LEGENDS OF THE LUSITANIA
The sinking of the Lusitania by a torpedo from U20 off the Old Head of Kinsale on Friday 7 May 1915 was the single greatest shipwreck tragedy in Irish waters. Some 1200 men, women and children died. A warning to intending passengers had been placed beside the sailing notice in the New York newspapers. A great storm of indignation was whipped up by British propagandists when the realisation sank in that the Lusitania had been managed in a negligent manner by the Admiralty. In later years some other legends arose around the somewhat conflicting circumstances of the loss of this prestigious liner. The truth lies somewhere between inept bungling and a murderous conspiracy.
There are several stories of treasure aboard the Lusitania. They involve diamonds, gold bullion, personal goods of wealthy passengers and paintings. The story of the diamonds is true because a mailbag containing packets of diamonds was found floating near the wreck site. The Evening Herald of 13-12-1917 carried the information that the Cork correspondent of the Daily Chronicle reported the story that a poor Irish fisherman found a packet of diamonds which were washed out of the Lusitania. The gems were consigned to a London firm and were insured for $13,000 with the Union Insurance Company. The company paid the claim in full, and believed that they had heard the last of the matter, but a welcome surprise was in store. They received a letter about October 1917 stating that the diamonds had been recovered and that the owners had much pleasure in refunding the $13,000. It seems that the Irishman had found the packet of gems among a quantity of fish he had hauled up in his net and had thus made the catch of his life. Without telling anyone of his find he sent the diamonds to London as an ordinary postal packet, where enquiries were made and their ownership traced. The honesty of the fisherman was rewarded by a gift of some hundreds of pounds. This story tends to confirm the description of the mailbags being hauled on deck as otherwise they would not have floated free. If they had been in the area of the torpedo hit they would have been damaged. Postal records show that 32 packets of industrial gems were shipped and arrived intact with the consignee.
The truth about gold bullion aboard the Lusitania is somewhat different. Bullion was exported to the USA from Britain in enormous quantities during World War I. Such a consignment was lost and saved when the Laurentic was sunk by a mine off the Donegal coast. The bullion shipments are detailed in Nigel Pickford’s book. There is no logical reason why a shipment would be made in the opposite direction as a simple banking transaction could reallocate gold already in Britain. The British Government, through the Bank of England, were transferring their reserves to the United States to support the pound sterling and to pay cash for armaments and munitions purchased in the then neutral America. If substantial gold was suspected to have been aboard the professional salvage companies would have attempted to recover it in the heyday of salvage between the wars and in the 1950s.
There were many wealthy passengers aboard the Lusitania. There is no doubt that they would have had valuables among their possessions aboard the ship. If they did not retain the jewellery, money or documents in their cabin it would have been deposited in the purser’s safe. There were two quite small Chubb safes available to the purser. Some say that there was a large 16 ton caged structure built into the ship but John Light indicated that this was not in the drawings. Divers from the Oceaneering expedition say that the “purser’s safe ” was gone when they searched the appropriate location in 1982. Furthermore they believed that the Italian company Sorima of Genoa had retrieved the safe when they visited the wreck in the 1930s. There is no doubt that Sorima worked in the South Coast area in the 1930s . They even worked on the nearby wreck the Spectator. However they did not send down divers other than in an observation chamber. Their method was to use a surface operated grab guided by a man in the observation chamber. There is no evidence of extensive explosive and grab demolition of the Lusitania and therefore it seems improbable that this story is true. The salvors RisdonBeazley got the safe out of the Spectator and this could be the origin of the story of the Lusitania safe. The Spectator was sunk very close to the Lusitania .
One of the passengers was Sir Hugh Lane who was an art dealer and collector. His collection was shared between the galleries in Dublin and London after his death. There was a major dispute regarding a codicil to his will which left paintings to the Dublin Municipal Gallery. Lane sailed outward on board the Philadelphia with a Holbein insured well and kept in pursers safe. He returned from America with a crate insured for £2000. This crate was listed in the manifest. Due to the low insured value it is unlikely that this contained important paintings. A story circulated about tubes being seen on the wreck but there would be many lengths of tubing from the engine room and there appears to be no verification that any paintings could have survived. There was great excitement generated by this story. There was information that insurers had recommended that paintings should be packed in tubes sealed with lead for protection from water damage. There was no mention, however, on whether the tubes would float free nor whether they would resist 11 Bar hydrostatic pressure without admitting water. Another unnamed passenger was supposed to have a Mannet painting among his personal baggage. A Mr Archibald inquired of Cunard on 18-5-1915 if The Holy Family by Reubens carried by Mr Willimson was aboard. The paintings story became so bizarre that an Egyptian gallery asked in 1996 if a painting they held was a fake. press
A case of oil paintings was listed on outward cargo sheet held in papers of Franklin D Rosevelt. These were supposed to be two Reubens and a Monnet/ Mannet from Lord Duveen. Simpson gives no source for his suggestion that 27 masterpieces worth $4M were among the Lane consignment. The only documented paintings were a case of oil paintings insured for $2312.
The sonar echo behind the wreck
A distinct sonar echo lies behind the wreck and this is believed to be where the second explosion blew the bottom out of the ship. This would explain why the Lusitania sank so quickly. Investigation of this area could reveal the exact location of the second explosion and the heavy munitions are suspected to have been deposited here. Other heavy cargo would include the cartridges from Remington, the shrapnel shells, copper ingots and brass rods. The location has not been investigated thoroughly and it might be just a bed of Rock.
Missing radio messages
Transcripts of radio messages to the Lusitania were removed from the Admiralty message log as late as 1950 and there has been much speculation as to what instructions were given to the Lusitania about changing course for Queenstown. The original destination was Liverpool. If she was to have continued for Liverpool, standing orders from the Admiralty were that ships should stay well out to sea from headlands which were favourite submarine hunting grounds. The five Lusitania signals are the only ones missing for the whole of the war.
One of the missing messages seems to be from Valentia radio originating from Admiral Coke in Queenstown addressed to MFA (merchant fleet auxiliary), advising it to proceed to Queenstown and its escort Scadaun to search and locate a German submarine operating in the area. The Admiralty have always maintained that this message was meant for MFA tug Hellespont. However the Lusitania’s call sign was MFA and the operators aboard assumed the message was for them. Captain Turner altered course for Queenstown exposing the Lusitania to the torpedoes of U20. Patrick Beesley author of Room 40 was of the opinion that the missing signals were still in existence and if they showed the Admiralty is a favourable light then they would have been released.
The supposition is that the missing messages are a request from Captain Turner to go around the North of Ireland and the Admiralty refusal to allow this. There had been mines laid near Tory by the Berlin but they had been cleared. The damaged battleship Jupiter was escorted by that route. Indeed so safe was the route that instructions were given that there was no need to zig zag.
Purpose of turning for land
It has been explained that Captain Turner approached the Old Head of Kinsale in order to obtain an accurate fix of his position. This is hardly the reason for the turn towards land because an approach to Queenstown was definitely intended as confirmed by third officer Bestic in a 1962 interview. He said that the mail bags were being hauled on deck and it would have been too early to complete this task if Liverpool was the next port of call. Sometimes mail was unloaded at Queenstown and transferred to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) for transfer to Holyhead by mailboats such as the Leinster. Apparently some valuable cargo was sometimes sent by that route to avoid submarines in St George’s Channel.
The second submarine
There were several sightings of submarines which cannot have been Schweiger’s U20. Patrol vessel no 47, a motor yacht, the Seagull, owned by the Shakelton family was lent to the Navy in September 1914. Though only 42 foot and 15 tons it was based in Baltimore as a patrol vessel. A letter dated 11-5-1915 describes an encounter between the yacht and a submarine. Cope, who may have commanded the yacht, wrote to his father a GWR station master in Wolverhampton describing the encounter. ” we played a very active role in the last murder. (I enclose a cutting from the Cork Examiner which leaves one with a vague impression) We had been chasing an elusive submarine for several days without getting a glimpse of the bounder, in spite of being hot on his track. On Friday morning about 9.55 a.m. we saw a surfaced submarine. On sighting us about two or three miles off they made for us at top speed. They were greeted with a shot or two from my rifle which must have had the effect of making them smile , so futile was it. From then on matters became exciting . They had the legs of us by about eight or nine knots (nearly twice our speed) but our handy little boat was able to hold her own.2 They succeeded in keeping the German vessel in sight for twenty minutes before the submarine submerged. The Seagull got into Baltimore at 11.15 and the signal about the sighting was broadcast by 12.00. The Seagull was built by Percy See at Fareham in Hampshire in 1911 and still sails on the river Shannon. This sighting off Cape Clear is quite a mystery since it would be 30 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale and therefore three hours journey from the Lusitania sinking at 2 p.m. The mystery is that the U 20 was coming from the East while this sighting was to the West. The signal to the MFA Helespont to proceed to Queenstown leaving the escort Scadaun to search for a submarine also points to a sighting other than U 20 being taken seriously.
Coast watchers on a headland overlooking the sea reported a surfaced submarine at 1.40 and made a report to Queenstown. But a submarine in close to land cannot have attacked the Lusitania because she was attacked from seaward. These observers were official coast watchers and so their report must be considered reliable.
Passengers aboard the Lusitania reported sighting a submarine on the Port side at 2.00 before the Lusitania made the turn toward land. They interpreted this as the captain taking evasive action. This is significant because chart information shows that the Lusitania was directly on course for Queenstown BEFORE the evasive change of course. The alteration in course was not therefore the turn for Queenstown as some writers have indicated. It was this evasive manoeuvre thought to avoid a mystery submarine that exposed the Lusitania to the U20. Captain Schweiger in U20 attacked from the Starboard almost immediately afterward. Significantly the Admiralty removed questions 14 and 15 form the list of queries to be put to witnesses at Lord Mersey’s inquiry. These referred to submarine sightings and confirm that there was some evidence for mystery sightings.
Lookouts on the Lusitania say they saw two torpedoes but Captain Schweiger of U 20 fired only one. This is explained by the track of the torpedo being slightly away from the track of bubbles as observed from a height. Bubbles take several seconds to rise from the torpedo depth and therefore “strike” the ship well aft of the torpedo.
Apart from U 20 and U30 to the North of Ireland en route to Germany, the next nearest German submarine activity was the sinking of a large number of trawlers between Aberdeen and Hartlepool. Even British submarines which became active in later years in the vicinity of Fastnet were considered. The nearest two recorded are training craft logged as tied up at Pembroke and Devonport. Their logs survive at the Public Records Office at Kew. Fleet dispositions are not necessarily free from misleading information as the battleship HMS Audacious is listed though she had been sunk. Q ships were never listed. Altogether some seven sighting Point to the existence of a mystery second submarine which cannot be explained. Conspiracy theorists believe that an unnamed British submarine was on location to ensure that the Lusitania was sunk.
German submarine activity
Though many observations have been made about the extent of submarine activity at the time and the warnings which should have been issued it is worth while just listing what activity occurred in the days before and after the Lusitania was sunk. U20 cruised over towards Tuskar sinking the Earl of Latham, the Centurion & Candidate U30 was around Eagle Island and sank Fulgent she was at Blaskets on 30 May at the end of her cruise. The presence of U 30 contradicts the observation that U 20 monographs say no subs within 600 miles.
|29-4-1915||Cherbury||27 m WNW Eagle Island||sunk|
|30-4-1915||Fulgent||20 miles WNW Blaskets||sunk|
|1-5-1917||Edale||45m NW by W Scilly||sunk|
|3-5-1915||Minterne||50 miles SW Wolf Rock||sunk|
|4 May||Cayo Romano||off Fastnet||torpedo missed|
|Earl of Lathom||8 miles from Old Head||sunk|
|6 May||Candidate||13 miles from Coningbeg||sunk|
|6 May||Centurion||15 miles from Barrel LV||sunk|
|7 May||Etonian||off Queenstown||sub chased|
|7 May||Narragansett||off S Ireland||torpedo missed|
|7 May||City of Exeter||off Queenstown||chased|
|7 May||Lusitania||Old Head of Kinsale||torpedoed and sank|
|21-5||Glenholm||16 miles from Fastnet||sunk|
|30-5-1915||Megantic||S of Ireland||chased by sub|
The second explosion
A second torpedo becomes a possibility only if a second submarine attacked the Lusitania simultaneously. Robert Ballard says that plates were bent outward from an internal explosion while a torpedo strike would cause them to bend inwards. He concluded that coal dust in the empty bunker was disturbed by the first and ignited to cause the second larger explosion. This theory is flawed because crew in vicinity of the coal bunker survived but crew near the forward hold unloading the mail were all killed. This observation suggests that the explosion was in the forward area which contained some cargo. The shell cases aboard were not filled with explosive however there were boxes of “margarine” in the deck. These were consigned to Woolwich Arsenal and had come from Du Pont chemical company. It is almost certain that this was a consignment of gun cotton. There were previous shipments of guncotton from Du Pont: 870 tons on the Arabic, 400 tons on the Georgic, and 3,200 boxes of guncotton on the Ordiana. Surprisingly this is quite stable unless allowed deteriorate but it could have exploded sympathetically with the torpedo. Paddy O’Sullivan indicates that there was a batch of 46 tons of aluminium powder manifested among the cargo. This is highly explosive and is used as an accelerant for other explosives. He believes that the aluminium itself exploded, ignited by the first torpedo explosion. There were cartridges aboard but their explosive potential was negligible.
In 1914 Churchill was described as having passed the remark that a scheme to contrive an event to bring America into the First World War would be convenient. King George V, according to Colin Simpson, in a conversation with an American emissary, Colonel House asked “what will America do if the Germans sink the Lusitania” This suggests that there was an expectation of an incident involving the Lusitania. There was a message from Hope to Winston Churchill in 1941 suggesting a British submarine should attack a US navy escort to provoke a German – American incident. This would be incredible had not the same suspicion become attached to the Lusitania loss by the suggestion of a second mystery submarine. Even when the Lusitania was sunk the Americans delayed a further two years before they declared war on Germany. It took the additional threat of the Zimmerman telegram to convince them that there was a domestic danger from Germany. The cruiser HMS Juno was recalled to Queenstown on the morning of the 7th because of the submarine activity in the area. There was a significant concern about older cruisers because a squadron of three cruisers had been lost in the North Sea. The cruisers HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressey were sunk by a single submarine on 22-9-1914 with disastrous loss of life. Their patrol was dangerous – so much so that their nickname was “the live bait squadron”. The Admiralty was embarrassed that their tactics were so faulty. A cruiser was not of much use against a submarine in any case. The recall of the Juno must be seen in this light. During previous scares escorts had been rushed from Milford Haven to accompany cargoes of horses and mules, the Ausonia and Transylvania had been diverted into Queenstown on 30-1-1915 to avoid U21. Admiral Coke at Queenstown could only order ships under his command to safety, for example the cruiser HMS Juno. He also was instructed not to issue specific orders to a merchant ship but to limit his communications merely to indicate areas of danger. The Admiralty would have to have taken measures to divert the Lusitania directly. For some reason they did not do this. Churchill was not at the Admiralty himself , he was in France meeting Sir John French near Calais. The Admiralty did cancel the departure of the battleship HMS Orion from Devonport and delayed the return of the battleship HMS Colossus from the Atlantic to avoid the submarines known to be about. The Admiralty Room 40 had specific information about submarines because they had broken the German code, they also had seven powerful radio stations to locate the submarines by direction finding when they made their daily report. They knew more than the Germans suspected about submarine deployments.
It would have been normal practice during danger periods to divert shipping from the South coast by sending them around the North coast of Ireland. No such signal was sent to Lusitania. It is possible that the presence of U 30 on the West coast made this action pointless. U30 could have lingered off Tory before her return to Germany. The rescue of the passengers was accomplished by the 21 ton Wanderer, an Isle of Man trawler fishing in the vicinity. The only other vessels involved in the rescue were the tugs Flying Fish and Stormcock as well as the Dan O’Connell another fishing trawler. There were stories that the Kinsale fishing fleet was not permitted to sail to the rescue. There were four motor torpedo boats at Queenstown but they were restricted to minesweeping duties by an order dated 1910. While the Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes, the response from Kinsale was not very prompt or efficient. Bodies were recovered by the tug Polzee, the steamer Heron, and two trawlers.
In the early 1950s the Royal Navy reserve carried out exercises which involved dropping hedgehog anti submarine bombs on the wreck. The hedgehog fired forward and to the side of the patrol ship giving a wide spread of missiles falling on the supposed submarine position.These were wartime surplus and the explosives were being dumped as much as being used for training. An incredible number were fired off during the sessions and some remain unexploded on the sea floor today. Some sources suggest that this was an effort to pulverise the wreck and prevent any revelation of her secrets. It is also believed that the missing signals were removed at a late stage, maybe as late as the 1950s because the signal record was not interfered with in 1917. The sequence numbers of the signals are intact, clearly showing where the five missing signals should be filed. If any diving occurred, then it was during this early 1950s period. It would be credible to connect these events with Churchill’s last term as Prime Minister between October 1951 and April 1955. Documentation was removed from files in the early 1920s and Churchill was believed to be directly involved.
If there were naval guns aboard the Lusitania this would have made her a warship. As it stands she was listed in Jane’s Fighting Ships as an auxiliary cruiser. The whole question is one of mere propaganda because with or without guns merchant ships were encouraged to turn and ram submarines. In any case it is beyond doubt that the Lusitania carried munitions and war material. The Germans had advertised in American newspapers that passengers were taking passage on a threatened ship.
The Lusitania was designed to be converted into an armed merchant cruiser on the outbreak of war. For this purpose she had rings and supports built under her deck planking to carry the weight and recoil of naval guns. In all the Lusitania was fitted for 12 six inch guns. This would have given her an armament stronger that regular naval cruisers but of course her armour would have been deficient. On the outbreak of war she went into Liverpool and was stripped of much of her fittings and some work was done on magazines and ammunition hoists. Some believe that guns were aboard but kept in the hold ready for fitting quickly. There was the suggestion that John Light observed two guns on the stern but later divers have not confirmed this. One piece of evidence suggests that the Lusitania guns were not mounted and ready for action. This is the absence of any ammunition around the site. While it could remain deep within a magazine or have been removed it remains a fact that any warship or wartime wreck site has scattered ammunition from the ready use lockers. Light suggested that there were two concealed guns at the stern but no later expedition has confirmed this. The stern was badly damaged by the spigot mortar bombs. Light also reported unexplained damage to the rails in the vicinity of the area where the gun mountings were situated. The implication was that the guns were indeed fitted but removed by divers prior to 1962. It is equally possible that the damage to the rails was done by anti submarine spigot mortars or depth charges.
Pre 1960 work on the Lusitania
When John Light visited the wreck in 1962 he reported that there was a square hole cut accurately probably by a thermal lance or very precise explosive work. The only documented visit to the wreck had been a single non working dive by Jim Jarrat in the Triton suit in 1937. There is no clear evidence that SORIMA, Risdon Beazley or the Royal Navy had visited the wreck though all were there according to various stories.
The allegation that the HMS Reclaim worked on the wreck cannot be substantiated. The logs of the Reclaim are in the Public Record office at Kew and contain no mention of diving on the Lusitania. A local diver Paddy Allen says that he never remembered the Reclaim working on the Lusitania and that he would have taken an interest.
Commander Shalford who joined HMS Reclaim about 1955 did not believe that the Navy had dived the Lusitania from the Reclaim.
Risdon Beazley certainly knew where the wreck lay. They were said to have used the site as a mark for calibrating their echo sounder. However when John Butler of Dunmore East and formerly of Castletownbere was 15 year old , Ted Aplin was pointed out to him as the diver who had dived on the Lusitania. He said Lusitania was upright and had 200 tons copper aboard. When Risdon Beazley were in the vicinity they were working from the Help. In order to observe that she was upright they must have dropped their observation chamber at least once.
Later John Butler joined Beazley’s ship, the Lifeline, at Castletownbere and on the second time into Cork while the ship was coming up over the Lusitania the trace showed on the echo sounder. The story of the injured diver being landed at Kinsale could be an amalgamation of several diver injuries none related to the Lusitania. Ted Aplin who worked with RisdonBeazley had an injured left hand due a wound from an industrial bolt but he was an observation chamber diver not an open circuit diver. Another diver Barry probably worked on the Help which used to scout wrecks before the salvage ship Lifeline came to the area. John Butler of Dunmore worked with Wilfred Bunker Bollard, Lofty Yeates and Don Jones with Beazleys but they never dived the Lusitania while with the Reclaim nor did they reveal any diving on the Lusitania during their Royal Navy service. Bollard while aboard HMS Reclaim was involved in the record depth dives in 1949 while with the Royal Navy. Frankie Higgins also with Rieson Beazley had a wartime decompression accident again unrelated to the Lusitania but this could be woven into an injured diver story. Risdon Beazley’s Help would have found and surveyed the Lusitania but the Lifeline was the working ship and would have conducted the dives on the Lusitania about 1951-2 before the Twyford came into operation. Risdon Beazley divers did know about the Lane paintings in the 1950s as they has researched valuables in the cargo of many vessels. Their researchers even spoke to dockers who had loaded the cargo.
Comparison of the photographs of lifeboats moored at the pier with one lifeboat photo shows that the name Cunard is painted in huge letters for propaganda photographs. The “Cunard” boat is not even a ship’s lifeboat. Some of the photographs of bodies of children were also faked at the time. After the initial indiscreet questions in the House of Commons the enquiry was managed much more carefully by Lord Mersey.
Tall tales – The helmet
During the Lusitania exploration by John Light in the years 1959-1965, Kinsale was infested with storytellers who each claimed to have definite information regarding various aspects of the Lusitania sinking. These yarns were spun mainly in return for free drink in the pubs of Kinsale. The stories gained credence in the air of suspicion, intrigue and secrecy that surrounded the sinking of the Lusitania.
One such tale related that during the 1920s the IRA obtained a diving helmet and a diver with the intention of descending to the wreck to obtain explosives either for use during the war of independence or the Civil war. A Siebe Gorman helmet was on display in Tony Fitzsimons’ pub allegedly with this provenance. It is more likely that this was one of two sets of diving gear provided for work on the Shannon and then Tony Fitzsimons bought the gear from Rinanna. The gear is thought to have been bought by people in Cornwall through Phil Dennis.
Tall tales -The Lost Diver
Another story told of a diver exiting a British submarine to carry out secret exploration of the wreck in the late 1940s. According to this tale the diver, an officer, got into difficulties and died. While this was the era of the midget submarines from which a diver could exit using the conning tower as an airlock there is no record confirming this story. The injured diver tale takes several forms but as mentioned above there was an injured diver among the Risdon Beazley crew and the story just might have its origins in this fact.