RMS Lusitania

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Lusitania arriving in New York City in 1907
United Kingdom
Owner Cunard Line
Port of registryLiverpool
RouteLiverpool – QueenstownNew York
BuilderJohn Brown & Co, Clydebank
Yard number367
Laid down17 August 1904
Launched7 June 1906[1]
ChristenedMary, Lady Inverclyde
Acquired26 August 1907
Maiden voyage7 September 1907
In service1907 – 1915
Out of service7 May 1915
Fatesunk by torpedo, 7 May 1915
General characteristics
TypeOcean liner
Tonnage31,550 GRT, 12,611 NRT
Displacement44,060 long tons (44,767.0 t)
Beam87.8 ft (26.8 m)
Height65 ft (19.8 m) to boat deck, 165 ft (50.3 m) to aerials, 104 ft (31.7 m) from keel to top of boat deck, 144 ft (43.9 m) from keel to top of funnels
Draught33.6 ft (10.2 m)
Depth56.6 ft (17.3 m)
Decks9 passenger decks
Installed power25 fire-tube boilers; four direct-acting Parsons steam turbines producing 76,000 hp (57 MW)
  • as built: four triple blade propellers
  • from 1909: quadruple blade propellers
Capacity552 first class, 460 second class, 1,186 third class; 2,198 total.
NotesFirst British four-funnelled ocean liner

RMS Lusitania (named after the Roman province corresponding to modern Portugal) was an ocean liner launched by the Cunard Line in 1906. She was the world's largest passenger ship until the completion of the Mauretania three months later and was awarded the Blue Riband appellation for the fastest Atlantic crossing in 1908. The Lusitania was sunk on her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing, on 7 May 1915 by a German U-boat 11 miles (18 km) off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,197 passengers and crew.[2] The sinking occurred about two years before the United States declaration of war on Germany but significantly increased public support in the US for entering the war.


German shipping lines were Cunard's main competitors for the custom of Transatlantic passengers in the early 20th century, and Cunard responded by building two new 'ocean greyhounds': the Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania. Cunard used assistance from the British Admiralty to build both new ships, on the understanding that the ship would be available for military duty in time of war. During construction gun mounts for deck cannons were installed but no guns were ever fitted. Both the Lusitania and Mauretania were fitted with turbine engines that enabled them to maintain a service speed of 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph). They were equipped with lifts, wireless telegraph, and electric light, and provided 50 percent more passenger space than any other ship; the first-class decks were known for their sumptuous furnishings.[3]: 45 

A series of tit-for-tat moves intensified the naval portion of World War I. The Royal Navy had blockaded Germany at the start of the war; as a reprisal to German naval mining efforts, the UK then declared the North Sea a war zone in the autumn of 1914 and mined the approaches. As their own reprisal, Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone too, wherein all allied ships would be liable to be sunk without warning. Britain then declared all food imports for Germany were declared contraband.[4]: 28  When RMS Lusitania left New York for Britain on 1 May 1915, the German embassy in the United States placed fifty newspaper advertisements warning people of the dangers of sailing on Lusitania. Objections were made by the British and Americans that threatening to torpedo all ships indiscriminately was wrong, whether it was announced in advance or not.[4]: 6–7 

On the afternoon of 7 May, a German U-boat torpedoed Lusitania 11 miles (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland inside the declared war zone. A second internal explosion caused her to sink in 18 minutes, killing 1,238 passengers and crew. Only 12 bodies were ever recovered or found from ther wreck [3]: 57 

The German government attempted to find justifications for sinking Lusitania. Special justifications focused on the small declared cargo of 173 tons of war materiels on board the 44,000 ton ship, and false claims that she was an armed warship and carried Canadian troops. In defense of indiscriminately sinking ships without warning, they asserted that cruiser rules were obsolete, as British merchant ships could be armed and had been instructed to evade or ram U-boats if the opportunity arises, and that the general warning given to all ships in the war zone was sufficient.[4]: 273 [5][6][7][8]

After the First World War, successive British governments maintained that there were no "munitions" (apart from small arms ammunition) on board Lusitania, and the Germans were not justified in treating the ship as a naval vessel.[9] But the most important protests at the time came from the US. Under neutrality inspections, the US was aware the ship was not armed, was acting in accordance with American law, and was chiefly a passenger vessel carrying almost two thousand civilian passengers and crew, including 128 American citizens (including many celebrities) among the dead. The US government argued that whatever the circumstances, nothing could justify the killing of large numbers of un-resisting civilians, and that America had a responsibility to protect the lives of law-abiding Americans. The Americans had already warned the Germans repeatedly about their actions, and the Germans had also demonstrated that submarines were able to sink merchant ships under cruiser rules[10].

The sinking shifted public and leadership opinion in the United States against Germany. US and internal German pressure led to a suspension of German Admiralty policy of deliberately targeting passenger ships, as well as later stronger restrictions. War was eventually declared in 1917 after the German Government chose to violate these restrictions, deliberately attacking American shipping and preparing the way for conflict with the Zimmermann Telegram.

Development and construction[edit]

Lusitania, shortly before her launch

Lusitania and Mauretania were commissioned by Cunard, responding to increasing competition from rival transatlantic passenger companies, particularly the German Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) and Hamburg America Line (HAPAG). They had larger, faster, more modern and more luxurious ships than Cunard, and were better placed, starting from German ports, to capture the lucrative trade in emigrants leaving Europe for North America. The NDL liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse captured the Blue Riband from Cunard's Campania in 1897, before the prize was taken in 1900 by the HAPAG ship Deutschland. NDL soon wrested the prize back in 1903 with the new Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprinz Wilhelm. Cunard saw its passenger numbers affected as a result of the so-called "Kaiser-class ocean liners".[11]

RMS Lusitania – built 1904–1906

American millionaire businessman J. P. Morgan had decided to invest in transatlantic shipping by creating a new company, International Mercantile Marine (IMM), and, in 1901, purchased the British freight shipper Frederick Leyland & Co. and a controlling interest in the British passenger White Star Line and folded them into IMM. In 1902, IMM, NDL and HAPAG entered into a "Community of Interest" to fix prices and divide among them the transatlantic trade. The partners also acquired a 51% stake in the Dutch Holland America Line. IMM made offers to purchase Cunard which, along with the French Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), was now its principal rival.[12]

Cunard chairman Lord Inverclyde thus approached the British government for assistance. Faced with the impending collapse of the British liner fleet and the consequent loss of national prestige, as well as the reserve of shipping for war purposes which it represented, they agreed to help. By an agreement signed in June 1903, Cunard was given a loan of £2.6 million to finance two ships, repayable over 20 years at a favourable interest rate of 2.75%. The ships would receive an annual operating subsidy of £75,000 each plus a mail contract worth £68,000. In return, the ships would be built to Admiralty specifications so that they could be used as auxiliary cruisers in wartime.[13]


Lusitania unloading Christmas mail to a post office boat

Cunard established a committee to decide upon the design for the new ships, of which James Bain, Cunard's Marine Superintendent was the chairman. Other members included Rear Admiral H. J. Oram, who had been involved in designs for steam turbine-powered ships for the Royal Navy, and Charles Parsons, whose company Parsons Marine was now producing turbine engines.

Parsons maintained that he could design engines capable of maintaining a speed of 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph), which would require 68,000 shaft horsepower (51,000 kW). The largest turbine sets built so far had been of 23,000 shp (17,000 kW) for the Dreadnought battleship, and 41,000 shp (31,000 kW) for Invincible-class battlecruisers, which meant the engines would be of a new, untested design. Turbines offered the advantages of generating less vibration than the reciprocating engines and greater reliability in operation at high speeds, combined with lower fuel consumption. Having initially turned down the use of this relatively untried type of engine, Cunard was persuaded by the Admiralty to set up a committee of marine professionals to look at its possible use on the new liners. The relative merits of turbines and reciprocating engines were investigated in a series of trials between Newhaven and Dieppe using the turbine-driven cross-Channel ferry Brighton and the similarity-designed Arundel, which had reciprocating engines. The Turbine Committee was convinced by these and other tests that turbines were the way forward and recommended on 24 March 1904 that they should be used on the new express liners. In order to gain some experience of these new engines, Cunard asked John Brown to fit turbines on Carmania, the second of a pair of 19,500g-intermediate liners under construction at the yard. Carmania was completed in 1905 and this gave Cunard almost two years of experience before the introduction of their new super liners in 1907.

The ship was designed by Leonard Peskett[14] and built by John Brown and Company of Clydebank, Scotland. The ship's name was taken from Lusitania, an ancient Roman province on the west of the Iberian Peninsula—the region that is now southern Portugal and Extremadura (Spain). The name had also been used by a previous ship built in 1871 and wrecked in 1901, making the name available from Lloyd's for Cunard's giant.[15][16]

Early concept art of Lusitania with three funnels

Peskett had built a large model of the proposed ship in 1902 showing a three-funnel design. A fourth funnel was implemented into the design in 1904 as it was necessary to vent the exhaust from additional boilers fitted after steam turbines had been settled on as the power plant. The original plan called for three propellers, but this was altered to four because it was felt the necessary power could not be transmitted through just three. Four turbines would drive four separate propellers, with additional reversing turbines to drive the two inboard shafts only. To improve efficiency, the two inboard propellers rotated inward, while those outboard rotated outward. The outboard turbines operated at high pressure; the exhaust steam then passing to those inboard at relatively low pressure.

The propellers were driven directly by the turbines, for sufficiently robust gearboxes had not yet been developed, and became available in only 1916. Instead, the turbines had to be designed to run at a much lower speed than those normally accepted as being optimum. Thus, the efficiency of the turbines installed was less at low speeds than a conventional reciprocating steam engine, but significantly better when the engines were run at high speed, as was usually the case for an express liner. The ship was fitted with 23 double-ended and two single-ended boilers (which fitted the forward space where the ship narrowed), operating at a maximum 195 psi (1,340 kPa) and containing 192 individual furnaces.[17]

Deck plans of Lusitania. Modifications were made both during and after the ship's construction. By 1915 the lifeboat arrangement had been changed to 11 fixed boats on either side, plus collapsible boats stored under each lifeboat and on the poop deck.

Work to refine the hull shape was conducted in the Admiralty experimental tank at Haslar, Gosport. As a result of experiments, the beam of the ship was increased by 10 ft (3.0 m) over that initially intended to improve stability. The hull immediately in front of the rudder and the balanced rudder itself followed naval design practice to improve the vessel's turning response. The Admiralty contract required that all machinery be below the waterline, where it was considered to be better protected from gunfire, and the aft third of the ship below water was used to house the turbines, the steering motors and four 375-kilowatt (503 hp) steam-driven turbo-generators. The central half contained four boiler rooms, with the remaining space at the forward end of the ship being reserved for cargo and other storage.

Coal bunkers were placed along the length of the ship outboard of the boiler rooms, with a large transverse bunker immediately in front of that most forward (number 1) boiler room. Apart from convenience ready for use, the coal was considered to provide added protection for the central spaces against attack. At the very front were the chain lockers for the huge anchor chains and ballast tanks to adjust the ship's trim.

The hull space was divided into 13 watertight compartments, any two of which could be flooded without risk of the ship sinking, connected by 35 hydraulically operated watertight doors. A critical flaw in the arrangement of the watertight compartments was that sliding doors to the coal bunkers needed to be open to provide a constant feed of coal whilst the ship was operating, and closing these in emergency conditions could be problematic. The ship had a double bottom with the space between divided into separate watertight cells. The ship's exceptional height was due to the six decks of passenger accommodation above the waterline, compared to the customary four decks in existing liners.[18]

High-tensile steel was used for the ship's plating, as opposed to the more conventional mild steel. This allowed a reduction in plate thickness, reducing weight but still providing 26 per cent greater strength than otherwise. Plates were held together by triple rows of rivets. The ship was heated and cooled throughout by a thermo-tank ventilation system, which used steam-driven heat exchangers to warm air to a constant 65 °F (18.3 °C), while steam was injected into the airflow to maintain steady humidity.

Forty-nine separate units driven by electric fans provided seven complete changes of air per hour throughout the ship, through an interconnected system, so that individual units could be switched off for maintenance. A separate system of exhaust fans removed air from galleys and bathrooms. As built, the ship conformed fully with Board of Trade safety regulations which required sixteen lifeboats with a capacity of about 1,000 people.[19]

At the time of her completion, Lusitania was briefly the largest ship ever built, but was soon eclipsed by the slightly larger Mauretania which entered service shortly afterwards. She was 3 ft (0.91 m) longer, a full 2 knots (3.7 km/h; 2.3 mph) faster, and had a capacity of 10,000 gross register tons over and above that of the most modern German liner, Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Passenger accommodation was 50% larger than any of her competitors, providing for 552 saloon class, 460 cabin class and 1,186 in third class. Her crew comprised 69 on deck, 369 operating engines and boilers and 389 to attend to passengers. Both she and Mauretania had a wireless telegraph, electric lighting, electric lifts, sumptuous interiors and an early form of air-conditioning.[20]


Painting of Lusitania by Norman Wilkinson

At the time of their introduction onto the North Atlantic, both Lusitania and Mauretania possessed among the most luxurious, spacious and comfortable interiors afloat. The Scottish architect James Miller was chosen to design Lusitania's interiors, while Harold Peto was chosen to design Mauretania. Miller chose to use plasterwork to create interiors whereas Peto made extensive use of wooden panelling, with the result that the overall impression given by Lusitania was brighter than Mauretania.

The ship's passenger accommodation was spread across six decks; from the top deck down to the waterline they were Boat Deck (A Deck), the Promenade Deck (B Deck), the Shelter Deck (C Deck), the Upper Deck (D Deck), the Main Deck (E Deck) and the Lower Deck (F Deck), with each of the three passenger classes being allotted their own space on the ship. As seen aboard all passenger liners of the era, first-, second- and third-class passengers were strictly segregated from one another. According to her original configuration in 1907, she was designed to carry 2,198 passengers and 827 crew members. The Cunard Line prided itself with a record for passenger satisfaction.

Lounge and music room
Verandah cafe

Lusitania's first-class accommodation was in the centre section of the ship on the five uppermost decks, mostly concentrated between the first and fourth funnels. When fully booked, Lusitania could cater to 552 first-class passengers. In common with all major liners of the period, Lusitania's first-class interiors were decorated with a mélange of historical styles. The first-class dining saloon was the grandest of the ship's public rooms; arranged over two decks with an open circular well at its centre and crowned by an elaborate dome measuring 29 feet (8.8 m), decorated with frescos in the style of François Boucher, it was elegantly realised throughout in the neoclassical Louis XVI style. The lower floor measuring 85 feet (26 m) could seat 323, with a further 147 on the 65-foot (20 m) upper floor. The walls were finished with white and gilt carved mahogany panels, with Corinthian decorated columns which were required to support the floor above. The one concession to seaborne life was that furniture was bolted to the floor, meaning passengers could not rearrange their seating for their personal convenience.[21]

Promotional material showing the first-class dining room
Finished first-class dining room

All other first-class public rooms were situated on the boat deck and comprised a lounge, reading and writing room, smoking room and veranda café. The last was an innovation on a Cunard liner and, in warm weather, one side of the café could be opened up to give the impression of sitting outdoors. This would have been a rarely used feature given the often inclement weather of the North Atlantic.[22]

The first-class lounge was decorated in Georgian style with inlaid mahogany panels surrounding a jade green carpet with a yellow floral pattern, measuring overall 68 ft (21 m). It had a barrel vaulted skylight rising to 20 ft (6.1 m) with stained glass windows each representing one month of the year.

First-class smoking room
First-class reading and writing room

Each end of the lounge had a 14-foot (4.3 m) high green marble fireplace incorporating enamelled panels by Alexander Fisher. The design was linked overall with decorative plasterwork. The library walls were decorated with carved pilasters and mouldings marking out panels of grey and cream silk brocade. The carpet was rose, with Rose du Barry silk curtains and upholstery. The chairs and writing desks were mahogany, and the windows featured etched glass. The smoking room was Queen Anne style, with Italian walnut panelling and Italian red furnishings. The grand stairway linked all six decks of the passenger accommodation with wide hallways on each level and two lifts. First-class cabins ranged from one shared room through various ensuite arrangements in a choice of decorative styles culminating in the two regal suites which each had two bedrooms, dining room, parlour and bathroom. The port suite decoration was modelled on the Petit Trianon.[23]

Lusitania's second-class accommodation was confined to the stern, behind the aft mast, where quarters for 460 second-class passengers were located. The second-class public rooms were situated on partitioned sections of boat and promenade decks housed in a separate section of the superstructure aft of the first-class passenger quarters. Design work was deputised to Robert Whyte, who was the architect employed by John Brown. Although smaller and plainer, the design of the dining room reflected that of first class, with just one floor of diners under a ceiling with a smaller dome and balcony. Walls were panelled and carved with decorated pillars, all in white. As seen in first class, the dining room was situated lower down in the ship on the saloon deck. The smoking and ladies' rooms occupied the accommodation space of the second-class promenade deck, with the lounge on the boat deck.

Cunard had not previously provided a separate lounge for second class; the 42-foot (13 m) room had mahogany tables, chairs and settees set on a rose carpet. The smoking room was 52 ft (16 m) with mahogany panelling, white plaster work ceiling and dome. One wall had a mosaic of a river scene in Brittany, while the sliding windows were blue-tinted. Second-class passengers were allotted shared, yet comfortable two- and four-berth cabins arranged on the shelter, upper and main decks.[24]

Noted as being the prime breadwinner for trans-Atlantic shipping lines, third class aboard Lusitania was praised for the improvement in travel conditions it provided to emigrant passengers; Lusitania proved to be a quite popular ship for immigrants.[25] In the days before Lusitania and even still during the years in which Lusitania was in service, third-class accommodation consisted of large open spaces where hundreds of people would share open berths and hastily constructed public spaces, often consisting of no more than a small portion of open deck space and a few tables constructed within their sleeping quarters. In an attempt to break that mould, the Cunard Line began designing ships such as Lusitania with more comfortable third-class accommodation.

As on all Cunard passenger liners, third-class accommodation aboard Lusitania was located at the forward end of the ship on the shelter, upper, main and lower decks, and in comparison to other ships of the period, it was comfortable and spacious. The 79-foot (24 m) dining room was at the bow of the ship on the saloon deck, finished in polished pine as were the other two third-class public rooms, being the smoke room and ladies room on the shelter deck.

When Lusitania was fully booked in third class, the smoking and ladies room could easily be converted into overflow dining rooms for added convenience. Meals were eaten at long tables with swivel chairs and there were two sittings for meals. A piano was provided for passenger use. What greatly appealed to immigrants and lower class travellers was that instead of being confined to open berth dormitories, aboard Lusitania was a honeycomb of two, four, six and eight berth cabins allotted to third-class passengers on the main and lower decks.[26]

The Bromsgrove Guild had designed and constructed most of the trim on Lusitania.[27] Waring and Gillow tendered for the contract to furnish the whole ship, but failing to obtain this still supplied a number of the furnishings.

Construction and trials[edit]

Lusitania's launch, 7 June 1906

Lusitania's keel was laid at John Brown on Clydebank as yard no. 367 on 17 August 1904, Lord Inverclyde hammering home the first rivet. Cunard nicknamed her 'the Scottish ship' in contrast to Mauretania whose contract went to Swan Hunter in England and who started building three months later. Final details of the two ships were left to designers at the two yards so that the ships differed in details of hull design and finished structure. The ships may most readily be distinguished in photographs through the flat-topped ventilators used on Lusitania, whereas those on Mauretania used a more conventional rounded top.

The shipyard at John Brown had to be reorganised because of her size so that she could be launched diagonally across the widest available part of the river Clyde where it met a tributary, the ordinary width of the river being only 610 feet (190 m) compared to the 786-foot (240 m) long ship. The new slipway took up the space of two existing ones and was built on reinforcing piles driven deeply into the ground to ensure it could take the temporary concentrated weight of the whole ship as it slid into the water. In addition, the company spent £8,000 to dredge the Clyde, £6,500 on new gas plant, £6,500 on a new electrical plant, £18,000 to extend the dock and £19,000 for a new crane capable of lifting 150 tons as well as £20,000 on additional machinery and equipment.[28] Construction commenced at the bow working backwards, rather than the traditional approach of building both ends towards the middle. This was because designs for the stern and engine layout were not finalised when construction commenced. Railway tracks were laid alongside the ship and across deck plating to bring materials as required. The hull, completed to the level of the main deck but not fitted with equipment weighed about 16,000 tons.[29]

The ship's stockless bower anchors weighed 1014 tons, attached to 125 ton, 330 fathom chains all manufactured by N. Hingley & Sons Ltd. The steam capstans to raise them were constructed by Napier Brothers Ltd, of Glasgow. The turbines were 25 ft (7.6 m) long with 12 ft (3.7 m) diameter rotors, the large diameter necessary because of the relatively low speeds at which they operated. The rotors were constructed on site, while the casings and shafting were constructed in John Brown's Atlas works in Sheffield. The machinery to drive the 56-ton rudder was constructed by Brown Brothers of Edinburgh. A main steering engine drove the rudder through worm gear and clutch operating on a toothed quadrant rack, with a reserve engine operating separately on the rack via a chain drive for emergency use. The 17 ft (5.2 m) three-bladed propellers were fitted and then cased in wood to protect them during the launch.[30]

The ship was launched on 7 June 1906, eight weeks later than planned due to labour strikes and eight months after Lord Inverclyde's death. Princess Louise was invited to name the ship but could not attend, so the honour fell to Inverclyde's widow Mary.[31][1] The launch was attended by 600 invited guests and thousands of spectators.[32] One thousand tons of drag chains were attached to the hull by temporary rings to slow it once it entered the water.[33] The wooden supporting structure was held back by cables so that once the ship entered the water it would slip forward out of its support. Six tugs were on hand to capture the hull and move it to the fitting out berth.[34] Testing of the ship's engines took place in June 1907 prior to full trials scheduled for July. A preliminary cruise, or Builder's Trial, was arranged for 27 July with representatives of Cunard, the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, and John Brown aboard. The ship achieved speeds of 25.6 knots (47.4 km/h; 29.5 mph) over a measured 1 mile (1.6 km) at Skelmorlie with turbines running at 194 revolutions per minute producing 76,000 shp. At high speeds the ship was found to suffer such vibration at the stern as to render the second-class accommodation uninhabitable. VIP invited guests now came on board for a two-day shakedown cruise during which the ship was tested under continuous running at speeds of 15, 18 and 21 knots but not her maximum speed. On 29 July, the guests departed and three days of full trials commenced. The ship travelled four times between the Corsewall Light off Scotland to the Longship Light off Cornwall at 23 and 25 knots, between the Corsewall Light and the Isle of Man, and the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig. Over 300 mi (480 km) an average speed of 25.4 knots was achieved, comfortably greater than the 24 knots required under the Admiralty contract. The ship could stop in 4 minutes in 3/4 of a mile starting from 23 knots at 166 rpm and then applying full reverse. She achieved a speed of 26 knots over a measured mile loaded to a draught of 33 feet (10 m), and managed 26.5 knots over a 60-mile (97 km) course drawing 31.5 ft (9.6 m). At 180 revolutions a turning test was conducted and the ship performed a complete circle of diameter 1000 yards in 50 seconds. The rudder required 20 seconds to be turned hard to 35 degrees.[35][36]

The vibration was determined to be caused by interference between the wake of the outer propellers and inner and became worse when turning. At high speeds the vibration frequency resonated with the ship's stern making the matter worse. The solution was to add internal stiffening to the stern of the ship but this necessitated gutting the second-class areas and then rebuilding them. This required the addition of a number of pillars and arches to the decorative scheme. The ship was finally delivered to Cunard on 26 August although the problem of vibration was never entirely solved and further remedial work went on throughout her life.[37]

Comparison with the Olympic class[edit]

The White Star Line's Olympic-class vessels were almost 100 ft (30 m) longer and slightly wider than Lusitania and Mauretania. This made the White Star vessels about 15,000 tons larger than the Cunard vessels. Both Lusitania and Mauretania were launched and had been in service for several years before Olympic, Titanic and Britannic were ready for the North Atlantic run. Although significantly faster than the Olympic class would be, the speed of Cunard's vessels was not sufficient to allow the line to run a weekly two-ship transatlantic service from each side of the Atlantic. A third ship was needed for a weekly service, and in response to White Star's announced plan to build the three Olympic-class ships, Cunard ordered a third ship: Aquitania. Like Olympic, Cunard's Aquitania had a lower service speed, but was a larger and more luxurious vessel.

Due to their increased size the Olympic-class liners could offer many more amenities than Lusitania and Mauretania. Both Olympic and Titanic offered swimming pools, Victorian-style Turkish baths, a gymnasium, a squash court, large reception rooms, À la Carte restaurants separate from the dining saloons, and many more staterooms with private bathroom facilities than their two Cunard rivals.

Heavy vibrations as a by-product of the four steam turbines on Lusitania and Mauretania would plague both ships throughout their voyages. When Lusitania sailed at top speed the resultant vibrations were so severe that second- and third-class sections of the ship could become uninhabitable.[3]: 46  In contrast, the Olympic-class liners used two traditional reciprocating engines and only one turbine for the central propeller, which greatly reduced vibration. Because of their greater tonnage and wider beam, the Olympic-class liners were also more stable at sea and less prone to rolling. Lusitania and Mauretania both featured straight prows in contrast to the angled prows of the Olympic class. Designed so that the ships could plunge through a wave rather than crest it, the unforeseen consequence was that the Cunard liners would pitch forward alarmingly, even in calm weather, allowing huge waves to splash the bow and forward part of the superstructure.[3]: 51–52  This would be a major factor in damage that Lusitania suffered at the hands of a rogue wave in January 1910.

Olympic arriving at port on maiden voyage June 1911, with Lusitania departing in the background

The vessels of the Olympic class also differed from Lusitania and Mauretania in the way in which they were compartmented below the waterline. The White Star vessels were divided by transverse watertight bulkheads. While Lusitania also had transverse bulkheads, it also had longitudinal bulkheads running along the ship on each side, between the boiler and engine rooms and the coal bunkers on the outside of the vessel. The British commission that had investigated the sinking of Titanic in 1912 heard testimony on the flooding of coal bunkers lying outside longitudinal bulkheads. Being of considerable length, when flooded, these could increase the ship's list and "make the lowering of the boats on the other side impracticable"[38]—and this was precisely what later happened with Lusitania. The ship's stability was insufficient for the bulkhead arrangement used: flooding of only three coal bunkers on one side could result in negative metacentric height.[39] On the other hand, Titanic was given ample stability and sank with only a few degrees list, the design being such that there was very little risk of unequal flooding and possible capsize.[40]

Lusitania did not carry enough lifeboats for all her passengers, officers and crew on board at the time of her maiden voyage (carrying four lifeboats fewer than Titanic would carry in 1912). This was a common practice for large passenger ships at the time, since the belief was that in busy shipping lanes help would always be nearby and the few boats available would be adequate to ferry all aboard to rescue ships before a sinking. After the Titanic sank, Lusitania and Mauretania were equipped with an additional six clinker-built wooden boats under davits, making for a total of 22 boats rigged in davits. The rest of their lifeboat accommodations were supplemented with 26 collapsible lifeboats, 18 stored directly beneath the regular lifeboats and eight on the after deck. The collapsibles were built with hollow wooden bottoms and canvas sides, and needed assembly in the event they had to be used.[41]

This contrasted with Olympic and Britannic which received a full complement of lifeboats all rigged under davits. This difference would have been a major contributor to the high loss of life involved with Lusitania's sinking, since there was not sufficient time to assemble collapsible boats or life-rafts, had it not been for the fact that the ship's severe listing made it impossible for lifeboats on the port side of the vessel to be lowered, and the rapidity of the sinking did not allow the remaining lifeboats that could be directly lowered (as these were rigged under davits) to be filled and launched with passengers. When Britannic, working as a hospital ship during World War I, sank in 1916 after hitting a mine in the Kea Channel the already davited boats were swiftly lowered saving nearly all on board, but the ship took nearly three times as long to sink as Lusitania and thus the crew had more time to evacuate passengers.


Lusitania arriving in New York on her maiden voyage

Lusitania, commanded by Commodore James Watt, moored at the Liverpool landing stage for her maiden voyage at 4:30 pm on Saturday 7 September 1907 as the onetime Blue Riband holder RMS Lucania vacated the pier. At the time Lusitania was the largest ocean liner in service and would continue to be until the introduction of Mauretania in November that year. A crowd of 200,000 people gathered to see her departure at 9:00 pm for Queenstown, where she was to take on more passengers. She anchored again at Roche's Point, off Queenstown, at 9:20 am the following morning, where she was shortly joined by Lucania, which she had passed in the night, and 120 passengers were brought out to the ship by tender bringing her total of passengers to 2,320.

At 12:10 pm on Sunday Lusitania was again under way and passing the Daunt Rock Lightship. In the first 24 hours she achieved 561 mi (903 km), with further daily totals of 575, 570, 593 and 493 mi (793 km) before arriving at Sandy Hook at 9:05 am Friday 13 September, taking in total 5 days and 54 minutes, 30 minutes outside the record time held by Kaiser Wilhelm II of the North German Lloyd line. Fog had delayed the ship on two days, and her engines were not yet run in. In New York hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the bank of the Hudson River from Battery Park to pier 56. All New York's police had been called out to control the crowd. From the start of the day, 100 horse-drawn cabs had been queuing, ready to take away passengers. During the week's stay the ship was made available for guided tours. At 3 pm on Saturday 21 September, the ship departed on the return journey, arriving Queenstown 4 am 27 September and Liverpool 12 hours later. The return journey was 5 days 4 hours and 19 minutes, again delayed by fog.[42]

On her second voyage in better weather, Lusitania arrived at Sandy Hook on 11 October 1907 in the Blue Riband record time of 4 days, 19 hours and 53 minutes. She had to wait for the tide to enter harbour where news had preceded her and she was met by a fleet of small craft, whistles blaring. Lusitania averaged 23.99 knots (44.43 km/h) westbound and 23.61 knots (43.73 km/h) eastbound. In December 1907, Mauretania entered service and took the record for the fastest eastbound crossing. Lusitania made her fastest westbound crossing in 1909 after her propellers were changed, averaging 25.85 knots (47.87 km/h). She briefly recovered the record in July of that year, but Mauretania recaptured the Blue Riband the same month, retaining it until 1929, when it was taken by SS Bremen.[43] During her eight-year service, she made a total of 201 crossings on the Cunard Line's Liverpool-New York Route, carrying a total of 155,795 passengers westbound[44] and another 106,180 eastbound.[45]

Lusitania at the end of the first leg of her maiden voyage, New York City, September 1907. (The photo was taken with a panoramic camera.)

Hudson Fulton Celebration[edit]

Stereo picture of Wright Flyer, Lusitania (Europe-bound), and the Statue of Liberty, during Hudson Fulton Celebration. In a generation the aeroplane would replace ocean queens like Lusitania as the mainstay of trans-atlantic travel.

Lusitania and other ships participated in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York City from the end of September to early October 1909. The celebration was also a display of the different modes of transportation then in existence, Lusitania representing the newest advancement in steamship technology. A newer mode of travel was the aeroplane. Wilbur Wright had brought a Flyer to Governors Island and made demonstration flights before millions of New Yorkers who had never seen an aeroplane. Some of Wright's trips were directly over Lusitania; several photographs of Lusitania from that week still exist.[46][47][48]

Rogue wave crash[edit]

On 10 January 1910, Lusitania was on a voyage from Liverpool to New York,[49] when, two days into the trip, she encountered a rogue wave that was 75 feet (23 m) high. The design of the ship's bow allowed her to break through waves instead of riding on top of them. This, however, came with a cost, as the wave rolled over the bow and slammed into the bridge.[50] As a result, the forecastle deck was damaged, the bridge windows were smashed, the bridge was shifted a couple of inches aft, and both the deck and the bridge were given a permanent depression of a few inches.[51] No one was injured, and the Lusitania continued on as normal, albeit arriving a few hours late in New York with some shaken-up passengers.

Outbreak of the First World War[edit]

When Lusitania was built, her construction and operating expenses were subsidised by the British government, with the proviso that she could be converted to an armed merchant cruiser (AMC) if need be. A secret compartment was designed in for the purpose of carrying arms and ammunition.[52] When war was declared she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser, and she was put on the official list of AMCs. Lusitania remained on the official AMC list and was listed as an auxiliary cruiser in the 1914 edition of Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, along with Mauretania.[5][53][54][55]

The 1856 Declaration of Paris codified the rules for naval engagements involving civilian vessels. The so-called Cruiser Rules required that the crew and passengers of civilian ships be safeguarded in the event that the ship is to be confiscated or sunk. These rules also placed some onus on the ship itself, in that the merchant ship had to be flying its own flag, and not pretending to be of a different nationality. Also, it had to stop when confronted and allow itself to be boarded and searched, and it was not allowed to be armed or to take any hostile or evasive actions.[56] When war was declared, British merchant ships were given orders to ram submarines that surfaced to issue the warnings required by the Cruiser Rules.[5][6][7][8][57]

At the outbreak of hostilities, fears for the safety of Lusitania and other great liners ran high. During the ship's first east-bound crossing after the war started, she was painted in a grey colour scheme in an attempt to mask her identity and make her more difficult to detect visually.

Germany's declared exclusion zone of February 1915. Ships within this area were liable to search and attack.

Many of the large liners were laid up in 1914–1915, in part due to falling demand for passenger travel across the Atlantic, and in part to protect them from damage due to mines or other dangers. Among the most recognisable of these liners, some were eventually used as troop transports, while others became hospital ships. Lusitania remained in commercial service;[58] although bookings aboard her were by no means strong during that autumn and winter, demand was strong enough to keep her in civilian service. Economising measures were taken. One of these was the shutting down of her No. 4 boiler room to conserve coal and crew costs; this reduced her maximum speed from over 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph) to 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph). With apparent dangers evaporating, the ship's disguised paint scheme was also dropped and she was returned to civilian colours. Her name was picked out in gilt, her funnels were repainted in their normal Cunard livery, and her superstructure was painted white again. One alteration was the addition of a bronze/gold-coloured band around the base of the superstructure just above the black paint.[59]


Captain Daniel Dow, Lusitania's penultimate master
The official warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy about travelling on Lusitania
Captain William Thomas Turner, photographed on 11 March 1915.

By early 1915, a new threat began to materialise: submarines. On 4 February 1915, Germany declared the seas around Great Britain and Ireland a war zone: from 18 February Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. This was not wholly unrestricted submarine warfare as efforts would be taken to avoid sinking neutral ships, but "enemy" passenger craft were included as targets, despite the demand of the US for "strict accountability". On her next arrival at Liverpool, on 6 February, Lusitania arrived in Liverpool flying the neutral US ensign, which had been raised off southern Ireland, causing controversy.[60]

Lusitania was next scheduled to arrive in Liverpool on 6 March 1915. The Admiralty issued her specific instructions on how to avoid submarines. Admiral Henry Oliver ordered HMS Louis and HMS Laverock to escort Lusitania, and took the further precaution of sending the Q-ship HMS Lyons to patrol Liverpool Bay.[b] Due to a communications issue, Captain Daniel Dow did not make contact with the destroyers but proceeded to Liverpool unescorted.[61][62][63]

Some alterations were made to the ship's protocols. She was ordered not to fly any flags in the war zone. It was also suggested that her funnels were most likely painted dark grey to help make her less visible to enemy submarines. Clearly, there was no hope of disguising her identity, as her profile was so well known, and no attempt was made to paint out the ship's name at the bow.[c] Captain Dow was replaced by Captain William Thomas Turner, who had previously commanded Lusitania, Mauretania, and Aquitania in the years before the war.[64]

On 17 April 1915, Lusitania left Liverpool on her 201st transatlantic voyage, arriving in New York on 24 April. On April 22, prompted by a group of concerned citizens, the German Embassy submitted a warning advertisement in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York, which appeared in newspapers just before the ship sailed.[65]: 2 

Lusitania departing New York on her final voyage, 1 May 1915

The ship departed Pier 54 in New York, on 1 May 1915 at 12:20 pm, on what would be her final voyage.[66][67] A few hours after the vessel's departure, the Saturday evening edition of The Washington Times published two articles on its front page, both referring to the previous day's warnings.[68]


Sinking site is located in island of Ireland
Sinking site
Sinking site
Sinking of RMS Lusitania on a map of Ireland
Photographs of the RMS Lusitiana taken 7 May 1915 by wireless operator David McCormack. The top two pictures were taken prior to the sinking; the damaged film at the bottom taken during the sinking according "Oceanliners Design" program on the RMS Lusitina show left to right:A crowd of passengers; an overturned lifeboat and a ships ventilator on the deck of the sinkng vessel. From the "Daily Sketch" May 11,1915

On 7 May 1915, Lusitania was nearing the end of her 202nd crossing, bound for Liverpool from New York, and was scheduled to dock at the Prince's Landing Stage later that afternoon. Aboard her were 1,266 passengers and a crew of 696, which combined totalled 1,962 people. She was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland, and was roughly 11 miles (18 km) off the Old Head of Kinsale when the liner crossed in front of U-20 at 2:10 pm.Walther Schwieger, the commanding officer of the U-boat, gave the order to fire one torpedo, which struck Lusitania on the starboard bow, just beneath the wheelhouse. Moments later, a second explosion erupted from within Lusitania's hull where the torpedo had struck, and the ship began to founder much more rapidly, with a prominent list to starboard.[69][d]

Almost immediately, the crew scrambled to launch the lifeboats but the conditions of the sinking made their usage extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible due to the ship's severe list. In all, only six out of 48 lifeboats were launched successfully, with several more overturning and breaking apart. 18 minutes after the torpedo struck, the ship's trim levelled out and she sank at position 51°24′45″N 08°32′52″W / 51.41250°N 8.54778°W / 51.41250; -8.54778, with the funnels and masts the last to disappear.[70] Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania at the time of the sinking, 1,199 lost their lives. In the hours after the sinking, acts of heroism amongst both the survivors of the sinking and the Irish rescuers who had heard word of Lusitania's distress signals brought the survivor count to 764, three of whom later died from injuries sustained during the sinking. HMS Juno sortied briefly in contravention of Royal Navy policy, but turned back believing erroneously (as initial reports suggested) that there was no "urgent necessity".[65]

By the following morning, the true scope of the disaster had spread around the world. While most of those lost in the sinking were British or Canadians, the loss of 128 Americans in the disaster, including writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard, theatrical producer Charles Frohman, multi-millionaire businessman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and the president of Newport News Shipbuilding, Albert L. Hopkins, outraged many in the United States.[71]


The New York Times article expressed the immediate recognition of the serious implications of the sinking, this lead story on 8 May having a section (below what is pictured here) titled "Nation's Course in Doubt".[72]

The sinking caused an international outcry, especially in Britain and across the British Empire, as well as in the United States, since 128 out of 139 U.S. citizens aboard the ship lost their lives.[73] On 8 May, Bernhard Dernburg, a German spokesman and a former German Colonial Secretary, published a statement in which he said that because Lusitania "carried contraband of war" and also because "she was classed as an auxiliary cruiser," Germany had a right to destroy her regardless of any passengers aboard. Dernburg claimed warnings given by the German Embassy before the sailing plus the 18 February note declaring the existence of "war zones" relieved Germany of any responsibility for the deaths of American citizens aboard. He referred to the ammunition and military goods declared on Lusitania's manifest and said that "vessels of that kind" could be seized and destroyed under the Hague Rules.[e][74]

Lusitania was indeed officially listed as an auxiliary war ship, though contrary to Tirpitz's assertion she was not armed,[75] and her cargo had included an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, and 18 cases of non-explosive fuzes, which was openly listed as such in her cargo manifest.[76][77] The day after the sinking, The New York Times published full details of the ship's military cargo.[78] Assistant Manager of the Cunard Line, Herman Winter, denied the charge that she carried munitions, but admitted that she was carrying small-arms ammunition, and that she had been carrying such ammunition for years.[76] The fact that Lusitania had been carrying shells and cartridges was not made known to the British public at the time.[79]

In the 27-page additional manifest, delivered to U.S. customs 4–5 days after Lusitania sailed from New York, and in the Bethlehem Steels papers, it is stated that the "empty shells" were in fact 1,248 boxes of filled (with metal shrapnel) 3" shell, 4 shells to the box, totalling 103,000 pounds or 50 tonnes.[65]

In the United States, public opinion was outraged; war talk was rife and pro-German elements kept quiet. The key issue was the savagery in the German failure to allow passengers to escape on life boats as required by international law.[80] In Germany, many newspapers celebrated the event as a triumph[81], though allied propaganda at times exaggerated the level of popular support[82].

During the weeks after the sinking, the issue was hotly debated within the U.S. government, and correspondence was exchanged between the U.S. and German governments. German officials continued to argue that Lusitania was a legitimate military target. German Foreign Minister Von Jagow cited the claims that she was listed as an armed merchant cruiser, she was using neutral flags and she had been ordered to ram submarines—in contravention of the Cruiser Rules.[83][84][85] Von Jagow further alleged that Lusitania had on previous voyages carried munitions and Allied troops.[86] Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz stated it was sad that many Americans "in wanton recklessness, and in spite of the warnings of our Ambassador, had embarked in this armed cruiser, heavily laden with munitions" and had died, but that Germany had been within her rights to sink the ship.[4]: 255 

President Woodrow Wilson saw his main goal as to negotiate an end to the war[87]. He was given contradictory advice: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan privately advised President Wilson that "ships carrying contraband should be prohibited from carrying passengers."[88] However Counselor Robert Lansing, an expert on international law, advised Wilson to adhere to the US's prior position of "strict accountability". All that mattered, according to Lansing, was the German responsibility for the safety of the unresisting crew and passengers of the ship. Once it was confirmed that the ship was not armed and was attacked by surprise, no warning or strategic justification can allow the violation of "the principles of law and humanity", and the US was already committed to this approach[89] Wilson would adopt Lansing's view, insisting the German government apologise for the sinking, compensate U.S. victims, and promise to avoid any similar occurrence in the future.[90] Bryan would resign, believing Wilson's approach to compromise American neutrality, to be replaced by Lansing as Secretary of State.[91]

Despite all these facts and arguments, Germany had already declared in February that all allied ships in the area would be sunk, regardless of whether they carried munitions or not. Indeed, the strategic aim of Admiral Hugo von Pohl's U-boat campaign was economic warfare against Britain, not the interception of weapons or destruction of war vessels. As in the case of the British naval blockade of Germany, "contraband of war" had expanded, in practice, to include essentially all cargo. In a February 12 order to U-boat captains, Gustav Bachmann had directed that enemy passenger vessels should be deliberately targetted, so as to create a "shock effect".[92] Thus, while outwardly Germany conducted a propaganda skirmish, within Germany there was a fierce debate, after which secret orders were issued on June 6 that rescinded Bachmann's orders and stated that deliberate attacks on ocean linears would cease. Tirpitz and Bachmann offered their resignations, but they were rejected by the Kaiser.[93]

Other passengers ships continued to be attacked and sometimes sunk, such as the SS Orduna and RMS Hesperian.[94] Targeting of ships such as Lusitania would only formally end with the sinking of ocean liner SS Arabic, with a German decision on 9 September 1915 that stated that attacks were only allowed on ships that were definitely British, while neutral ships were to be treated under the Prize Law rules, and no attacks on passenger liners were to be permitted at all.[91][95]

In January 1917, the German government announced it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare. This together with the Zimmermann Telegram pushed U.S. public opinion over the tipping point, and on 6 April 1917 the United States Congress followed President Wilson's request to declare war on Germany.[96]

After the war American interests sued the German government for compensation. In 1923, 278 claimants were initially awarded $23 million (equivalent to $320 million in 2023).[97] On February 23, 1924, it was reported that Judge Edwin B. Parker, umpire of the American–German mixed claims commission, denied 40 claims and settled on a final payout of $841,000 ($11.7 million in 2023).[97]

In 2014 a release of papers revealed that in 1982 the British government warned salvage divers of the possible presence of explosives on board. Senior diplomat Noel Marshall wrote in a memo that "Successive British governments have always maintained that there was no munitions on board the Lusitania (and that the Germans were therefore in the wrong to claim to the contrary as an excuse for sinking the ship) ... The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous." After a search of records, the Ministry of Defence said they could find no evidence to substantiate the rumours of a secret munitions store, and the internal inquiry concluded that the Lusitania was not carrying any explosives or any "special ammunition". But it was still felt to be prudent to warn the salvage company of the "obvious but real danger inherent if explosives did happen to be present", accepting that "always been public knowledge that the Lusitania's cargo included some 5,000 cases of small arms ammunition." No explosives were found by the salvage company.[9]

100th commemoration[edit]

To commemorate the centenary of the sinking, on 3 May 2015 a small fleet of ships sailed from the Isle of Man. Seven fishermen from Man, in their boat The Wanderer, had rescued 150 people from the Lusitania and were awarded medals for their participation. Two of these medals can be seen at the Leece Museum in Peel.[98]

The 100th commemoration of the sinking of the Lusitania was on 7 May 2015. To commemorate the occasion, Cunard's MS Queen Victoria undertook a voyage to Cork, Ireland.[99]


There are a number of controversies and conspiracy theories relating to the last days of Lusitania. These should be considered with the sinking of the SS Arabic just 3 months later.

British Government deliberately putting Lusitania at risk[edit]

There has long been a theory, expressed by historian and former British naval intelligence officer Patrick Beesly and authors Colin Simpson and Donald E. Schmidt among others, that Lusitania was deliberately placed in danger by the British authorities, so as to entice a U-boat attack and thereby drag the US into the war on the side of Britain.[100][101] A week before the sinking of Lusitania, Winston Churchill wrote to Walter Runciman, the President of the Board of Trade, stating that it is "most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany."[102][101]

Beesly concludes: "unless and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into the war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill's express permission and approval."[100]

At the post-sinking inquiry, Captain Turner refused to answer certain questions on the grounds of war-time secrecy imperatives. The British government continues to keep secret certain documents relating to the final days of the voyage, including certain of the signals passed between the Admiralty and Lusitania. Some authors also claim that the records that are available are often missing critical pages, and assert a number of other disputed claims:[103][104][105][106]

  1. The British authorities were aware (thanks to the secret decryption activities of Room 40) that a German submarine was in the path of Lusitania, but decided to not to divert the ship to a safer route.
  2. The authorities deliberately and maliciously refused to provide a destroyer escort.
  3. The ship was ordered to reduce speed in the war zone to make it an easy target.
  4. Such a big ship cannot be expected to sink quickly from a single torpedo strike.[citation needed]

Most historians conclude that such a conspiracy is unlikely. Room 40 intelligence was unreliable and there would be very little guarantee of a successful attack even with perfect information, as the slow speed of a submerged submarine would require the ship to pass within a few hundred yards of the attacker and torpedo attacks were unreliable at this time anyway. Churchill was speaking to Runciman in the context of offering insurance to neutral merchant shipping that Germany hoped to deter from trading with Britain and so his statements did not apply to a British liner. Any secrecy could also be explained in terms of avoiding embarrassment at ineffectual and disorganised British anti-submarine warfare measures.[107]

There was also little advantage to the US joining the war at this time, nor was American reaction certain - German submarine captains had, after all, been given deliberate orders to target passenger vessels believing this would produce an useful deterrent effect on shipping,[108] and the anti-interventionalist Secretary of State Bryan reacted to the sinking by advising President Wilson to instead simply prohibit passenger ships from carrying ammunition.[109]

War munitions[edit]

Lusitania was officially carrying among her cargo 4200 cases of rifle/machine-gun ammunition, 1,250 cases of empty shrapnel artillery shells, and the artillery fuzes for those shells stored separately. This comprised a total of 173 tons.[110][57][76][111][112][65][113] In September 2008, .303 cartridges were recovered from the wreck by diver Eoin McGarry.[114]

Additional declared material could be used for military purposes. Beesly has stated that the cargo also included 46 tons of aluminium powder, which was used in the manufacture of explosives and which was being shipped to the Woolwich Arsenal,[115][104] while Erik Larson has stated that the cargo included 50 barrels and 94 cases of aluminium powder, as well as 50 cases of bronze powder.[65] Furthermore, there 90 tons of butter and lard destined for the Royal Navy Weapons Testing Establishment in Essex. Although it was May, this lard and butter was not refrigerated; it was insured by the special government rate but the insurance was never claimed.[116]

Overall, these supplies represented around a third of the declared financial value of the cargo aboard the ship, but a relatively small volume of cargo on the ship.[113] The passenger ship was also not an efficient cargo carrier, as much smaller dedicated vessels could carry far more cargo. For example, the SS Mont-Blanc, involved in the Halifax explosion, could carry almost 3000 tons of materials despite being a tenth the size. It also may be noted that the British War Office considered the majority of US-manufactured ammunition in this period to be of poor quality and so "suitable for emergency use only", and in any case incapable of supplying consumption of over 5 million rounds per day. American ammunition contracts were cancelled in 1916.[117]

Some authors speculate on the presence of undeclared munitions. Author Steven L. Danver alleges that Lusitania was also secretly carrying a large quantity of nitrocellulose (gun cotton).[118] Additional speculation centered on a consignment of furs, sent from Dupont de Nemours, a company that also manufactured explosives,[119] though such furs were reported to have washed ashore in Ireland. Other authors have suggested that the shells were in fact live, which would mean that around 5 tonnes of cordite was on board. No evidence of additional secret explosives has so far been found.[113]

Many authors have suggested some sort of cover-up from the British or American authorities regarding the presence of the munitions.[120][121][122]. Yet the presence of the materiel was well known at the time, being made public in newspapers[123], raised in the official British inquiry,[124] and presented to President Wilson.[125] When Senator Robert M. La Follette suggested in 1917 a conspiracy where Wilson was warned that the ship carried 6 million rounds of ammunition, the New York authorities responded by providing him with the correct number.[126] It is true that due to wartime censorship, issues of ships' cargo were not discussed in the British press, though Germany's communications with the US were printed in British newspapers[127]. However, official denial of the presence of "munitions" or "special ammunition" at the time really related to a denial of the possibility that the ship was carrying cargo dangerous to the passengers[128] (hence statements like "she had on board 4200 cases of cartridges [...] they certainly do not come under the classification of ammunition"), or a denial that the ship was an armed warship ("equipped with masked guns, supplied with trained gunners and special ammunition")[10]. The position taken by the British and Americans was not that there was no war materiel, but rather that what was present aboard the ship did not remove the passengers' right to safety, which is inherently endangered when attacked the way the ship was.[129] Bailey and Ryan discuss this in detail, noting that it was common knowledge that "dozens of ships" left New York with similar or larger cargoes of small arms ammunition and other military supplies. Earlier that year, Turner captained another Cunard liner that transported 15 inch naval artillery, despite public protests from Germany.[130]

Bombardment / destruction of the wreck[edit]

The wreck was depth-charged or attacked with Hedgehog mortars by the Royal Navy during World War II.[4]: 299  A Dublin-based technical diver, Des Quigley, who dived on the wreck in the 1990s, reported that the wreck is "like Swiss cheese" and the seabed around her "is littered with unexploded hedgehog mines".[121] These attacks may have been accidental as the wreck would have registered on World War Two active sonar (then known as ASDIC) as a possible U-boat. WW2 systems were not as discriminating as modern sonar. The wreck would have presented a good return signal and, thus, a tempting target. U-boats were so active in the Southern Irish Sea in WW2 that Britain eventually placed several deep minefields in the area—at depths where only submarines would have been liable to detonate them.

In February 2009, the Discovery Channel television series Treasure Quest aired an episode titled "Lusitania Revealed", in which Gregg Bemis, a retired venture capitalist who owns the rights to the wreck, and a team of shipwreck experts explore the wreck via a remote control unmanned submersible. At one point in the documentary an unexploded depth charge was found in the wreckage.[131][132]


One of the propellers salvaged from the RMS Lusitania, located at Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool

The wreck of Lusitania was located on 6 October 1935, 11 miles (18 km) south of the lighthouse at Kinsale. It lies on its starboard side at about a 30-degree angle, in roughly 305 feet (93 m) of water. The wreck is badly collapsed onto its starboard side, due to the force with which it struck the bottom coupled with the forces of winter tides and corrosion in the decades since the sinking. The keel has an "unusual curvature" which may be related to a lack of strength from the loss of its superstructure. The beam is reduced with the funnels missing—presumably due to deterioration.[133]

The bow is the most prominent portion of the wreck with the stern damaged by depth charges. Three of the four propellers were removed by Oceaneering International in 1982 for display, though one was melted down. Expeditions to Lusitania have shown that the ship has deteriorated much faster than Titanic has, being in a depth of 305 feet (93 m) of water. When contrasted with her contemporary, Titanic (resting at a depth of 12,500 feet (3,800 m)), Lusitania appears in a much more deteriorated state due to the presence of fishing nets lying on the wreckage, the blasting of the wreck with depth charges and multiple salvage operations. As a result, the wreck is unstable and may at some point completely collapse.[133] There has been recent academic commentary exploring the possibility of listing the wreck site as a World Heritage Site under the World Heritage Convention, although challenges remain in terms of ownership and preventing further deterioration of the wreck.[134]

Simon Lake's attempt to salvage in the 1930s[edit]

Between 1931 and 1935, an American syndicate comprising Simon Lake, an important submarine inventor, and a US Navy officer, Captain H.H. Railey, negotiated a contract with the British Admiralty and other British authorities to partially salvage Lusitania.[135] The means of salvage was unique in that a 200-foot (61 m) steel tube, five feet in diameter, which enclosed stairs, and a dive chamber at the bottom would be floated out over the Lusitania wreck and then sunk upright, with the dive chamber resting on the main deck of Lusitania. Divers would then take the stairs down to the dive chamber and then go out of the chamber to the deck of Lusitania. Lake's primary business goals were to salvage the purser's safe and any items of historical value.[136] It was not to be though, and in Simon Lake's own words, "... but my hands were too full"—i.e. Lake's company was having financial difficulties at the time—and the contract with British authorities expired 31 December 1935 without any salvage work being done, even though his unique salvage tunnel had been built and tested.[137]

Argonaut expedition, 1935[edit]

Jim Jarrett wearing the Tritonia diving suit, preparing to explore the wreck of RMS Lusitania, 1935.

In 1935 a Glasgow-based expedition was launched to try to find the wreck of Lusitania. The Argonaut Corporation Ltd was founded and the salvage ship Orphir used to search for the ship.[138] After three months of searching the wreck was discovered on 6 October 1935. Diver Jim Jarrett wore a Tritonia diving suit to explore the wreck at a depth of 93 metres.[139]

Gregg Bemis's salvage efforts[edit]

In 1967, the wreck of Lusitania was sold by the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association to former US Navy diver John Light (1932–1992) for £1,000. Gregg Bemis (1928–2020) became a co-owner of the wreck in 1968, and by 1982 had bought out his partners to become sole owner. He subsequently went to court in Britain in 1986, the US in 1995 and Ireland in 1996 to ensure that his ownership was legally in force.[140][141]

None of the jurisdictions involved objected to his ownership of the vessel but in 1995 the Irish Government declared it a heritage site under the National Monuments Act, which prohibited him from in any way interfering with her or her contents. After a protracted legal wrangle, the Supreme Court in Dublin overturned the Arts and Heritage Ministry's previous refusal to issue Bemis with a five-year exploration licence in 2007, ruling that the then minister for Arts and Heritage had misconstrued the law when he refused Bemis's 2001 application. Bemis planned to dive and recover and analyse whatever artefacts and evidence could help piece together the story of what happened to the ship. He said that any items found would be given to museums following analysis. Any fine art recovered, such as the paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt and Monet among other artists believed to have been in the possession of Sir Hugh Lane, who was believed to be carrying them in lead tubes, would remain in the ownership of the Irish Government.[121]

In late July 2008, Bemis was granted an "imaging" licence by the Department of the Environment, which allowed him to photograph and film the entire wreck, and was to allow him to produce the first high-resolution pictures of her. Bemis planned to use the data gathered to assess how fast the wreck was deteriorating and to plan a strategy for a forensic examination of the ship, which he estimated would cost $5m. Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) was contracted by Bemis to conduct the survey. The Department of the Environment's Underwater Archaeology Unit was to join the survey team to ensure that research would be carried out in a non-invasive manner, and a film crew from the Discovery Channel was also to be on hand.[142]

A dive team from Cork Sub Aqua Club, diving under licence, discovered 15,000 rounds of the .303 (7.7×56mmR) calibre rifle ammunition transported on Lusitania in boxes in the bow section of the ship. The find was photographed but left in situ under the terms of the licence.[143]

A salvage dive in July 2016 recovered, then lost, a telegraph machine from the ship. This caused controversy, because the dive was unsupervised by anyone with archaeological expertise and because the telegraph was thought to have clues to the ship's sinking.[144][145]

The joint American-German TV production, Sinking of the Lusitania: Terror at Sea premiered on the Discovery Channel on 13 May 2007, and on BBC One in the UK on 27 May 2007.[citation needed] In November 2018, Bemis was interviewed for one hour on live radio about the Lusitania, revealing previously unknown information about her sinking, including inter alia that many depth charges have been found at the wreckage site, that at least one has been brought to the surface, that some of the original art presumed to be lost in wreckage may not have been, and that additional evidence Churchill may have acted to provoke Germany into attacking the Lusitania has been overlooked. He also talked about some of the logistical complications in conducting a maritime archaeological expedition to penetrate the hull.[146]

Diving accidents[edit]

A number of technical divers attempting to dive at the Lusitania wreckage site have been seriously injured.[147] Mixed gases must be used to reach the wreckage which purportedly is littered with British depth charges and hedgehog mines, covered in fishing nets, stocked with WWI munitions, and where sediment limits visibility.

1984 British legal action[edit]

In 1982, various items were recovered from the wreck and brought ashore in the United Kingdom from the cargo of Lusitania. Complex litigation ensued, with all parties settling their differences apart from the salvors and the British government, which asserted "droits of admiralty" over the recovered items. The judge eventually ruled in The Lusitania, [1986] QB 384, [1986] 1 All ER 1011, that the Crown has no rights over wrecks outside British territorial waters, even if the recovered items are subsequently brought into the United Kingdom.[f] As of 1998}, the case remained the leading authority on this point of law.[148][needs update]

Cultural significance[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The ship's overall length is often misquoted at either 785 or 790 feet.[1]
  2. ^ Referred to in Lusitania, by Preston (2002a), and Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography by Layton (2010).
  3. ^ New photographic evidence presented in Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography.Layton (2010)
  4. ^ From Beesly (1982, pp. 84–85): U-20 log entry transcript. Log first published in L'illustration in 1920
  5. ^ From NY Times & 9 May 1915, p. 4); "Justification of the sinking of the liner Lusitania by German submarines as a man of war was advanced today by Dr Bernhard Dernburg, former German Colonial Secretary and regarded as the Kaiser's official mouthpiece in the United States. Dernburg gave out a statement at the Hollenden Hotel following his arrival in Cleveland to address the City Club at noon on Germany's attitude in the present war."
  6. ^ Section 518 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (57 & 58 Vict. c. 60) had originally applied to wrecks found or taken possession of within UK territorial limits, but section 72 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1906 (6 Edw. 7. c. 48) extended that provision to wrecks later brought into those limits; the court held that as there was no duty on the salvors to bring the wreck into UK waters, the Crown had no rights to wreck, or under the ancient royal prerogative relating to "wreck of the sea throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm" (Prerogativa Regis (temp. incert.)).


  1. ^ a b c Atlantic Liners.
  2. ^ "The Lusitania Resource: Lusitania Passengers & Crew, Facts & History". Rmslusitania.info. Archived from the original on 8 July 2019. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Ballard, Robert D.; Archbold, Rick; Marshall, Ken (2005). The Lost Ships of Robert Ballard. Toronto: Ontario: Madison Press Books. ISBN 978-1-59223-424-0.
  4. ^ a b c d e King, Greg; Wilson, Penny (2015). Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of the Edwardian Age}. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-250-05254-4.
  5. ^ a b c Davidson 1997, p. 89.
  6. ^ a b Butler 2003, p. 215.
  7. ^ a b Carlisle 2009, p. 73.
  8. ^ a b Tucker & Roberts 2005, p. 1146.
  9. ^ a b The Guardian & 1 May 2014.
  10. ^ a b "Second U.S. Protest over the Sinking of the Lusitania".
  11. ^ Ramsay 2001, pp. 6–10.
  12. ^ J.P. Morgan and the Transportation Kings: The Titanic and Other Disasters. p. 200. ISBN 978-6-613-65675-9.
  13. ^ Ramsay 2001, pp. 12–17.
  14. ^ Venzon & Miles 1995, p. 357.
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  46. ^ Full text of "The Hudson-Fulton celebration, 1909, the fourth annual report of the Hudson-Fulton celebration commission to the Legislature of the state of New York. Transmitted to the Legislature, May twentieth, nineteen ten". 1910.
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Newspapers, journals and other media[edit]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by Holder of the Blue Riband (Westbound record)
Succeeded by
Preceded by Blue Riband (Eastbound record)