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This Day in History: RMS Lusitania is torpedoed by a German U-boat

On this day in 1915, the RMS Lusitania is torpedoed by a German U-boat. Shockingly, Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people, including 123 Americans, were killed.

Lusitania, by Norman Wilkinson

How could a civilian passenger ship become a casualty of war? Americans were outraged. Indeed, the tragedy was one domino that fell, eventually prompting the United States to enter World War I.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that more precautions should have been taken. Mere hours before Lusitania was scheduled to depart, a warning from the German Embassy appeared in the New York Times: “[Travelers] are reminded that a state of war exists . . . [and] vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction . . . .”

Some of Lusitania’s passengers saw the notice, but they didn’t seem too worried. Wouldn’t the Royal Navy protect them? Lusitania had made 201 crossings of the Atlantic already, and she was the fastest civilian ship available. A German submarine would not be able to catch them or harm the ship.

Or so everyone thought.

On May 1, nearly 2,000 passengers and crew boarded the ship. Despite the warning, many were comfortable enough to bring their children and small babies with them. Only two people canceled the trip specifically because of the German threat.

The Atlantic crossing was largely routine, but matters were more serious on the other side of the ocean. British authorities had information suggesting that German submarines could be in the area near Ireland. They still weren’t very worried about Lusitania, though. Instead, the British began rerouting their battleships. Lusitania ploughed on ahead, little knowing just how dangerous the waters ahead would turn out to be.

The first indicator of trouble came late on May 6 when Lusitania’s Captain, William Thomas Turner, received a message: “Submarines active off South Coast of Ireland.” Turner never received word, however, of other vessels in the area that had already been attacked. Nor did he receive word that a new, safer route had been opened to the north.

Still, the danger seemed mostly theoretical. Trouble didn’t begin until the afternoon of May 7, as Lusitania approached Ireland. If only Captain Turner had known that he’d been spotted by the German captain, Walther Schwieger! He didn’t, though, and he ended up changing his course in a way that enabled the slower German submarine to catch up with him.

At 2:10 p.m., Schwieger fired a torpedo at Lusitania. Yes, he knew the ship was “made out to be a large passenger steamer.” To be fair, Lusitania was carrying ammunition and other war supplies, and the Germans may have suspected this type of activity.

But Schwieger was still killing civilians, and he knew it.

One passenger observed a “streak of froth” coming across the placid ocean water. “I did not think that anybody,” he later said, “even women and children, were so much terrified as they were astounded and stunned by the consciousness that the fears, cherished half in ridicule for five days previous, had at last been realized.”

The Germans hadn’t been bluffing. Their warning was real!

As the torpedo slammed into Lusitania, the force of the explosion sent seawater and debris spewing into the air. The ship had been moving forward at a speed of 18 knots. Now that speed ensured that water would be forced into the ship more quickly. Worse, a second explosion soon shook the ship. The source of this explosion may have been the ammunition in Lusitania’s hold.

What happened next? Naturally, the story continues tomorrow.

Primary Sources:

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