RMS Lusitania

Missing image
RMS Mauretania, the Lusitania's sister ship

The RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner of the British Cunard Steamship Lines. It was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, on her 202nd crossing of the Atlantic; an incident that played a role in the United States' entry into World War I.



  • Gross register tonnage: 31,550 tons (89 340 m3)
  • Length: 232.3 m (762.2 ft)
  • Beam: 26.75 m (87.8 ft)
  • Number of funnels: 4
  • Number of masts: 2
  • Construction: Steel
  • Propulsion: Quadruple screw, four direct-acting Parsons steam turbines
  • Service speed: 25 kt (46 km/h)
  • Builder: John Brown & Co. Ltd, Glasgow
  • Launch date: June 7 1906
  • Passenger accommodation: 563 first class, 464 second class, 1,138 third class

The ship pictured is Lusitania's sister ship, the Mauretania. The artist is known to have switched the names on publicity pictures occasionally.

Comparison with the Titanic, Britannic, Olympic

The Lusitania, and her sister ship, the Mauretania, were smaller than the White Star Line vessels RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic. Though similarly luxurious, they were significantly faster. Their greater speed meant that Cunard could provide a weekly trans-Atlantic departure schedule using just two vessels. The slower White Star Line vessels required three sister ships in order to maintain a weekly departure schedule.

Another way the classes of ships differed was in the how they were divided by water-tight bulkheads. The Titanic and her sister ships were divided solely by bulkheads that were perpendicular to their keels. In contrast, the Lusitania and Mauretania also included a longitudinal bulkhead that ran from bow to stern.

Ironically, the British commission that looked into the loss of life from the Titanic disaster concluded that the death toll would have been smaller if the Titanic had incorporated a longitudinal bulkhead. But in this case, the Lusitania's longitudinal bulkhead contributed to the loss of life. The Lusitania was long and narrow, and having a hole on one side led to the vessel rapidly listing to one side. Her lifeboats were approximately 20 metres above the sea. Furthermore, a small list considerably complicated launching the lifeboats—the lifeboats on the low side of the ship swung out too far to conveniently step aboard. While it was still possible to board the lifeboats on the high side of the ship, lowering them presented a terrible problem. Typically for this period of time, the hull plates of the Lusitania were fastened with large rivets. The lifeboats dragged on these rivets, as they were lowered, and threatened to rip them apart.


German medal recognizing the sinking of the Lusitania
German medal recognizing the sinking of the Lusitania

The Lusitania, a British cargo and passenger ship, was sunk by a German submarine within sight of the coast of Southern Ireland in May 1915. It was here that Captain Turnerís ill-fated ship was thrown into darkness.

The ship had been hit by a torpedo, fired from a U-boat 700 yards (640 m) distant, causing an explosion in the ship, said at the time to have been triggered by dust residue from what remained of the ship's 6,000 tons of coal fuel. Another possibility was that the sudden force of cold sea water pouring onto the hot steam boilers could have caused a massive explosion. This was widely believed to be a danger at the time. In the Titanic's case, great care was taken to vent boilers before the sea could reach them. However, during WWI and WWII, many steamships sank with their boilers under pressure without explosion.

The submarine U-20, commanded by Captain Walther Schweiger, seemed to be on a routine and uneventful journey, until it encountered the prestigious target.

The Lusitania was principally a luxury passenger liner built to convey people and property between England and the United States.

It is now known that a secret warning, given to the ship's wealthiest passengers, reported that U-boat activity was to be expected and advised the same not to travel.

There was also a public warning given by the Imperial German Embassy:


TRAVELERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. <p> IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY Washington, D.C. April 22, 1915 </blockquote> The Lusitania, like a number of liners of the era, was part of a subsidy scheme meant to convert ships into Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC) if requisitioned by the government. This involved structural provisions for mounting deck guns. The British government never used the largest liners, such as the Lusitania, in this role, for it was decided that such large vessels used too much coal, presented too large a target and put at risk large crews. Smaller liners were used as AMCs, and indeed, the blockade by Germany was enforced on such vessels. The large liners were either not requisitioned (such as the Lusitania) or were used for troop transport or as hospital ships. Part of the cargo was in fact military in nature: 4,200,000 rounds of Remington .303 rifle cartridges, 1250 cases of shrapnel shells and eighteen cases of fuzes. While these numbers might seem large, the physical size of the cargo would have been quite small. It is often argued that the presence of military cargo made Lusitania a justifiably legitimate target. Six days after setting out, on May 7 1915, the Lusitania was too slow in noticing both the periscope and torpedo of the German submarine in her wake. The Allies saw the ship's sinking as yet another example of the "barbarity" of the German war machine, particularly in the context of Germany's actions in occupied France and Belgium. Infamously, Munich metalworker Karl Goetz struck commemorative medallions, apparently celebrating the sinking as a triumph of the German navy over the British. The German government launched an inquiry after learning of the medals through the British press. Goetz defended his medals as satire, but the government had their distribution halted. British propagandists pre-commissioned Selfridges of London to make several thousand copies of the medal, which then were sold to benefit the British Red Cross.


The Lusitania is reported to have carried, under the guise of bales of fur and cheese boxes, 3" (76mm) shells and millions of rounds of rifle ammunition. If true, these materials comprised "a contraband and explosive cargo which was forbidden by American law and… should never have been placed on a passenger liner" (Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania. Little, Brown and Company, Boston., 1972; 157-158).

Many of Simpson's claims are under scrutiny and rebutted by Bailey and Ryan in their book The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy.

The Lusitania also carried 46 tons of aluminum powder headed for the Woolrich Arsenal. The powder may have been thrown into the air by the torpedo impact and, as it settled, reached the critical explosion point, triggering the second explosion which usually has been considered fatal to the ship.

Other theories as to the source of the second explosion have been a coal dust explosion, boiler explosion, steam line fracture, or even a second torpedo. The Germans denied the last of these options, but the subsequent doctoring of the submarine journal casts suspicion on the one-torpedo claim. In 1960, an American named John Light led a series of dives on the wreck. He claimed to have found a gaping hole in her side and professed that the Lusitania’s contraband cargo had exploded, thus causing the tragedy. Light conducted over 80 dives but, due to the primitive technology of the time, was unable to stay on the wreck for more than a few minutes a dive and could only glimpse fragments of the enormous hull. In the 1990s, famed explorer Robert Ballard, the man who found Titanic, used a submarine to explore the wreckage more intently. Ballard said he could not find the hole Light spoke of, and he advanced the coal dust explosion theory. Many pointed out that Light had seen the wreck when it was still in relatively good condition, while Ballard did not. By the 1990s, the funnels of the ship had completely rusted away, and the hull had collapsed to half its original size. It appears the sinking of the Lusitania will remain always a mystery of the sea.

(O'Sullivan, Patrick. The Lusitania: Unravelling the Mysteries. Sheridan House, 2000) (Ballard, Robert D. and Spencer Dunmore. Exploring the Lusitania. Warner Books, 1995) (Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Berkley Books, 2002)

Passengers and Crew

Captain Turner, it is told, was equally impatient with scholars and millionaires, but listened to the protestations of one passenger, who had approached him expressing his concerns for their safety and lamenting the lack of a passenger drill.

Professor Ian S. Holbourn, the Laird of Foula (Shetland Isle, Scotland), had insisted that the Captain order lifeboat drills and that more such precautions be taken. His efforts to stimulate a little spirited safety awareness (during a time of war) were nothing if not vindicated by the widespread panic that was to be observed when the lights went out.

To his credit, Holbourn guided some panic stricken passengers to his cabin where he fitted them with life belts, even offering up his own, then steered them through the dark, tilting passageways to the decks above and the safety of a lifeboat.

Avis Dolphin, the youngest in this party, was escorted by her nursemaids Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith. Having found a lifeboat for the child and her nurses, the Professor dived into the freezing ocean to find himself surrounded by a mass of bodies and wreckage.

His hope of reaching the nearest boat was interrupted when he was compelled, by his innate humanity, to aid a man who was floating helplessly nearby. By the time Holbourn found his way to a boat, the man he had pulled along with him was dead.

Transferred from the Wanderer of Peel to the Stormcock, Holbourn, along with many other wet and injured survivors, was amongst the first of the 764 rescued to arrive at Queenstown that night.

On March 1, 1916, a full ten months after the event, Cunard Steamship Company announced the official death toll of 1,195.

With his recent insights into the largely hushed up events surrounding the RMS Oceanic off Foula, Professor Holbourn was aware of the imminent dangers presented by transatlantic crossings during the early months of the Great War and, to some extent, was prepared to face the worst.

Some well-known people who perished on the Lusitania:

The bodies of many of the 1,195 drowned in the sinking are buried in a Lusitania plot in Cobh.


  • Ballard, R.D., & Dunmore, S. (1995). Exploring the Lusitania. New York: Warner Books.
  • O'Sullivan, P. (2000). The Lusitania: Unravelling the Mysteries. New York: Sheridan House.
  • Preston, D. (2002). Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Waterville: Thorndike Press.

See also

External links

nl:RMS Lusitania fi:RMS Lusitania

pl:RMS Lusitania


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