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Maritime Image of the Day: RMS Lusitania – torpedoed and sunk 105 years ago May 7

PHOTO: Rex Features

PortandTerminal.com, May 7, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – On this day 105 years ago the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner owned by the Cunard Line, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southern coast of Ireland. She sank killing 1,200 people in the process. The tragedy of her sinking changed the course of World War 1.

RMS Lusitania. Image courtesy Eric Sauder.
RMS Lusitania. Image courtesy Eric Sauder.

What happened?

U-Boat U-20 under spotlight on left fired one torpedo at the Lusitania, sinking it and killing

Approximately 11 miles off Ireland’s Old Head of Kinsale, sailing parallel to the coast, the RMS Lusitania came into the sights of German U-Boat U-20

U-20’s commander gave the order to fire a single torpedo. It struck on the starboard bow and was quickly followed by a secondary explosion within the Lusitania’s hull.

Once struck, she sank so quickly that most lifeboats were not successfully launched. Although the sinking occurred within sight of land and even witnessed by some ashore, the heroic efforts of local Irish fishermen who raced to the scene were not enough to avoid massive loss of life. 

The ship sank to the bottom of the ocean 18 minutes after being struck, killing 1,198 of the 1,962 passengers and crew onboard.

“Remember the Little Lost Children of the Lusitania” by William Allan Rogers, c. 1918. The deaths of so many children on board the ship horrified many – of 124 children on board, 94 perished. Only four of the 35 infants on board survived. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

A turning point

The Lusitania’s sinking was a turning point in World War I. The death of so many innocent civilians at the hands of the Germans galvanized American support for entering the war, which eventually turned the tide in favor of the Allies.

But there’s always been controversy about the Lusitania’s sinking. Was she a legitimate target for the German’s who were officially at war with the British or wasn’t she?

A legitimate target for Germany?

It turns out, the Lusitania was carrying more than just passengers in its hold. The ship was also carrying 173 tons of ammunition for the British army – mostly a cargo of rifle ammunition and shells. It is also theorized that the ammunition being set off by the torpedo is the reason a large secondary explosion was reported after she was attacked.

The Germans, who had circulated warnings that the ship would be sunk, felt fully justified in attacking a vessel that was furthering the war aims of their enemy. Subsequent dives to the wreck have confirmed that the Lusitania was carrying over 4 million rounds of ammunition for the British war effort.

Three images showing the sinking of an old steam liner
Artist’s impression of the sinking of the Lusitania

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