This Day in History: Germans torpedo and sink RMS Lusitania
On this day in 1915 American newspapers report startling news: A passenger liner, the RMS Lusitania, had been torpedoed by a German U-boat! Some of the casualties were American.
Were the Germans trying to goad America into joining World War I? Why were ammunition and war supplies in the ship’s cargo in the first place? Did the British secretly want Americans pushed out of their neutrality? Or was the tragedy simply the result of bad timing? British naval operations may have been running less efficiently that week because Britain’s top naval officer, Winston Churchill, was then in Paris.
Speculation has run rampant about why so much went wrong. Either way, Lusitania found itself in dangerous waters near Ireland on May 7, and a German torpedo hit the ship at 2:10 p.m. that day. (See yesterday’s history post.)
No one seemed to know what to do. Some people ran to retrieve life jackets. Some strolled on the deck, smoking cigarettes, still not believing they were in danger. Others ran for lifeboats, but the lifeboats could not be launched while the ship was moving so fast.
And the captain could not get the ship to stop.
Parents found themselves in especially difficult situations that day. One woman, Norah Bretherton, was pregnant and traveling alone with two young children. When the torpedo hit, her daughter was upstairs in the “play yard.” Her son was alone in the cabin, taking a nap. Which child should she retrieve first? She ran for her daughter, who was younger. After retrieving her, she passed the toddler off to a stranger so she could go below deck for her son.
In the meantime, above deck, it soon became apparent that the ship was in grave danger. The list in the ship caused the lifeboats to hang badly askew. It was difficult to get in safely and nearly impossible to launch them. People fell into the sea and died, just trying to get into lifeboats.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, some people decided that it was actually safer to jump into the sea at the last minute. One passenger, George Hook, had been making the trip with his daughter and son. The three stood on the side of the ship, waiting for the right moment to jump. As the ship went down, only 18 minutes after it had been hit, the three jumped together. Hook and his daughter, Elsie, soon surfaced and found each other. The son, Frank, did not.
For hours, the survivors floated in the ocean, waiting for help to come. Many relied on life jackets: Only 6 of Lusitania’s 22 conventional lifeboats had been launched before the ship sank. Many passengers escaped Lusitania, only to die of hypothermia in the cold water.
The British Admiralty was hesitant to send immediate help. What if the German submarine was hovering nearby, waiting to torpedo another ship?
In the end, it took three hours for help to arrive. A total of 1,195 people would die, and only 764 would survive.
One of the casualties was Alfred Vanderbilt, who had narrowly avoided going down with Titanic just a few years earlier. His body was never recovered, but other bodies would wash ashore for weeks. Some families were reunited. Some were not.
After the rescue, George and Elsie Hook spent days looking through rows of dead bodies before they finally found Frank in a hospital. Frank was alive and well except for a broken leg. But Bretherton, the mother who’d passed her daughter off to a stranger, would not be so fortunate. She’d found a spot in a lifeboat with her son, but she’d been unable to find her little girl again before escaping the sinking ship. Her little Betty was Body No. 156 pulled out of the water.
The human cost of the tragedy was overwhelming. If Germany had been trying to provoke America into war, it soon succeeded.
Colin Simpson, The Lusitania (1972)
Des Hickey & Gus Smith, Seven Days to Disaster: The Sinking of the Lusitania (1982)
Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015)
George Will, A Century Later, a New Look at the Sinking of the Lusitania (May 3, 2015)
The Lusitania Sank in 18 Minutes, But its Passengers Suffered for Longer (Smithsonian YouTube Channel)