On This Day: Lusitania passenger ship sunk by German U-boat in deadliest civilian attack of WWI

May 7, 1915: The British passenger ship RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat on this day in 1915 in the deadliest attack on civilians during the First World War.

The luxury ocean liner, which was sailing from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed without warning, killing 1,198 passengers and crew.

She sank within 18 minutes of U-20 striking 14 miles off Kinsale in southern Ireland, which the Germans had declared part of an exclusion zone for all Allied shipping.

Although there were enough lifeboats to save all 1,959 lives on board, only a few could be launched because the vessel listed so quickly.

Captain William Thomas Turner, who remained on his bridge until the gushing water washed him overboard, was one of the luckiest survivors.

He was rescued three hours later by a patrol who found him unconscious but somehow still clinging to a floating chair.

A British Pathé newsreel showed wreckage from the Lusitania, which was formerly the world biggest passenger ship and the fastest to cross the Atlantic.

Among the victims was U.S. philanthropist Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the world’s richest men, who was last seen fastening a life vest onto a woman holding a baby.

The sinking deeply angered neutral Americans – and fostered greater public support for the British, with the U.S. eventually declaring war on Germany in 1917.

Meanwhile, Britain accused Germany of a war crime after breaching international law by firing on a non-military vessel without warning.


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Yet, contrary to British claims that the Lusitania’s purpose was strictly peaceful, it later emerged that she had also been transporting ammunition.

The shells and bullets in the cargo exploded – and it was this blast that sank the 787ft-long ship, which was making its 202nd transatlantic voyage.

The German U-Boat, captained by Walther Scweiger, had fired only one torpedo, which hit the starboard side of the hull and could not otherwise destroy the Lusitania.

The Lusitania might also have escaped sinking had it not been for fog in the Atlantic, which forced Turner to go slow and sail in a predictable line.

To avoid each others’ blockades, both British and German ships usually took the precautions of travelling at full speed and making zigzag movements.

Later in the war, after Germany reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare, the Royal Navy began escorting merchant vessels, which helped reduce the losses.


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U-boats, which vastly outnumbered Britain’s submarine fleet, would prove to be one of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s biggest advantages.

By the end of the war, they had sunk almost 5,000 ships at a cost of only 178 lost subs. It was a massive blow to Britain’s otherwise naval supremacy.

The Lusitania’s tragic end at the hands of the empire of the Kaiser came nine years after she was built to take on the Germans in a fierce commercial battle.

Cunard, which was struggling to compete in the lucrative business of ferrying emigrants to the U.S., vied to outdo the Germans on speed, capacity and luxury.

The Lusitania and her running mate Mauretania, both built at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank, were the fastest on the ocean thanks to new turbine engines.

Maintaining a speed of 25 knots, she was the first ship to cross the Atlantic in under five days – slashing six hours off the previous German record.


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The Lusitania also had 50% more space than any other ship and had more opulent fittings and high-tech facilities, such as lifts and a wireless telegraph service.

She was a tremendous success and so, when simmering European rivalries turned into full-blown hostilities, the grand ship became an obvious target for German attack.

On April 22, 1915, the German embassy in Washington warned Americans not to travel on the Lusitania as vessels carrying the British flag were 'liable to destruction'.

Nevertheless, many U.S. citizens did board the vessel in New York on May 1 and 128 died when she was sunk.

America’s mood of pacifism and common hatred of Britain – especially among the ten million German and six million Irish Americans who tended to vote for President Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats – was greatly eroded by shock at the death toll.


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Public opinion – notably among the majority who still claimed either English, Scottish or Welsh ancestry – became increasingly anti-German.

But Wilson was not willing to declare just yet – despite pressure by Britain for American to join the fight.

He abandoned neutrality in April 1917 after Germany sank five U.S. merchant ships when the Kaiser ordered all-out submarine warfare.

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