It is difficult to think of a single sinking of a merchant ship in wartime that could have had such wide-reaching consequences. Inevitably, the sinking of the Lusitania has produced a wealth of conspiracy theory and a mountain of myth. A 100 years on is a good point to take a fresh look at the sinking, the known facts, the myths that should debunked, and the political map of the time. The author has superbly researched his subject and presented a well-argued review of the sinking and the political aftermath. Highly Recommended.
NAME: The Lusitania Saga & Myth, 100 Years on
AUTHOR: David Ramsay
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, World War One, First World War, technology, tactics, war at sea, U-Boat, unrestricted warfare, convoys, single sailings, politics, US citizens, USA
DESCRIPTION: It is difficult to think of a single sinking of a merchant ship in wartime that could have had such wide-reaching consequences. Inevitably, the sinking of the Lusitania has produced a wealth of conspiracy theory and a mountain of myth. A 100 years on is a good point to take a fresh look at the sinking, the known facts, the myths that should debunked, and the political map of the time. The author has superbly researched his subject and presented a well-argued review of the sinking and the political aftermath. Highly Recommended.
The SS Lusitania was built in 1907 for Cunard as a trans-Atlantic liner, sailing between Liverpool and New York. From the outbreak of war in 1914, she continued to operate on her peace time route. At that point of WWI, convoys were still a developing concept and fast passenger sips were considered safer alone than tied to the much lower speed of a convoy, with its inevitably inadequate number of escorts. The problem did not end with WWI because fast liners like the Queen Elizabeth were to be sailed alone during WWII, in spite of the considerably larger numbers of German U-Boats and their increased effectiveness.
In theory, international agreement assumed that a submarine would surface, give the potential target the option of surrender, and for the passengers and crew to take to the lifeboats, before gun and torpedo attack would be employed to sink the target. It was also assumed that a submarine captain would search the target for contraband to avoid sinking innocent ships that were not aiding the enemy. The reality had to be different. The submarine did have a very effective weapon in the locomotive torpedo, but it had to be fired from a distance that was safe to the submarine. Deck guns did offer a more economic method of attacking a surface ship, particularly the small sailing ships that were still in service in 1914. However, the submarine did not have a great speed. Submerged, a submarine were capable of only a few knots and currents could greatly reduce this speed. On the surface, the submarine was very much faster but unlikely to be able to overhaul a trans-Atlantic liner in a chase. That meant that once a submarine surfaced, the potential target would realize that its intentions were hostile and any self-respecting liner captain would make full speed away from the submarine while it was still surfacing and opening hatches, probably also zig-zagging to make it a more difficult target for the submarine’s torpedoes. Inevitably, submarine skippers demanded the right to fire on any potential target from a submerged position, and without any warning.
There was also the contentious issue as to what constituted a legitimate target for a submarine. Americans, or other neutral citizens travelling on a ship owned by an enemy might feel that they should be spared, but the Germans argued that they knew the risks and could have travelled on the ship of a neutral nation. Then again, U-boat skippers wanted to be able to fire on any surface ship without increasing risk to their crew.
When SS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat, there was considerable loss of life, including American passengers. There was a major international incident and Germany signed an agreement not to attack US or other neutral ships. Germany probably had little choice but, once the agreement had been signed, any breach was likely to give the US an excuse to enter the war on side of Britain. That breach was inevitably going to occur. U-boats and their crews would find it very difficult to identify potential targets without surfacing and sending across a boarding crew. That action would place the submarine in a very vulnerable position and captains were therefore likely to ignore the step, either deciding to err on the side of the target and let it pass, or to fire torpedoes and hope that the target was legitimate.
The author has presented the facts from his research and argued the case. He has debunked some of the myths, but conspiracy theorists will probably cling to their beliefs. The fact still remains that the sinking of the SS Lusitania was a major contributory factory in the US moving down the path to war with Germany.