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Who Sank The Lusitania?
THE LUSITANIA DISASTER: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
This dogged thoroughness is most satisfying when Bailey and Ryan get around to the basic questions. Winston Churchill may have been grimly pleased when he heard of the Lusitania ’s sinking—it was obviously going to give Great Britain a tremendous propaganda advantage over Germany —but, as the authors demonstrate, he must have been at least equally surprised. It was true that the great liner had no naval escort as she made her way up the Irish coast, but that conformed to British policy at the time (there was a shortage of destroyers); moreover, as the fastest passenger ship in the world she should have been an exceedingly difficult target to hit, especially if she had been zigzagging, as repeated radio warnings from the Admiralty had urged. She was not zigzagging on the fatal afternoon of May 7, 1915; she was moving at about eighteen knots when she easily could have made twenty-one, and contrary to instructions she was hugging the coastline, where submarines were known to lurk.
Why? Colin Simpson would have us believe that the strange behavior of Captain William Turner of the Lusitania was part of a conspiracy to make her a sitting duck for the U-20, the lone German submarine in the vicinity. Bailey and Ryan effectively dismantle this theory; yet perhaps Simpson’s naivete on the question is made somewhat less absurd when one considers the epithets these sophisticated authors feel obliged to apply to Turner’s conduct: “incredible” and “unbelievable.” It appears that Turner was indeed an old sea dog of stubborn habit and invulnerable self-confidence: he did not believe in the efficacy of zigzagging, he doubted the destructive potential of the U-boats against a ship as fast as the Lusitania , and he was too smugly devoted to the venerable rule that a ship’s captain is, in the end, solely responsible for her fate and thus free to disregard advices and warnings if he sees fit. As a prime example of his attitude: he was deliberately holding down his speed in order to arrive at Liverpool harbor in time to go in with the tide. At least half of the true explanation of the Luisitania catastrophe hangs on the “incredible” behavior of Captain Turner in the face of known danger.
A good part of the other half hangs on the character and luck of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of the U-2O. Only thirty years old, he was in 1915 already an ace as a submariner: not a ferocious “Hun” but a handsome and urbane young officer who was completely professional in his approach to his naval responsibilities. As Bailey and Ryan explain, “he was operating under orders that permitted him to sink, with or without warning, all enemy ships. …” In the interest of selfpreservation against gunfire or ramming, Schwieger had learned to prefer to sink without warning whenever it was feasible. On May 7 he was nearing the end of a successful three-thousandmile voyage from the German base at Emden, up around Scotland, and down the west coast of Ireland; he was then to hover briefly in the Irish Sea and go home. On May 6 he had sunk without warning two British ships of about six thousand tons each; he now had only three torpedoes left and was ready to start back—not, however, without a last look around for a possible strike. He was not, as many have supposed, lying in wait for the Lusitania ; but when, at about 1 P.M. on May 7, he surfaced and saw in the distance “starboard ahead four funnels and two masts of a steamer with course at right angles to us” (as he recorded it in his war diary), he knew that he had a good chance at an extraordinary prize. He submerged, got within range, fired a torpedo, and observed— undoubtedly with amazement—that his one lucky shot had mortally wounded his leviathan quarry. Without further ado he dived to twentyfour meters and headed out to sea, leaving in his wake one of the great calamities of maritime history. With remarkable objectivity Bailey and Ryan express their judgment on the act that has been so frequently denounced as unspeakably inhumane:
Schwieger was in danger not only from the prow of the Lusitania but also from the naval authorities at home. He operated under strict orders to sink all ships of the Lusitania ’s description whenever the opportunity arose. If he deliberately passed up such a rich prize for reasons of humanity, he ran the risk of severe disciplinary action. … In sum, the only safe, effective, and expedient alternative for Schwieger was to torpedo the Lusitania without warning.
There are some who will find this conclusion as startling and sensational as Colin Simpson’s “conspiracy” theory about Churchill. The difference is that it is very firmly grounded on a long and meticulous sifting of the evidence, study of the circumstances, and reasonable judgment. Yet in the last analysis Simpson’s book may not be as much an affront to history as Bailey and Ryan thought it was when they wrote their agitated review for AMERICAN HERITAGE . They then expressed the fear that his book would “set back the truth for decades; his account will be resting on library shelves when the Republic celebrates its tricentennial.” Now their own excellent book is out; it will be resting probably on those identical shelves for just as long; and any discriminating reader who goes through both books will be able to determine without much effort which gives the more reliable account of how, why, and by whom the Lusitania was sunk on May 7, 1915.