It was a foggy morning as Captain William Turner navigated the RMS Lusitania through the final and most precarious leg of its voyage from New York City to Liverpool, England. On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner had just entered the German-declared “unrestricted submarine warfare” zone, which deemed any ship, even civilian and merchant ones, fair game for attack while within its borders. Turner, however, seemed more worried about the foreboding weather conditions overhead than any covert underwater offensive.
The seasoned 58-year-old captain believed in the abilities of the Lusitania to outrun any submarine, technology that was still considered relatively primitive at the time. As historian Erik Larson writes in Dead Wake, Turner’s New York managers at Cunard, the company that owned the boat, even issued an official statement reassuring the public. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”
Unfortunately, this confidence was premature.
Later that May afternoon, the German submarine U 20 sent a single torpedo through the side of the Lusitania, triggering an explosion inside the ship, and sinking it within 18 minutes. Far from the only vessel victim to such attacks, the Lusitania was one of the most visible in the United States, namely because it held more than 1,900 civilians, and 128 of the nearly 1,200 who died onboard were American. In an attempt to justify the devastating attack, Germany later cited the 173 tons of war munitions the ship had also been carrying.
So writes Li Zhou for the Smithsonian. Read the entire piece, and study the fascinating map of sinkings by U-Boats, here: This Map Shows the Full Extent of the Devastation Wrought by U-Boats in World War I | History | Smithsonian.