On May 7th 1915 the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was nearing the coast of Ireland on the return leg of her 101st voyage between Liverpool and New York. It would prove to be her last. At 14.10pm she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, sinking in just 18 minutes. Some 1198 of the 1959 passengers and crew aboard lost their lives. The targeting of a non-combatant vessel sparked outrage in Britain and America, and many historians suggest that this event may have irreparably damaged US-German relations, leading ultimately to the USA entering the First World War against Germany two years later. Yet the sinking of the Lusitania has long been shrouded in controversy. Although the log of the U-boat captain Walter Schweiger states that only one torpedo was fired, there was a mysterious second explosion immediately afterwards. Germany always maintained that the Lusitania had been secretly carrying munitions — making her a legitimate target — and that it was these that detonated. However, some historians have suggested that the second blast was caused by coal dust in the ship’s bunkers igniting when the torpedo struck.
Now a team of divers led by archaeologists have conducted an underwater investigation to try to uncover exactly what happened to the liner — lying off the coast of County Cork some 300ft below the surface — almost a century ago. Using a remotely-operated vehicle and a mini-submarine to explore the wreck’s hull and assess structural damage they have recovered items which are dramatically linked to the stricken vessel’s final moments. These include part of the ship’s steering mechanisms and the telegraph machines which Captain William Turner used in his last attempt to communicate with the engine rooms. It is hoped that these might reveal which direction the Lusitania was travelling in when she was attacked and could shed light on the circumstances of her sinking.
Carried out as part of a National Geographic documentary about the Lusitania, the investigation was led by York Archaeological Trust conservator Ian Panter and two maritime archaeologists, Laurence Dunne and Julianna O’Donoghue. Ian Panter said the dive team had braved bad weather and dangerous conditions to survey the shipwreck.
He said: ‘The divers could only work for 30 minutes at a time on the seabed and then they had to spend 2-3 hours resurfacing and decompressing because the wreck is so far down. We suffered from lots of bad weather but we were able to recover some of the ship’s instruments and fittings.
‘We salvaged the telegraph machines which were used to transmit commands from the bridge to the engine room. They should indicate the last command from Captain Turner just after the torpedo struck the ship, and hence could help provide clues about the source of the second explosion.’ The artefacts are now in saltwater tanks in a laboratory in Tralee, County Kerry, awaiting further examination.
Article by Carly Hilts
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