Author insists `Lusitania' carried munitions

 

"Asun-bright, care free afternoon of May 7th, 1915 found an unsuspecting Lusitania steaming approximately 12 miles south-west of the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. Passengers on deck enjoyed a light breeze as they viewed the emerald shores of Ireland.

"Suddenly, a disturbance was noticed on the mirror-calm sea off the starboard bow. This was followed by a thin streak of white foam as a single torpedo sped towards the Lusitania and exploded under its bridge. Like a stealthy assassin, Walter Schwieger had stalked the great ship and now struck without warning. His death-dealing torpedo ploughed into the side of his unwary victim.

"The first reaction aboard to the exploding torpedo was blank astonishment, followed by fear and an overwhelming sense of catastrophe. In the next 18 minutes, Schwieger's action was to bring death, woe and desolation to the passengers and crew, who numbered almost 2,000. The first explosion was quickly followed by a second, this time in the forward part of the ship. Splinters and wreckage rained down on those below.

"The ship began to list to starboard as the bow dipped into the sea. The work of extricating people from the debris was in progress when the call came for women and children to board the lifeboats. Captain Turner, frantically attempting to head the doomed Lusitania north towards land, soon found his crippled liner was out of control and would not respond to his efforts. Neither was he able to stop the engines to halt the ship and permit lifeboats to be launched safely."

And the horror got worse: "Quickly following the ex plosions came a power cut, plunging the ship into darkness and bringing swarms of panic-stricken passengers out on deck. Throughout those 18 minutes, as the mortally-wounded ship sank under him, Turner stood calmly on the bridge giving instructions to his crew.

"There were tearful scenes of parting as the lifeboats were lowered and women and children clambered on board. Husbands and fathers stood grim-faced and helpless, as many suspected the worst. The uncontrollable ship added to the terror by causing many lifeboats to capsize as they touched the ocean. Some of the occupants were tossed into the sea and had no chance of escape, as they had been torn or stunned by the explosion of the torpedo, scalded by escaping steam or cut and maimed by flying debris."

The Great War was on and the sinking of the Lusitania meant different things to different sides in the conflict. The total passenger list was 1,959. Some 1,195 lives were lost and there were 764 survivors.

In a chapter entitled "The Town of the Dead", Mr Paddy O'Sullivan, the author of this new book on the tragedy, describes how many of the dead were brought to Cobh - then Queenstown - where the mass grave is still to be seen on the heights above that great seafaring town. It is a simple monument to a stark event. In 20 years of researching he has uncovered many things about the Lusitania and is in no doubt that it had a considerable amount of munitions on board, destined for the war effort on the western front.

The unknowing passengers were the shield and perished because of it, he believes. Of course there was international outrage because of the sinking, but had the munitions got through, the Germans were convinced, many more from their side would have been slaughtered. On one side of the conflict there was a lament at such a great loss of life. On the other there was a celebration in song about the lives that had been saved.

"Now the Flanders guns lack their deadly bread and shipper and buyer are sick with dread. For neutral as Uncle Sam may be, your surest neutral is the deep green sea. Just one ship sunk with lives and shell, and thousands of German grey-coats - well! And for each of her grey-coats, German hate would have sunk 10 ships with all their freight."

This is a translation of a song written after the event. Even before the term "spin doctor" entered popular parlance, the British drew a veil over the real facts surrounding the Lusitania.

The Germans, as their song shows, had no doubt. It was a them or us situation. It was also devastating, but, like everything, it had a human side.

And the maritime historian Dr John de Courcy Ireland, who has written some notes for the book, put it like this: "Still more did Lusitania interest me when, in 1965, I made friends with the brilliant but gentle German submarine officer, Raimund Weisbach, who brought Casement to Kerry in April of 1916. A fine musician and an ardent Bible reader, I discovered that before he became commander of the U-19 he had been torpedo officer of U-20, and fired (as ordered and not knowing what it was aimed at) the torpedo that sank the great liner . . ."

The author says: "Queenstown became the town of the dead as the temporary morgues filled with bodies. The anguish, and sometimes the anger, of the townspeople was aggravated at the sight of helpless, half-clad, soaked and shivering women struggling over the piers as they disembarked from the rescue boats.

"Some unfortunates held precious babes in arms while others moaned for some lost soul. Dishevelled, white-faced men, some without clothing, formed part of this grim procession of humanity descending on Queenstown. The poignant grief was deepened by the sight of rows of bodies of babies and children as they lay calm-faced like dolls in the makeshift houses of death."

He goes on to describe how the town opened its heart to the survivors and how the townspeople, from all ranks, did whatever they could to help. It is gripping reading.

And the central question: did the Lusitania have munitions on board? "I am 200 per cent sure of it", Mr O'Sullivan says.

"In 1983, a Texan company, Oceaneering Contractors, hoping to find gold on the wreck, instead found high-explosive percussion fuses."

Then, in his investigative paperwork, Mr O'Sullivan found invoices and consignment notes showing the liner had on board 5,000 18-pounder shrapnel shells and 4.2 million live rifle bullets.

"They were all destined for the western front", he added. As of yet, they haven't been found.

A diver of long standing, Mr O'Sullivan says his research has involved more poring over archival paperwork than undersea exploration. He hasn't dived on the wreck, but feels he knows it intimately. For more than 20 years, the Lusitania and its demise has been his passion. The initial exploratory work on the once great liner was led by Mr John Light, an American underwater photographer who moved to Kinsale many years ago to indulge his own great passion for the Lusitania story.

In 1967, he acquired the wreck from the War Risk Association of Liverpool for £1,000. In more recent years, however, the Government here has placed a heritage order on it, effectively preventing artefacts being re moved from the Lusitania.

In a chapter entitled "A Sinister Silence" Mr O'Sullivan invites the reader to consider what he thinks might be a conspiracy theory. Were there messages received by Admiralty officials in London that could have led to the Lusitania taking evasive action rather than steaming into the path of a German U-boat? And why did that happen?

He asks if perhaps there was a Machiavellian plan on the part of the British to expose the liner and its passengers to danger. Was it about bringing the US into the war, given that there were Americans on board? "Before the loss of the Lusitania, a 5,800-tonne steamship, the Falaba, was torpedoed and sunk in the Irish channel with the loss of 104 lives, including one American. President Wilson interpreted the loss of the American life as a direct provocation of the United States. There was uproar in the American press and much resentment towards Germany. On May 1st, a ship named the Gulflight was torpedoed off the Scilly Isles; three American lives were lost, sparking off another diplomatic crisis. A submarine encounter with the Lusitania might have been the trigger needed to persuade the US to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the author suggests.

The book is going to command some attention. Published by the Collins Press, it also marks a new beginning for that house.