Sinking of the Lusitania

Illustration of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
Illustration of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Picture from the National Defence, courtesy of the Canadian Navy.

On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which primarily ferried people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Great Britain, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk. Of the 1,949 people on board, 1,313 died, including 128 Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania enraged Americans and hastened the United States' entrance into World War I.

Fast Facts: Lusitania Sinking

  • Also Known As: Sinking of the RMS Lusitania
  • Dates: Sunk May 7, 1915
  • People on Board: 1,949
  • Deaths: 1,313, 258 passengers and 691 crew members

Be Careful

Since the outbreak of World War I, ocean voyage had become dangerous. Each side hoped to blockade the other, thus prevent any war materials from getting through. German U-boats (submarines) stalked British waters, continually looking for enemy vessels to sink.

Thus all ships headed to Great Britain were instructed to be on the lookout for U-boats and take precautionary measures such as traveling at full speed and making zigzag movements. Unfortunately, on May 7, 1915, Captain William Thomas Turner slowed the Lusitania down because of fog and traveled in a predictable line.

Turner was the captain of the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner famous for its luxurious accommodations and speed capability. The Lusitania was primarily used to ferry people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Great Britain. On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania had left port in New York for Liverpool to make her 202nd trip across the Atlantic. On board were 1,959 people, 159 of whom were Americans.

Spotted by a U-Boat

Approximately 14 miles off the coast of Southern Ireland at Old Head of Kinsale, neither the captain nor any of his crew realized that German U-boat U-20 had already spotted and targeted them. At 1:40 p.m., the U-boat launched a torpedo. The torpedo hit the starboard (right) side of the Lusitania. Almost immediately, another explosion rocked the ship.

At the time, the Allies thought the Germans had launched two or three torpedoes to sink the Lusitania. However, the Germans say their U-boat only fired one torpedo. Many believe the second explosion was caused by the ignition of ammunition hidden in the cargo hold. Others say that coal dust, kicked up when the torpedo hit, exploded. No matter what the exact cause, it was the damage from the second explosion that made the ship sink.

The Lusitania Sinks

The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes. Though there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers, the severe listing of the ship while it sunk prevented most from being launched properly. Of the 1,949 people on board, 1,313 died, including 258 passengers and 691 crew members. The toll of civilians killed in this disaster shocked the world.

Americans Are Angry

Americans were outraged to learn 128 U.S. civilians were killed in a war in which they were officially neutral. Destroying ships not known to be carrying war materials countered accepted international war protocols.

The sinking of the Lusitania heightened tensions between the U.S. and Germany and, coupled with the Zimmermann Telegram, helped sway American opinion in favor of joining the war.

The Shipwreck

In 1993, divers led by National Geographic's Bob Ballard explored the wreck of the Lusitania, situated eight miles off the coast of Ireland. On board, the divers found approximately four million U.S.-made Remington .303 bullets. The discovery supports the German's long-held belief that the Lusitania was being used to transport war materials.

The find has also fed support for the theory that it was the explosion of munitions on board that caused the second explosion on the Lusitania. However, the shells contained neither powder, propellant charge, nor fuses. Further, Ballard's thorough survey of the wreck showed no evidence of an internal explosion near the munitions. Other theories have included a boiler explosion or a steam-line explosion, but the most likely explanation is there were probably several explosions.

Additional Sources and Further Reading

  • Ballard, Robert, Spencer Dunmore, and Ken Marschall. "Robert Ballard's Lusitania, Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History." Toronto ONT: Madison Publishing, 2007.
  • Larson, Erik. "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania." New York NY: Penguin Random House, 2015. 
  • Preston, Diana. "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy." New York NY: Walker Publications, 2002.
View Article Sources
  1. Frey, Bruno S. et al. "Interaction of Natural Survival Instincts and Internalized Social Norms Exploring the Titanic and Lusitania Disasters." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 11, 2010, pp. 4862-4865, doi:10.1073/pnas.0911303107

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sinking of the Lusitania." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Sinking of the Lusitania. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sinking of the Lusitania." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).