A tragic Atlantic encounter

Anthony Richards uses first-hand testimony to recreate the dying moments of the stricken Lusitania on 7 May 1915.

The Lusitania sinks, 1915. Image: Anthony Richards/Anthony Richards’ collection
The Lusitania sinks, 1915. Image: Anthony Richards/Anthony Richards’ collection

Braced against the conning tower of German submarine U-20, Captain Walther Schwieger was no doubt appreciating the novelty of fresh air and sunshine as his vessel sped across the surface of the sea. Approaching land, he could just make out the southern Irish coast in the distance. It was the morning of 7 May 1915, and his crew had been hunting British merchant ships for the past week.

Suddenly a potential target appeared on the horizon. It seemed too good to be true. The sleek, four-funnelled profile was that of Cunard’s most famous passenger liner, Lusitania, on the final leg of her voyage home from New York to Liverpool.

One of the fastest ships ever built, the liner epitomised British naval dominance, while also representing their conceit in continuing to operate commercial sailings in spite of the war. To sink such a vessel, moreover, would constitute a clear challenge to the British naval blockade that was choking Germany’s maritime trade.

U-20 slid beneath the waves in readiness for attack.

LOOKOUT DUTY

On board Lusitania, 18-year-old Leslie Morton was on duty as a lookout. Leslie had worked at sea since the age of 13, but now, keen to serve his country in the war, had decided to return home.

It was a beautiful day. The sea was like glass. And as we were going to be in Liverpool the next day, everybody felt very happy. We hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the threat to sink her because we didn’t think it was possible.

The first ten minutes I walked up and down, keeping a keen lookout, and ten past two I saw a disturbance in the water, obviously the air coming up from a torpedo tube, and I saw two torpedoes running towards the ship, fired diagonally across the course, and the Lucy was making about 16 knots at the time.

I reported them to the bridge with a megaphone we had, to say ‘Torpedoes are coming on the starboard side’. And by the time I’d had the time to turn round and have another look, they hit her amidships between number 2 and 3 funnels.

Morton remained certain that he had seen two torpedoes, but only one had actually been fired. This error was most likely influenced by the two explosions that subsequently occurred: one due to the immediate impact of the torpedo, with a second, much larger detonation following almost immediately afterwards, due to an unknown cause.

In any case, as the torpedo’s 350lbs of explosive detonated against the hull of Lusitania, massive amounts of water and debris were thrown upwards over the deck.

IN THE DINING ROOM

Jane Lewis was with her family in the Second Class dining room on ‘D’ deck at the moment when the initial explosion occurred. The second sitting for lunch was just coming to an end, and the saloon would have been full of the hustle and bustle of chatting diners and busy waiters.

The most vivid scene was when it all first started, when the first explosion came… Everybody was frightened then and panicked. The people came pouring through the dining room from the other part of the ship. People fell down, people walked over them… you couldn’t do anything because the boat was going sideways.

And we got out, luckily, because we were near the door. Had we not been by that door, we would never have got out, because of the stream of people that came down the dining room – there were others following at the back – and the people were stepped on and walked on. That was the most terrible thing to me. It was a long time before I could get over that. They just couldn’t help themselves. The crowd was too strong.

A second, larger, internal explosion followed on the starboard side, and Lusitania began to list dramatically in that direction. Still in motion, the ship was also dipping forward, making the list even more noticeable.

The liner’s master, Captain William Turner, immediately ordered a course hard to starboard in order to turn them more decisively towards the Irish coast, clearly visible some 14 miles away. It was obvious that Lusitania was going to sink and Turner therefore gave the order to abandon ship, yet he had every reason to believe that the liner would remain afloat for some time to allow her passengers and crew the opportunity to escape.

The warning notice printed in New York newspapers on the morning of the Lusitania’s scheduled departure on her final voyage, 1 May 1915. Image: Anthony Richards/Anthony Richards’ collection.
The warning notice printed in New York newspapers on the morning of the Lusitania’s scheduled departure on her final voyage, 1 May 1915. Image: Anthony Richards/Anthony Richards’ collection.

LIFEBOAT DISASTER

Within a short space of time, passengers began to assemble on deck and fasten their life-jackets. Everything appeared to be done in an orderly fashion, yet an immense problem was to be faced in trying to launch the ship’s lifeboats.

With the boats already swung out ready on each side of the vessel, the dramatic list to starboard meant that those on the port side had now swung inwards against the hull, making them virtually impossible to launch.

The liner was also still moving at a fair speed, her engines damaged by the explosions and failing to respond. Turner therefore judged it best to avoid launching the lifeboats for the time being, and issued an order to stop any being prepared.

For a few minutes, most passengers accepted this, and it was not until the list became more noticeable that they began to question the wisdom of simply standing about in readiness. Few realised the danger involved in launching a lifeboat while the ship was still in motion.

Unfortunately, anxiety and general confusion among the passengers led to the Captain’s orders not being followed on the port side. Two lifeboats were released. Both swung sharply and struck the side of Lusitania, crushing those passengers and crew who happened to be standing on the boat deck, before sliding down the deck and smashing into the area immediately under the bridge.

This tragic and wholly unnecessary incident killed and maimed many passengers and crew, including, most likely, a good number of women and children who would have been waiting patiently for a place in the boats.

PANIC

Further chaos ensued as officers tried desperately to stop passengers getting into lifeboats elsewhere or attempting to launch them themselves. Despite the crew’s best efforts, they were overwhelmed by desperate and angry people anxious to flee the sinking ship. Three further lifeboats on the port side suffered the same fate as the earlier ones, smashing against the side of the ship, before plunging into the water or sliding down the deck to add to the splintered debris and loss of life.

In one of these boats was passenger Ambrose Cross.

A steward or someone told me to jump in and I did. There was no crush on deck at all. Then the boat wouldn’t move.

Someone asked where the hatchet was, and no one knew. Then there was a slight rush from within and I remember helping in a lady in a violet costume. Then a big man with a lifebelt on precipitated himself on to me with great force, and that tore it.

Down went the boat, but we had such a big list to starboard by that time that she struck against the ship, and I think she must have smashed, for, after spending a brief time under water and being kicked and buffeted by fellow victims, I came up among what looked like the remnants of a boat.

By now the list had increased to a dramatic 25º, yet the crew were experiencing some small success in launching lifeboats on the starboard side. Some boats were still lowered too quickly, however, and smashed to pieces, while others were lowered unequally, resulting in their passengers being tipped out into the sea below.

This contemporary postcard shows the second, internal explosion in the form of a second torpedo strike, in line with common belief at the time. In fact, the Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo. Image: Anthony Richards
This contemporary postcard shows the second, internal explosion in the form of a second torpedo strike, in line with common belief at the time. In fact, the Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo. Image: Anthony Richards

FINAL MOMENTS

In those final moments on board Lusitania, each passenger took what opportunities they could to escape. Jane Lewis, accompanied by her husband and daughter, had made her way to one of the lower decks.

My husband said he’d better go down to the cabin and get lifebelts. I said, ‘No, you’re not going down… if you go down there you’ll never get up again. If we’re going, we’re all going together.’

Well we stayed there, and then there was a lifeboat, one small boat, in the water. It was tied or fastened to something. Then we got into the boat but you couldn’t get away, and not any of the men could find a penknife on them. They seemed to have lost them all.

[The rope broke and] so we got away eventually at last… I was thrown into the boat because we had to be quick.

Stewardess May Bird escaped, despite the starboard list still confounding the launch of the boats.

Of course there wasn’t enough lifeboats for everybody because we could only use one side.

People were jumping overboard, getting a hold of deckchairs, floats, and that kind of thing. Some of them were jumping over, they didn’t wait for the boats to be lowered. Well, the boat I got into was the last boat, and I was the last person on deck to get into one.

Only the fact that the officer in charge recognised her as one of the ship’s stewardesses enabled her to escape.

When he saw who it was he said, ‘Well, can you jump?’ And it was rather a long jump, and I said I’d try. And I jumped into the middle of the lifeboat.

The lifeboat had gone down past the davits, and of course it was a very long jump. I should say about 15 feet. But I managed it.

The officer was the only other member of the crew in the lifeboat. So he found rowing very difficult and asked, ‘Is there anybody here that can row?’ Well, I was the only other person who could row, so I took an oar…

By this time, the ship was listing very badly and almost leaning on top of us, so we had to row very, very quickly away. But not before we were showered with soot from the ship’s funnels. It came all over us. But we managed to get away safely.

Of course it was a very sad sight to see hundreds and hundreds of people in the water, screaming for help, hanging onto deckchairs, hanging on to anything, begging to be taken into the boat when we dare not do it. Had we taken one more in we should have all been drowned. But it was a terrible sight, there were hundreds of them.

LAST ESCAPES

Passenger Archie Donald had delayed his escape until the very last moment.

I stood for a moment and immediately considered what was the best thing to do, and I remember wondering why I was not frightened; my brain seemed to be perfectly clear, and the thoughts seemed to crystallise at once.

Looking along the side of the ship with all the boats swung out, I saw the ship was going very quickly down, and that the boat deck-rail and the water were rushing as it were towards me.

Then I thought that it was time for me to leave the ship, so getting a steward to tie on my lifebelt, I put my money, which consisted of about £8, in my sock.

I started to take off my shoes, but found that there was no time. Jumping down about 12 feet in the water, I of course went underneath, but with the buoyancy of the lifebelt soon came to the surface.

As I looked behind me I saw the ship – the propellers and rudder were completely in mid-air, and then, with an explosion and the rattling of all the loose material leaving her deck, she began to take the last plunge.

Going over sideways, I had great fear the mast was going to hit me, and my brain wondered whether the stay ropes were made of hemp and rope or wire – a most absurd thing to think of, but details seemed to flash on one’s mind in these times. It missed me by 15 feet.

Then a tidal wave, perhaps 3 feet high, picked me up and shot me out into the calm water. The suction or vortex drew me down. I came to the surface and opposite me there shot up an 8 × 8 foot post and also a 2 × 6 foot plank; if they had hit me, they would most probably have killed me or broken a limb. However, I seemed to be guarded, and they missed me by a few feet.

The Lusitania as war propaganda. Allied recruitment posters made full use of the disaster – in Britain, Ireland, and Canada. Images: Library of Congress
The Lusitania as war propaganda. Allied recruitment posters made full use of the disaster – in Britain, Ireland, and Canada. Images: Library of Congress

BENEATH THE WAVES

Lusitania’s forward movement momentarily ceased, but then her final plunge began.

Suddenly she started again, and I really think she must have completed her sinking in a matter of seconds. It was an awful sight and yet it fascinated you, the grace with which the huge thing slithered in, raising its stern on high at the last. So far as I remember, we heard no noises from where we were.

Then came the worst part. We were alone. The space a few moments ago occupied by our luxurious home was a ghastly blank of almost still water. The swells caused by the sinkage rolled towards us, and with them came the dead bodies.

Once Lusitania had slipped beneath the waves, all that was afloat were seven of her total of 22 lifeboats. She had finally sunk at 2.28pm.

From the moment that the torpedo hit her, the ship had stayed afloat for only 18 minutes, and it would be this fact more than anything else that accounted for the enormous loss of life. Out of a total of 1,960 passengers and crew, only 763 had survived.

Among those passengers who were missing, presumed drowned, was the 29-year-old medical student Richard Preston Prichard.

Preston had been travelling from Canada to visit his family in Ramsgate. His body was not among those immediately recovered following the sinking. His family were to spend the next year searching for answers to their questions about his fate.

The Preston family’s experience of loss, and their reluctance to face the truth, is representative of the suffering of so many grieving families in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking. This terrible event left its mark on them forever.

Anthony Richards is the author of The Lusitania Sinking: eye-witness accounts from survivors, published by Greenhill Books. Anthony works as Head of Documents and Sound at the Imperial War Museum, and has written several books based on personal written testimony, including The Somme: a visual history and In Their Own Words: untold stories of the First World War.

This article was published in the May 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.




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