Over the next three weeks we will concentrate on the tragedy of the Lusitania, unpick the lies and misinformation that have continued over the last 100 years and consider how the Secret Elite tried desperately to cover up their complicity. In addition we are very pleased to publish a guest blog from Mitch Peeke whose work in uncovering the hidden truth about the Lusitania’s secret cargo deserves special acknowledgement. 

On 5 August 1914, Churchill’s Admiralty landed the first intelligence blow of the war.  [1] In the early hours of the morning, while most of Europe was still abed, and few across the Empire even knew that they had declared war on Germany, a decision that had been taken by the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1912 was quietly effected. The British Cable Ship Telconia ripped out the first of five German Trans-Atlantic cables which ran from Emden on the German-Dutch border through the English Channel and then to Spain, Africa and the Americas. [2] It was the first step in Britain’s dominance of propaganda from 1914 onwards [3] and at the same time, it set the stage for a secret coup known to very few, even in the highest echelons of the British Cabinet.

Cable Ship Telconia which did so much damage to German communications across the Atlantic.

The impact on German transmissions to and from its colonies, its embassies and consulates, and with press agencies in neutral countries, was instant. Cut off from this vital avenue, Berlin immediately became reliant on wireless communications which the Admiralty in London had already begun to monitor on Saturday 1 August, four days before the fateful declaration of war. Rear Admiral Sir Douglas Brownrigg had been drafted into the Admiralty as Chief Censor of Radio Telegraphy to scrutinise radio messages from all over the world and keep tabs on the movement of both British merchant ships and ‘hostile’ vessels. [4] It was more a defensive initiative to prevent information reaching the enemy.

By far the most important cog in the intelligence wheel was established inside the Admiralty itself in a small, private room which even Admiralty insiders knew nothing about. German warships and merchantmen constantly sent coded wireless transmissions to each other or to their naval headquarters which, if decoded, could provide priceless information. Intercepts from the Post Office and the Marconi Company initially overwhelmed the Naval Intelligence Department. Its director, Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, used Room 40 in the Old Building at the Admiralty as the base for a small team of code-breakers. They were to become a secret weapon whose importance to the outcome of the First World War was as vital as that of Blechley Park in the Second. Room 40 became a secret hidden inside the dark passageways of the Admiralty, know to only a very select few such as Churchill and Admiral Fisher; and knowledge is power.

The German navy started the war with three highly complex sets of codes and cyphers to protect their messages from prying eyes or ears. Within four months, the Admiralty was in physical possession of these three codes books and had access to all wireless traffic emanating from the Imperial German Fleet.

On 11 August, barely one week into the war, the first code the Handeloverkehrbuch (HVB), was captured from a German-Austrian steamboat, Hobart. She was stopped and searched just off Melbourne by a boarding party purporting to be a quarantine inspection group. Led by Captain J T Richardson of the Royal Australian Navy, disguised in civilian clothes, the German captain was caught attempting to destroy confidential papers. Trapped at gun-point with the vital codes in his hand, he surrendered the HVB to the Australians who did not realise that they had taken possession of the precious codes used by the German Admiralty and their High Seas Fleet to communicate with their merchant ships The British Admiralty in Whitehall did not hear about the fortuitous capture until 9 September, and by the time the documents had reached them in London at the end of October, an even more remarkable stroke of good fortune had blessed their ventures. 

What happened next had all the hallmarks of a bible story; miraculous, truly incredible, so utterly blessed with good luck that you can but shake your head in disbelief. The story should have been written by John Buchan, but he was creating his own fictional heroes at the time. [5] British historians have since described these events as pure chance, [6] a remarkable windfall  [7] or indeed, more accurately , if you wish to accept the path of good fortune, [8] two windfalls, one after another. [9]

Post-card image of the German light cruiser Magdeburg under attack

On 26 August the German light cruiser, Magdeburg ran aground in fog off the Gulf of Finland and before orders to scuttle the vessel could be properly carried out, two Russian cruisers appeared from the mists and opened fire. In the confusion, the captain and fifty-seven German sailors were taken prisoner and confidential papers removed from the stranded ship.

These included the SKM (Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine) the most secret and valuable German naval code which was only used in major operations. Official German accounts stated that the secret papers including the signal books were thrown overboard. They clearly believed that was the case for they continued using the codes. Yet the Russians produced a copy of the signal book which British Grand Fleet Records show were delivered by Commander Smirnoff of the Imperial Russian Navy on 10 October and swiftly rushed to the Admiralty in London. A different version comes from Count Constantine Benckendorff, son of the Russian Ambassador at London,  who claimed in his autobiography that the Russians found a treasure trove of secret information in the customary place, the Magdeburg’s charthouse. The overall haul included the code, its key and war diary, and he claimed that he brought a copy to the Admiralty himself, landing at Hull in a Russian Volunteer Navy ship. [10] And there is a third version. Churchill’s recollection was much more romantic, but improbable. According to him, after the Magdeburg was wrecked in the Baltic, ‘the body of a drowned German under-officer was picked up by the Russians…and clasped in his bosom by arms rigid in death, were the cypher and signal books of the German Navy and the minutely squared maps of the North Sea and the Heligoland Bight.’ [11] The flaw that ruined Churchill’s dramatic version was that the code, Copy number 151 of the SKM, which remains available in the National Archives at Kew, London, [12] bore no sign of ever having been immersed in salt water. But Winston always liked to paint a romantic picture, even if he wasn’t the principal character. There is a suggestion that the Magdeburg carried three copies of SKM, numbers 145, 974 and 151, [13] but why on earth would one light cruiser have three sets of codes, and why do all these different explanations ring false?

British trawler of type requisitioned in 1914 for war work

Putting aside for the moment the great fortune which linked the first two discoveries, the deliverance of the third code, the Verkehrsbuch (VB) was truly miraculous. Following the sinking of four old German destroyers near the Dutch island of Texel on 17 October, a British trawler allegedly dragged up a lead-lined chest from that same spot more than six weeks later. The chest included the priceless Verkehrsbuch, used primarily by Flag Officers to communicate with the German army. When they took possession of the last piece in this wondrous jig-saw, the decoders in Room 40 referred to it as ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’. [14] How a British trawler, fishing off the coast of Holland had, by chance, managed to capture a lead-lined document-filled chest from one of four sunken destroyers remains more than a mystery. It was simply not possible. Consider these stories; a mock-quarantine patrol in Australia, a drowned German officer dragged from the sea in rigor mortis and a one-in-a-multi-million chance-catch by a passing trawler just off the coast of Holland gave the Admiralty access to more enemy information than any other military command had ever possessed. This is the stuff of The Boy’s Own magazine.

Admiral Reginald Hall 1919

Churchill  appointed Captain Reginald  Hall to take charge of Room 40 in October 1914, and ‘Blinker’ as he was known,  expanded the work of his team to examine commercial, diplomatic and military traffic of every kind. Hall’s leadership was approved and appreciated by prime minister Asquith and a joint War Trade Intelligence Department was established to enlarge the scope of surveillance. [14] Understandably Churchill wanted to guard his precious secret rigorously, but knowledge of the work in Room 40 was more than that. It was a tiny magic circle [15] the like of which suited well the covert operations sanctioned by the Secret Elite.

The fact remains that by the fifth month of the war, virtually every wireless signal sent by the German Navy could be intercepted. It was an overwhelming intelligence disaster for the Germans [16] but its effectiveness was diluted by the limitations placed on its use by those few who knew of its existence. The arrival of the captured SKM codes and their use in the decryption of intercepted orders to submarines brought about a fresh focus on German naval communications. This was a gift from the Gods. They could follow the movements of the German fleet and knew the disposition of the U- Boats; which was at sea, which lay in port and which had failed to return? The men in Room 40 also knew where the U-Boats were currently active. [17]

Keep that fact in mind. It is of crucial importance in understanding the fate of the Lusitania.

[1] Jonathan Reed Winkler Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War 1, pp. 5-6
[2] Patrick Beesley, Room 40, British Naval Intelligence 1914-1918, p. 2.
[3] H C Peterson, Propaganda for War, p.13.
[4] Rear Admiral Sir Douglas Brownrigg, Indiscretions of the Naval Censor, pp 2-4.
[5] It may come as a surprise to readers that the author John Buchan was in the outer circle of the Secret Elite in London. [ Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p 313.] Buchan wrote Nelson’s History of the Great War and served as Director of Information for the War Office. Famed for his Richard Hannay series of adventure stories, Greenmantle, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Three Hostages, these books shamelessly reflect Secret Elite values and British propaganda.
[6] Beesley, Room 40, p. 3.
[7] Christopher Andrew, Secret Service, p. 88.
[8] Colin Simpson, Lusitania, p. 67.
[9] Julian Thompson, The War at Sea, 1914-1918, p. 85.
[10] Count Benckendorff, Half A Life, The Reminiscences of a Russian Gentleman, pp.  158-160.
[11] Winston S Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918, pp. 414-5.
[12] Public Record Office, ADM 137/4156.
[13]  Beesley, Room 40, p.6.
[14] Paul Halpern, A Naval History of World War 1, p. 37.
[15] Beesley p. 20.
[16] Beesly, Room 40, p. 7.
[17] Diana Preston, Wilful Murder, The Sinking of the Lusitania, p. 184.