One hundred years ago on May 7, just ten months after the start of the First World War, the British luxury liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in just 20 minutes. Out of nearly 2,000 passengers and crew only 764 survived. The dead included 123 Americans.
To mark this tragic anniversary, I am reading the much-acclaimed new book by Erik Larson–Dead Wake: The Lusitania’s Last Crossing.
The Lusitania was the most luxurious and technologically advanced liner of its day. It was, enthused one early passenger, “a perfect epitome of all man knows or has discovered or invented up to this moment of time.”
More to the point, in 1915 it was also the fastest civilian vessel on the seas. It could sustain a top speed of more than 25 knots, or about 35 miles an hour. The top speed for a U-boat, in contrast, was only 15 knots, and that was on the surface, using twin diesel engines. Submerged, the crew’s need for oxygen meant that it had to rely on battery-powered engines that could deliver only nine knots, maximum, and then only for short periods.
The notion that the Lusitania could easily outrun any U-boat bred a dangerous overconfidence on the part of the war-time passengers. And it was this overconfidence that struck me most in reading Mr. Larson’s excellent and suspenseful account.
How, just three years after the loss of the “unsinkable” Titanic, could the Cunard line and its passengers be so blasé about sailing through a war zone? The very morning before the Lusitania pulled out of harbor, the Imperial German Embassy in Washington published a brief but intimidating notice in the shipping pages of New York’s newspapers. The notice reminded potential passengers that a state of war existed between Germany and Britain and that the war zone included “the waters adjacent to the British Isles.” Further, ships flying the British flag were “liable to destruction” in those waters. The notice ended with the sharp warning that passengers traveling on British ships did so “at their own risk.”
According to Mr. Larson, a reporter who interviewed a number of the Lusitania’s passengers before the ship cast off found that most had not read the warning.
He also found that those who had read it—and those to whom he showed the copy he carried with him—discounted it for three main reasons. First, the Lusitania was faster than any U-boat. Second, even though the Germans had trampled neutral Belgium in their drive for a knockdown blow on Paris, and had committed savage atrocities along the way, they would surely not be so uncivilized as to sink a civilian vessel with women and children on board. And third, as soon as the Lusitania entered British territorial waters, the Royal Navy would be bound to provide protection.
But as with the unsinkable Titanic, the unsinkable Lusitania would also fall victim to circumstances unforeseen and plain bad luck.
To begin with, the ship’s sailing was delayed for two hours in order to take on passengers from another vessel that had been commandeered by the Admiralty. Absent that delay, the Lusitania and the U-boat would likely have missed each other in the fog—as they would have if the fog had persisted for half an hour longer.
Similarly—and unbeknownst to the passengers—the Lusitania’s captain had been forced to shut down one of the vessel’s boiler rooms as an economy measure. This cut the ship’s maximum speed from 25 knots to 21. Traveling at 25 knots, and covering an additional 110 miles a day, the ship would have been safe in Liverpool before the fatal U-boat was even close.
The unfortunate coincidences multiplied. British intelligence had broken the German naval code and was tracking the movements of U-boats. But, for reasons that remain unclear to this day, the Lusitania was never provided with an escort, diverted to a safer route or even given adequate warning of the danger—only a vague alert that read, “Submarines active in the Southern part of Irish channel…”
Shortly after that message was received, the Lusitania’s captain made a turn to starboard that unwittingly put him right in the path of the U-boat. That led to the final irony of all: the torpedo worked perfectly. At the time, the failure rate of torpedoes for the German navy was 60 percent.
Thus, not for the first or the last time in the Great War of 1914-18, the “unthinkable” happened.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.