Lusitania Is Sunk- International Headlines

Parliamentary scorn added to Churchill’s woes. He was obliged to make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday 10 May, where he spoke so quietly that it was difficult to hear his voice. [1] The aggressive questions openly put to him left little room for manoeuvre. ‘Was the Admiralty aware of the submarine activity prior to the attack on the Lusitania?’ ‘What provision was made to safeguard the steamship Lusitania on her last crossing?’ ‘Was he aware of the sinking of the SS Centurion and Candidate?’ Was he aware that the Admiralty provided destroyers to accompany steamers off the south coast of Ireland carrying horses from the USA to Liverpool? His pathetic response fooled no-one.  “I will, as far as I am able, answer these various questions together…it would be premature to discuss the matter. I should, however, make it plain—first, that in no circumstances will it be possible to make public the naval dispositions for patrolling the approaches to our coast; and, secondly, that the resources at our disposal do not enable us to supply destroyer escort for merchant or passenger ships, more than 200 of which, on the average, arrive or depart safely every day.’ [2] It was a classic non-answer, but clearly he was hiding behind alleged lack of resources. Apparently, Churchill’s memory failed him, so Sir Robert Houston MP provided details of the destroyers which had met the steamship Hydaspes on the south coast of Ireland, laden with horses and escorted it safely to Liverpool. It beggars belief.

Lord Charles Beresford, his long time adversary, asked if it was within Churchill’s memory that he (Beresford) had written a letter on 15 April warning of the perils faced by the Lusitania and why they went unheeded? [3]

Astoundingly, the Prime Minister intervened; ‘They were heeded.’

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith 1915

Beresford’s letter had originally been sent to Asquith ‘and it was carefully studied at the Admiralty…so, far from the warnings being unheeded, a great many measures … have already been applied.’ [4] Consider this statement again. The Prime Minister had been made aware on 15 April by a senior Member of Parliament, and former First Sea Lord, of the potential dangers which Lusitania would face when she returned from the United States. The warnings were heeded. He said so. The Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty and his officials had carefully discussed Lord Beresford’s suggestions. He told Parliament so. There had been a strategy meeting in the Admiralty about the return of the Lusitania and the result was… the Captain of the Lusitania was not given pertinent information about circumstances ahead of him; he was literally guided towards a predatory U-boat, of whose location Room 40 had precise knowledge.

Incredibly, U-20 had its own ledger entries recorded in complete detail in Room 40. This fact was kept a closely guarded secret by the Admiralty, but the ledger can now be seen in the National Archives at Kew in London. [5] The records begin in September 1914, and by November the ledger clearly shows that transmissions from the U-boat had been intercepted, decoded and recorded down to her exact co-ordinates and location on naval charts. Sheet four, which covers April and May 1915, provides radio signals, area locations and even hourly positions for U-20. The entries give the precise location of the submarine when it disposed of the Earl of Lathom at 51.32 N 8.22 W, off the Old Head of Kinsale on 5 May.

Map showing the route Lusitania was to follow

Next day Hall’s men in Room 40 watched as the U-20 proceeded eastwards to the entrance of St. George’s Channel where  she sank the Candidate and Centurion. The Admiralty knew that the U-20 was operating in the middle of the Channel close to Coningberg light vessel in the area through which the Lusitania had been instructed to proceed. [6] Lest there be any doubt, this ledger proves that British Intelligence knew of the U-boat’s actions within minutes of its transmission.

At the same time, roughly two and an half hours away at the port of Milford Haven, on the west coast of Wales, a flotilla of five destroyers, whose exclusive duty was to escort and safeguard valuable cargo, lay idle. The Admiralty sat on its hands and, far from ordering them to attack the U-20, or move immediately to convoy the priceless Lusitania, did neither.  Twenty-four hours earlier the cruiser Juno, which Captain Turner had expected to meet him, was ordered back to Queenstown. The way was cleared, not for the helpless Lusitania, but for the U-20. 

This was the strategy. Lead the Lusitania into an area which the Admiralty lawyers later admitted was ‘infested’ with submarines. She was effectively live bait and what happened thereafter was in the lap of the gods.

U-20 had no notion that the Cunard Liner was approaching. Captain Schwieger’s log and diary show that an unexpected oil shortage had forced him back from Liverpool (his planned location). [7] Schwieger was a cautious captain, aware of the vulnerability of his submarine to gun attack or being rammied. Short of torpedoes, by 7 May there were only  three left, he was surprised to find himself presented with such an unprecedented target. U-20 was a predator out to catch whatever prey that came along. Schwieger was not lying in wait for any particular vessel. He wrote in amazement that, given the sinking of the two steamboats on 6 May, the Lusitania had not been rerouted through the North Channel. [8] Had the Admiralty not ordained a different scenario, she might well have been  rerouted. Nor did Captain Schwieger expect the eventual outcome. His torpedoes were not exactly lethal. He had found it necessary to use both a torpedo and gunfire to sink the 5,000 ton Candidate and two torpedoes to dispatch the 6,000 ton Centurion. [9] Sinking a 44,000 ton Trans-Atlantic Liner with a single torpedo was ambitious, to say the least.

Whether the Secret Elite cared that the Liner would survive a single torpedo is a moot point. American outrage would still have been stirred had she limped into port without loss of life, especially when five days after the Lusitania sank, the propaganda coup was bolstered by the publication of the Bryce Report on alleged German atrocities in Belgium. [10] But all their careful calculations had been ruined by the Coroner’s Inquest at Kinsale.

Lusitania deaths painting by  William Lionel Wyllie in National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Turner’s statements transformed him into a targeted man. They could not allow his testament to stand; especially his assertion that only one torpedo hit the liner, followed by what felt like a huge internal explosion. Imagine the outcry if it were proved that the Lusitania had been sunk and American citizens drowned because of explosives and munitions carried as cargo by the liner with the approval of the U.S. customs authorities? The implications would have had devastating political consequences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Silencing the newspapers was comparatively simple. By extending their powers under the Defence of the Realm Act on 17 May 1915, the government forbade the discussion of any cargo carried by either a British or Allied merchantman. [11] Newspaper speculation was crushed; Parliamentary questions, inappropriate. The Admiralty denied any impropriety, the American authorities agreed, and the whole issue of munitions as cargo was squashed. Captain Turner was not so easily dismissed.

Turner had to be disgraced, his character blackened, his opinion ridiculed, or the entire purpose behind the sinking of the Lusitania would be ruined. It was literally him or them. What the Secret Elite required was a monumental cover-up which would appease the doubters in Britain and America. Blaming Turner and burying the truth became a political necessity. A whispering campaign began at once in the Admiralty, questioning William Turner’s judgement and ability. There was even a ridiculous suggestion that he was a German spy.

U S Ambassador Walter Hines Page

Within the strange world of alleged coincidences which made the Lusitania’s troubled waters even murkier, a dinner party had been convened by the American Ambassador Walter Hines Page on the evening of the tragedy before the extent of the disaster was fully known. Given in honour of President Wilson’s emissary, Colonel Mandell House, [12] the guest list included Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, The Times legendary Foreign Editor, Henry Wickham Steed, Captain Reginald Hall of Room 40, the Solicitor-General F E Smith, George Booth, the government’s chief munitions procurer, recently back from America and, at House’s request, Lord Mersey, the British Wreck Commissioner, the judge who had overseen the Titanic inquiry. [13]

Winston Churchill had been invited, but chose to be out of London on that date.  How incredibly odd. Here in the one room sat the Admiralty official from Room 40 who knew all about the submarine activity, the government’s arms procurer who knew all about the munitions carried by the Lusitania, the Foreign Secretary who had that very day questioned the impact of such a sinking, the noble Lord Mersey, who chaired wreck inquiries and Mr. F E Smith recently raised to the office of Solicitor General. According to Ambassador Page’s recollection they sat numbed by the news as it came in, and there was ‘ practically no discussion as to the consequences of the crime’. [14] Perhaps House and Grey had forgotten their earlier conversation, or the King’s questions? Perhaps no-one thought to ask Captain Hall from the Admiralty if he had any further information? Clearly no-one would have mentioned munitions cargoes to Britain’s main munitions procurer. No, we are asked to believe that this distinguished select group ate in near monastic silence. How very odd.

Given the intimate relationship that these men had with the the case against Captain Turner, judge, prosecutor, munitions procurer, newspaper correspondent and the Head of the Foreign Office, it is impossible to imagine that a fair trial was in the offing. These were the men in whom the Secret Elite put their trust. In fact the team which was assembled to represent the Admiralty at the Official Board of Trade Inquiry comprised the Secret Elite’s legal rottweilers, Attorney General Sir Edward Carson and Solicitor General FE Smith. Carson had unhinged Oscar Wilde and humiliated him in the infamous trial of 1895. Both he and FE Smith had led the Ulster Volunteers in the months immediately before the war, aided by their mutual friend and admirer, and Secret Eliite leader, Lord Alfred Milner. [15] They meant business.

[1] The Scotsman 11 May 1915, p. 4.
[2] Hansard House of Commons Debate 10 May 1915, vol. 71 cc1359-63.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., cc1362-63.
[5] Part of the ADM 137 series;  specifically, ADM 137/4152.
[7] Thomas A Bailey, German Documents on the Lusitania, Journal of Modern History, vol. 8, no.3, September 1936, p. 322.
[8] Ibid., p. 336.
[9] Ibid., p. 322.
[10] The Bryce Report; Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages.
[11] Colin Simpson, Lusitania, p. 208.
[12] Burton J Hendrick, Life and Letters of Walter H Page, Vol. II, p. 1-2.
[13] Simpson, Lusitania, p. 135.
[14] Burton J Hendrick, Life and Letters, p. 2.
[15] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, pp. 301-319.