Lusitania lookout

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black and white newspaper photos of two men in sailor uniforms

Leslie and Clifford Morgan

Danger lurks everywhere and it is essential to keep vigilant at all times. This painful lesson was literally driven home to me recently when I was knocked off my bicycle – flying 10 ft into the air, fortunately without serious injury.

Birkenhead-born Leslie Morton, aged 18, has a unique place in history for using his eyes. He was the lookout who first spotted the torpedo which sank the Lusitania as she headed for Liverpool on 7 May 1915. It was just after lunchtime on a bright, sunny day and the sea was calm when the German submarine U-20 launched its deadly attack.

As the great ship passed the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale, southern Ireland, Leslie was stationed on the bow of the liner. Suddenly, he spotted thin lines of foam racing towards the ship and shouted: “Torpedoes coming in on the starboard”.  A large explosion shook the Cunard vessel as the torpedo blew a large hole in her right side. The Lusitania began to sink very rapidly at the bow and within 18 minutes she was on the bottom of the Irish Sea. A total of 1,195 people died in the tragedy.

Lusitania is featured in a permanent exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum called Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress – the latter being the Empress of Ireland which sank in Canada in 1914. There is a section devoted to Leslie Morton and his brother Clifford, who was nearly 19 at the time of the disaster (they were not twins). 

Both brothers saved many lives and Leslie was later considered to be the “outstanding hero of the Lusitania disaster”.

They joined the crew of the Lusitania as ordinary seamen in New York. The brothers were among eight crew from the Liverpool sailing ship Naiad who jumped ship to join Lusitania. All planned to join the Royal Navy once they returned to England. The Morton brothers were the only ones to survive the sinking.

On display is the silver Board of Trade Gallantry Medal awarded to Leslie Morton for saving lives at sea.

Kapitan-lieutenant Walter Schwieger was the captain of the U-boat which sank the Lusitania. He was very successful, sinking three ships in two days before scuppering the Lusitania.

The sinking of the Lusitania sparked riots and attacks on businesses run by people of German descent in Liverpool and elsewhere. My late father, George Guy, as a four-year-old clearly remembered a mob attacking Yagg’s shop in Everton.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.