Monthly Archives: May 2015

U21 Sinks Two British Battleships in Three Days

Following the Allied landings on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 a force of British and French pre-dreadnought battleships and cruisers gave fire support to the troops ashore. It was known that German U-boats were on their way to the Dardanelles.

The first to arrive was U21, captained by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing. He had been in command of her on 5 September 1914 when she sank HMS Pathfinder, the first time that a submarine had sunk a ship with a motor torpedo.

U21 had sailed from Germany on 25 April 1915. She was supposed to re-fuel from a ship on the way, but its oil was unsuitable; her tanks were almost empty when she reached the Austro-Hungarian port of Cattaro in the Adriatic on 13 May. On 5 May she was spotted by HM Torpedo Boat 92 near the island of Alborán in the western Mediterranean, but attempts by U21 to torpedo 92 and by 92 to ram U21 failed. The Germans also sent ten smaller submarines of the UB type by rail in sections to the Adriatic. Three had arrived and were being assembled when U21 reached Cattaro, now Kotor.[1]

Reports of the imminent arrival of U21 meant that on 17 May the number of battleships operating offshore was reduced from seven to four at Cape Helles and four to tow at Anzac Cove. Anti-submarine precautions were taken, including nets and destroyer patrols.[2]

U21 appeared at the Dardanelles on 25 May. Around 7:30 am the Grimsby trawler Minoru spotted her and alerted the destroyers by giving blasts on her siren. HMS Harpy made for U21, which seemed to be heading for the French battleship St Louis, but did not attack. The British Official History speculates that U21 may have made off because of the presence of Harpy, but also notes that she had orders to attack the ships off Anzac.[3]

Her periscope was spotted passed between the battleships HMS Swiftsure and Agamemnon; the former fired at her, but missed. Just after 10 am she fired a torpedo at the battleship HMS Vengeance, which evaded it. All available destroyers and trawlers were ordered to search for the submarine. Her periscope was spotted and fired on four times, and a destroyer passed over her, but she was too deep to be damaged. Since U21 was heading north the balloon ship HMS Manica and transports in that direction were ordered away. The battleship HMS Canopus, which was zigzagging and escorted by the destroyer HMS Ribble, spotted U21, but was not attacked.[4]

About 12:25 the destroyer HMS Chelmer, which was patrolling round the battleship HMS Triumph at 15 knots off Anzac, spotted the wash of U21’s periscope 500 yards off Triumph. Chelmer made for it and Triumph opened fire, but Triumph was quickly hit by a torpedo that had passed through her anti-torpedo nets as if they had been ‘a spider’s web.’[5]

Triumph’s watertight doors were all closed, but she capsized ten minutes after she had been hit. However, the order to abandon ship was given as soon as her list became dangerous, with the result that over 500 men were saved; only three officers and 70 men were lost, according to the Official History.[6] The large number of survivors was thanks to the ‘skilful handling of the Chelmer‘ by her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Hugh England.[7]

The sinking of Triumph resulted in the Allied battleships being withdrawn to Imbros, a protected harbour. However, the next day Vice Admiral Sir John de Robeck, the naval commander, decided that there should always be two off Helles, one of them in the Aegean and the other in the Dardanelles.[8]

On 26 May the French battleship Jauréguiberry spotted a periscope 100 yards away whilst off the entrance to the Dardanelles. She was in the process of turning and ran over the submarine. Some of her crew thought that she had rammed the submarine, but this was not the case.[9]

At 6:45 am on 27 May U21’s periscope appeared 400 yards from the battleship HMS Majestic. She fired on it, missing. Hersing fired a torpedo which went through a gap in the transports, passed through the nets and struck Majestic with what the British Official History called ‘a shot the best might envy.’[10] She capsized in nine minutes, but did not sink because the water was only nine fathoms deep. Instead, she rested on her foremast, with her keel exposed, leaving her ‘looking like a stranded whale.[11] All but 43 of her crew were saved.[12] The men lost on both battleships sunk by U21 are listed on

The Allied battleships and cruisers were withdrawn to Imbros. They now provided fire support only when specifically requested by the army, with the day to day work being carried out by destroyers and monitors.[13]

The Official History noted that U21’s feats had ‘grave moral effects’, both positively for the Ottomans and negatively for the Allies.[14] There was also a considerable material impact, as supply arrangements were further complicated and ‘continuous battleship support for the army was no longer possible.[15]

Tim Travers, however, contends that naval fire was not accurate enough to deal with ‘precise targets like trenches, machine guns or enemy batteries.’[16] Henceforth, the Allied troops were dependent on shore based artillery. Many officers subsequently described this as being inadequate, but Travers suggests that they are comparing Allied artillery support at Gallipoli with the volumes of fire that they later experienced on the Western Front. He notes that ‘comments at the time often praised the artillery.’[17]

Hersing kept his boat in the area for two more days, before putting into an Ottoman coast station. He had difficulties entering the Straits because of a whirlpool, but reached Istanbul on 5 June with only half a ton of oil left to ‘scenes of great enthusiasm.’[18] He was later awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour le Mérite. He and his boat survived the war.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 384 and footnote 1.

[2] N. Steel, P. Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli (London: Papermac, 1995), p. 184.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 28.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 29.

[5] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 29.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 29-30.

[7] Steel, Hart, Defeat, p. 185.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 30.

[10] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Steel, Hart, Defeat, p. 185.

[13] Ibid., p. 186.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 31.

[15] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 30.

[16] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 226.

[17] Ibid., p. 227.

[18] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 72.



Filed under War History

Lieutenant Commander Edward Boyle VC and HMS E14

Allied submarines had tried to pass through the Narrows of the Dardanelles long before the main campaign began. HMS B11 had sunk the old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye on 13 December 1914: her captain, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, was awarded the Victoria Cross and every member of the crew decorated. The French submarine Saphir managed to get past the mines in January 1915, but then ran aground and was lost

From late April 1915 submarines tried to pass through the Narrows in order to attack enemy supply ships in the Sea of Marmara. The French boats had too short a range to get to the Marmara, but tried to operate above the Narrows. However, the Bernouilli was unable to progress against the strong current and the Joule was lost with all mines after striking a mine on 1 May.[1]

The more modern British E-class boats, which had a longer range than the French ones, had more success, but still faced a difficult task in attempting to reach the Sea of Marmara. One, E15, had already been lost. She ran aground on 15 April and was destroyed by a British boat expedition three days later in order to prevent her being captured.

They had to pass through minefields and steel-wire anti-submarine nets without any metal blades to cut through the nets or the mine cables. They also had to avoid shore batteries and patrol boats, and to get through a 10 fathom deep stratum of fresh water that often made it very hard to control a boat.[2]

The first submarine to reach the Sea of Marmara was the Australian HMAS AE2, captained by Lieutenant Henry Stoker, followed by the British HMS E14. Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle, E14’s captain, took her past the forts at Chanak at dawn on 27 April. At noon she encountered a number of patrol boats and fired a torpedo at a torpedo boat. It hit, but she was forced to dive, so could not see if the Ottoman vessel had sunk.

E14 was hampered by the efforts of enemy patrols to find her and one of her periscopes had been damaged. On the afternoon of 29 April she attacked two troopships that were escorted by three destroyers. The calm sea meant that her periscope was very obvious, so she had to dive immediately after firing. An explosion was heard and half an hour later one transport was seen to be heading for the shore, emitting a great deal of yellow smoke.

That evening E14 met AE2, which had had no luck and had only one torpedo left. Three days later the Australian boat was caught by the Ottoman torpedo boat Sultanhisar and sunk after a two hour fight. However, all her crew survived as prisoners.

On 1 May Boyle decided to attack the enemy vessels that were harassing E14. She sank a small gunboat and fired two torpedoes at a larger one, but they missed. This made the Ottoman patrols more cautious, but they and shore look outs continued to restrict E14’s actions. Her presence had some impact, but she was unable to completely stop reinforcements crossing the Sea of Marmara.[3]

Four days later E14 encountered a large transport that was escorted by a destroyer. A calm sea and a well handled escort made the attack difficult, but Boyle was able to fire a torpedo from 600 yards when the destroyer was on the other side of the transport. However, it failed to explode.

The next day E14 met another transport, but it spotted her in time to turn back towards Istanbul. She pursued several ships over the next few days, but allowed all that she caught to continue as they were all carrying refugees.

Early on 10 May E14 evaded a destroyer. In the evening she encountered two large transports, escorted by a destroyer. The torpedo did not run true, but the second hit the second transport, which was the Gul Djemal, formally the White Star liner Germania, carrying troops to Gallipoli. She disappeared into the darkness. A witness later claimed that she sank with all hands, but the German Official History states that she was damaged, but was towed back to the Golden Horn the next day.

E14 now had only one torpedo left, which turned out to be faulty. Boyle kept her in the Marmara for a while in the hope that her presence would impede enemy movements, but on 17 May he was ordered to return to base.[4]

Boyle was awarded the Victoria Cross, E14’s other two officers the Distinguished Service Cross and all her petty officers and ratings the Distinguished Service Medal. Boyle’s citation, quoted on, stated that:

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edward Courtney Boyle, Royal Navy, for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery, in command of Submarine E.14, when he dived his vessel under the enemy minefields and entered the Sea of Marmora on the 27th April, 1915. In spite of great navigational difficulties from strong currents, of the continual neighbourhood of hostile patrols, and of the hourly danger of attack from the enemy, he continued to operate in the narrow waters of the Straits and succeeded in sinking two Turkish gunboats and one large military transport.


[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 374.

[2] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 312.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 374-75.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 26-27.


Filed under War History

Admiral Fisher Resigns as First Sea Lord

On 13 May 1915 at a meeting at the Admiralty Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, criticised the Admiralty’s recent decision to recall the super dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth from the Dardanelles. He argued that this would damage Allied morale and boost that of the enemy.[1]

The report of The Dardanelles Commission, later set up to investigate the campaign, noted that ‘[i]t is difficult to say why Lord Kitchener should have attached to much importance to the retention of the Queen Elizabeth.’[2] Kitchener by then was dead. The results of naval gunfire support to the army had been disappointing and the removal of Queen Elizabeth was more than compensated for by the despatch of other ships, including monitors, to the Dardanelles.

In return, Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, threatened to resign if Queen Elizabeth remained. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, backed Fisher, albeit reluctantly in the view of Major General Charles Callwell, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, who was present.[3]

The next day the War Council met. The Admiralty argued that it would not have agreed to a solely naval attack on the Dardanelles had it been aware that 100,000 soldiers would soon be available for an amphibious landing. The demands on the Royal Navy by the German U-boat offensive, the Allied Italian Naval Convention and the need to maintain the strength of the Grand Fleet meant that the campaign must now be a land one with naval support rather than the other way round.

The army, however, claimed that the presence of Queen Elizabeth and her 15 inch guns had been a major factor in its belief that it could see the fleet through to Istanbul. It could not see how a rapid victory could be achieved, but withdrawal was inconceivable at this stage. This left siege warfare as the only option, but it was unclear how many troops could be provided, given the demands of the Western Front and home defence.

Fisher had originally proposed a combined land and naval attack on the Dardanelles, which he hoped would have won a quick victory. He had been reluctant in his support for the naval only attack. He now feared that the ships that he had been constructing to use in operations in the northern waters would instead he sent to the Dardanelles.[4]

The War Council meeting left Fisher with the impression that more ships would be sent to the Dardanelles. He told Captain Thomas Crease, his Naval Assistant, that if operations in the Dardanelles were to continue ‘they should henceforth be directed on the naval side by somebody who believed in them.’[5]

On 15 May Fisher received a memo from Churchill that proposed sending far more naval reinforcements to the Dardanelles than the two men had agreed the evening before. Fisher had offered his resignation several times before, but this time he finally quit. He officially remained First Sea Lord until 22 May, but seems to have visited his office only once more, on 17 May to remove some personal items.[6]

The departure of Fisher, coupled with the revelation that the British Army lacked enough high explosive shells, led to the replacement of the Liberal Government with a Liberal/Conservative Coalition. It was certain that the Conservatives would insist that Churchill, who had left them to join the Liberals in 1904 over the issue of free trade, would be removed from the office of First Lord.

Fisher at first had a substantial degree of public support, with several newspapers, led by The Times, arguing that he should become First Lord. There were several precedents from the 18th and early 19th centuries for that position, a political rather than a military one, to be held by an Admiral.

However, Fisher made two mistakes on 17 May. Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breakers, decoded signals indicating that the German High Seas Fleet was about to put to sea. Crease told Fisher that he should go to the Admiralty to supervise operations. but he refused to do so. Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton had to act as First Sea Lord. He was the Second Sea Lord, with responsibility for personnel and shore establishments, so was not sufficiently versed in operational matters to stand in for the First Sea Lord. As it happened, the High Seas Fleet was only covering mine laying operations and did not go far into the North Sea.

H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, said that ‘[s]trictly speaking, [Fisher] ought to be shot’ with King George V, who had supported Fisher until then, stating that his behaviour ‘was bound to have a deplorable, if not a disastrous effect upon the public, not only at home, but abroad.’[7]

Fisher’s second mistake was to say that he would stay as First Sea Lord subject to various conditions that no politician was likely to accept. He insisted that Churchill’s replacement should not be Arthur Balfour, the Conservative who did become First Lord. Fisher also wanted an increase in the responsibilities of the First Sea Lord at the expense of the First Lord and the other members of the Board of Admiralty.

Even then, it was not until 22 May that Asquith accepted Fisher’s resignation. A final attempt the day before to persuade him to stay failed because Fisher would not serve under Balfour. The Coalition took power on 25 May, with Balfour as First Lord. Churchill remained in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a job without ministerial responsibilities usually given to inexperienced ministers.

The new First Sea Lord was Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. As he was ‘almost unknown to the nation, the appointment elicited a lukewarm response.’[8] The outstanding candidate, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, could not be spared from his current post as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 276.

[2] PP, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission. (Part II–Conduct of Operations, &C.) with Appendix of Documents and Maps (1919), p. 23.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 276-77.

[4] This and the two previous paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 408-10.

[5] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 277.

[6] The remainder of this post is based on Ibid. vol. ii, pp.279-91.

[7] Quotes from Ibid. vol. ii, p. 283.

[8] Ibid. vol. ii, p.291.


Filed under War History

The Sinking of HMS Goliath 13 May 1915

Following the amphibious landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 Allied warships continued to give fire support to the troops. Their fire was not always accurate, but its potential benefitted the Allies in both physical and moral terms.[1]

Each night two battleships, escorted by five destroyers covered the right hand flank of the Allied position, giving fire support to the French at the ravine of Kereves Dere. On the night of 12-13 May Kapitänleutnant Rudolph Firle, a German officer serving with the Ottoman navy, was given permission to take the destroyer Muavenet-i Milliye, captained by Senior Lieutenant Ayasofyali Ahmed Saffed, to attack them.

The night was dark and foggy, with no moon, which helped the Muavenet to avoid the British destroyers. However, she was spotted and hailed by the battleship HMS Goliath at 1:15 am. The Ottomans made some sort of reply, the challenge was repeated and the Muavenet rushed forward and fired three torpedoes as Goliath was ordered to fire.

Hits abreast of the fore turret and the foremost funnel caused Goliath to list badly to port before the third torpedo struck her close to the after turret. She turned turtle before most of her crew could get to the deck and sank after floating upside down for a couple of minutes. The Muavenet was able to escape into the darkness, although the British destroyers picked up her wireless signals reporting her success.[2]

The 4-5 knot current made it impossible for men to swim to shore. Only about 180 of the 750 men on board Goliath survived. The dead and the survivors are listed on This was the most men to die on board a single Royal Navy ship in the Dardanelles, although more French sailors were killed when the battleship Bouvet struck a mine on 18 March. Every member of the Muavenet’s crew was given a gold watch and an embroidered purse full of gold.[3]

Goliath was the first battleship to be sunk in combat with another surface ship during the war. HMS Audacious and the two RN ships sunk along with the Bouvet on 18 March struck mines, HMS Formidable and the Ottoman Mesudiye were torpedoed by submarines and HMS Bulwark blew up accidentally. The ships sunk at Helgoland Bight, Coronel and the Falklands were all cruisers. SMS Blücher, sunk at Dogger Bank, is sometimes referred to as a battlecruiser, but was really an armoured cruiser.

The Admiralty now decided to bring the super dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth home. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, later wrote that the sinking of the Goliath led Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, to make ‘a most strenuous counter-demand to that effect.’[4]

However, the sequence of events given in the Official History suggests that the issue was decided on 12 March, before Goliath was sunk. The Admiralty believed that Queen Elizabeth was needed by the Grand Fleet, where she would work with HMS Warspite, her newly completed sister ship. At least three U-boats were known to be on their way to the Dardanelles: one was unsuccessfully attacked by French destroyers off Sicily on 11 May. As replacements two pre-dreadnoughts, HMS Venerable and Exmouth and the first two of the Abercrombie class of monitors were to be sent to the Dardanelles.[5]

The four Abercrombies were each armed with a twin 14 inch gun turret that that had originally been built in the USA for the Greek dreadnought Salamis, which was under construction at Hamburg. Since they would never get through the British blockade, the manufacturer offered them to the RN. Because of their US guns, the ships were originally named after American Civil War leaders. However, their names were changed to those of British generals because the sale of the guns to the UK was controversial enough in the USA without highlighting it by naming the ships after Americans. The monitors were less vulnerable than battleships or cruisers to torpedoes because of their shallow draft and anti-torpedo bulges.[6]

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was very unhappy at the removal of the RN’s biggest and newest ship from the Dardanelles. He argued that it would have a major effect on the morale of both sides, but Fisher, who threatened to resign, got his way and Queen Elizabeth was ordered home.[7]



[1] N. Steel, P. Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli (London: Papermac, 1995), p. 183.

[2] This and the two previous paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii. pp. 406-8.

[3] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 483-84.

[4] W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols. (London: Odhams Press, 1939). vol. ii, Kindle edition. Location 5351 of 9134.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 405-6.

[6] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 43-44.

[7] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, pp. 276-77.


Filed under War History

The Italian Naval Convention 10 May 1915

Italy, although a member of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, had remained neutral in 1914. It had not been consulted beforehand and the treaty did not require it to participate in an attack on Serbia. Austria-Hungary was Italy’s traditional enemy and incorporating the 800,000 Italian speakers around Trieste and in the Trentino region of the Hapsburg empire into Italy was the main objective of Italian nationalists.

Italy had joined the Triple Alliance in 1882 for defensive reasons: it was too weak to fight Austria-Hungary on its own and it considered the German army to be the best in Europe. However, Italy and Austria-Hungary both strengthened their navies and the fortifications on their mutual frontier whilst supposedly allied.

Once war between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Entente of France, Russia and the United Kingdom had begun, neutrality was the obvious and most popular course for Italy. It had a long coastline and imported most of its wheat and coal by sea, making it very vulnerable to attack by the Royal Navy.

Italy, however, was biding its time. the question was whether it could best achieve its objectives by joining the Central Powers, the Entente or staying neutral. The Treaty of London of 26 April 1915 required it to join the Entente within a month.

The Italian speaking regions of Trieste and Trentino would become Italian. It would also obtain defensible frontiers and dominance of the Adriatic by the incorporation of German, Croatian and Slovenian speaking areas and receive colonies in Africa and Asia Minor.

The Italians expected wrongly that their objectives could be gained by a quick war against Austria-Hungary, so declared war initially on only it.[1]

On 10 May, a week after Italy had renounced the Triple Alliance, a Naval Convention was signed between France, Italy and the UK. The French navy and the RN would support the Italian navy until the end of the war, unless the Austro-Hungarian fleet was destroyed earlier. The Italians would command in the Adriatic and the French elsewhere in the Mediterranean, except in Ottoman waters, where the British would command until the end of the Dardanelles operation.

The Italian navy would be reinforced by four British battleships, four British light cruisers, 12 French destroyers, as many torpedo boats, submarines and minesweepers as the French could spare, including at least six submarines and six French seaplanes, with a seaplane carrier if possible.[2]

This resulted in the following balance of power in the Adriatic:

Type Austria-Hungary Italy Lent by UK & France
Dreadnoughts 3 4
Pre-dreadnoughts 3 2 4
Smaller battleships 6 4
Cruisers 2 9
Fast light cruisers 5 3 2
Old light cruisers 2 3 2
Destroyers 18 39 12
Torpedo boats 42 28
Submarines 7 21 7

Source: Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915, p. 143.

These figures exclude an Austro-Hungarian and two Italian dreadnoughts that were close to completion and some German submarines that were assembled at the Austro-Hungarian base at Pola for operations in the Dardanelles.[3]

The British ships would come from the Dardanelles, where they would be replaced by four French cruisers and an increase in the French battleship force to six.[4]

The Italian handed their declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarians on 23 May: it came into effect at midnight. The British squadron was at the Italian naval base of Taranto by the morning of 27 May.[5]

[1] The above is based on D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 110-13.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915. pp. 141-42.

[3] Ibid. Footnotes 1, 2 & 11, p. 143.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 396.

[5] Naval Staff vol. viii. pp. 144-45.


Filed under War History

The Sinking of the Lusitania 7 May 1915

On 1 May 1915 the Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania, captained by Captain William Turner, left New York for Liverpool. The German Embassy to the USA took out advertisements in US newspapers warning passengers that the waters round the British Isles were a war zone in which merchant ships were liable to be sunk without warning. The German ad did not specifically mention the Lusitania or Cunard, but the most commonly reproduced version shows it to be placed below Cunard’s announcement of the departure times of its services to Liverpool.[1]170px-Lusitania_warning

The day before the Lusitania sailed, the German U-boat U-20 departed from Germany. Her captain, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, had orders to attack transports off Liverpool.[2] He had been in command when U20 sank three British merchants hips off Le Havre on 30 January, before the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. He had also unsuccessfully tried the sink the hospital ship Asturias, claiming that he thought that she was a troopship and could not in any case have been carrying wounded as she was heading from the United Kingdom.[3]

Schweiger sank the schooner Earl of Lathom (132 tons), carrying bacon, eggs and potatoes to Liverpool, by gunfire on 5 May off the Old Head of Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland after giving her crew time to abandon ship. Later that day he fired a torpedo at a 3,000 ton steamer but missed.

The next day he made a surface attack on the steamer Candidate (6,000 tons) in the St George’s Channel. She was heading for Jamaica with a cargo of hardware and groceries. She tried to flee into fog banks, but was eventually forced to stop by gunfire. Schweiger fired a torpedo at her after the crew had abandoned ship, but she would not sink, so U20 had to finish her off by gunfire.

Later that day, after being unable to get into position to torpedo the 16,000 ton passenger liner Arabic, Schweiger fired a torpedo at the steamer Centurion (6,000 tons), en route to Durban. She did not sink, and he finished her off with another torpedo after the crew had abandoned ship. This left him with only three torpedoes; his standing orders said that he was to keep a minimum of two for the return journey.[4]

The large number of patrol ships in the area meant that U-20 would have to proceed to Liverpool submerged, which would be difficult because fog restricted visibility using the submarine’s periscope. Consequently, Schweiger decided to remain in the entrance to the Bristol Channel.

On 7 May he spotted the cruiser HMS Juno, which he followed in the hope of an opportunity to torpedo her. However, she headed for the Queenstown (now Cobh) on the south coast of Ireland. Schweiger, not wanting to approach a well defended naval base, turned away to the west.

Soon afterwards Schweiger spotted a four funnelled liner off the Old Head of Kinsale. It did not appear that he could get his boat into an attacking position until the liner, which was the Lusitania, turned towards U20. Schweiger fired a torpedo at 2:10 pm at a range of 700 metres. It struck just astern of the bridge, producing a large explosion and causing the ship to stop and list.

Schweiger, realising that the Lusitania was doomed, left the scene. He fired a torpedo that suffered a mechanical failure at another Cunarder later the same day.

An SOS signal from the Lusitania was received at 2:11 pm. HMS Juno was ordered to go to her aid, in contravention of Admiralty orders that the old ships of Cruiser Force E at Queenstown should not be put at risk of submarine attack. All available tugs, small craft and patrol vessels were also sent. At 2:33 pm a signal reporting that the Lusitania had sunk was received. Juno was then recalled.[5]

The Lusitania was capable of only 21 knots rather than her full speed of 24 knots. This was because of a commercial decision by Cunard to use only 18 of her 24 boilers in order to make it economic to run her when passenger traffic was reduced in wartime: she was capable of carrying 2,350 passengers and had a crew of 750 in peacetime.[6] Because of the fog Turner had reduced her speed to 15 knots, but had increased it to 18 knots by the time of the sinking as visibility had improved.[7]

U20 returned to Wilhemshaven on 13 May with ‘only 19 tons of oil left’, according to the British Naval Staff Monograph, written in 1925 for internal Royal Navy use only.[8] This phrase makes it sound as if his tanks were almost dry, but U20’s fuel capacity was only 77 tons:[9] presumably 1925 RN officers would have been expected have at least a rough idea of this number.

A total of 1,201 people were killed when the Lusitania sank: 785 out of 1,257 passengers, including 128 Americans, 413 of the 702 strong crew and three stowaways. Some sources quote 1,198, omitting the stowaways. [10] They were German speakers, so were suspected of being spies or saboteurs and held in confinement below decks.[11] Only six out of 48 lifeboats reached Queenstown intact.[12]

Many of the survivors were rescued by small craft from Queenstown, including the Indian Prince and the Flying Fox, and by fishing vessels such as the Peel 12 and the Bluebell.[13]

The Lusitania’s cargo included a number of cases of munitions: 4,200 each containing about 1,000 rifle cartridges, 1,250 of 3.3 inch shrapnel shells and 18 of percussion fuses. The shells and fuses were stated in the official manifest to be without explosives. it was also carrying material for military uniforms and leather equipment.[14]

These items were all classed as contraband under the rules of cruiser warfare. These rules entitled Schweiger to stop and search Lusitania and, on finding the contraband, to require the crew and passengers to take to the lifeboats before he sank the liner and her cargo. They did not allow him to sink her without warning. However, he would have been putting his boat at severe risk by acting in accordance with the rules so close to the British base at Queenstown.

Some media sources, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, have suggested that the British government admitted only recently that the Lusitania was carrying munitions after some Foreign Office documents from 1982 were made public. They dealt with concerns that salvage operations then proposed might reveal the presence of explosives. However, the fact that she was carrying munitions was revealed by the 1918 Mayer hearing into lawsuits against Cunard, although allegations that there were more explosives on board than then admitted persist.[15]

There are several mysteries about the sinking of the Lusitania. One is when Schweiger realised which ship he had sunk. The Naval Staff Monograph, sourcing the German Official Naval History, says that it was not until he saw her name painted on her bows in gold letters, but notes that Lusitania’s captain says that this had been painted over.[16]

German U-boats carried a pilot, a merchant navy officer intended to help with ship identification. Simpson says that U20’s pilot identified the liner as being either the Lusitania or her sister the Mauretania before firing.[17]

Preston argues that there were only five four funnelled British liners and that the Germans knew that the Lusitania was the only one of them that could be inbound on 7 May. She contends that Schweiger’s war diary was later altered to conceal the fact that he knew exactly what ship he was torpedoing.[18]

A major issue is that there were two explosions. The British Official History of The Merchant Navy claims that Schweiger fired two torpedoes, whilst quoting a German source that says that he did not.[19] It is now accepted that he fired only one.

Colin Simpson argues that Schweiger’s torpedo flooded the starboard coal bunkers and cased a 15 degree list, but that it was the second explosion that sank the Lusitania, which he believes was caused by the explosion of contraband. He argues that this is supported by the fact that relevant Admiralty papers, including those of Captain Reginald Hall, Director of Naval Intelligence, and Captain Guy Gaunt, Naval Attaché in Washington, were unavailable when he researched his 1972 book.[20] Some of Hall’s papers are now available at Churchill College, Cambridge, but they do not appear to include any from May 1915.

Diana Preston goes through a number of theories to explain the second explosion:[21]

  1. The munitions that were known to be carried. The shells would have remained inert even if they, contrary to the manifest, contained their powder and propellant charges because they would still have lacked their fuses, a standard procedure during transport. The rifle cartridges would not have exploded, as shown by an example in 1972 when a railway wagon full of United States Navy bullets caught fire but did not explode.
  2. Detonation of less stable explosives that it has been rumoured but never proven were secretly on board. The Scientific American concluded soon after the sinking that such as explosion would have blown the Lusitania’s bows off. A survey of the wreck by the oceanographer and underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard showed no such damage.
  3. Aluminium powder that the manifest showed was being transported to the Woolwich Arsenal. This is highly volatile and can ignite spontaneously in air. However, it would also have created a much larger explosion and greater damage than actually occurred. Some of the crew from the cargo area survived, which they would not have done in this case.
  4. Coal dust explosion. This can ignite if exposed to a spark or flame in the right conditions. However, seepage of sea water into the hull, moist air from the boilers and sea water from the flooding that followed the torpedo hit mean that the conditions were not right.
  5. A boiler explosion. This is the only explanation that would have produced the steam reported by survivors. The sound would have been carried up through the funnels and vents, explaining why the explosion sounded loudest to those on deck. The main flaw is that some of the boiler room personnel survived, which would not have been the case if the boilers exploded immediately. However, a delay of a minute or two would have allowed a few men to get out.
  6. Failure of the steamlines that carried high-pressure superheated steam from the boilers to the turbines. The effect of this fits the reports of survivors.

Preston argues convincingly that ‘steamline explosions are easily the most likely source of the second explosion’, quoting Captain Turner as telling the Mayer hearing that ‘The torpedo burst the steampipe and put the engines out of commission.’[22]

However, Preston’s conclusion is that there were probably a number of explosions, and that the main cause of the sinking of the Lusitania was that she was not designed to survive a torpedo hit in a vital area.[23]

It may seem strange that Lusitania, a ship displacing more than 30,000 tons sank about 20 minutes after being hit by a single torpedo. However, three months later the Arabic went down nine minutes after being hit by a torpedo. HMS Aboukir, an armoured cruiser, albeit an elderly one with weak underwater protection, took only nine minutes to sink after being hit by a single torpedo.[24] The old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye also sank after being hit by only one torpedo from HMS B11.

The Germans subsequently claimed that the Lusitania was a Royal Navy auxiliary cruiser. Her construction and that of the Mauretania had been financed by a cheap loan from the British government, which was concerned that Cunard was struggling to compete with its German and US rivals. In return, they were to be built to the Admiralty’s specifications and were to be taken out of passenger service and converted into armed merchant cruisers if hostilities threatened. A set proportion of their crews must be members of the Royal Naval Reserve. In 1913 the Lusitania was refitted to allow her to carry 12 6 inch guns.[25]

However, the Lusitania was never actually fitted with guns. The Admiralty considered doing so at the start of the war, but decided that she was too expensive to fuel relative to her value as a warship. Inspections by US customs officials and film of her leaving New York on her last voyage showed no sign of any armament.[26] Most of the naval reservists on board the Lusitania in 1914 had by May 1915 been called up by the RN, leaving her with an inexperienced crew.[27]

The Germans also alleged that the Lusitania was carrying Canadian troops across the Atlantic. If they were travelling as an armed and organised unit, rather than as individuals, this would have made her a troopship liable to be sunk without warning. There is no evidence in archives or the accounts of survivors to support this claim. One of the dead passengers, Robert Matthews, was a Lieutenant in the 60th Rifles of Canada, a militia unit. However, he had not attended any drills in the winter of 1914-15, had been rejected for a commission in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was travelling with his mistress.[28]

The other main conspiracy theory is that the British deliberately put the Lusitania in danger in the hope that she would be sunk, bringing the USA into the war on the Allied side. However, the British in 1915 were happy to have the USA as a friendly neutral munitions supplier rather than as an ally that would want to impose its views on a peace settlement.[29]

As with most conspiracy theories, there is no archival evidence to support it, but the proponents of conspiracy theories always argue that the absence of evidence is itself part of the conspiracy. There are some gaps in British government correspondence during the period in question, notably from Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty and Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord.

However, the two were then mainly pre-occupied with their dispute over the Dardanelles, Churchill was in France at the time of the sinking and Fisher was close to a nervous breakdown. Their by then poor relations make it unlikely that they would have co-operated in a conspiracy or that either would have kept quiet if the other had been responsible for one. The other contender was Hall, but if he did conspire, it is more likely to have been by omission than commission by not passing on intelligence about U-boat movements.[30]

A conspiracy to have the Lusitania sunk left a lot of things to chance. U20 might not have been in the right place to meet her. The Lusitania might not have approached at an angle that gave Schweiger such a good chance. He might not have aimed so well. His torpedo might have suffered a technical failure, as did the one that he fired the next day. One torpedo might not have been enough, although an unsuccessful attempt to sink the Lusitania might have achieved the objective of the alleged conspirators without serious loss of life.

Like Preston, I have a preference for the cock up theory over the conspiracy one.[31] The Lusitania was not warned that U-boats were operating in the area because the Admiralty was then lax in issuing warnings. Initiative was discouraged and information shared even less widely than security dictated. The Lusitania did not have an escort because it was thought that her speed made her safe. The Admiralty’s anti-submarine strategy was then to patrol waters where there was a risk of U-boat attack rather than to escort merchant ships.

Even in the Second World War, when merchant ships normally sailed in escorted convoys, fast liners such as the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary carried large number of Canadian and Us troops across the Atlantic unescorted, depending on their high speed to avoid U-boat attack.

The sinking of the Lusitania caused great damage to US-German relations. President Woodrow Wilson wrote a note that stated that:

‘Manifestly, submarines cannot be used against merchantmen…without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.’[32]

This comment formed part of a note that was sent to Germany despite the protests of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan that it was too pro-British. It arrived on 15 May, by when Kaiser Wilhelm had already ordered his U-boats to cease sinking neutral ships. The navy ignored this order, and Wilhelm reiterated it on 1 June, this time adding that enemy passenger liners should also be spared. Admirals Gustav Bachmann, Chief of the Admiralty Staff, and Alfred von Tirpitz, State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, both thought that by doing so Germany was admitting that the sinking of the Lusitania had been illegal and was giving up its best weapon against the UK.[33]

Unrestricted U-boat warfare did bring the USA into the war, but not for nearly two years. From a US point of view, the crucial difference between the British blockade and German unrestricted submarine warfare was that the British only interfered with US trade and property, whilst the Germans additionally killed Americans. The German problem in 1915 was that they did not enough U-boats to win the war by submarine warfare, but trying to do so would damage their relations with the USA.

This website contains a great deal of information about Lusitania and her passengers and crew.


[1] D. Preston, Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania, Special Centenary edition. ed. (London: Doubleday, 2015 edition, first published 2002), p. xii; C. Simpson, Lusitania (London: Longman, 1972). Frontispiece.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 169.

[3] Preston, Wilful, pp. 152-53.

[4] Ibid., pp. 162-67.

[5] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. pp. 169-72.

[6] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. i, pp. 411, 413.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 531.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. p. 172.

[9] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 176.

[10] Preston, Wilful, p. 299.

[11] Ibid., pp. 131-2, 208.

[12] Simpson, Lusitania, p. 165.

[13] Hurd, Merchant. vol. i, pp. 420-24.

[14] Preston, Wilful, p. 394.

[15] Hurd, Merchant. vol. i, p. 414.

[16] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. pp. 171-2. pp. 171-72 and footnote 1 on p. 172.

[17] Simpson, Lusitania, p. 147.

[18] Preston, Wilful, pp. 423-25.

[19] Hurd, Merchant. vol. i, p. 418

[20] Simpson, Lusitania, p. 151.

[21] Preston, Wilful, pp. 436-44.

[22] Ibid., p. 444.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 432.

[25] Simpson, Lusitania, pp. 20-32.

[26] Preston, Wilful, pp. 391-92.

[27] Ibid., p. 108.

[28] Ibid., pp. 393-94.

[29] Ibid., p. 401.

[30] Ibid., pp. 402-3.

[31] Ibid., pp. 389-90.

[32] Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 537.

[33] Ibid., pp. 539-40.



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