By the turn of the 20th century, the maritime nation of Great Britain was in
a state of shock. The empire that had ruled the waves for so long had suddenly
been overcome by a nation that in comparison was just in its cradle - Germany.
The Blue Riband had been taken from the British by the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
in 1897, owned and operated by the shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd, and when
the Deutschland took the Blue Riband a few years later, it was evident that
the supreme ships of the North Atlantic were the German ones.
To make matters even worse for Great Britain, it now seemed as if the Empire
in the future would have no shipping line with which to match the Germans .
With the intention of creating a monopoly on the North Atlantic passenger route,
American financier Junius Pierpont Morgan formed the International Mercantile
Marine (IMM) in 1901. This consortium soon included such companies as the American
Line, Dominion Line, Red Star Line and Holland-Amerika Line and by 1902, Morgan
had managed to acquire the famous White Star Line.
Although he now controlled one of the two major British shipping lines, Morgan
was not yet satisfied. He wanted the Cunard Line as well. Now, it seemed highly
unlikely that Cunard would be able to escape Morgan's clutches. Their rivals,
including the German line HAPAG, had already made their peace with IMM. To compete,
Cunard needed better, more luxurious and above all faster ships. But for such
there was no money. As a last attempt to keep the company British, the chairman
of Cunard - Lord Inverclyde - turned to the British government with a proposition
that both parties would benefit from.
Taking advantage of British patriotism and the tense political situation in
Europe at the time, Lord Inverclyde talked the government into granting the
Cunard Line a low-interest loan of £2,600,000. This money would be used to build
two new superliners, guaranteed to regain the Blue Riband into British hands.
The government would also contribute with an annual operating subsidy of £150,000.
In return, Cunard promised to keep the company British and that the two new
ships would be constructed so that they in the event of war easily could be
converted into armed merchant cruisers. Now, with the financial difficulties
out of the way, Cunard quickly started to draw up the plans for their two new
liners. It was obvious that both ships were needed as soon as possible, so two
different shipyards were given the task of building one vessel each.
The Scottish firm of John Brown and Co. was to build the future Lusitania. Her
sister ship, the Mauretania, was to be constructed by the English firm of Swan,
Hunter and Wigham Richardson. Although both ships would eventually sail in the
Cunard fleet, the companies that now were to build them were competitors. Therefore,
each of the two shipyards wanted to have the honour of building the ship superior
to its sister. Both companies had been given specifications to meet concerning
size and speed, but Cunard also allowed them to make slight modifications of
their own. For two years, the engineers of the two shipyards made changes and
additions to the original plans, all to improve the performance of 'their' ship.
Construction started in 1904, and as the two ships were taking shape, the small
differences between them became apparent. The one difference that first may
have caught a spectator's eye was the vents on the superstructure. Mauretania
had the traditional cowl vents, bent in ninety degrees on top, whereas her sister
was fitted with shorter, hinge-topped, canister-like ones. These ultimately
made the decks of the Lusitania seem less cluttered than the ones on her sister,
but unfortunately the short hinge-top vents would prove to fail in the test
of the North Atlantic, and would need constant replacing.
Originally, the two ships were launched with four three-bladed propellers, but
the Mauretania was soon fitted with four-bladed ones after a short time in service,
thus improving her performance further, and also making her more distinct from
her sister. The rounded stern of the Mauretania also made her five feet longer
than her sister, and with her gross tonnage about 400 tons greater than the
Lusitania's, the Mauretania was given the honour of 'the longest and largest
liner afloat'. The two sisters were indeed the latest in shipbuilding technology.
With their hull divided into thirty-four watertight compartments, they were
claimed to be virtually unsinkable. From the very beginning, it was decided
that these two new superliners would have an operating speed of at least 24.5
knots. Anything less would be unacceptable, since they were intended to break
records. To obtain these high speeds at reasonable costs, Cunard decided to
take a wild chance and use a new type of machinery.
The use of turbines to propel ships was becoming more popular, but it had never
been used on ships of this, so far unprecedented, size. To decide whether or
not to adopt this new technology, Cunard tested it on a smaller vessel. The
Carmania, launched in 1905, was fitted with turbine engines, and her otherwise
identical sister, the Caronia, had traditional reciprocating engines. The result
of this 'experiment' spoke for itself. The Carmania proved to be both faster
and more economical to operate than her sister was. With this in mind, Cunard
made their decision: The Mauretania and Lusitania would both be equipped with
The first of the two to be launched was the Lusitania, on June 7th, 1906. The
event attracted some 20,000 spectators, and as soon as Lady Inverclyde had smashed
the bottle of champagne against the ship's bow and sent the great vessel into
its proper element, work began on fitting her out. In accordance with famous
Cunard traditions, every effort was made to give each ship a distinct and unique
atmosphere, rather than making them as identical as possible, which was the
case with for example White Star Line's Olympic and Titanic a few years later.
Although very much alike on the outside, the two new Cunarders would be very
different from each other when it came to their interiors. The job of decorating
the Lusitania was given to designer James Millar. Working in plaster highlighted
with gold leaf, Millar managed to create an environment inspired by the Georgian
period and Louis XVI style. This resulted in a light and delicate atmosphere.
On the Mauretania, decoration was made by Harold Peto, who was mostly known
for having designed the interiors of contemporary English manor houses. By using
such materials as oak and mahogany, Peto produced a darker and heavier tone
on the Mauretania. When fitted out, Lusitania had only to go through her sea
trials. These were thought to become a mere routine procedure, but during the
sea trials a serious flaw in the ship's construction was detected. At high speeds,
the stern of the ship vibrated so violently that it was impossible to inhabit
the spaces located in this part of the vessel. Of course, this was not acceptable
and Lusitania had to return to her builders to go through extensive renovations.
The stern, which contained mainly second class spaces, was strengthened by adding
several arches, beams and pillars. Unfortunately, this procedure erased several
airy public areas, and turned them into less comfortable, smaller rooms. However,
this renovation reduced the shaking considerably, although not completely.
Finally, later than predicted, the Lusitania was ready to depart on her maiden
voyage across the North Atlantic, and by the same time, the Mauretania neared
completion. Vibration-problems were found on her too, although not as severe
as those on her sister, and on the Mauretania the part of the ship haunted by
shaking was the forward part of the superstructure. She too was forced to go
through some minor changes. By November 1907, the Mauretania was ready for her
maiden voyage. Now, Lusitania had already managed to win back the Blue Riband
for Great Britain. But soon, Mauretania would take it from her, and although
the Lusitania did win it back from her, it eventually found itself back in the
hands of the Mauretania, that by now seemed to be the superior ship.
These two ocean greyhounds had now crushed the competition, and so superior
was the Mauretania that the Blue Riband would remain hers for an incredible
twenty-two years. Through the years that followed, the two Cunarders ruled the
waves of the North Atlantic. The Mauretania was undoubtedly the faster of the
two, but the Lusitania was more popular among the passengers, probably because
of her magnificent interiors. And besides being large and luxurious, the two
prides of the Cunard Line were also very reliable. Their turbine engines always
seemed to give them the required power, and the shape of the bow was constructed
for speed, and speed alone. The way it rose straight up like a knife made the
ship break through on-coming waves rather than riding on top of it. But this
feature also had its drawbacks. Both of the ships were soon dubbed 'wet ships',
since they had a tendency to produce great amounts of spray and send it back
on the superstructure when they smashed through a wave. During a crossing in
1910, the Lusitania encountered a wave so large that when it hit the bow, it
slammed back against the bridge, which was moved a couple of inches aft. The
bow of these ships had yet a flaw, however the engineers of the time were not
aware of it. Its special shape produced vacuum-pockets on each side, thus slowing
the ship down. Ultimately, this cost the Cunard Line thousands of dollars in
The dominance of the two Cunarders on the North Atlantic continued, but suddenly
it was interrupted. In 1914, just after the Cunard Line had launched the new
Aquitania, thus turning the previous duo into a trio, World War I broke out.
Almost immediately, plans were underway to convert the great ocean liners into
armed merchant cruisers. But this concept was soon abandoned. The British Admiralty's
coalbunkers were quickly depleted, because of the great amounts of fuel required
by these giant vessels when on patrol. Instead, many of the liners would come
to serve their respective countries as either hospital ships or troop transports.
During the first months of the conflict, the Mauretania was confiscated by the
Admiralty and stripped of her peacetime interiors. Then she simply would have
to wait for a task to be given to her by her new masters.
Meanwhile, the Lusitania continued her regular service across the North Atlantic
as a non-combatant. It was in this guise that she would eventually meet her
fate. On May 1st, 1915, a warning appeared in several American newspapers. Behind
it was the German embassy, which warned people of travelling with ships flying
the British flag, since these were possible targets for German U-boats. However,
few of the people who had booked passage on the Lusitania were troubled by this
warning. The great Cunarder, which was scheduled to depart from New York later
that day, was considered very safe. Although six of the ship's boilers had been
shut down to conserve fuel, she could still easily maintain a good speed of
21 knots, making her the fastest ship on the North Atlantic run at the time.
It would be a difficult task for a potential U-boat to keep up with her, and
in any case, no one really thought that the Germans would actually attack an
unarmed passenger liner.
At half past eleven, the whistle blew. The Lusitania, carrying 1,959 people
of who a great amount were Americans, was moved out of the quay and set forth
upon her journey like so many times before. It was a rainy day, but throughout
the voyage the weather improved and on May 7th, the Lusitania, under the command
of Captain William Turner, was nearing the Irish coast. Turner had earlier that
morning been warned by the British Admiralty that German U-boats were lurking
in these waters. One of these was the U-20, under the command of Kapitänleutnant
Walther Schwieger. He had already managed to sink three allied vessels during
the past two days. Thirty miles from Cape Clear, the Lusitania encountered fog.
Concerned about this, Captain Turner ordered his ship slowed down to 18 knots.
Yet, this was an opportunity to cross the last part of the voyage hidden by
the fog, arriving safe in Liverpool early the next morning. At about 11.30 a.m.,
the weather was clearer and the Irish coast was now visible from the Lusitania.
A little more than one and a half-hour later, at twelve minutes past two, the
track of a torpedo was spotted on the starboard side of the ship. The impact
was inevitable and shook the ship violently when it came, just abaft the bridge
and below the waterline. Distress calls were sent out by the wireless operators,
and officers started to lower the lifeboats. Not long after the torpedo had
hit, there was a violent secondary blast that opened a huge hole in the ship's
side. She began to settle rapidly at the head. Panic broke out, and the lifeboats
were lowered in utter confusion. In just 18 minutes, the great liner was gone,
taking with her 1,195 people, of who 123 were Americans. Aroused by the stricken
liner's distress calls, many vessels were coming to the rescue, both from the
surrounding waters and from the port of Queenstown. But the only thing they
could do upon arrival was to salvage the survivors from the water, among them
Captain William Turner himself.
Those who had thought that the First World War would be fought in a 'civilised'
manor had been proven wrong. The Germans had attacked and sunk an unarmed passenger
liner, resulting in a great loss of civilian lives. The Americans were in an
uproar, and the sinking of the Lusitania was considered a sheer act of barbarism.
The event clearly helped to build the public opinion that later would allow
the USA to declare war on the German Empire. Much speculation has circulated
about the loss of the Lusitania, mainly about the cause of the violent secondary
explosion that made the ship sink so quickly. In an attempt to justify their
attack, the Germans always claimed that the Lusitania was carrying secret contraband
munitions, which exploded as a result of the torpedo impact. Until this day
though, British authorities deny any such cargo being on the Lusitania during
that fateful voyage. The controversy surrounding those horrifying 18 minutes
in the waters off the Old Head of Kinsale continues to this day.
Today, the Lusitania remains on the location where she met her ultimate fate.
A shadow of the once so glorious liner, she lies on her starboard side on a
depth of just 295 feet (90 meters). The hull has collapsed to half its original
width, and the superstructure has slid down towards the bottom. The wreck is
also entangled in many fishing nets, thus making the site very hard and dangerous
to explore. According to Robert D. Ballard, who visited the wreck in the summer
of 1993, the only thing recognisable of belonging to the once so proud Cunarder
is the forwardmost part of the bow, still pointing up towards the surface. No
evidence of the suspected secret munitions has ever been found on the wreck
Length: 785 Feet (239.8m)
Beam: 88 Feet (26.9m)
Gross Tons: 31,550
Service Speed: 25
Engines: Steam turbines to 4 propellers