Wednesday 17 January 2018

TV show to reveal secrets of Lusitania

Nearly 100 years after the sinking of the civilian liner, one man went in search of answers, says Ralph Riegel

THE secrets of the First World War liner Lusitania, the sinking of which off the Irish coast in 1915 helped bring the US into the conflict, are now set to be revealed.

A major National Geographic documentary, to be broadcast tonight, includes footage of the most extensive diving operation ever conducted on the wreck off the Cork coast.

The Dark Secrets of the Lusitania was more than a decade in the making.

The project arose from the burning desire of the wreck's owner, US businessman Greg Bemis, for questions to finally be answered over why the ship sank so fast and with such terrible loss of life within sight of the Cork coast on May 7, 1915.

A major dive took place on the wreck -- located some 16km south of the Old Head of Kinsale -- in July 2011. Items salvaged may now form the basis for a major exhibition on the ship and its fate.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 is largely credited with having edged the United States closer to involvement in the First World War. However, the sinking has remained highly controversial for more than a century amid claims that the civilian liner was carrying munitions bound for Britain. This would have made her a legitimate target for German warships.

Britain and the US at the time claimed that U-20 -- captained by Walter Schwieger -- had fired multiple torpedoes at the liner. It subsequently transpired that just a single torpedo was fired. Yet, despite near perfect weather conditions, the liner sank within minutes of a larger secondary explosion within the hull following the initial torpedo strike.

The Cunard liner sank in a matter of minutes with 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers on board being killed. Most of the lifeboats could not be launched due to the speed of the ship's sinking.

US divers, assisted by Irish divers, last year conducted detailed operations on the wreck. Special cutting equipment -- developed for the oil industry -- was used to allow remotely operated cameras gain access to the most inaccessible parts of the hull.

A team of Irish divers spent 10 days on the Irish Lights vessel, Granuaile, anchored above the wreck site -- and the footage is described as the best obtained of the Lusitania on the sea floor.

The documentary also looks set to provide a major boost for the Irish film industry. "This was an incredibly exciting and challenging project for everyone involved," Cork Screen Commissioner Niall Mahoney said.

"I am very proud to say that the Cork-based TV crew we picked through co-producers M3TV were absolutely brilliant," he told the Sunday Independent.

M3TV -- which is based in Bishopstown in Cork -- was instrumental in the filming that underpinned the entire National Geographic programme.

It is now hoped that the documentary will lay to rest many of the controversies over the great liner.

Controversy has raged over whether the munitions it was said to have on board may have been a factor in the speed with which the liner sank.

Over recent years, it has been speculated that a catastrophic failure of the Lusitania's high-pressure steam engine system following the torpedo impact could have resulted in a second, more powerful explosion which dramatically accelerated the liner's sinking.

Another theory is that coal dust in the liner's bunkers may have exploded in the seconds after the torpedo impact.

Most of the bodies recovered from the sea in 1915 were taken to Cork ports including Cobh (then known as Queenstown) where a special Lusitania memorial was later erected.

The burial of many of the bodies in a mass grave in Cork became one of the iconic images of the First World War.

'The Dark Secrets of the Lusitania' will be shown on the National Geographic channel at 7pm today

Sunday Independent

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