Maritime tales - down in 18 minutes

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What makes the Lusitania disaster even more horrific to me, Stephen Guy, is the circumstances in which the great ship went down – a bright spring day on a calm sea within sight of land. Unlike the White Star Line’s Titanic, that other great doomed ship, the Cunarder Lusitania was a regular visitor to Liverpool as she plied the seas between that city and New York.

ship model of a 4-funnelled liner

Model of the Lusitania. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

She was heading for Liverpool on a May day in 1915 when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in just 18 minutes.

The Lusitania had been a popular liner on the Atlantic run since she came into service in 1907. Many thousands had experienced life on board during the crossing.

The First World War had been raging since August 1914 but the Lusitania continued to carry passengers across the Atlantic to the neutral United States of America.  A torpedo thudded into the side of the huge vessel. Almost immediately she began to list as water poured through the gaping hole. Passengers heading for the open decks after lunch were trapped in the lifts, going to their horrific deaths struggling to escape.

Throughout the ship passengers and crew made for the lifeboats. But such was the speed of the ship’s sinking that many were trapped on board to meet their fate. Around 1,195 out of 1,959 people on board died – including 123 Americans.

There are a number of Lusitania items on display in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery. There is an elaborate dusky pink sofa cushion from the first class music room. It was fished out of the sea by a Royal Navy seaman using a boat hook – the repaired damage can still be seen.

A gruesome German Dance of Death propaganda medallion shows a skeleton looking at the sinking Lusitania.

A deckchair from the stricken vessel was recovered from the water by fisherman Patrick O’Driscoll, who relaxed in it for many years outside his Cape Clear Island cottage.

Ship’s carpenter James McKee made the striking model of the Lusitania (shown) from solid teak taken from a piece of the liner’s damaged handrail.
Smaller items include a lady’s souvenir fan marked 'Cunard RMS Lusitania', a silver snuff box and tea spoon – and a brass key which opened the door to the ship’s deck store.

But perhaps most poignant of all is one of the Lusitania’s propellers which was recovered from the wreck 360 feet down in the Irish Sea and is now on the museum’s Historic Quaysides.

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