seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


Leave a comment

The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

The Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania is sunk by German U-boat U-20 eleven miles off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915 during World War I.

On the morning of May 6, RMS Lusitania is 750 miles west of southern Ireland. By 5:00 AM on May 7 she reaches a point 120 miles west southwest of Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland, where she meets the patrolling boarding vessel Partridge. By 6:00 AM, heavy fog has arrived and extra lookouts are posted. As the ship comes closer to Ireland, Captain William Thomas Turner orders depth soundings to be made and at 8:00 AM for speed to be reduced to eighteen knots, then to 15 knots and for the foghorn to be sounded. Some of the passengers are disturbed that the ship appears to be advertising her presence. By 10:00 AM the fog begins to lift and by noon it has been replaced by bright sunshine over a clear smooth sea. The RMS Lusitania increases speed to 18 knots.

U-20 surfaces at 12:45 PM as visibility is now excellent. At 1:20 PM something is sighted and Kapitänleutnant  Walther Schwieger is summoned to the conning tower. At first it appears to be several ships because of the number of funnels and masts, but this resolves into one large steamer appearing over the horizon. At 1:25 PM the submarine submerges to periscope depth of 11 metres and sets a course to intercept the liner at her maximum submerged speed of 9 knots. When the ships have closed to 2 miles RMS Lusitania turns away. Schwieger fears he has lost his target, but she turns again, this time onto a near ideal course to bring her into position for an attack. At 2:10 PM with the target at 700m range he orders one gyroscopic torpedo to be fired, set to run at a depth of three metres.

The U-20‘s torpedo officer, Raimund Weisbach, views the destruction through the vessel’s periscope and feels the explosion is unusually severe. Within six minutes, RMS Lusitania‘s forecastle begins to submerge.

On board the RMS Lusitania, Leslie Morton, an eighteen-year-old lookout at the bow, spots thin lines of foam racing toward the ship. He shouts, “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” through a megaphone, thinking the bubbles come from two projectiles. The torpedo strikes RMS Lusitania under the bridge, sending a plume of debris, steel plating and water upward and knocking lifeboat number five off its davits. A second, more powerful explosion follows, sending a geyser of water, coal, dust, and debris high above the deck. Schwieger’s log entries attest that he had only launched one torpedo. Some doubt the validity of this claim, contending that the German government subsequently alters the published fair copy of Schwieger’s log, but accounts from other U-20 crew members corroborate it. The entries are also consistent with intercepted radio reports sent to Germany by U-20 once she has returned to the North Sea, before any possibility of an official coverup.

At 2:12 PM Captain Turner orders Quartermaster Johnston stationed at the ship’s wheel to steer “hard-a-starboard” towards the Irish coast, which Johnston confirms, but the ship can not be steadied on the course and rapidly ceases to respond to the wheel. Turner signals for the engines to be reversed to halt the ship, but although the signal is received in the engine room, nothing can be done. Steam pressure collapses from 195 PSI before the explosion, to 50 PSI and falling afterwards. RMS Lusitania‘s wireless operator sends out an immediate SOS, which is acknowledged by a coastal wireless station. Shortly afterward he transmits the ship’s position, 10 miles (16 km) south of the Old Head of Kinsale. At 2:14 PM electrical power fails, plunging the cavernous interior of the ship into darkness. Radio signals continue on emergency batteries, but electric lifts fail, trapping passengers and crew. Bulkhead doors closed as a precaution before the attack can not be reopened to release trapped men.

About one minute after the electrical power fails, Captain Turner gives the order to abandon ship. Water has flooded the ship’s starboard longitudinal compartments, causing a 15-degree list to starboard.

RMS Lusitania‘s severe starboard list complicates the launch of her lifeboats. Ten minutes after the torpedoing, when she has slowed enough to start putting boats in the water, the lifeboats on the starboard side swing out too far to step aboard safely. While it is still possible to board the lifeboats on the port side, lowering them presents a different problem. As is typical for the period, the hull plates of RMS Lusitania are riveted, and as the lifeboats are lowered they drag on the inch high rivets, which threatens to seriously damage the boats before they land in the water.

Many lifeboats overturn while loading or lowering, spilling passengers into the sea. Others are overturned by the ship’s motion when they hit the water. RMS Lusitania has 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but only six are successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. A few of her collapsible lifeboats wash off her decks as she sinks and provides floatation for some survivors.

There is panic and disorder on the decks. Schwieger has been observing this through U-20‘s periscope, and by 2:25 PM, he drops the periscope and heads out to sea.

Captain Turner is on the deck near the bridge clutching the ship’s logbook and charts when a wave sweeps upward towards the bridge and the rest of the ship’s forward superstructure, knocking him overboard into the sea. He manages to swim and find a chair floating in the water which he clings to. He survives, having been pulled unconscious from the water after spending three hours there. RMS Lusitania‘s bow slams into the bottom about 330 feet below at a shallow angle because of her forward momentum as she sinks. Along the way, some boilers explode, including one that causes the third funnel to collapse. The remaining funnels collapse soon after. The ship travels about two miles from the time of the torpedoing to her final resting place, leaving a trail of debris and people behind. After her bow sinks completely, RMS Lusitania‘s stern rises out of the water, enough for her propellers to be visible, and then goes under.

RMS Lusitania sinks in only 18 minutes. It takes several hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast and by that time many in the 52° F water have succumbed to the cold. By the days’ end, 764 passengers and crew from the RMS Lusitania are rescued and land at Queenstown. Eventually, the final death toll for the disaster comes to a catastrophic number. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard RMS Lusitania at the time of her sinking, 1,195 have been lost.

In the days following the disaster, the Cunard line offers local fishermen and sea merchants a cash reward for the bodies floating all throughout the Irish Sea, some floating as far away as the Welsh coast. In all, only 289 bodies are recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims are buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies are interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims are never recovered.


Leave a comment

Sinking of the MV Princess Victoria

mv-princess-victoriaMV Princess Victoria, one of the earliest roll-on/roll-off ferries, sinks on January 31, 1953, in the North Channel during a severe European windstorm with the loss of 133 lives. It is then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.

Princess Victoria is built in 1947 by William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton. She is the first purpose-built ferry of her kind to operate in British coastal waters and could hold 1,500 passengers plus cargo and had sleeping accommodations for 54.

Captained by James Ferguson, the vessel leaves Stranraer‘s railway loading pier at 7:45 AM on January 31, 1953 with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers, and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson has served as master on various ferries on the same route for seventeen years. A gale warning is in force but he makes the decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea is not apparent, but it is noted that spray is breaking over the stern doors. A “guillotine door” has been fitted, because of a previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors, but it is rarely used, because it takes too long to raise and lower. This would provide extra protection for the sliding stern doors but on this occasion it is not lowered.

Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan, the ship turns west towards Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland and exposes her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damage the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggles to close the doors again but they prove to be too badly damaged and water continues to flood in from the waves. The scuppers do not appear to be allowing the water to drain away. The ship takes a list to starboard and at this point Captain Ferguson decides to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. This proves to be impossible, because the extreme conditions prevent the deckhands from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder. Ferguson then makes a decision to try to reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which keeps the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements. At 9:46 AM, two hours after leaving Stranraer, a message is transmitted in Morse code (the Princess Victoria does not have a radio telephone) by radio operator David Broadfoot to the Portpatrick Radio Station: “Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required.”

With a list to starboard exacerbated by shifting cargo, water continues to enter the ship. At 10:32 AM an SOS transmission is made, and the order to abandon is given at 2:00 PM. Possibly the first warship in the area is HMS Launceston Castle, commanded by Lt. Cdr J M Cowling, a frigate which is en route to Derry. Searches are carried out but Launceston Castle is forced to leave when her condensers are contaminated by salt. Upon the upgrade of the assistance message to an SOS, the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers is dispatched, as is the destroyer HMS Contest. Contest, commanded by Lt. Commander HP Fleming, leaves Rothesay at 11:09 AM but, although she comes close to her position at 1:30 PM, poor visibility prevents the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer has been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots to reach the listing ferry but, after sustaining damage from the seas, Captain Fleming is forced to reduce speed to 16 knots.

The Princess Victoria is still reporting her position as 5 miles northwest of Corsewall Point but her engines are still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots are gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1:08 PM, the ship broadcasts that her engines have stopped. The final morse code message at 1:58 PM reports the ship “on her beam end” five miles east of the Copeland Islands.

The Court of Enquiry into the sinking, held in March 1953 at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, finds that the Princess Victoria was lost due to a combination of factors. In a 30,000 page report the enquiry finds that firstly, the stern doors are not sufficiently robust. Secondly, arrangements for clearing water from the car deck are inadequate. The report concludes “If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted.” The court also notes the failure of the duty destroyer HMS Tenacious from the 3rd Training Squadron based at HMS Sea Eagle at Londonderry Port to be able to put to sea as too many men had been released on shore leave. As a consequence of the enquiry the duty destroyer from the 3rd Squadron is subsequently based “on station” at the mouth of Lough Foyle on one hour readiness to put to sea.

The wreck lay undiscovered until 1992 when a team from Cromarty Firth Diving, led by John MacKenzie and funded by the BBC, working from data provided by a Royal Navy seabed survey carried out in 1973, are able to locate it five miles north northeast of the Copeland Islands in 90 metres of water. Video footage and stills from this expedition are transmitted on a BBC programme called Home Truths (Things Don’t Happen to Boats Like This) on the 40th anniversary of the sinking in 1993.