn of the century. A government antitrust action in 1912 resulted in the creation of the Hercules and Atlas companies, but Du Pont retained its monopoly in military smokeless powders at least until the start of the war (after U.S. entry into the war Du Pont helped to establish Government powder factories). Du Pont produced 733, 380 tons of military explosives for the Allies, including the United States during the war, an estimated 40 percent of the total used by them; this yields a total figure for the Allies of about 1,833, 380 tons. The United States--primarily Du Pont-- reportedly supplied at least half of the powder used by the French Army and most of that used by Italy. The company also supplied much powder to Britain; in 1916 General Hedlam, chief of the British Munitions Board, reportedly said that "the Du Pont Company is entitled to the credit of saving the British Army." It also produced an unknown but probably substantial quantity of powder for the Russians; Engelbrecht and Hanigen, in their 1934 book "Merchants of Death" (which helped to inspire the Nye Committee hearings on the munitions trade), tell of a check Du Pont received from the Russian government for $60 million, "one of the largest checks ever written."
Sources: Du Pont Company, "A History of the Du Pont Company's Relations with the United States Government 1802-1927," (Wilmington, Delaware: 1928); Grosvenor B. Clarkson, "Industrial America in the World War: The Strategy Behind the Line 1917-1918" (Cambridge, 1923); H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, "Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry" (New York, 1934), p. 180. Hedlam quote from Du Pont's "Du Pont: The Autobiography of an American Enterprise" (1952), p. 76. (
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