Lusitania warning posted by the Imperial German Embassy before she sailedThe German authorities had made it plain that they considered the Lusitania an enemy ship; a legitimate target. And, as we have shown in our second and third Lusitania blogs, she was. Notices to that effect were published in all major American newspapers on 30 April 1915, specifically warning that the Imperial German Government considered any vessel flying the British flag as ‘liable to destruction’ and that travellers did so ‘at their own risk’. [1] Like many other papers, The Washington Times splashed a warning from the German Ambassador to the United States, Count Bernstorff, across their front page with an account of ‘scores of prominent passengers receiving anonymous telegrams’  warning that the Lusitania would be sunk. [2] The American State Department responded that Germany would be held strictly accountable for any subsequent action which affected American citizens. [3] It read like a wild-west standoff. Passengers considered it a bluff.

As Captain Turner sailed from New York on 1 May 1915 with 1959 passengers and crew on board, he was fully aware of these dire warnings but confident that the Lusitania could outrun any pursuant. He received his instructions from Cunard’s General Manager in Liverpool, but, like all merchant captains, was subject to Admiralty control under the the rules of the Liverpool and London War Risks Association. This understanding obligated all merchant ships to follow Admiralty instructions. Failure to do so meant that ship owners forfeited their rights to insurance indemnity. [4] Cunard prized Captain Turner as amongst their very best. He was a company man and not a risk-taker. At 11.00am on 7 May, after six relatively uneventful days at sea steaming through thick fog, Lusitania broke  into a crystal clear day off the south of the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland.

His nemesis, Captain Walther Schwieger lay close by. Schwieger and the U-20 had been actively hunting unsuspecting victims in and around that area for several days. On 5 May he sank the schooner, The Earl of Latham, but not before permitting the 5-man crew to take to their lifeboat and land safely near Kinsale from where news the U-Boat activity was transmitted to Queenstown and on to the Admiralty. U-20 chased but failed to sink the Cayo Romano, a British Steamer flying a Cuban flag. She docked safely and immediately reported the U-boat attack. The crucial point here was that both the naval authorities at Queenstown (now known as Cobh), and the Admiralty in London, knew that U-20 was within 20 miles of the Irish coast and prowling the main shipping lanes for Atlantic trade. Schwieger’s submarine was closely monitored by the decoders in Room 40. They knew the precise areas which were threatened and had identified the specific submarines involved. [5]

RMS Lusitania coming into portThe officer in overall charge of naval intelligence, Rear Admiral Henry Oliver was a taciturn workaholic who had a thorough knowledge and understanding of U-boat movements and when they would arrive on station. Indeed, was we will demonstrate in a later blog, they had been monitoring U-20’s every move in precise detail since September 1914. But initial procedures were changed. For some unexplained reason, the previous policy of reporting U-boat locations was not followed in early May 1915, nor were the practices that had been set up to protect major shipping targets. It was as if the Admiralty had revised it operational procedures just as the Lusitania steamed into a highly dangerous shipping lane.

Consider how the Lusitania was treated on her previous voyage from New York in early March. Oliver ordered two destroyers out to sea to escort her, and the first Q-ship, HMS Lyon [6] was sent to cruise Liverpool Bay. [7] In other words Lusitania was given a high priority, even although, on that occasion, the destroyer captains failed to make contact with her because they had not been given the appropriate maritime code. On 7 May matters were entirely different. There were no destroyers or decoy ships to escort her to Liverpool.

U-20 out in the Atlantic

There was however, an identified U-boat which was running amok in the crucial sea lane. U-20 was rampant. The day before (6 May) she chased and sank the SS Candidate after forcing the crew to abandon ship. By 3.40pm, they had been rescued by patrol boats and their predicament was relayed to the Admiralty. Schwieger missed the opportunity to sink the 14,000 ton White Star liner Arabic, but in the afternoon sank the SS Centurion, which took an hour and twenty minutes to go down. [8] News of this was sent to Queenstown and the Admiralty before 9 o’clock in the morning, though the decoders in Room 40 had already read the message from U-20 on the day before. Whether or not either of these Harrison Line steamers, Centurion and Candidate, or indeed any of the patrol boats reported the incidents by wireless remains uncertain, because all of the relevant records were ‘lost’. Between 5 and 7 May at least five official radio messages were received and acknowledged by the Lusitania. Copies of these were later sent by the Post Office, which operated the wireless stations, to the Admiralty wherein the documents disappeared for ever, a recurring theme when the official version of the Lusitania’s demise was challenged.

What can be established with absolute clarity is that Rear Admiral Oliver knew by midday on 7 May 1915 that U-20 was in the vicinity of the advancing Lusitania. So too did other key players. Cunard Chairman Alfred Booth, who worked in Liverpool, heard about the sinking of the Candidate and Centurion but could not warn his own ships. That was an Admiralty duty. He was determined to ensure that a warning had been clearly sent to Captain Turner and went in person to see that it was. The Senior Admiralty representative in Liverpool, Admiral Stileman promised to do what he could [9] but no direct warning was ever sent to Captain Turner. Nor was there to be an escort to protect her. Two days earlier the cruiser Juno had been ordered to abandon her mission to accompany the Lusitania through the war zone. Why?  The Admiralty War Diary offers no explanation. Apparently no-one knows who took that decision, but of one thing we can be certain; no-one would have dared give such an order without the explicit approval of Churchill or Fisher. [10] Lusitania was left isolated while destroyers Legion, Lucifer, Laverock and Linnet, in company with Q-Ships Baralong and Lyons sat inexplicably immobile in Milford Haven. Captain Turner was not informed that he was now alone and closing every minute to the U-20. One might begin to suspect a set-up.

Manuel House (right)  with President Wilson

On that same morning two very strange conversations took place in London, both with men closely associated with the Secret Elite. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, asked President Wilson’s personal minder, Edward Mandell House, who was allegedly engaged on a peace mission, about the probability of an ocean liner being sunk by a U-boat. Mandell House believed that the outrage would bring ‘such a sweep of indignation across America’  that she was bound to join in the war. House was a British-trained political political operative who held great influence over the American President. [11] One hour later, in an audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace, the King asked him: ‘suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers on board?’ [12
] How odd. Unless the King had access to a crystal ball, he demonstrated amazingly accurate prior knowledge. That these men should have queried the topic at precisely the time the Lusitania was sailing towards her doom, raises the question of exactly what they knew? Well, everything, for they were party to the Secret Elite plan.

New York Times Lusitania Headline

At 2.10pm (Greenwich Mean-time.) U-20 fired a torpedo at the Lusitania from 700 metres. It struck the starboard side and a second very violent explosion tore apart the superstructure. 1,195 civilians, of whom 140 were American died, and with one blow, the doomed liner brought tentative talks of US-brokered peace in Europe to an end. America’s relationship with Germany soured immediately, and the British propaganda machine moved into hyperdrive.

But from the moment the first survivors reached Queenstown, the Admiralty lost control of the script as a coterie of able journalists met survivors and reported the unfolding story. This was not as the Secret Elite had planned.

Queenstown became the centre of uncensored information. Next morning, 8 May 1915, newspaper columns across the globe reported that local people were well aware of the submarine activity. The Scotsman carried the news that the Earl of Letham, had been sunk on Wednesday evening in the same area as the Lusitania and ‘earlier in the day the same submarine discharged a torpedo at the British merchantman, Cayo Romano near Fastnet and missed her stern by a few feet.’ [13] While dwelling on the outrage and speculating on American reaction (first reports claimed that eighty percent of the passengers were American) editors were soon fed Admiralty disinformation. In anticipation perhaps, of accusations to come, The Times bluntly stated that the Lusitania had very little cargo since ‘she was not built for cargo’. [14] Strange that from the outset her cargo should be deemed an issue worth denying. More worryingly for Churchill and the Secret Elite, The Times gave early notice that questions would be raised whether the Admiralty took special measures to protect the vessel, ‘ in view of the threat and of the known presence in the waters she had to traverse of German submarines.’ [15]

Lusitania Mass grave at Queenstown (Cobh) for Lusitania dead

Matters raced forward at an unanticipated pace. Before a Board of Trade Enquiry could be announced, a Coroner’s Enquiry opened at Kinsale on the afternoon of Saturday 8 May. This turn of events caught the Admiralty completely off guard. John J Horgan, a local lawyer who doubled as the Kinsale Coroner, travelled to Queenstown, gathered together a jury of local tradesmen, shopkeepers and fishermen, served notice on Captain Turner and had concluded his investigations before the Admiralty instruction to stop the Inquest arrived in the person of the Crown Solicitor. [16] Horgan was an active Sinn Feiner from the Rebel County (Cork) and may have been inspired by devilment, but his precipitant action temporarily blew a hole in the Secret Elite cover-up.

His key witness was the Lusitania’s Captain, William Turner, who had been picked up from the wreckage by the small steamer Bluebell after three hours in the water  [17] Though the liner had literally sunk under his feet, he had not left his post till the end and his bravery shone through the fog which the Admiralty sought to close around the tragedy. Turner chose to appear before the Coroner even though he could have justifiably claimed to be exhausted and disoriented by his near death experience.

Captain Turner at Queenstown 1915Under oath, Captain Turner made it clear that he was fully aware of the German threats made in New York before the Lusitania’s departure. According to a detailed report carried in the Scotsman  on Tuesday 11 May, Captain Turner said that he had not received any message from the Admiralty about the ships sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale. Perhaps he was confused because the Lusitania had been sent a general warning the previous evening about U-boat activity south of Ireland. Critically for all that was to transpire, Captain Turner stated that immediately after the first explosion, there was a second ‘that might possibly have been internal’. He confirmed that no warships had escorted the liner and ‘none were reported to me as having been sent’ . Fair man that he was, Turner added that he had not asked the Admiralty for an escort ‘since that was their business, not his.’ [18] The Coroner ended his inquiry with unstinting praise for Captain Turner, and the jury unanimously charged the U-20s officers, the Kaiser and the government of Germany with wilful and wholesale murder.

Alarm bells rang around all who had prior knowledge of the Lusitania’s possible fate. Captain Turner had not gone down with his ship. His evidence appeared to indicate that the Lusitania had not been informed of the U-boat activity off Kinsale and, most damningly, he was of the opinion that the second explosion was internal. All of this was in the press before witnesses could be bound by the sub-judice rules of an official Board of Enquiry. The stricture that nothing could be said lest it prejudiced the formal findings had not applied to the Coroner’s Inquest. The truth was out.

Ritz Hotel Paris, Churchill's hideaway during the sinking of the Lusitania

Churchill’s enemies in Parliament gathered their indignation and wrapped it in very pointed and embarrassing questions. Like many of the Secret Elite before him, Churchill was  ‘out of town’ when the dirty deed was done. His convenient absence  on other secret duties during the critical period has been wrongly used by some historians to deny Churchill’s involvement in the Lusitania’s demise. From 6-8 May he took up privileged residence in the Ritz Hotel in Paris on the basis of his attendance at a conference on the naval aspects of Italy’s participation in the war. [19] His presence there was met with a mixture of amusement and scorn by the French [20] who treated him with ill-disguised contempt. Gallipoli was falling apart, his relationship with Lord Fisher at the Admiralty was deteriorating by the day, and now the Lusitania’s sinking was accompanied by serious accusations of incompetence.

His dalliance in France, where he chose to spend two additional days visiting Sir John French, was derided in Parliament as ‘a joy ride’. [21] Churchill seemed to have no appreciation of how low his stock had fallen. Even King George V made comment on ‘Winston’s joy-rides’. [22] This was not his finest hour.

[1] New York Tribune, 1 May 1915
[2] The Washington Times 1 May 1915, page 1.
[3] United States Library of Congress
[4] Diana Preston, Wilful Murder, The Sinking of the Lusitania, p.133.
[5] Patrick Beesly, Room 40, p. 102.
[6] These special service ships were heavily armed merchantmen with hidden guns whose purpose was to lure a submarine into view before revealing her heavier guns, open fire and sink them.
[7] Beesly, Room 40, p. 95.
[8] Colin Simpson, Lusitania, pp. 136-7.
[9] Preston, Wilful Murder, pp. 205-6.
[10]  Colin Simpson, pp. 127-8.
[11] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 222.
[12] Edward Mandell House and Charles Seymouur, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, vol.1, p. 432.
[13] The Scotsman, 8 May p. 10.
[14] The Times, Saturday 8 May, 1915, p. 9.
[15] Ibid., p. 10.
[16] Simpson, Lusitania, pp.173-4.
[18] Report of the Coroner’s Inquiry at Kinsale, The Scotsman, p. 5, Tuesday 11 May 1915.
[19] Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, Companion Volume III, p. 852.
[20] Ibid., Maurice Brett letter to Lord Esher, 8 May 1915.
[21] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 12 May 1915, vol. 7, cc1656.
[22] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 487.