Diving on the Lusitania
Diving on the Lusitania from Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast volume 2 ISBN 0 9523027 2 1 by permission of the author Edward Bourke
The Lusitania is probably the most discussed of all shipwrecks in Irish waters. The incident was the worst maritime disaster in the vicinity of Ireland and some 1200 people lost their lives. The controversy which accompanied the incident raged for many years with both sides blamed for callousness. Unanswered questions have been the material for about 55 books and files (1) on the disaster, some of which have sowed confusion on the already murky topic. In efforts to elucidate mysteries and recover treasures, there have been several diving expeditions to the wreck. This item is restricted to that activity alone and attempts to document these explorations. Tales of wealthy passengers and the treasure they carried abound. The contents of the pursers safe were presumed to have been considerable, due to the jewelry carried by passengers. Sir Hugh Lane died in the disaster and he was thought to have been carrying paintings of considerable value. The manifest includes boxes thought to contain the paintings. There is no list of the paintings presumed lost with evidence that they disappeared at the time. Some believed that gold bullion was carried. This is unlikely as gold would have been in transit to America to pay for munitions as in the case of the Laurentic.
It is believed that a Royal Naval group visited the wreck in 1917 though this could be confusion for after the Second World War, see below. Their purpose was not clear but the Admiralty salvage section under Captain Greatorix was very active during the First World War. They usually salvaged ships which were beached but may have contemplated lifting the remains. Indeed Captain Turner had steered the Lusitania towards shore to in an attempt to beach her. The wreck was described as buoyed as a possible danger to shipping but this seems a tall story for a wreck 84 feet high in 246 feet depth. At the time the wreck would have been in good condition and the top would have been at 65 metres and accessible on air.
Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association
A captain Redmond of Liverpool salvage and towage worked on the Lusitania in 1920. His vessel was a small two masted steamer with a large derrick. The work continued for two summers and it was difficult to lower the helmet divers to the ship’s bridge then at 210 feet. The vessel may have been the Ranger which is said to have worked on the Lusitania after the First World War on behalf of the insurers Liverpool and War Risks who were members of the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association. There seems to be no account of the work though the Ranger was active around the Irish coast. A project was discussed (2) with the Admiralty in 1926 where an American Mr B.F.Leavitt backed by a group known as the Lusitania salvage club proposed to salvage the cargo. Leavitt claimed in a letter to the Admiralty on 9-7-1926 that he was the holder of all records in deep sea salvage and diving. The American consul was involved in the matter of salvage outside of territorial waters but Leavitt may have lost interest when informed that the Admiralty had no interest in the matter and there was no bullion aboard. The seriousness of the venture is cast into some doubt by the association with a play “the treasure hunt” and an agreement with a Count Landi.
Hard hat dives in 1921
A hard hat diver from the USA is said to have dived the wreck in 1922. The story is that he was looking for munitions during the Irish Civil war. Dr David Downey in the Isle of Man has his helmet.
The Siebe Gorman helmet is described as having been on display in a pub in Cork until 1982 with an inscription card which related the story. It seems likely that helmet came from a pub called the Diver in Crosshaven and were sold when the owner Mr Tony Fitzsimons was injured in a car crash. The card is lost and no confirmation seems possible.
On 6-10-1935 the salvage ship Orphir commanded by Captain Russell found the wreck of the Lusitania. (3) They used a sweep 300 yards wide and were lucky as the marker buoys they had laid out were not where they intended. However they found the Lusitania between two of the buoys. An instrument search had failed to locate the ship despite meticulous searching. Local seamen who had seen the sinking from the shore were consulted. Some twenty reliable observations with marks of the location against buildings were obtained and measured by taking precise bearings. A position was obtained and the wreck located using a depth sounder which located an object 84 feet high and 780 feet long. Their diver Jim Jarrett was lowered to the wreck on 26-10-1935. The Argonaut company had obtained the concession to a number of war wrecks.
An American film company, the Hollywood Motion Picture Adventurers lead by Captain John D Craig intended to return and film the wreck using the Tritonia diving suit. (4)
It is understood that Sorima the Italian salvage company based in Genoa recovered the safes in 1937. Sorima worked in the area for two seasons. Copper was salvaged from the nearby Ludgate. The safes were not in their place when Oceaneering visited the site in 1982. (5)
The Argonaut Corporation wrote to the Admiralty on 26-3-1937 to know who the owners were and whether the Admiralty had any special interest. They proposed to blast the hull apart and recover the safes and scrap metal. A Mr Macenzie Skue warned of the presence of ammunition and the Admiralty questioned how he knew. It transpired that he had worked at Woolwich Arsenal during the war and would have had some knowledge. The Admiralty concluded that there was little risk as only small arms ammunition was involved. The Morning Post of 4-2-1937 carried a story on the proposal and the intention of captain John D Craig to broadcast from the submerged deck. There is no confirmation that any work was carried out.
The wreck has grab marks and square holes on the side which some believe were cut by thermal lance. There is no clear information on which expedition left these marks. However Ballard believes that these are not cuts but places where plates fell off as the rivets corroded.
Risdon Beazley do not appear to have worked on the Lusitania (6). While they used her as an target for their detection apparatus, asdic, sonar etc they did not put down moorings nor consider her cargo worth working on.
The anti submarine hedgehog bombs found in the vicinity of the wreck could be from Royal navy Reserve practice after the second world war (7) or even from Irish navy hedgehog bomb practice as the corvettes Cliona, Maeve and Macha were equipped with hedgehog. The stern of the vessel is detached and appears to have been blown off by the bombs.
The Royal Navy deep Diving vessel HMS Reclaim is said to have worked on the Lusitania in June 1948 (7A). Another account (7B) cited in reference 8 (8) says the Reclaim dives and blasting operations were in 1946. Since HMS Reclaim was launched in March 1948 (ex Salverdant 12-3-1948) and completed in October 1948 (9) this is simply a fanciful yarn. The logs of the Reclaim held at PRO, Kew commence in November 1948 (10) (11). The Reclaim’s predecessor was HMS Tedworth. There were NATO exercises in progress in the area and many explosions were noted by the Lighthouse keepers. This was at the time when depth charge and hedgehog anti submarine bomb trials were in progress. It was said that the exercise was to determine the effectiveness of depth charging a potential Russian submarine sheltering beside the wreck. Fishing craft were instructed to keep clear for six weeks. Colin Simpson in his book Lusitania mentions that coast guards observed the Reclaim at work. However he must be mistaken as the coast guard was withdrawn in 1923. This is not the only serious error in Simpson’s book (12). Mr Paddy Allen who operated Courtmacsharry diving services in 1948 and worked in the vicinity from the tender Bonne Nuit. He recalls no diving operation by HMS Reclaim. The Commissioners of Irish Lights file on the Lusitania went missing between 1957 and 1962. A Mr John Barry of Kinsale describes working on the Reclaim and mentions an injured diver while revealing only that the work was secret, there is no evidence to support this tale. Despite the extent of the belief that HMS Reclaim worked on the wreck there is no evidence to support the story. The mystery is that Sorima, the Royal navy and Riedon Beazley deny salvage work on the wreck but when Oceaneering went there the safes were gone, there were triangular grab marks and a rectangular hole had been cut with a thermal lance.
There was a report in Lloyds list that a wooden motor trawler the Doonie Braes was damaged while berthing at Kinsale on 28-6-67. She was described as working on the Lusitania. On 7–1967 mention was made that salvage work was to start on the Lusitania by John Light. the four propellers were described as worth £17,000 to £19,000 of manganese bronze. Mr Light was reported to have bought the wreck from War Risk Insurance for £1000. the low price indicated that rumours of gold aboard were untrue. A later report in the Daily Telegraph 2-6-1969 indicated that the work using the Kinvarra would commence in a month.
A team led by the American ex naval diver John Light worked for several years on the Lusitania between 1957 and 1962. They used air and Helium mixture during their dives. Some photos of the lifeboat davits survive in Kinsale museum from these dives. A report in 1967 said that Dr Hans Kellar was staying with John Light and Palmer Williams at Kinsale. They were described as awaiting the arrival of Captain Cousteau . Diving operations were anticipated using Cousteau’s underwater house to be sited over the wreck. The use of Heliox and electrically heated suits was intended. Mention was made of £2m gold and industrial diamonds. There is no information to indicate that a dive took place. The project fell into financial difficulties and culminated in the arrest of the operations vessel, the Kinvara. On 16-12-1969 the Irish Independent reported that the Kinvara had been towed to Holland for repairs. The head of the project Roger Hanson had arrived at Kinsale and bailed out the arrest warrant on the Kinvara and was to sort out matters. John Light had split with his backers after 37 solo dives to the Lusitania wreck. The present owner Mr Bemis was involved in the consortium along with a Mr McComber.
Encouraged by their successful recovery of the gold from the cruiser Edinburgh in 1981, Oceaneering visited the Lusitania to seek her alleged cargo of gold. They were there three times (13). Between 22 April and 1 May 1982 the wreck was surveyed. Between 27 July and 30 August the ship’s bell was recovered by the ROV Scorpio operating from the support ship Myra Vag from 10 September to 25 October 1982 94 items were recovered by divers working from the Archimedes. Divers based aboard the MV Wild Drake had been preparing the base plate for the drilling on the Ballycotton Gas field. They explored the Lusitania and entered the specie room. They recovered items but the two safes were not there at that time. One propeller was lifted by the MFV Pelican. two more may have been lifted by the Archimedes. A 13 kilo plastic charge was exploded around the shaft to detach each propeller . A propeller from the Lusitania is on display at the Liverpool Maritime Museum. This could be a spare as her three bladed propellers were changed for four bladed. Up to 6000 Lord Kitchener commemorative spoons were recovered which were to have been presented to the first class passengers as a memento of the voyage. A box of watches was also recovered. There was also an intact movie film recovered “the carpet from Baghdad” Some frames were printed to reveal this 1915 ultimate in movie making technology. The support ship Archimedes used a camera to pinpoint the exact spot they wished to dive. A two man diving bell was used in conjunction with a saturation chamber on the support ship. The suits were equipped with hot water circulation systems to prevent hypothermia. Between the Oceaneering dives some professional divers including Michael Wright and an Irish Navy Diver named Chris Reynolds bounce dived to the wreck on air. They reached the deck at 86 metres but due to collapse the wreck is now deeper.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute with Robert Ballard surveyed the Lusitania in May 1993. Their findings were shown as film and published in National Geographic in 1994. During their expedition they encountered difficulties and fouled one of their ROVs in the fishing nets which festoon the wreck. The main conclusion of their work was that a coal dust explosion in the transverse bunker had caused the controversial second explosion. Captain Schweiger had fired only one torpedo but all agree that there were two explosions. The coal dust theory is disputed by other researchers especially Paddy O’Sullivan of Bandon who believes that explosive materials especially aluminum dust caused the second more damaging explosion. A debris field marks the final course of the stricken ship as she spilled her contents in the final 20 minutes as she made for shore as fast as she could. Her high speed and starboard list hampered the launching of lifeboats.
Amateur divers using Trimix or re-breathers have visited the wreck since 1994. The main groups have been a team lead by Des Quigley who have explored for the American owner Mr Bemis and an international team lead by Polly Tapson. A saturation expedition by a Scottish group working for Mr Bemis was planned during 1997 but did not proceed. The Quigley team carried out the first re-breather dive on the wreck in 1997.
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