Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ship of the Week / Month 2

Ship of the week/month 2


Kevin Scott Bolinger

   Ahoy and welcome aboard. Here we are at my second ever look at a famous ship from the past. Last week, we inaugurated this blog by taking a maiden voyage aboard the SS UNITED STATES. This week, I thought we would delve into a liner that came into being close to the turn of the 20th  century. This weeks ship is one whose name is nearly as famous as the TITANIC herself. I give to you, my look at the Royal Mail Steamer LUSITANIA.
Cunard Line's first Ocean Greyhound, the RMS LUSITANI

      One cannot look at the LUSITANIA without first looking back at the key piece of technology that made her and her sister, the MAURETANIA the fastest ships of their era. That technology was the steam turbine. The turbine was invented by Charles Parsons in 1884, and was initially used for generating electricity. However, Parsons knew his design could greatly enhance the speed and efficiency of most ocean going vessels. To prove this, he built a steam yacht, the TURBINIA. In 1897, to show off the speed of his invention, Parsons brought the TURBINIA to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Naval Review, uninvited of course. The fastest warships tried to chase down Parsons, but with a top speed of 27 knots, the warships were left in the wake of the little TURBINIA , with her top speed of 34 knots.  Many ship builders were present at this little demonstration, and Parsons was soon being queried about his marine turbine engine.
Just prior to launch

    The Cunard line was the most interested in exploring this technology, and already had begun imagining two very large ocean liners which they were hoping to power with these turbines. However, they wanted a side by side comparison between the normal quadruple expansion steam engine, currently in use, and the new marine turbine.  They had two sister ships currently on the stocks, nearing the end of their construction. They decided to fit one of them, the CARMANIA, with the turbines, and her sister, the CARONIA, with the traditional engines. The CARMANIA  proved to be the faster and more economical of the two, and so it was decided to only use turbines to power the two new express liners that were on the drawing board.

    Cunard did have one problem, however, in the form of John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan was trying to create a monopoly on the North Atlantic. He had acquired many shipping lines already, with his crowning achievement being the recent purchase of Cunard’s chief rival, the White Star Line. Cunard used this to their advantage in getting parliament to agree to helping foot the bill for the two new ships, since it would mean keeping the Cunard line in British hands. The Admiralty, however, demanded that the two ships be built to their specifications, for quick conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the even of war. This would come to play in the loss of the LUSITANIA in World War 1.
The launch!

     Her keel was laid in 1904, as was that of her sister, however, they were built at two separate shipyards.  LUSITANIA was built at the John Brown shipyard, the same yard that would later give birth to the QUEEN MARY . Her sister, MAURETANIA,  was built by Swan Hunter shipyards, same yard that would build in the same timeframe, the RMS CARPATHIA, famous for being the ship that rescued the TITANIC’s survivors in 1912. LUSITANIA would be launched first, on June 7, 1906, just shy of two years since her keel was laid. At the time of her launch she was the largest ship in the world, a title she would hold until her sister was launched.  She was also the first quadruple screw liner to ever be launched.

    Her fitting out took another year, as craftsmen from all over descended upon the John Brown Shipyard ready to turn the empty hull into a true floating palace. When they were done, she would be called at times the Versailles of the seas. Her long slender hull form just screamed of speed. Her four evenly spaced funnels had a look of power and safety.  She would easily capture the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing on her maiden voyage. Eventually the Riband would go to her sister, who would hold it for an incredible 22 years.
Maiden New York arrival.

    She quickly became a popular ship, and was welcomed everywhere she went. She had a loyal following of passengers who preferred her over her sister, however, in the beginning, she had her teething problems. Her stern had to be overhauled and stiffened, due to massive vibration when the ship was at speed. This was caused by the design of her propellers and their proximity to the hull. The stiffening helped some, but a new design of propeller ended up helping as well. She would cruise at a brisk 25 knots on most crossings.

    Company pride was always very high on Cunard ships, so much so that, in 1911, when White Star’s new massive liner, the RMS OLYMPIC arrived in New York on her maiden voyage, LUSITANIA’s captain refused to salute the new rival as his ship was making her way past on her way out to sea.  It would later become a bit of irony that these two bitter rivals would one day be forced to merge, in order to save British shipping, and complete the massive Hull 504, rusting silently in the John Brown Shipyard during the great depression.

     Her life was never marred by tragedy, Cunard had a reputation of having never lost a paying customer on one of their ships. Her normal routine was almost never disturbed, except for yearly dry dockings for repairs, hull scrapping and repainting. All that would change, however, with the outbreak of World War 1.

    The Admiralty quickly called and requisitioned many merchant ships for war use. LUSITANIA  and her sister were no exceptions. However, it was quickly noticed that the fuel requirements for the larger liners was far more then the Admiralty was able to justify.  Though MAURETANIA would go on to become both a hospital ship and troop transport,  LUSITANIA  was returned to Cunard for use in her civilian role. It was shortly after this that Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare around the British isles.

     Germany’s declaration came because of the tactics being deployed by many merchant ships. Guns were hidden below decks, and when a submarine would surface, following the cruiser rule for the capture of enemy vessels, the merchantmen’s guns would pop up on deck, and sink the submarine. With the loss of a number of these new weapons of naval warfare, the German leader Kaiser Wilhelm, decided to shoot first and ask questions later. Most nations protested, but that did not stop the German U-boats. 

    In late April of 1915, the LUSITANIA was tied up in New York, being provisioned for her next crossing, scheduled for May 1st.  Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. the German Embassy had issued a warning to travelers and had it printed in many newspapers. In an ironic twist, in many of them it was posted next to the announcement for the LUSITANIA’s next departure.  The warning read as follows :

Travellers 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 travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915

Though the warning was posted, few took it seriously, and only a few cancelled their bookings. After all, not even Germany would sink a fully loaded passenger ship, especially one carrying neutral American citizens.

     On May 1st, 1915, as scheduled, the LUSITANIA backed away from her pier for the last time. Her bow was swung downstream, and she sailed down the Hudson river, into the North Atlantic, and into history.
Captain William Turner, final captain

    Meanwhile, near the Old Head of Kinsale, an Irish landmark many ships used in helping to plot a course to Queenstown, now known as Cobh, a German U-boat had been on the prowl, sinking many merchant ships, and even a schooner.  This was the U-20, under the command of Walter Schwieger . Hunting had been good for Schwieger and his crew, yet now, their fuel running low, and down to their last two torpedoes, it was time to head home.  The date was May 7th, 1915. Schwieger took one last look through his periscope, and spotted what would be the biggest prize from this trip. He began to stalk the mysterious four funneled giant that had crossed his path.

   During the crossing, not all of the LUSITANIA’s boilers had been fired, to conserve fuel during war time. The ship made the crossing at a much lower speed then she normally was capable of. Her orders were to plot a zig-zag course through the war zone. On May 6th, her captain William Turner, had received two warning from the Admiralty about the submarine prowling near Kinsale. Turner posted extra lookouts on the bow and stern.

   Schwieger watched the big steamer through his periscope.  She was coming in close to the Old Head of Kinsale, however, he was not lined up for a good shot. He feared this prize would escape his grasp, but even if it did, he had a successful trip. He and his men would return to Germany heroes.
The U-20, nemesis

   As the ocean greyhound approached land, she was met by heavy fog at 6am on the morning of the 7th. Turner slowed her down to 15knots, and ordered depth soundings, to keep the ship from running aground. By 10am the fog had lifted, and speed was brought up to 18 knots. By noon, bright sunshine greeted her. Shortly after 2pm, Turner decided to take a reading off the Old Head of Kinsale, the ship was only a few miles off shore. He ordered a small course correction…

   Schwieger could not believe his eyes. As he watched, the prize he though had escaped him, suddenly made a small turn, and came right into his crosshairs. He took his readings, gave his orders for the torpedo settings, and fired…

    On the LUSITANIA’s bow, a young lookout spotted a foam trail heading for the ships starboard bow. He called out, but it was too late. The ship shuddered as the torpedo hit, just aft of the first funnel, the blast destroying a lifeboat hanging above. Within seconds, a another explosion rocked the ship, this one larger, and electricity was quickly lost. On the bridge, Turner ordered the ship turned hard-a-starboard, to try and reach land an beach her, but the helm was no longer responding. Already she had taken on a list.
Torpedo hit!

   Panic quickly set in, as the ship was plunged into darkness within.  Unfortunately,  a number of passengers were in the ships elevators when the power was lost, these would become their tombs. Unlike the TITANIC  disaster a few years before, the LUSITANIA  had plenty of lifeboats to go around. The problem came when the crew tried to launch them. Those on the port side were hampered by the starboard list, the boats could not be swung far enough out to clear the hull. Many would get caught on rivets, and tip, dumping passengers on the hull, only to be crushed by the now falling lifeboat. Her port side soon became red with blood. On the starboard side, the boats were now hanging too far away from the ship to be safely entered. All in all, she carried 48 boats, but only 6 were successfully launched as she sank.
Ten minutes into the sinking.

   Within ten minutes of the hit, her  forecastle was already being covered as her bow sank lower and lower. Her screws were already clearing the sea as the stern rose out of the water. People jumped from the rail, to the few boats below. On the bridge, Captain Turner stayed at his post, till the water rushed in, broke the door, and swept him overboard.  The water was only 300 ft deep, the ship was close to 800 ft long. What this meant was the bow of the ship struck the bottom before the stern even left the surface. Soon, the rest of the great liner would join the bow now resting on the sea floor. In total, 18 minutes would elapse from the time the torpedo hit, and the second water closed over her stern plates.

    Many passengers had little time to react, this would lead to the high number of losses suffered, most trapped within the hull itself. Others would drown or succumb to the 50 degree waters they now found themselves in. Out of  1,959 , 1,198 would be lost, with only 761 surviving. Help would soon arrive in the form of many fishing vessels from Queenstown. Captain Turner would survive, he was later seen walking the streets of Queenstown, soaked and looking dazed.
The end is near...

   As Schwieger looked through his periscope, he watched the human carnage. He never intended for this to be the final result. As he watched, he finally saw the ships name. He turned to his crew and said “That is the LUSITANIA  we have just sunk. “  He then ordered the periscope lowered and set a course for home. He would be welcomed as a hero, a special medal would be struck and presented to all the members of his crew. Schwieger himself would not see the end of the war. While in command of U-88 his boat was depth charged and sunk, with no survivors.

    The loss of the LUSITANIA  would be on of the few key events that would eventually drag the United States into the Great War. Of the 133 Americans on board, 129 were killed, including famous millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. It was decried across the world as an act of barbarism. Newspapers vilified Kaiser Wilhelm and his officers and men.  An inquiry was held in London, but it was pretty much a whitewash. Turner did make a few mistakes, slowing down while entering a known U-boat attack zone, not zig-zagging.
None of these were held against him.

   Much has been said over the last century about what the ship had in her hold. It is true she was carrying crates of ammunition for the war effort, though the type and amount would not account for the second explosion. One theory put forth by Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who lead the joint Franco-American team that discovered the wreck of the TITANIC, was that, due to her design, a coal dust explosion likely occurred. Unlike most liners of the day, who had transverse coal bunkers, the LUSITANIA and her sister were designed to Admiralty specs, meaning, like most warships of the day, the coal bunkers ran the length of the ship. In theory this would minimize the impact of a torpedo or mine, because the loose coal would absorb the blast. However, as the LUSITANIA approached the Irish coast, many of  bunkers were empty, now filled with just dust. Coal dust can be very flammable and explosive when mixed with oxygen. Ballard suggests that the initial impact of the torpedo kicked up the dust in the bunker it hit, causing it to ignite in a second, larger explosion, one powerful enough to knock out the ships power.

   Other theories state that it may have been the sudden entry of cold water hitting the red hot boilers, and causing a few of them to explode violently. Most theories have merit, and the true cause of the second explosion may never be known. All that is know is that the second explosion caused enough damage to sink one of the newest and safest ships afloat within only 18 minutes. To put that in perspective, the TITANIC, which had an iceberg cause 300 ft of damage along her starboard hull, sank in 2 hours and 40 minutes. The speed at which the LUSITANIA sank is what caused the death of so many. If only she had sank slower, more lives may have been spared by the use of the lifeboats.

   The wreck herself has not had the best of luck. It has, over the years, been struck by many depth charges, both in World War 2 and in the 1950’s when she was used as target practice. In the 1980’s, three of her four propellers were recovered. One still exists, at a Maritime museum, not far from the wreck herself.  She is nearly unrecognizable as a ship now, only her bow still has the look of a ship, the rest of her hull and superstructure have collapsed. Occasionally, the currents will uncover a human skull amid the wreckage. Fishing nets now drape her shattered remains. 
The wreck, as it was in the mid 1990's

    Some ships have the sad fate of being beached and cut up for scrap. Others can survive as floating hotels or convention centers. Still others can be sunk for use as artificial reefs. However, there are some whose fate sticks in the public consciousness, mainly for how they were lost. The LUSITANIA belongs in the later group. Her name evokes the terror of war. Her loss while still in her civilian role became a war cry for some on the battlefields of Europe. We can learn from the mistakes made, mourn those lost, but in the end we can only move on to the next event in the long sad history of warfare.

    Thank you for joining me on this voyage into history.  Please feel free to comment and give me suggestions for other ships you would like to see featured here. Till then, enjoy the journey of life, Bon Voyage!

A propeller recovered from the wreck.


  1. Very good detail in this.

  2. The wreck is like a piece of carton which was modelated by the water in the time.