A Liner, A U-boat... And History

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That determination stemmed from a decision of the ship’s commander, Captain W. H. Turner. At best, the role of such a man was difficult and ambiguous. His responsibilities were numerous and not always compatible with one another. He was charged with the supervision of the complex operations of the vessel and of its large crew. It was his duty to bring his craft safely to harbor. On the other hand, he was also obliged to make the voyage as pleasant as possible for the passengers. In his planning he had always to take account of the comfort and convenience of the thousand strangers on board who were, in a manner of speaking, his guests.

The war made the dilemma more difficult. Captain Turner himself bore a commission in the naval reserves and might be called to active service at any time. He had no illusions about the seriousness of the fighting. A sister ship, the Mauretania , had already been converted to a troop carrier; the Lusitania might soon have to answer a similar summons. Indeed, as he watched more than 4,000 cases of ammunition come aboard in New York, he might have reflected that the ship was already doing its part. More than half his cargo was involved in the war effort.

Captain Turner knew also that the war was not a remote land-bound affair, but one capable of washing up against the sides of his own vessel. He had read the decrees of the Imperial German Government, proclaiming a zone around the British Isles within which the merchantmen of belligerents would be attacked; and before him were instructions from the Admiralty as to how to minimize risks. He was directed to shun the usual route, to take a zigzag course, to be constantly alert, and to ram enemy submarines if he saw them.

The captain felt uneasy in the face of these directions. Orders were orders. But then, he had other obligations as well. He could envisage the subtle spread of panic among the passengers if the change of course became known, the piercing fears that would pervade the lounges if the ship started zigzagging. Delay might upset the ship’s schedule, and in any case the stimulated tension would spoil the journey. Was it really necessary? One way or another, the decision was made: the vessel followed its usual route and ignored the Admiralty instructions.

On the morning of May 7, the Irish coast loomed on the horizon. The trip had been uneventful and the risk, it seemed, had been worth taking.

Another captain approached a rendezvous at the same spot that day. Lieutenant Commander Schweiger of the Imperial German Navy had left his base in Emden in the middle of March. His instructions were to lurk unobserved in the Irish Sea and its channels, and to attack British shipping plying in and out of Liverpool. So far he had not had much luck in his two-month cruise.

Indeed, as he somewhat glumly contemplated his situation in early May, Schweiger concluded that he had very little luck in his military career. German naval men often thought of themselves with self-pity. In their own country they were distinctly the junior service; all the honor and the glory and the rewards went to the army. When they compared themselves with their British counterparts, there was always a trace of envy at the consciousness of the vast social esteem and power that the latter enjoyed, but which they did not.

Of all naval officers, Schweiger thought himself the least fortunate. He had not even a respectable vessel to command, not even a decent wardroom in which to serve. His ship, alas, was neither elegant nor commodious. The U-20 was a submarine, an untested newcomer among naval craft and no object of respect to those who, like himself, dreamed of berths on the battleships and cruisers that were the pride of the fleet.

As the weeks dragged by, Schweiger’s patience had worn thin, and his physical energy was running out. He had attacked a few small British vessels and sunk some of them, but they were nothing worth boasting about. Other than that there had been a great deal of hard labor in the narrow confines of the tiny boat. The men were tired, supplies were running low, and further continuation of the cruise seemed pointless.

Most of all the submarine’s crew worried about its vulnerability. Apart from the concern over a new device, the principle of which they barely understood, they could see for themselves that it was not much of a ship for a fight. Even if they could always rely on its coming up alter it had gone down, it was no match for any warship or even for any armed merchantman. It was painfully slow; fortunate, indeed, if it could get up to twelve knots. Its armor was paper thin. Attacked, it could not even withdraw to the safety of submersion, for it could operate only close to the surface of the water. A single hit from even a small gun was likely to be fatal; and a vessel of moderate size used as a ram could crush the submarine like an eggshell.

The state of jitters persisted. Early in May, as his fuel sank to the danger point, Schweiger determined to head for home. The trip was hazardous. The waters of the channel and the North Sea were strewn with mines, and English naval craft were everywhere. Constant vigilance was essential. Schweiger kept his eye glued to the periscope.

On May 7 the silhouette of a large ship loomed up suddenly before him in the lens.