World War I: Sinking of the Lusitania

RMS Lusitania torpedoed off Ireland
Sinking of RMS Lusitania. Bundesarchiv DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17

The sinking of RMS Lusitania occurred on May 7, 1915, during World War I (1914-1918). A noteworthy Cunard liner, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger's U-20. Sinking quickly, the loss of the Lusitania claimed the lives of 1,198 passengers. Schwieger's actions caused international outrage and turned public opinion in many neutral nations against Germany and its allies. In the months that followed, international pressure led Germany to halt its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare.


Launched in 1906, by John Brown & Co. Ltd. of Clydebank, RMS Lusitania was a luxury liner built for the famed Cunard Line. Sailing on the trans-Atlantic route, the ship gained a reputation for speed and won the Blue Riband for the fastest eastbound crossing in October 1907. As with many ships of its type, Lusitania was partially funded by a government subsidy scheme which called for the ship to be converted for use as an armed cruiser during wartime.

While the structural requirements for such a conversion were incorporated into Lusitania's design, gun mounts were added to the ship's bow during an overhaul in 1913. To hide these from passengers, the mounts were covered with coils of heavy docking lines during voyages. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Cunard was permitted to retain Lusitania in commercial service as the Royal Navy decided that large liners consumed too much coal and required crews too large to be effective raiders.

Side view of liner RMS Lusitania.
RMS Lusitania. Public Domain

Other Cunard ships were not as lucky as Mauritania and Aquitania were drafted into military service. Though it remained in passenger service, Lusitania underwent several wartime modifications including the addition of several additional compass platforms and cranes, as well as the painting black of its distinctive red funnels. In an effort to reduce costs, Lusitania began operating on a monthly sailing schedule and Boiler Room #4 was shut down.

This latter move reduced the ship's top speed to around 21 knots, which still made it the fastest liner operating in the Atlantic. It also allowed Lusitania to be ten knots faster than German u-boats.


On February 4, 1915, the German government declared the seas around the British Isles to be a war zone and that beginning February 18, Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. As Lusitania was scheduled to reach Liverpool on March 6, the Admiralty provided Captain Daniel Dow with instructions on how to avoid submarines. With the liner approaching, two destroyers were dispatched to escort Lusitania into port. Unsure whether the approaching warships were British or German, Dow eluded them and reached Liverpool on his own.

Portrait of William Thomas Turner in Cunard uniform.
Captain William Thomas Turner, 1915. Public Domain

The following month, Lusitania departed for New York on April 17, with Captain William Thomas Turner in command. The commodore of the Cunard fleet, Turner was an experienced mariner and reached New York on the 24th. During this time, several concerned German-American citizens approached the German embassy in an effort to avoid controversy should the liner be attacked by a u-boat.

Taking their concerns to heart, the embassy placed ads in fifty American newspapers on April 22 warning that neutral travelers aboard British-flagged vessels en route to the war zone sailed at their own risk. Usually printed next to Lusitania's sailing announcement, the German warning caused some agitation in the press and concern among the ship's passengers. Citing that the ship's speed made it nearly invulnerable to attack, Turner and his officers worked to calm those aboard.

Sailing on May 1 as scheduled, Lusitania departed Pier 54 and began its return voyage. While the liner was crossing the Atlantic, U-20, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, was operating off the west and south coasts of Ireland. Between May 5 and 6, Schwieger sank three merchant vessels.

Headshot of Captain Lieutenant Walther Schweiger
Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger. Bundesarchiv, Bild 134-C1831 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0


His activity led the Admiralty, who was tracking his movements via intercepts, to issue submarine warnings for the south coast of Ireland. Turner twice received this message on May 6 and took several precautions including closing watertight doors, swinging out the lifeboats, doubling the lookouts, and blacking out the ship. Trusting the ship's speed, he did not begin following a zi-zag course as recommended by the Admiralty.

Upon receiving another warning around 11:00 AM on May 7, Turner turned northeast towards the coast, incorrectly believing that submarines would likely keep to the open sea. Possessing only three torpedoes and low on fuel, Schwieger had decided to return to base when a vessel was spotted around 1:00 PM. Diving, U-20 moved to investigate.

Encountering fog, Turner slowed to 18 knots as the liner steered for Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland. As Lusitania crossed his bow, Schwieger opened fire at 2:10 PM. His torpedo hit the liner below the bridge on the starboard side. It was quickly followed by a second explosion in the starboard bow. While many theories have been put forward, the second was most likely caused by an internal steam explosion.

RMS Lusitania sinking, stern in the air.
Sinking of the Lusitania. Engraving by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915. Public Domain

Immediately sending an SOS, Turner tried steering the ship towards the coast with the goal of beaching it, but the steering failed to respond. Listing at 15 degrees, the engines pushed the ship forward, driving more water into the hull. Six minutes after the hit, the bow slipped under the water, which along with the increasingly list, severely hampered efforts to launch the lifeboats.

As chaos swept the liner's decks, many lifeboats were lost due to the ship's speed or spilled their passengers as they were lowered. Around 2:28, eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit, Lusitania slipped beneath the waves approximately eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsale.


The sinking claimed the lives of 1,198 of Lusitania's passengers and crew, with only 761 surviving. Among the dead were 128 American citizens. Immediately inciting international outrage, the sinking quickly turned public opinion against Germany and its allies. The German government attempted to justify the sinking by stating that Lusitania was classified as an auxiliary cruiser and was carrying military cargo.

They were technically correct on both counts, as Lusitania was under orders to ram u-boats and its cargo included a shipment of bullets, 3-inch shells, and fuses. Outraged at the death of American citizens, many in the United States called for President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany. While encouraged by the British, Wilson refused and urged restraint. Issuing three diplomatic notes in May, June, and July, Wilson affirmed the rights of US citizens to travel safely at sea and warned that future sinkings would be viewed as "deliberately unfriendly."

Following the sinking of the liner SS Arabic in August, American pressure bore fruit as the Germans offered an indemnity and issued orders prohibiting their commanders from surprise attacks on merchant vessels. That September, the Germans halted their campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. Its resumption, along with other provocative acts such as the Zimmermann Telegram, would ultimately pull the United States into the conflict.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Sinking of the Lusitania." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War I: Sinking of the Lusitania. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Sinking of the Lusitania." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).