Lusitania: 7 May 1915

This is the 9th and penultimate blog post in a series by J Kent Layton, maritime historian and author of ‘Lusitania: an illustrated biography’, to accompany the exhibition Lusitania: life, loss, legacy at the Maritime Museum.

Article Featured Image

An artist's conception of the torpedo impact on the Lusitania.
© Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division/J Kent Layton Collection

On the morning of Friday 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was enshrouded in fog. Captain Turner sounded the ship's foghorn and decelerated to 18, and sometimes to 15, knots to help prevent a collision with any ship that could have been traveling through those busy waters. Many passengers were irritated by the foghorn, believing that it could give the ship's position away to any enemy U-Boats. Eventually the fog lifted at around 11am, and Turner soon returned to 18 knots—but not the 21 knots his ship was then capable of. At noon, the ship's run was calculated at an abysmal 462 miles, nothing like the ship's prewar record dashes. As a consolation prize, at least the coast of Ireland had begun to creep over the horizon, the first sight of land since departing New York. At 1pm lunch was served. While passengers ate, Captain Turner tried to ascertain his ship's exact position along the coast, even ordering a lengthy 4-point bearing on the Old Head of Kinsale. By shortly after 2pm, the crowds in the dining saloons were beginning to thin out, and some passengers were out on the open decks enjoying the weather and the view of the coast.

track of bubbles along the surface of the sea

A torpedo wake, like this one, was the first visible sign that all was
not well on the afternoon of 7 May 1915. © J Kent Layton Collection

At 2.10pm a single torpedo from the German submarine U-20 struck home along the Lusitania's starboard side, just behind the Bridge. There had been no warning, save for the torpedo's wake; lookouts who spotted it tried to warn the Bridge, but the warning was not received in time to take evasive action. The liner immediately rolled on to her starboard side, assuming a 15° list. Very shortly after the first explosion came a much larger, and very different, explosion. It apparently came from some type of catastrophic failure of her high-pressure steam-generating plant. Captain Turner tried to beach the ship, but as her steam plant failed, her engines and electrical powerplant lost power, and the ship's interior was plunged into darkness, further adding to the confusion.

Chaos quickly erupted aboard the ship. Attempts to maintain order were all but futile. The crew tried to launch the lifeboats, but the list of the ship made both loading and lowering them nearly impossible. Some fell from the davits and crashed to the sea or on other lifeboats already in the water, injuring or killing dozens. Soon, water crawled over the ship's Forecastle, cascaded into her innards through open portholes, and quickly began to swamp her Boat Deck. Panicked passengers headed for the stern, but it was only an imaginary refuge. With a 'terrible moan', the ship protested and sank into the sea. It was just 2.28pm - only 18 minutes since the attack. The Lusitania was gone.

Hundreds of people survived the actual sinking, but soon succumbed to hypothermia. Others had donned their life jackets incorrectly, and were drowned by them in the water. Many died before rescue vessels could arrive later that afternoon and into the evening. The survivors were taken ashore to Queenstown; the city embraced them, its occupants rendering assistance to anyone that they could help. Survivors began the tragic task of searching for friends or loved ones, and all too frequently their search ended in heartbreak. 1,191 men, women and children died in the tragedy. Never again would the world view warfare as something even remotely civilized; it was on 7 May 1915 that people everywhere realised that this war had changed the world forever.