V. The Sinking

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Captain William Turner's responsibility for the loss of his ship is a matter of considerable controversy. Colin Simpson and some others, like Beesly, treat him as an innocent scapegoat. Bailey and Ryan see him as grossly negligent. Simpson believes that the Admiralty plotted to blame Turner for the disaster, and that he was saved only by Lord Mersey's last-minute conversion after learning of Admiralty duplicity on the alleged Queenstown diversion order (discussed above). Bailey and Ryan, on the other hand, entitle their chapter on the hearings "Lord Mersey's Whitewash of Turner," viewing both hearings as a cover-up of negligence or irresponsibility on the part of the Admiralty, Cunard, and Turner collectively. Both books devote considerable space to the hearings and the question of Turner's culpability, but these matters will be only briefly discussed here. [Apart from specific references below, see more generally Simpson pp. 159-64 in chapter 12, 173-82 in chapter 14, and 215-32 in chapter 17; and Bailey and Ryan, pages 208-25 and 272-307.]

The controversy over Turner centers on his failure to heed standing Admiralty instructions to zigzag, and further admonitions in a message sent to all British ships on 6 May; although this is quoted above in the discussion on warnings, it is significant enough to merit repetition in this context as well: "Between South Foreland and Folkestone keep within two miles of shore and pass between the two light vessels. Take Liverpool pilot at bar. Avoid headlands; pass harbours at full speed; steer mid-channel course. Submarines off Fastnet." Colin Simpson, eager to absolve Turner of any responsibility, deals with the message in this manner: LUSITANIA "acknowledged a general Admiralty instruction sent to all British merchant ships homeward bound. This had hardly concerned the LUSITANIA except that the last phrase had said 'Submarines off Fastnet.'" [Simpson, p. 141, ch. 11; full text in Bailey and Ryan, p 135]

At the outset of the war Cunard had deactivated six of LUSITANIA's twenty- five boilers to save coal and labor, reducing her top speed from 25 to 21 knots. This exceedingly foolish economy measure was obviously beyond the captain's control. On the fatal day, though, Turner reduced speed still further to 18 knots, endeavoring to delay his ship's arrival at Liverpool so that he could come in immediately on the tide, rather than lingering dangerously off a major port and likely submarine hunting ground. He was about twelve miles off the Old Head of Kinsale at the time of the sinking, although the channel at this point was about 140 miles wide. Turner stated that he needed to close the land to obtain a navigational fix before entering St. George's Channel en route to Liverpool.

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking Turner's actions came under heavy criticism from the Admiralty, especially in a memorandum by Captain Richard Webb of the Trade Division. Webb went so far as to suggest treason on the captain's part: "One is forced to conclude that he is either utterly incompetent, or that he has been got at by the Germans. In considering this latter possibility it is not necessary to suppose that he had any conception of the loss of life which actually occurred and he may well have thought that being close to the shore there would be ample time to run his ship into a place of security before she foundered." Fisher endorsed Webb's memo and annotated his copy: "Fully concur. As the Cunard Company would not have employed an incompetent man--the certainty is absolute that Captain Turner is not a fool but a knave!" Whether Fisher seriously believed that Turner was a traitor or was just engaging in characteristic histrionics, this accusation is of course absurd and contemptible; to this degree Simpson is correct in his defense of Turner. Bailey and Ryan, who also quote Fisher's remarks, are remiss in failing to condemn them, letting the accusation pass without comment. [Simpson, pages 179-80, ch. 14; Bailey and Ryan, pp. 179-80]

Bailey and Ryan in most other respects make a good case that Turner was lax and complacent in the face of repeated warnings of the presence of submarines. While the captain was correct in wishing to delay his arrival at Liverpool to meet the tide, Turner could have attained the same object by zigzagging at 21 knots, rather than taking a straight course at 18 knots. Webb suggested as much in his memorandum, which on this point is never convincingly refuted by Simpson, although he avails himself of the observation that "Webb's tactical alternatives are those of a man who would appear likely to have done himself serious injury if allowed to play tactics in his bath."

Simpson and Beesly both argue unconvincingly that Turner might never have received the Admiralty instructions to merchant ships to zigzag, although Turner admitted at the inquest that he had, claiming that he interpreted this to mean that he should zigzag if attacked. Zigzagging, a protracted series of course changes designed to foil the approach of any submarine that might be present, is quite a different matter from an evasive turn under actual attack. In Turner's defense it might be stated that this was all new to merchant captains, but this still does not say a great deal for his acuity.

Admiralty instructions directed captains to take a mid-channel course avoiding headlands, where submarines were most likely to linger. The dispute on Turner's course centers on the definition of "channel." His defenders argue that the term in this context would apply only to the St. George's Channel, and that the waters off Queenstown were still considered the open ocean. Bailey and Ryan contend that this area was routinely referred to as the Irish Channel. "Clearly the intent of the official instructions was that a captain, while in relatively narrow waters, should steer his vessel roughly midway between the two nearest bodies of land....Even if Turner had not been violating his instructions to keep in midchannel, he certainly was ignoring those that related to giving a wide birth to headlands like the Old Head of Kinsale." Turner's justification for his course, the need to take a navigational fix, also does not hold up, in Bailey and Ryan's (presumably the latter) opinion. The four-point bearing on which Turner insisted took forty minutes; he could have used his sextant and some quick visual bearings to fix his position in five minutes. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 209-12]

There is another aspect to Turner's performance on which his defenders exhibit a curious myopia- -the condition of LUSITANIA and the performance of her crew. That the quality and experience of LUSITANIA's crew was well below peacetime standards is clear; Turner himself stated as much at the inquest. All accounts agree that at the time of the torpedo strike many portholes were open, contrary to orders, and contributed substantially to the ship's rapid flooding. There is a similar consensus that the abandonment of LUSITANIA, and in particular the attempted launch of her port-side lifeboats, was a chaotic scene marked by panic and incompetence and, by some accounts, by cowardice on the part of some crew members who ignored the plight of the passengers. [Simpson, pp. 159-64, ch. 13 and pp. 215-18, ch. 17; Bailey and Ryan, pp. 130-33, 171-73, 301-3]

Simpson fully concurs in this, and gives a vivid description of the scene. Yet he never sees the inconsistency between this and his blanket defense of Captain Turner. Who, if not the commanding officer, is responsible for the training of the crew and the material condition of the ship? If Turner himself recognized the poor state of his crew, why was he not drilling them intensively during the passage? LUSITANIA's lifeboat drills, in particular, were pathetic. A few crew members--not passengers--would climb into a single lifeboat, put lifebelts on, and climb out again--without working the falls or lowering the boats. Criticism of this farce is not mere hindsight. On 4 May, three days before the disaster, several passengers asked Captain Turner to conduct boat drills for the passengers. Turner assured the passengers that there was no danger to fear but promised to speak to the First Officer about a drill; it never happened. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 130-32]

Turner was not alone in his complacency. But the evidence is compelling that, as the captain of a ship entrusted with the lives of over 1,200 passengers, heading into a channel where U-boats were known to be operating, he displayed an appalling nonchalance and lack of judgement.


The detonation of Schwieger's torpedo at 1410 on 7 May was soon followed by a second, larger explosion, which was clearly the cause of LUSITANIA's rapid sinking and thus of the extremely heavy loss of life. The official British wartime view was that U-20 had fired a second torpedo. Schwieger's log contradicts this, and no evidence has surfaced to support it. The second torpedo is a dead issue, perhaps the only LUSITANIA controversy that has been solved in the last eighty-four years.

There remains some controversy over the location of the torpedo. The official British wartime inquiries placed the impact of both supposed torpedoes roughly amidships. Simpson and many others dispute this, citing the log of U-20 that states: "Shot strikes starboard side right behind the bridge." This places the torpedo somewhere near the bulkhead between the no. 1 boiler room and a transverse coal bunker just forward of it; further forward is the cargo hold. In Simpson's view, the British attempted to cover up the true location of the torpedo detonation to conceal the cause of the second explosion, which he attributes to the secret cargo of powder. As previously noted there is little evidence, and less logic, to support the presence of such a cargo on LUSITANIA. Simpson nonetheless almost certainly is right about the location of the torpedo strike. No strong evidence exists to dispute Schwieger's periscope observations, nor did he have any reason to falsify them. The testimony of witnesses on the liner is conflicting.

Patrick Beesly attributes the second explosion to the ship's cargo, but his theory is very different from Simpson's. Beesly does not believe that a secret cargo of powder was present--one of several significant points on which he explicitly parts company with Simpson--but attributes the explosion to the detonation of the "filled" shrapnel cases, triggered by the explosion of fulminate of mercury in the cargo of fuzes. We have already discussed Beesly and Simpson's evident misunderstanding of the nature of shrapnel, and the near certainty that these cases were filled only with metallic fragments; shrapnel shells in any case have very small explosive charges. [Beesly, p.114]

This is the weakest point of Bailey and Ryan's book. They, seemingly alone among recent authors, place the torpedo explosion between the first and second funnels, in keeping with the findings of the British court of inquiry (on which they are generally quite scathing). They do not account for Schwieger's observations. They further decide that it is a "virtual certainty" that the second explosion was caused by the rupture of LUSITANIA's boilers, induced by the torpedo explosion and the inrush of cold water. There are several problems with such a theory. As Simpson correctly argues, none of the survivors from the firerooms reported any boiler explosions. The detonation of a boiler by a torpedo would require almost a direct impact on the boiler itself, a near impossibility--especially when longitudinal coal bunkers separated the boilers from the hull. Boilers furthermore do not explode in succession; the detonation of one does not lead to secondary explosions in others analogous to the detonation of a chain of explosives. The common notion of boiler explosions caused by the inrush of cold water is in all probability a myth; hundreds of ships suffered flooded firerooms in the two world wars, and I am unaware of a single case in which a boiler exploded as a result. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 100, 150, 166-67, 253, 294, 304; Simpson, pp. 150-51]

A third theory has arisen in recent years, prompted in part by explorations of the wreck. These observations do not directly tell us the location of the torpedo impact, because LUSITANIA is lying on her starboard side and the hole is hidden. But they have contributed further insights on the second explosion. In "Exploring the LUSITANIA," Robert Ballard and Spencer Dunmore report that the magazine spaces are undamaged, strongly arguing against a detonation of explosive cargo. They report that chunks of coal are lying all around the ship, and suggest this as evidence the second explosion was the ignition of coal dust, stirred by the torpedo impact. Two possible objections to this theory present themselves, although without scientific expertise it is difficult to judge their import. It would seem, intuitively at least, that an explosion in a coal bunker of sufficient force to doom the ship would be more likely to pulverize the coal than to scatter it (however, see note 1). Further, while Ballard and Dunsmore base their case in part on the argument that "LUSITANIA burned bituminous goal, a highly combustible type," this requires qualification. The preferred marine coal was semi-bituminous, a very hard form of bituminous or "soft" coal, with a much lower level of ash and volatile matter than standard bituminous; a crack ship like LUSITANIA almost certainly would have been burning Welsh Admiralty or a similar grade of semi-bituminous coal. Despite these possible weaknesses the coal-dust theory remains the best at this date, although more by process of elimination than by its intrinsic persuasiveness.


Two basic issues are raised in the LUSITANIA controversies: the propriety of the German action in sinking the ship, and the accusation that the British deliberately sent her into danger. These are entirely independent questions, although they are at times emotionally linked--e.g. those who support the German side of the first question sometimes want to believe that Winston Churchill plotted LUSITANIA's destruction, presumably to further deflect guilt from Germany.

LUSITANIA was not carrying a secret, illegal cargo of explosives. She was carrying a legal consignment of rifle cartridges and shrapnel shell cases. In traditional international law this did not affect LUSITANIA's status as a merchant ship, entitled to full warning before attack. But Bailey and Ryan are right in suggesting that in a moral and practical sense LUSITANIA's military cargo does enhance the German argument that U-20 had a right to sink her, although it certainly does not seal the case. A more potent argument for the German case is the secret Admiralty orders, known to the Germans, that directed merchant ships to resist and to ram U-boats and made it highly perilous to surface and give warning. In the new circumstances of this naval war, in which both sides were in violation of traditional law, a coldly objective judgement is that LUSITANIA was a legitimate target--a conclusion reached with reluctance and with which others I am sure will strongly disagree. That being said, her sinking was a brutal act even by the standards of this war, and there is reason to think that there were U-boat commanders who would have shown greater forbearance in the circumstances than did Kapitanleutnant Schwieger; there are few submarine captains, of Germany or any other nation, who can be said with certainty to have deliberately attacked a hospital ship.

There can be no such ambivalence on the question of the LUSITANIA conspiracy. The plot described by Colin Simpson would require not only extraordinary perfidy but an implausible degree of naivete on the part of Winston Churchill and others in the British leadership about America's readiness for war, in both the political and military senses. No evidence has ever surfaced to support such a conspiracy; Colin Simpson's one shred of positive evidence, the "eyewitness account" of Lieutenant Commander Kenworthy, is beyond reasonable doubt an invention, and only the most egregious of the numerous distortions in this inexpressibly dishonest book.

Notes for this Section

Note 1 - in this instance,by the "editor" William Schleihauf (william@cae.ca) - I've been diving on a number of wrecks, including that of HMS Vanguard, which blew up in Scapa Flow 1917. Although some coal might be 'pulverised' in the explosion, much of it does indeed get scattered. It is quite likely that there would be a fair amount of coal strewn around the wreck of Lusitania in the event of a coal dust explosion. (Return to text)

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