In 1897 the Nordeutscher Lloyd ship SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse took the Blue Riband -- a coveted trophy indicating the carrier was the fastest transatlantic passenger ship in service -- from Cunard's Campania and Lucania. German ships were to hold it for the next decade, to the dismay of British patriots.
In 1902 negotiations began between the Government and Cunard with the goal of building two super-liners capable of winning back the Blue Riband for Britain. By 1903 an agreement had been reached whereby Government would lend UK£2,600,000 to Cunard to build two ships capable of 24 to 25 knots. In addition, Cunard would receive annual payments too as long as the two ships could be armed and the Admiralty could claim their services when needed.
To meet the speed requirements, in September 1903 Lord Inverclyde, chairman of Cunard, created and chaired a committee of experienced engineers to design the ships' propulsion systems. In March 1904 the committee decided to utilize turbines, instead of the more common reciprocating engines. After a series of private experiments and tests of hull designs in the Admiralty tank at Haslar near Portsmouth it was decided that the two new ships would be 785 feet long and displace 32,000 gross tons.
The contract for Lusitania went to John Brown and Company, Ltd of Glasgow and the keel was laid in May 1905. When she was launched on June 7, 1906 by Lady Inverclyde, she was the largest vessel afloat. She had seven decks of palatial accommodation for first-class passengers, and even third-class passengers found unexpected comfort: they were no longer carried in open berths but in four- or six-berth cabins. The engine rooms also marked Lusitania as a pioneer in maritime history. The ship's quadruple screws were driven by direct-drive steam turbines developing some 51,000 kilowatts (68,000 horsepower) at 180 rpm and were capable of driving her at 25 knots. The ship's boiler rooms had to be placed below the waterline where they were more vulnerable if the ship were damaged, but they were protected by the unconventional arrangement of the coal bunkers, which were placed outboard of the boiler rooms. To meet the Admiralty's requirements that she could be converted into an armed merchant cruiser, she was fitted with mounts for 12 quick-firing 6-inch guns.
After trials in the Clyde river, Lusitania left Liverpool on September 7, 1907 on her maiden voyage to Queenstown, Ireland and New York. It was estimated that over 200,000 people gathered to witness the ship's departure. On her second outward voyage, October 5, 1907, Lusitania achieved her goal of winning the Blue Riband back from the German SS Deutschland, making the Queenstown to Sandy Hook crossing in 4 days, 19 hours, and 52 minutes.
In June 1908 Lusitania's outer propellers were replaced with improved versions and in November, Captain William Turner was appointed to command her. In February 1909, she was fitted with new four-bladed propellers. After a bad period, during which she had problems such as damaged propeller blades and damaged turbines, she broke her last speed record in March 1914 on a voyage from New York to Liverpool. Her silhouette appeared in the 1914 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, a standard reference used throughout the world, including Germany.
When World War I began, the Admiralty decided that they did not need Lusitania as an armed merchant cruiser, but they paid for her to remain at Liverpool at their disposal. She was part of the Royal Naval Reserve, and, as such, "all certificated officers on the twin liners, other than engineers, and not less than half of the crew" were required to be members of the Royal Naval Reserve or the Royal Naval Fleet Reserve. She was not an armed warship, but neither was she a noncombatant.
Lusitania made two trips between Liverpool and New York during October 1914 and then began a monthly service on this route. To save on coal and labor six of the ship's boilers were closed down and its maximum speed reduced to 21 knots.
On a voyage leaving Liverpool on January 16, 1915, Lusitania created an international incident. The ship was traveling through rough seas on the way to Queenstown and, fearing the possibility of a torpedo attack, the Captain hoisted the Stars and Stripes -- colors the ship was not permitted under any conditions to fly. The captain believed, though, that with Germany reluctant to give the still-neutral United States a reason to join the Allies, this subterfuge would guarantee a safe passage. The use of the American flag, however, was noticed by the press and the incident made world news. Beginning in April 1915, in every newspaper in New York, directly next to Cunard's advertisement for Lusitania, was a warning from the German Imperial Government, reading:
By May 7 the ship had entered the waters adjacent to the British Isles. Captain Turner took all reasonable precautions: ordering all the lifeboats to be swung out, all the bulkhead doors to be closed, look-outs to be doubled, and steam pressure to be kept high to give the ship all possible speed in case of emergency. At 8am speed was reduced to 18 knots so that the ship would cross the bar outside Liverpool on the high tide at 4am the next day.
At 12:40pm course was altered to bring the ship closer to land and the Old Head of Kinsale was sighted at 1:40pm. Having steadied the ship on this course an officer began to take a four-point bearing at 1:50pm, but would never complete it. Lusitania had already been spotted and recognized, and the U-boat U-20 was maneuvering into position.
At 2pm the passengers were finishing their lunch, and at 2:15pm the ship was 10 to 15 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale with the weather clear and the sea smooth. Captain Turner heard the second officer shout "There is a torpedo coming, sir!" An explosion on the starboard side, between the third and fourth funnels, was followed a few seconds later by another, much larger blast. There has been speculation that the second explosion was another torpedo but the log of U-20 shows only one torpedo fired, and other evidence indicates an internal explosion.
Stricken, Lusitania immediately listed heavily to starboard and sank in 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 lives. The ship sank bow first, with its stern almost perpendicular out of the water, just as Titanic had done some three years earlier. Captain Turner survived and remained on the bridge in command until the ship foundered. His order "women and children first" was largely obeyed.
Two crewmen were officially recognised for their heroism. Able Seamen Leslie Morton and Joseph Parry were awarded the silver and bronze medals respectively for Gallantry in Saving Life at Sea. The citation to the awards read:
The wreck of the Lusitania lies on its starboard side 295 feet below the surface of the ocean, and thus has been visited numerous times. Salvagers have removed anchors and propellors, and it has been damaged by depth charges. Since the torpedo hit the starboard side of the vessel, there is no clear evidence to the cause of the reported explosion. Fragments of coal scattered around the wreck lend credence to the theory of it being caused by coal dust. In view of 3 forged cargo paper sets it is alternatively assumed the ship transported dynamite or ammunition for british troops.
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