On 30 April 1915, the Lusitania was in New York, being loaded with food and medical supplies. She was also secretly loaded with munitions for Britain for the war. On the same day, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger was ordered to take U-boat 20 into the Irish Channel to destroy ships going to and from Liverpool.
On 1 May 1915, the Lusitania embarked on its crossing of the Atlantic with 1257 passengers and a crew of 702 under the command of Captain William Turner.
On 5 May, U-20 tried to destroy but missed several ships, including several neutral ones. That day, he destroyed the Earl of Lathom. The next day he fired two torpedoes at the Candidate, a steamer from Liverpool. The same day he destroyed another ship, the Centurion.
On 7 May the Lusitania entered the Irish Channel. Contrary to orders to travel at full speed in the submarine war zone around Great Britain, Captain Turner slowed the ship down because of fog. As a precaution, Captain Turner posted extra lookouts and brought the lifeboats out. Meanwhile U-20 was travelling west in the Irish Channel and sighted the Juno, a cruiser. It’s zigzag path made it difficult for a submarine to fire at and so it escaped. Captain Turner of the Lusitania did not do this because he felt that it wasted time and fuel.
At 1:20pm British time, Schwieger sighted something of note.
‘Starboard ahead four funnels and two masts of a steamer with course at right angles to us’
He submerged and waited until at 1:40pm when the ship turned towards him, and fired a single torpedo.
The 18 year old lookout on the Lusitania grabbed his megaphone and shouted to the bridge:
‘Torpedoes coming on the starboard side.’
Thomas Quinn, a lookout in the crow’s nest, saw the torpedo’s wake and sounded the alarm. There was a large explosion at the side of the ship just ahead of the second funnel. Then there was a larger, muffled explosion from the bottom of the ship. The ship tilted to the right and although the power failed, Captain Turner attempted to steer the Lusitania toward land in an attempt to beach her. Without power the rudder and engines did not respond and the watertight doors could not be closed.
Although the Lusitania had adequate lifeboats for all on board, most lifeboats simply could not be launched. Due to the list, the lifeboats on the port side could not be launched. The starboard side boats swung out so far that many passengers had to jump from the deck to the lifeboats, risking falling into the water far below. A few lifeboats were launched that contained only crew members. Other lifeboats capsized and some were damaged when the torpedo hit the ship.
The Lusitania sank below the waves shortly before 2pm. It sank in only 90 metres of water, and since the ship was 239 metres long, the bow hit the bottom of the ocean while the stern was still up in the air.
Captain Turner jumped into the water as the bridge was about to go under. He swam for 3 hours until he finally found a nearby lifeboat.
The distress signals sent from the Lusitania reached Queenstown, where the Vice Admiral Sir Charles Coke gathered up whatever ships were available and told their captains to sail to where the Lusitania was. They arrived 2 hours after the sinking. They picked up any people still alive in the water and only 6 lifeboats.
761 survivors were collected by boats from Queenstown. 1198 people died.
Some Ulster passengers lost on the Lusitania were:
Frank Houston, the only son of Mr and Mrs Houston of Fernbrook Cottage, Carnmoney Road.
Thomas McAfee, originally from Belfast, who had moved to Toronto was coming home to enlist. He had worked at the York Street Spinning Mill and his sisters lived at Summer Street, Belfast. Also lost was his friend Robert McCready who had emigrated to Canada a few years before. He was a photographer employed by Charles ad Russell photographers, Royal Avenue, Belfast. His father was William McCready of Oldpark Road, Belfast.
Some crew with Ulster addresses who died on the Lusitania were:
Isaac Linton, aged 48, and Michael Corboy, aged 49 both fireman from County Down. Michael Rice, aged 60 and Patrick Campbell aged 35 both firemen from Newry. Another Newry man lost was Patrick Loughran, a trimmer aged only 19 from Queen Street in Newry. Kenneth Mackenzie, aged 25, a waiter from Belfast. Trimmer William Field from Ship Street in Belfast was also lost, aged 31. Edward Finnegan, aged 22, a trimmer from Castleblaney in Monaghan. Sadie O’Hale aged 29, a ship’s typist from Ballymena.
Edward J Heighway an able seaman from Strangford was saved. Also saved were Able Seaman James Hume from Canmore Street, Belfast and Fireman Stephen Rice from Armagh.
Research: Karen O’Rawe, Chair, History Hub Ulster
Newspaper Pictures: Nigel Henderson, Member, History Hub Ulster