The Lusitania; When A German Sub Torpedoed A Civilian Ship Carrying Americans

The air was crisp off the shores of Ireland on May 7, 1915. As the passengers from the Lusitania jumped from the deck into the freezing water, they knew they’d taken a risk.

The ship they’d sailed in from New York would sink along with most of the lifeboats and passengers because it was going down so fast. The vessel had not only taken a direct torpedo hit, there was a second explosion hastening its demise.

It took only 18 minutes to go under.

Even the German embassy had put out word via the newspaper that traveling in the Lusitania was a risk. The Germans were keeping a tight watch on the sea around England.

To make matters worse, they believed the Lusitania would arrive in Europe with more than passengers, but munitions as well.

The Lusitania

Although the Lusitania may remind you of the Titanic, it was older and smaller.

There were also construction differences between the two classes of ship. Titanic and her sister ships, they designed with sealed compartments, which did not run the length of the boat.

The idea was that they would be able to contain any breaches, preventing catastrophe. The RMS Lusitania did not have those safety provisions, but it was lighter so it could travel faster.

Like the Titanic, it had insufficient lifeboats, but that would not matter when it went down. There wouldn’t be enough time to get into them anyway.

The trip from New York to England was fewer than five days if the wind was favorable. This was faster than many military boats, including German submarines, a fact not lost on the hopeful captain on the seventh of May.

The Voyage

When passengers arrived in New York on May 1, their captain, William Turner, laughed at a German attack. The Germans had declared unrestricted submarine warfare off the shores of Britain.

“It’s the best joke I’ve heard in many days,” he said.

The newspapers in the London labeled the notion a bluff from Berlin. For the first few days of the voyage, there was no story to tell. It was smooth sailing.

On May 6, they approached the water outside England. The Captain had the word of U-boats (German subs) patrolling the seas around England, but he was not concerned. He was in the Lusitania, a titan compared to a wimpy U-boat.

The Attack

The German submarine U-20 was purportedly about the waters in front of Lusitania. Not heeding the warning, the captain proceeded in a direct line to the ship’s destination.

Had he made any moves to outsmart U-20, it might have worked. The Lusitania was faster and more maneuverable.

The owners of the ship had outfitted her with guns, but they were not loaded for this trip, nor could they have stopped the torpedo spotted by the crew of the Lusitania. By the time they saw it, the damage was unstoppable.

The Germans had made good on their promise. The torpedo shook the boat with a blast so hard, as one passenger characterized it, the boat shook like a leaf.

Passengers no more than felt the torpedo strike when a second explosion, either from a boiler or trapped dust, blew so hard the ship split and sank, killing 1,198 on board.

The Aftermath

The Germans claimed the Lusitania was carrying munitions, but the British denied it, even years after the war ended.

Of the 1,198 killed that day, 128 were Americans. The pubic outcry from American citizens was to join the war, something Woodrow Wilson refused to do.

He let Germany off with an apology and promise for a more tempered patrol of the seas, a peace that would only last for two years. Americans expressed their outrage.

The Germans had sunk a civilian boat with no weapons or supplies for the war.

In 1984, researchers found the remains of the Lusitania, confirming that among the wreck were massive scores of ammunition. What they found was an inventory of 4.2 million rounds of rifle ammunition, 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells and 18 cases of non-explosive fuses en route to the western front.

Did the Germans get lucky? Did they guess the Lusitania housed munitions or did they have good intel? If they had intel, how’d they get such sensitive intelligence? Did the captain know or did the war machine give him plausible deniability by keeping him out of the loop? So many questions to which we will never know the truth.

On April 2, 1916, re-elected President Wilson, who had run a campaign on the premise that he’d kept America out of the war, made a tough decision.

The Germans reneged on their promises, sank more civilian vessels, even threatened to partner with Mexico against the U.S. We had no choice but to fight.

Her final resting place |

Sources:,, History Place