Saturday 18 November 2017

The mysteries and the cover-ups

Why were there two explosions when just one torpedo was fired? Was the ship carrying munitions for the war effort? And why was Captain Turner made the scapegoat? Author Patrick O'Sullivan sifts through the evidence

Captain William Turner was scapegoated after the sinking of the Lusitania.
Captain William Turner was scapegoated after the sinking of the Lusitania.
A woman and two children, survivors from the Lusitania.
Woman and children were among the Lusitania survivors.
Survivors from the Lusitania in Queenstown, now Cobh, in May 1915.
Survivors from the Lusitania.

THE Lusitania had barely slipped beneath the waves when accusation and counter-accusation began to fly. The initial shock of disbelief was replaced by rage at what the world perceived to be the slaughter of 1,198 innocent lives.

Germany alleged that an exploding cargo of munitions was responsible for the rapid demise of the ship, and freely admitted that it had crippled the great liner, but launched only a single torpedo.

A second explosion occurred shortly after the torpedo strike. Captain Schwieger noted this in his log and described it as an 'extraordinarily heavy detonation'. Survivors suggested the interval between the two explosions was somewhere between half-a-minute and one minute. However, Lieutenant Scherb, the first officer on the U-20, stated that it was a fraction of a second after the torpedo blast.

Scherb was also adamant that only one German submarine took part in the attack and not two, as the British had alleged. Britain counter-charged that the Lusitania was an innocent passenger liner for which the Germans had laid a trap. Britain also denied Germany's allegation that the Lusitania was fitted out with guns and carrying Canadian troops and was therefore a legitimate target.

Germany seemed to declare its intention to sink the Lusitania when it issued a warning notice in the American press on the same day that the liner left New York. So why did the Royal Navy not take steps to escort the great liner through the danger zone? Why did the ageing cruiser, HMS Juno, return to Queenstown just hours before the Lusitania's passage off that harbour? Was Captain Turner negligent? Did he refuse to obey Admiralty instructions about course and speed? Why were rescue boats turned away from Kinsale shortly after the disaster and forced to make the longer journey to Queenstown, despite the fact that survivors were dying of hypothermia or in urgent need of medical attention for injuries? No satisfactory answers to these questions have been forthcoming.

On 30 April 1915, the Lusitania cleared the port of New York on a single page manifest which made no mention that the cargo also included 5,000 3.3 inch shrapnel shells, 4.2 million Remington rifle cartridges, 3,200 percussion fuses and 46 tons of aluminium powder.

Survivors from the 'Lusitania', which was hit by a U-boat torpedo, standing outside the town hall in Cobh, County Cork
Survivors from the 'Lusitania', which was hit by a U-boat torpedo, standing outside the town hall in Cobh, County Cork

The United States shipped enormous quantities of munitions and guns to Britain on a daily basis during the war; fast liners meant speedy deliveries of very urgently-needed war materials. At first, companies like Cunard and White Star resisted mixing passengers with munitions until forced to do so by government pressure. There is no doubt that the US port authorities turned a blind eye to such practices.

At the New York hearing a typewritten version of the Lusitania's original 24-page manifest was produced: the word munitions was no longer used at this hearing and was substituted by the phrase 'government stores'. The 194 cases of potentially explosive aluminium powder listed on the original manifest were also deleted.


The first attempt to analyse the disaster occurred at the coroner's inquest held in the old Kinsale courthouse on the day after the sinking. Before the authorities had time to prevent rescue boats entering Kinsale, five corpses had been landed in what was then a quaint old fishing town.

Lusitania survivors on the streets of Cobh following the disaster on May 7th, 1915.
Lusitania survivors on the streets of Cobh following the disaster on May 7th, 1915.

Coroner John Horgan endeavoured to establish the cause of the five deaths when he convened a jury made up of local fishermen and shopkeepers. Turner attended and testified that one torpedo had struck the ship and that the second explosion must have been internal. This evidence is very significant as it was given two days after the event and therefore the various details would be very fresh in his mind. More significant, however, is the fact that Turner testified before Cunard, the Admiralty or the lawyers got to him.

Horgan questioned Turner about navigation matters and asked him if he had received any special instructions for the voyage. Turner replied that he had but was not at liberty to reveal them and referred the matter to the Admiralty. In his verdict, Horgan charged the Emperor of Germany, the German government, and the officers of the submarine with wilful murder. Britain's crown counsellor arrived from Queenstown to prevent Turner from testifying further, but he arrived an hour after the inquest had closed.

By the evening of 7 May, the Admiralty had already decided to make Captain Turner the scapegoat. Fisher, the First Sea Lord, wrote a memorandum to his colleagues which stated: 'I hope Captain Turner will be arrested immediately after the enquiry, whatever the verdict.'

The British Board of Trade was obliged to hold an enquiry, for which permission was granted by Winston Churchill subject to the Admiralty controlling its scope and approving questions that might be asked. Many witnesses were screened and asked to write out drafts of their intended statements - many were rejected. The enquiry was chaired by Lord Mersey, who had presided over investigations into the losses of the Empress of Ireland and the Titanic. He received a private letter from the Admiralty which stated: 'The government would consider it politically expedient if the captain of the Lusitania were promiscuously blamed for the accident.'

But what did the Admiralty wish to cover up? It was of paramount importance that it concealed the fact that it was able to read German ciphers. The Admiralty needed to conceal its knowledge of the movements of the U-20 prior to 5 May when the submarine revealed itself by sinking the Earl of Lathom off Kinsale - and why no escorts or protection were thus provided for the oncoming Lusitania.

Advocates of the conspiracy theory see this failure to pass on vital information as another move in Churchill's game-plan to embroil the Lusitania with a German submarine and thus bring America into the war. Others attribute the failure to warn Queenstown to an intelligence blunder at Whitehall. Either way it can interpreted as reckless disregard for the safety of the Lusitania and its passengers.

The Admiralty also had good reason to cover up the fact that the Lusitania was shipping munitions and explosive substances, as this would embarrass neutral America. US law prevented munitions or explosives leaving its ports on passenger liners: 'If lives were lost as a result of an explosion due to fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct or violation of the law, then those knowingly involved were guilty of manslaughter and liable to a fine of $10,000 and/or confinement at hard labor for a period of not more than ten years.'

The Collector of Customs in New York, Dudley Field Malone, could have faced a charge of manslaughter for having failed in his duty and his immediate superior, the Secretary of the Treasury, would also face serious consequences. Shock waves from such a scandal could reverberate all the way to President Woodrow Wilson's office and jeopardise his administration.

The Mersey enquiry convened on 15 June with an impressive array of legal talent, including Sir Edward Carson, defending the government. Just five days before the hearings commenced, a statute was enacted in parliament making it a treasonable offence for a British subject to divulge information concerning the carriage of munitions or placement of guns on any ship of Britain or her Empire.

The issue of the second mystery explosion was noted by almost every survivor. This was potentially embarrassing as it might lend credence to German claims of exploding munitions. The court found that two torpedoes had struck the ship and also decreed that no other substance exploded or ignited.

Any further questions about the second mystery explosion were discouraged. Mersey further found that several U-boats had lain in wait for the Lusitania. Mersey finally decreed that the whole blame for the cruel destruction of life in this catastrophe must rest solely with those who plotted and committed the crime. When the verdict was made public, many of the survivors received it in stunned disbelief. Captain Turner left the court a bewildered villain who was seen to be negligent and reckless in handling his ship.

When interviewed 60 years later, Mabel Every, the late captain's housekeeper and lifelong companion was adamant that he had requested permission from the Admiralty to take the northern route around Ireland to Liverpool on the final voyage. Miss Every did not know why Turner made this request, but stated that it was subsequently refused by the Admiralty.


Much of the fog of confusion surrounding many of the issues relating to the sinking of the Lusitania has been lifted: the second mystery explosion, the exact nature of the munitions cargo on board the ship, the disguising of the ship's manifest, how evidence was concocted within the Admiralty to scapegoat Captain Turner, the rigging of the sham tribunals, the inexplicable failure of British intelligence to act throughout the affair, and their reluctance to warn the oncoming Lusitania of the grave danger known to lay in its path.

The jigsaw is almost complete. However, one or two tantalising pieces are still missing - including the mystery of the signals sent to the ship by the Admiralty - and one hopes that the cloak of secrecy that has lain over the Lusitania for 100 years will someday be discovered.

Taken from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania - Unravelling the Mysteries' by Patrick O'Sullivan, published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from

Irish Independent

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