RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner of the early twentieth century, owned and operated by the Cunard Company. Her keel was laid on 16 June 1904 and she was launched on 7 June 1906. Lusitania began her maiden voyage out of Liverpool, England on 7 September 1907 and arrived in New York, United States, on 13 September.  At the time of her launch, she was the largest and fastest ship in the world, although she was soon eclipsed in both by newer ships afterwards.  Lusitania would make 101 round-trip voyages (or 202 crossings) during her career.

The shipyard at John Brown had to be reorganised because of her size so that she could be launched diagonally across the widest available part of the river Clyde where it met a tributary, the ordinary width of the river being only 610 feet (190 m) compared to the 786-foot (240 m) long ship. The new slipway took up the space of two existing ones and was built on reinforcing piles driven deeply into the ground to ensure it could take the temporary concentrated weight of the whole ship as it slid into the water. Construction commenced at the bow working backwards, rather than the traditional approach of building both ends towards the middle. This was because designs for the stern and engine layout were not finalised when construction commenced. Railway tracks were laid alongside the ship and across deck plating to bring materials as required. The hull, completed to the level of the main deck but not fitted with equipment weighed approximately 16,000 tons.

The ship’s stockless bower anchors weighed 1014 tons, attached to 125 ton, 330 fathom chains all manufactured by N. Hingley and Sons, Ltd. The steam capstans to raise them were constructed by Napier brothers Ltd, of Glasgow. The turbines were 25 feet (7.6 m) long with 12 ft (3.7 m) diameter rotors, the large diameter necessary because of the relatively low speeds at which they operated. The rotors were constructed on site, while the casings and shafting was constructed in John Brown’s Atlas works in Sheffield. The machinery to drive the 56 ton rudder was constructed by Brown Brothers of Edinburgh. A main steering engine drove the rudder through worm gear and clutch operating on a toothed quadrant rack, with a reserve engine operating separately on the rack via a chain drive for emergency use. The 17 ft (5.2 m) three bladed propellers were fitted and then cased in wood to protect them during the launch.

The Lusitania was fitted with revolutionary new turbine engines of 68,000 horsepower, able to maintain a speed of 25 knots. Equipped with lifts, wireless telegraph and electric light, she provided 50% more passenger space than any other ship.  She was famous for her luxurious accommodations and speed capability, primarily ferried people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Great Britain. On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania left port in New York for Liverpool to make her 202nd trip across the Atlantic with 1,959 people on board.

Since the outbreak of World War I, ocean voyage had become dangerous. Each side hoped to blockade the other, thus prevent any war materials getting through. German U-boats (submarines) stalked British waters, continually looking for enemy vessels to sink.
All ships headed to Great Britain were instructed to be on the lookout for U-boats and take precautionary measures such as travel at full speed and make zigzag movements. Unfortunately, on May 7, 1915, Captain William Thomas Turner slowed the Lusitania down because of fog and traveled in a predictable line.

Approximately 14 miles off the coast of Southern Ireland at Old Head of Kinsale, neither the captain nor any of his crew realized that the 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 theLusitania. 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 sunk 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 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died. The toll of civilians killed in this disaster shocked the world.

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 generally accepted international war protocols. The sinking of the Lusitania heightened tensions between the U.S. and Germany and helped sway American opinion in favor of joining the war.

In 2008, divers 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 also supports the theory that it was the explosion of munitions on board that caused the second explosion on the Lusitania.

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