In the early afternoon of May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania made her way towards Liverpool, England. Six days earlier she’d left New York City on her 202nd transatlantic voyage, carrying 1,265 passengers and 694 crew members from all over the world, including nearly 150 Americans.
Lusitania leaving New York. Steaming out of the harbor. 165-WW-537F-5
The mood aboard Lusitania during the voyage was one of resigned anxiety. On April 22, 1915, just two weeks before Lusitania’s departure, the Imperial German Embassy placed an advertisement in American newspapers warning of the threat to passenger ships entering the declared war zone off of the British Isles. On the evening of May 1, the day of Lusitania’s departure, the Washington Times reported, “Cunard line officials laughed at passengers’ fears and said the Lusitania could show her heels to any submarine.” Still, the Cunard Line took precautions at the suggestion of the British Admiralty, advising that Lusitania not fly flags in the war zone, paint her funnels to avoid detection, and consider a zigzagging maneuver. Captain William Turner also took precautions at sea, closing the ship’s watertight doors, ordering a blackout, and preparing the lifeboats to be launched if necessary.
Lusitania lifeboat. These drilled men played a heroic part in the rescue of the passengers. 165-WW-537F-4
Deck scene on the S.S. Lusitania. 165-WW-537F-7
Captain Turner of the Lusitania who stood by his ship until she sank, after being torpedoed by a German submarine. 165-WW-537F-6
Shortly after 2:00 PM on May 7th, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania crossed paths with German submarine U-20, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger. According to his diary, Schwieger followed the Lusitania, hoping for her to turn to her starboard side in order to secure a favorable shot. By 3:10 PM, Schwieger had a “clear bow shot.” He set an angle of intersection at 90 degrees and ordered the torpedo fired. He reported:
Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder!). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge were torn apart; fire broke out; light smoke veiled the high bridge. The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time.¹