Military history



FIRST CAME A REPORT OF GUNFIRE IN THE FOG, SENT ON the evening of Wednesday, May 5, from a station perched on the Old Head of Kinsale, a promontory that jutted into the Celtic Sea near Queenstown, Ireland. The Old Head was well known to mariners, who often used it to fix their locations.

Kinsale followed this message with a report that a schooner, the Earl of Lathom, had been sunk off the Old Head. This was relayed to Blinker Hall and First Sea Lord Fisher, temporarily in charge of the Admiralty. Churchill was expected to arrive in Paris by midnight. The new message, received in London at 10:46 P.M. and noted in a record of U-20’s travels compiled by Room 40, stated that the schooner’s crew had been rescued and brought to Kinsale. The crew reported that when they had last seen the submarine it was heading southeast toward a large steamer.

At about the same time another telegram reached the Admiralty, this from the Naval Center at Queenstown. The captain of a British ship, the Cayo Romano, was reporting that a torpedo had been fired at his vessel off Fastnet Rock. He never saw the submarine that fired it. This too was noted in Room 40 and relayed to Hall and Fisher.

Now came a fourth message, also circulated, that a submarine had been sighted 12 miles south of the Daunt Rock Light, a lightship anchored outside the entrance to Queenstown Harbor. The time of the sighting was 9:30 P.M.

By comparing the locations of these attacks with previously intercepted wireless reports, it should have become obvious to someone—to Chief of Staff Oliver, Captain Hall, or Fisher—that the U-boat involved was Kptlt. Walther Schwieger’s U-20 and that Schwieger was now operating in the heart of one of Britain’s primary sea-lanes. A detailed record of U-20’s travels kept by Room 40 included a precise location for that evening, “51.32 N, 8.22 W.” These coordinates put the U-boat just south-southeast of the Old Head of Kinsale.

The Admiralty was well aware the Lusitania would soon traverse these same waters but made no effort to provide specifics of the night’s events directly to Captain Turner. Meanwhile, the closely watched HMS Orion continued on its course to Scapa Flow, guarded all the while by the four destroyers assigned as escorts. They accompanied the dreadnought until it was safely in the Atlantic and heading north before beginning their own return voyages. At that point the four destroyers were within range of U-20’s last position and the path the Lusitania soon would follow on its way to Liverpool. No attempt was made to divert the destroyers. One, the HMS Boyne, went directly back to Devonport; the other three returned via the Scilly Islands.

The Orion continued north on a zigzag course, at 18 knots, a speed deemed more than sufficient to outrun a U-boat.

NOW FIVE DAYS into its voyage, the Lusitania made its way toward Britain alone, with no escort offered or planned, and no instruction to take the newly opened and safer North Channel route—this despite the fact that the ship carried a valuable cache of rifle cartridges and desperately needed shrapnel shells.

The absence of any protective measures may simply have been the result of a lapse of attention, with Churchill off in France and Fisher consumed by other matters and seemingly drifting toward madness. It would take on a more sinister cast, however, in light of a letter that Churchill had sent earlier in the year to the head of England’s Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, in which Churchill wrote that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”

Though no one said it explicitly, Britain hoped the United States would at some point feel moved to join the Allies, and in so doing tip the balance irrevocably in their favor.

After noting that Germany’s submarine campaign had sharply reduced traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman: “For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

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