Diving for answers: what happened to 'Lusitania'?


This month an 83-year-old American will travel to Co Cork to supervise perhaps the last big expedition to the wreck of the Cunard Liner torpedoed in 1915. What is he looking for, and has he a chance of finding it?

‘IN A SENSE, Lusitaniais a much bigger story than Titanic, and the links to the local area are more concrete,” says Gregg Bemis, the American millionaire who owns Lusitania. “ Titanicwas a romantic matter because it was man against nature. In the case of Lusitaniayou have politics, war, intrigue and this horrible disaster. So, really, what we’re talking about is man against humanity rather than man against nature.”

For more than 40 years Bemis has dreamed of discovering what exactly was in the cargo hold of the Cunard liner. Munitions? Priceless art? Jewels? This summer he hopes to find out, as he leads possibly the largest and perhaps the final expedition to the famous shipwreck, which has lain off Co Cork since it was torpedoed during the first World War, leading to the deaths, according to a best estimate, of about 1,200 of the almost 2,000 passengers and crew who are believed to have been aboard.

Bemis has dived to the wreck of the Lusitaniatwice before, in 1993 and 2004. Critics have questioned his motives, claiming that he is intent only on finding valuables that may have been on the ship. The art collector Hugh Lane was aboard, and rumour has it that he had several lead-cased masterpieces with him. Bemis says the chances of finding anything of value are very slim, and points out that although he can keep anything he retrieves that relates to the ship or its previous owners, he is not allowed to recover anything that belonged to passengers.

The real value of the expedition, according to Bemis, lies in trying to answer the controversial question of whether or not Lusitaniawas carrying munitions as well as passengers.

AS A SEAFARING TOWN that sent many young men to wars, Cobh had known its share of tragedy. But little had prepared the town for Friday, May 7th, 1915, when a German U-boat sank Lusitania18km off the Old Head of Kinsale. Many fishermen set out from Cobh (then Queenstown) to help with the rescue effort, but about 770 of the passengers died, including almost 100 children.

The sight of bodies piled high in the morgue under Cobh’s town hall must have lived long in the collective consciousness. For years afterwards letters arrived from relatives of the victims, thanking locals for trying to save them or for helping to identify bodies.

After the torpedo hit the ship, the captain of the U-boat that fired it claimed he heard a second explosion. It has long been disputed whether Lusitaniawas carrying large amounts of munitions, thereby making it a viable target.

At Cobh Heritage Centre the story of Lusitaniais still overshadowed by that of the town’s involvement in another great shipping tragedy of the 20th century: the sinking of Titanic. But the exhibits include some poignant Lusitania communications. A telegram on paper headed “Queenstown Hospital” reads: “Transferred to Lusitania, ship torpedoed, me safe in general hospital, Queenstown, home Monday/Tuesday, lost everything.” Also on show is a newspaper report that reads: “The morgue under the town hall is filled with corpses. Many were placed in the premises of Cork and Blackrock Railway Company. Undertakers were working at high pressure night and day to provide coffins but hundreds of victims found graves in the broad Atlantic Ocean.”

Just outside Cobh, in the old graveyard, many of the Lusitania victims are buried. A handful have individual headstones, but most are in three mass graves. Lines of trees and a simple stone monument mark the spot.

GREGG BEMIS became co-owner of Lusitaniain 1968. Since he bought it outright, in 1982, he has gone to court several times to assert his rights over the wreck. The State, with which he has had a fractious relationship, tried to use the National Monuments Act to restrict his activity and his access to objects on the wreck, but Bemis won his appeal and a licence to dive on it.

Now he has established his rights fully, the 83-year-old will travel to Ireland at the end of this month to lead what might be the last big expedition on the wreck of Lusitania. He hopes that cutting-edge technology will give him access to the ship’s cargo hold. National Geographic will film a documentary about the dive.

So could one of the most debated incidents of the first World War finally be about to give up its secrets? The shallow water the wreck is lying in (about 90m deep, against an average Atlantic depth of 3,300m), with visibility of about 10m, makes Lusitaniaaccessible, but uncertainty about its precise position and its condition after almost a century under water will make the dive tricky. Why devote so much time and so many resources to a mission that may prove fruitless?

“Well, as you know, it is an extraordinarily historic vessel,” Bemis says. “Since the beginning of my involvement, over 40 years ago, I have wanted to find out what caused the second explosion. The ship is lying on its starboard side, so there is no easy way of doing it and examining the area the torpedo went in. That area is totally concealed. We have no way of digging down. So what we hope to do is go through the port side and find evidence of what caused the explosion there.”

Patrick O’Sullivan, a Lusitaniahistorian who worked with John Light, the late former US navy diver who owned the wreck before Bemis, and made dozens of trips to the wreck from the 1960s onwards, believes the ship contains shrapnel shells, which could explain the second explosion that the U-boat captain said he heard.

THE EXPEDITION IS expected to last several weeks. Bemis will stay close to the action but will not take part in the dive. He says that relatives of victims are supportive – the last known Lusitaniasurvivor died earlier this year – and that the crew will be careful not to disturb any remains they find. Having dived on the wreck before, Bemis says his crew know what to expect. “It is magnificent down there. You can’t see the whole ship – it’s not like looking at it in a movie or something – but you can get a real sense of the destruction and the depth-bombing in the 1950s, which was aimed to make it as unattractive as possible for people to dive on. The two top decks have been blown off and lie in the rubble field. It’s a pity, as this could have been a remarkable place to visit, as people are now sinking ships on purpose to create reef.”

Special equipment, including submersibles designed and operated by the undersea- technology company Nuytco Research, will help give the team more time on the sea floor.

“This is a job that needs to be done,” says Bemis. “History is a very important part of our life. If you don’t know history you keep making the same mistakes over and over. If there were munitions on board, it was a total violation of the rules of war and good sense. It needs to be exposed, and countries must recognise that they can’t do things which may be illegal or inappropriate. That is not just an important historical lesson but one for the world we live in today – and one worth pursuing, in my opinion.”

On the seabed in 18 minutesThe final voyage of the Cunard liner

Lusitaniawas the largest liner in the world when it entered passenger service in August 1907. It mainly sailed the Cunard route between Liverpool and New York, leaving the American city on its final voyage on May 1st, 1915, under the command of Capt William Turner. The 1,200 passengers on board included actor Rita Jolivet, the playwright Charles Klein, the art collector Hugh Lane and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a millionaire sportsman.

There had been warnings about U-boats off Ireland during the voyage, so Lusitania’screw sailed close to the coast in the belief that the submarines were more likely to be in the open sea.

U-20was low on fuel and torpedoes when it spotted Lusitaniaon May 7th. Capt Walther Schwieger gave the order to fire from a range of 700m. “The torpedo hit the starboard side right behind the bridge,” he said later. “An unusually heavy detonation took place with a very strong explosive cloud.”

Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, about 20km off the Old Head of Kinsale – an act that met with responses including a British military recruitment drive for Irish soldiers. Of almost 770 passengers who died, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which were never identified.

'It's a very Cork story'Tales of 'Lusitania' and the expedition documentary

Part of the €1 million cost of this month’s expedition on Lusitaniawill come from a documentary about it for National Geographic. Its executive producer, Dave Harding, expects to make a two-hour special about the dive and what happened to the ship on the day it sank. He also hopes to find out why Lusitaniareached the seabed in 18 minutes rather than the two and a half hours it took Titanicto sink. “I’m not convinced anyone really knows what happened,” he says. “There are a number of theories, ranging from the notoriously imprecise, such as German U-boats firing off a second torpedo, to an unexpected blast caused by cold seawater striking the ship’s steam boilers.”

Some ammunition and fuses have been found on the ship in recent dives, but Harding says these alone could not have caused a significant explosion. “Millions of rifle shells would not probably ignite simultaneously and are more likely to have popped like popcorn. This would have been incapable of creating a hole in the double-hulled ‘unsinkable’ Lusitania.”

Harding says that many of the film crew will be Irish and that the film will provide other work opportunities. “Most of the seafaring crew and virtually all of the television crew and support teams are from Ireland. The expedition is spending substantial funds to stage this mission in Ireland and to utilise Irish labour.”

Aidan Mulcahy of M3, a Cork-based TV company that will help to produce the documentary, says his interest in the story comes from personal experience. “As a young boy, my father told me the story of visiting a house and seeing a deckchair. The woman of the house said it washed up on the shore after the Lusitaniasinking. That stayed in my memory. The other thing about the Lusitaniais that it is a very Cork story, and most families here will have some connection or tale about the ship.”

Mulcahy expects broadcasters around the world to be interested in the film. “In a way there is no mystery surrounding Titanic, but we still have answers to get from Lusitania. Don’t forget, its sinking had consequences that shaped the whole of the 20th century.”