Getting to the bottom of the Lusitania sinking
The author of a new book about the loss of the great liner off Cork sheds light on the search for the truth, from the bottom of the Atlantic to dusty archives in London and the United States
The sinking of the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915 – 128 US citizens lost their lives and the tragedy helped bring the US into the first World War. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images
The body of an American citizen is carried through the streets of Queenstown (modern Cobh) in Ireland, one of the victims of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915. Photograph: The Illustrated War News / Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
Author Patrick O’ Sullivan in Kinsale, Co Cork
Gregg Bemis, owner of the wreck of the Lusitania, kisses the ship’s hull where it lies 90 metres below the surface of the Atlantic 18km off the Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork
Growing up no more than a handful of miles from the south coast of Ireland in the late 1950s, it was difficult to escape hearing old fishermen’s tales of the German U-boats that stalked our shores during the 1914-18 war. Tales of merchant ships being committed to watery graves almost daily by submarines were endless.
In February 1915 Germany gave the world notice of her intended blockade of the British Isles which was later implemented by the U-boats in a war against merchant shipping. The submarine commanders found the waters between Fastnet and Waterford to be especially rich in targets in their devastating campaign to cut off Britain’s supplies and starve her into submission.
At the age of 18 I embarked on a career of commercial diving. The skills acquired were put to good use in my leisure time by diving to countless casualties of the Great War; the thrill of visiting this vast graveyard of rusting shipwrecks stimulated my interest in cataloguing and researching the tragic story of each one. It was inevitable that my gaze would eventually fall on our most fascinating and tragic shipwreck, the Lusitania.
In early years little was known about the Lusitania, as time seemed to have dimmed the memory of her tragic loss. Books about the great liner were available, though many were flawed for lack of information, and others depended mainly on newspaper cuttings.
The diving technology of the day precluded any visits to the wreck because its extreme depth of over 300ft was far in excess of the safe limits of air diving equipment. Deep-diving technology involving mixed gas and saturation chamber procedures was still at the experimental stage by the US navy and others, and not available to the wider commercial diving market. Yet another difficulty was the fact that nobody seemed to know the exact position of the wreck, though it had been located by Capt Henry Russell of the Orphir in 1935. However, the Lusitania was soon to be roused from its long sleep with the arrival in Kinsale of the swashbuckling ex-US navy diver John Light and his team. In 1959, Light achieved record-breaking status by diving using aqualung and compressed air to a depth of 300ft while filming a submarine escape exercise for the US navy. He later joined NBC Television News as a freelance underwater cameraman. NBC were keen to film the remains of the Lusitania and their new-found freelance diving photographer seemed to be the ideal man for the job.
John wished to see at first hand if the accusations of guns and munitions on board the Lusitania were true. If such evidence could be located, he would film it as proof of the liner’s dual roles of passenger ship and gunrunner. Russell gladly gave the co-ordinates to the American divers and urged them to obtain a Decca navigator to assist them in their search. The divers set up base camp in Kinsale, which was then a sleepy old fishing town.
Light and his team commenced diving in 1960 and concluded operations in 1962. In total the team logged 42 dives to the wreck using standard compressed air at a depth regarded as being far beyond the limits of human safety. The intense pressure caused the divers to suffer mind-numbing narcosis. Perishing water was another problem to contend with due to the shortcomings of neoprene diving suits; poor lighting conditions on the wreck required very powerful floodlighting to make photography possible. As the lamps were supplied with power from the surface, the divers had the added problem of wrestling with heavy and cumbersome cables that were prone to being snagged on the wreck.
The black-and-white film shot was of extremely poor quality and reflected the limits of underwater photography at that time. Atlantic gales also robbed the divers of valuable working days. The financial burden was shouldered by NBC.
During his stay in Kinsale, Light met, and subsequently married, the beautiful Muriel Acton of the renowned Actons Hotel family. In spite of his superhuman efforts on the Lusitania, no guns or munitions were located and his findings were unsensational. Diving operations finally petered out toward the end of 1962 and the Light family departed from these shores as the Lusitania once again faded into obscurity.
In the late 1960s, the need to discover new sources of gas and oil prompted exploration companies to look to the North Sea for alternative supplies. Such exploration could only be carried out with support of deep diving systems. Vast sums of money became available to hasten their development. Existing mixed gas diving techniques were improved and perfected. Divers could now work at great depths using helium gas to rid them of stupefying nitrogen narcosis: hot water diving suits eliminated problems of cold water, and saturation chambers allowed divers unlimited time working on the sea bed. At last, diving had been dragged into the twentieth century. These sudden and dramatic changes did not go unnoticed by Light, who wished to apply them to his beloved Lusitania.
In 1967, he successfully sought financial backing from the US publishiers Holt, Rinehart & Winston and purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for £1,000 from the War Risk Association of Liverpool. As War Risk had no equity in the cargo, Light was reminded that he had no claim to them and could only assume ownership of the hull and machinery. Most of the cargo was Ministry of Defence property and private goods, including a hoard of oil paintings, were insured on the open market. A proviso was also inserted that on completion of the sale, the new owner would be responsible for any future liabilities or expenses that might be attached to the wreck. On completion of the transaction, Light and his family returned to Kinsale. He purchased a 90ft wooden Scottish trawler, the Doonie Braes, which he personally captained from Edinburgh to Kinsale. Conversion of the Scottish trawler to diving vessel commenced off Kinsale pier; however, the pledged financial support of the publishing house was almost expended and more money was needed to continue. A new backer, Boston building contractor George Macomber, stepped in and promised to finance the venture. The Scottish trawler was now relegated to redundancy and a much larger French steel trawler named Kinvarra was purchased as plans became more ambitious. It was hoped to build and install a saturation diving complex on board the Kinvarra, now tied up to the pier.
The Swiss scientist, Hans Keller, was engaged as a consultant to supervise operations. At first a trickle of crates and packages began to arrive at Kinsale pier. The trickle soon became a torrent as various diving chambers, helium cylinder banks, high pressure gas equipment, compressors, television monitors, carbon dioxide scrubbers, underwater lighting, gas reclaim systems, hydraulic equipment, cameras, gas analysers and highly sophisticated diving apparatus arrived. Gangs of shipbuilders, engineers and technicians swarmed aboard daily to assemble this complex technological jigsaw and convert the Kinvarra to a state-of-the-art salvage vessel and dive-support ship. The media attended in droves in anticipation of recording some great Lusitania discovery.
Light was attempting to build a prototype diving complex in the bowels of the Kinvarra. Many parts sought were not off-the-shelf items and had to be specially built. Major components from gas chromatographs to high-pressure valving failed to work as claimed, and were either returned to their suppliers or modified on board. Planned diving schedules were routinely postponed, and deadlines were pushed into the future as interminable delays and problems occurred daily. The result was that the Kinvarra barely left the pier over a one-year period and not a single dive was made to explore the Lusitania with the new technology that promised so much.
Mr Macomber became apprehensive as cost overruns became rampant and another investor by the name of Gregg Bemis was introduced to share the financial burden. By December 1969, an estimated $500,000 had been spent and the jaded backers still saw no prospect of any immediate return. A decision was taken to liquidate the operation. Light was suddenly out of a job and his plans lay in shambles; the now much-publicised Kinvarra was towed to Amsterdam in November 1969 and its associated company, Kinvarra Shipping, voted into liquidation in 1970. The Kinvarra was subsequently gutted and sold off; thus ended the fiasco.
Light and his family lingered in Kinsale until 1973, and John’s attention was again focused on research with a view to writing a book. Eventually the whole family departed for London where John researched extensively for two years from March 1973 with sponsorship by NBC. A future film was discussed in conjunction with fresh discoveries which John hoped to make in British archives. In this capacity, his true talent as a brilliant researcher and investigator came to the fore. Light threw himself into the drudgery of archival work and was unrelenting in his pursuit of relevant documents that might unlock some of the mysteries surrounding the Lusitania.
Unwittingly, he chartered a parallel course to that of two other Lusitania greats; Capt Roskill, Britain’s official naval historian for the second World War and Patrick Beesly, author of several books including a monumental study of British Intelligence in the 1914-18 war. The trio met from time to time to debate their intriguing findings. Churchill became the central character of Light’s study, with Capt Reginald Hall running closely behind. If the British Admiralty had engaged in dirty tricks in regard to the loss of the Lusitania, then the first Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, must have initiated such activity. At every opportunity, Light made a point of visiting the descendants of his Lusitania characters, including the families of Hall, Lord Mersey and various descendants of officers from the Lusitania. He also paid visits to Mabel Every, Capt Turner’s housekeeper and companion.
This policy bore fruit as he was often given access to private family papers not in the public domain. His odyssey through the archives was often frustrated by emasculated files, empty folders, and tantalising references or information that could not be made available to him as it was still classified in the national interest. John believed that much evidence had been destroyed as part of a cover-up.
While Light had achieved little in his chilly forays to the bottom of the Atlantic off Kinsale, he now made real discoveries in the dusty shelves of the archives. Light had a sixth sense about where he might find some answers to the many riddles, and persistently coaxed and persuaded the British authorities to release classified information regarding U-boat wireless intercepts and naval staff monographs. In this quest he had limited success but yet enough to discover sensational new information. John’s exhaustive study in Britain only mirrored his trojan researches at the US end. In the United States, he researched extensively in the National Archives, Washington DC, the Office of US Naval Intelligence, the National Archives and Records Administration, New York, the Library of Congress and Yale University Library to mention but a few. In all, he accumulated 15,000 documents as material to help him write a definitive book. In the scholarly book, Lusitania Disaster by Ryan and Bailey, Light is given abundant accreditation for his help and for providing the authors with an immense amount of material. In Beesly’s book, Room 40, Light is again acknowledged and heaped with praise for the extensive part he played in making its Lusitania chapter possible. Capt Roskill was stunned by Light’s findings, especially as he produced information that Capt Roskill had long assumed to have been destroyed. Colin Simpson’s book about the Lusitania began as a Light-Simpson collaboration in 1973 when Light was in the financial doldrums. A dispute followed and resulted in Simpson writing his own book. John was very scathing of Simpson’s book and later wrote a critique of its inaccuracies. Sadly Light passed away on May 19th, 1992 and his intended book never materialised. His extensive archive is in the private possession of his family and one hopes it will some day be turned over to an appreciative university or library.
I joined Light as a 22-year-old diver in 1967. A strong friendship was struck between myself and his family, and it was perhaps inevitable that I, too, would succumb to the Lusitania virus. Over the next 25 years, I barraged John with an endless stream of letters, telephone calls and queries about the disaster. He was always abundantly generous in providing answers that were backed up by sources as well as photocopies of material from his personal collection. I was privileged to have shared his innermost thoughts and theories and now feel that fate has bestowed on me a caretaker role in which to write a book about the Lusitania in John Light’s memory. Some of his sensational discoveries are revealed in this book, in particular the most compelling theory to date on the cause of the second mysterious explosion to which he attributed the rapid loss of the great liner.
Taken from The Sinking of the Lusitania: Unravelling the Mysteries by Patrick O’Sullivan (Collins Press, €12.99, collinspress.ie)