Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lusitania's Fate Sealed by the Admiralty

by Ronald J. Walters

A hundred years after the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania, there are still many unanswered questions, in terms of what actually transpired and why. It has never been explained why the British cruiser, the HMS Juno, was recalled to her mooring station after having set sail to respond to the Lusitania’s distress call. Nor do we know why thousands of mines were dropped on the ship’s wreckage in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what really happened that fateful day in May, 1915. But that certainly won’t stop us from speculating as to what dark secrets might be looming in the ship’s history.

Between 1707 and the start of World War I, The British Empire had been involved in ninety-five separate wars. As a contingency for future naval needs, the British government often subsidized the construction and operating costs of cruise liners, with the proviso that these ships could be converted into Armed Merchant Cruisers, if the need for them arose. These luxurious ships were designed to have secret compartments for carrying arms and ammunition. When WWI began, the RMS Lusitania and her sister ship, the Mauretania, were requisitioned by the Admiralty as armed merchant cruisers. This designation triggered their inclusion on the official AMC list and changed their status in Jane’s All the Worlds Fighting Ships, an annual reference book that contains information on every warship in the world. A copy of that book was standard issue for all German U-Boats and Naval vessels.

The Declaration of Paris, which was signed in 1856, established the rules of engagement for naval vessels, later known as the “Cruiser Rules.” In part, those rules stated that a passenger ship could not be fired upon without warning. The Germans followed those rules when engaging merchant and passenger ships. However, in 1915, Winston Churchill (who was, at the time, the First Lord of the Admiralty) issued a letter to Germany stating that he was considering arming merchant and passenger ships so that they could fire at the German U-Boats. In response, Germany declared open, unrestricted warfare, which essentially made the Lusitania – other cruise ships – fair game.

Up until this point, the United States had maintained a position of neutrality, even though they had been supplying the British with arms and ammunition. Passenger liners, like the Lusitania, were often used to convey these shipments. Perhaps the ship was carrying more than just the On May 7th, 1915, the German submarine, U-20, and its captain, Walter Schweiger, were on patrol just off the coast of Ireland. The Lusitania, carrying a total of 1,959 souls between the crew and the passengers, was steaming along a course towards its final destination, Liverpool, England. The ship’s captain, Captain Turner, wanted to take readings at four points along the shoreline to better determine his exact location. In doing so, he allowed the much slower U-20 to gain a tactical advantage in plotting an intercept course. At the time, it was standard practice for passenger liners to have destroyer escorts – but none were made available to the Lusitania.

The British government has never fully disclosed why. Furthermore, protocol dictated that the ship should have sailed on a zig-zag course at full speed when navigating U-Boat patrolled waters. Captain Turner did just the opposite.

When Captain Schweiger surfaced to periscope depth, he was shocked to see the Lusitania just 700 yards away! Naturally, he issued the order to fire a single torpedo, which struck the ship in the starboard bow. Less than eighteen minutes later, the massive “Greyhound of the Sea” was 300 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The sinking took the United States by surprise as just days before German Ambassador Count Bernsdorff had assured the US government that “passenger liners would not be sunk without warning and without ensuring the safety of the non-combatants aboard providing that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.” Yet this attack took the lives of many American citizens. In fact, it was this event that catalyzed the US’s involvement in the war.

After being rescued, Captain Turner appeared at a coroner’s inquiry on May 10th, 1915. He admitted that he had received warnings about submarines and stated that he carried out orders and instructions from the Admiralty which he was not allowed to discuss. Thirty minutes after the coroner’s inquest concluded, the crown solicitor for County Cork, Ireland appeared with instructions that Captain Turner be barred from giving evidence. He was not allowed to make any further statements about instructions he may or may not have been given concerning shipping, submarines, deviations from standing operating orders, or the cargo manifest of the Lusitania.

As we approach its centennial anniversary, there are still many unanswered questions regarding the sinking of the Lusitania. Until and unless the government of Great Britain releases classified documents (which would be an unlikely occurrence, indeed!) regarding the instructions sent to the ship’s captain and the reason behind calling off her destroyer escort, the truth will remain hidden. We very probably will never know exactly what happened that fateful day in May, 1915, but inspired by these real events, The Lusitania Conspiracy allows us to imagine what might have been and provides just one possible explanation of what really sunk the ship that fateful day.


Ron Walters has always been captivated by the Lusitania and the fact that its place in history has been obscured by the Titanic’s sinking. He researched everything available on the Lusitania for over three years and with the 100th anniversary taking place in 2015, decided to write a screenplay that is fact-based but has an entertaining twist that could offer answers to some of the lingering questions surrounding the conspiracy. After several productive meetings in Hollywood, Walters found himself on the Paramount lot when a film executive asked, “So, when is the book coming out?” From that conversation, the book The Lusitania Conspiracy was born. Walters lives in Traverse City, Michigan, where he enjoys working on his golf game.

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  1. Agatha Christie's The Scret Adversary opens on the Lusitania with a conversation between two Americans, a spy with vital papers and an American girl he meets and wants to take the papers as she is more likely to survive than he is. It would be interesting to know what Christie thought! :-)

  2. Excellent entry. Thank you! War is always more complicated than the newspapers usually make it!

  3. There were notices taken out in the NYC papers by the German Consulate warning passengers NOT to take these ships (I have seen them). Personally, I feel that they (the passengers) should have taken these warnings more seriously as they were travelling into a war zone. I blame the parents for the loss of the lives of children -- NOT the U-boat commander. It was a despicable act by the British government which kept the Juno away. The USA should never have gotten involved -- even over this incident.


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