It had been a very successful run. The German submarine U-20 had entered the Irish Sea on May 5 and now, the morning of May 7, the submarine claimed its third victim. The U-20 had only three torpedoes left in its arsenal and was low on fuel. As a result, Captain Walter Schwieger, the ship's commander, decided to steer for the open waters of the Atlantic and home. He was unaware that his greatest prize was steaming straight for him and that his actions that day would ultimately bring America into the war.
The Lusitania had left New York City on May 1 bound for Liverpool. On
the afternoon of May 7 she was steaming off the coast of Ireland within easy
sailing distance of her destination. Known as the "Greyhound of the Seas," the Lusitania was
the fastest liner afloat and relied on her speed to defend against submarine
attack. However, she was not running at full speed because of fog. Nor was
the ship taking an evasive zigzag course. It was a sitting duck and was headed
straight into the sights of the U-20.
The two ships converged at about 2 pm. After stalking his prey for an hour, Captain
Schwieger unleashed one torpedo that hit its target amidships. The initial
explosion was followed quickly by a second, more powerful, detonation. Within
20 minutes the great liner had slipped under the water, taking 1,198 victims
with her. Among the dead were 138 Americans. Many in the United States were
outraged. A declaration of war was narrowly averted when Germany vowed to cease
her policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that allowed attacks on merchant
ships without warning. However, American public opinion had turned against
Germany and when she resurrected her unrestricted submarine warfare policy
in February of 1917, America
decided to go to war.
Captain Schwieger kept a diary of the voyage. We join
his story as he first catches sight of the Lusitania in the early afternoon of
May 7, 1915:
||Straight ahead the 4 funnels and 3 masts of a steamer with a course at right angles to ours. . . Ship is made out to be a large passenger liner.
Went to 11m and ran at high speed on a course converging with that
of the steamer, in hopes that it would change course to starboard along
the Irish Coast.
The steamer turned to starboard, headed for Queenstown and thus made
it possible to approach for a shot. Ran at high speed till 3 pm in order
to secure an advantageous position.
Clear bow shot at 700 m. . . angle of
intersection 90 [degrees] estimated speed 22 nautical miles.
Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinary
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.
Great confusion arose on the ship; some of the boats were swung clear
and lowered into the water. Many people must have lost their heads; several
boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern
first and filled at once.
On the port side, because of the sloping position, fewer boats were
swung clear than on the starboard side.
The ship blew off steam; at the bow the name “Lusitania” in
golden letters was visible. It was running 20 nautical miles.
Since it seemed as
if the steamer could only remain above water for a short time, went to
24m. and ran toward the Sea. Nor could I have fired a second torpedo
into this swarm of people who were trying to save themselves.
Went to 11m and took
a look around. In the distance straight ahead a number of life-boats
were moving; nothing more was to be seen of the Lusitania. The
wreck must lie 14 nautical miles from the Old Head of Kinsale light-house,
at an angle of 358 degrees to the right of it, in 90m of water (27 nautical
miles from Queenstown) 51 degrees 22’ 6” N and 8 degrees
31’ W. The land and the lighthouse could be seen very plainly.
||When taking a look around,
a large steamer was in sight ahead on the port side, with course laid for
Fastnet Rock. Tried to get ahead at high speed, so as to get a stern shot.
Conditions for shot
very favorable: no possibility of missing if torpedo kept its course.
Torpedo did not strike. Since the telescope was cut off for some time
after this shot the cause of failure could not be determined. . . The
steamer or freighter was of the Cunard Line.
. . . It is remarkable
that there is so much traffic on this particular day, although two large
steamers were sunk the day before south of George’s Channel. It
is also inexplicable that the Lusitania was not sent through
the North Channel."
Walter Schwieger’s diary is part of the collection of
the National Archives: Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office
of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945.
Hickey, Des & Smith, Gus, Seven
Days to Disaster (1982); Simpson, Colin, The Lusitania (1972).
How To Cite This Article:
"The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1915," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2007).
Captain Schwieger was killed in September 1917 when his submarine
collided with a mine off the coast of Denmark.
The cause of the second explosion on the Lusitania is a matter of controversy. Captain Schwieger's diary does not mention the firing of a second torpedo. As a result, the second explosion has been attributed to the ignition of coal dust in the ship's hold or the explosion of munitions secretly carried on board.