No, Churchill Didn’t Sink the Lusitania, Either

No, Churchill Didn’t Sink the Lusitania, Either

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill Sank the Lusi­ta­nia to Get Amer­i­ca into the War,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with foot­notes and more images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” Your email is nev­er revealed and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Churchill as sinker of ships? Sir Win­ston has been blamed for the loss of the Titan­ic, and for sink­ing the U.S. Pacif­ic fleet (by not tip­ping off the Amer­i­cans to his advance intel­li­gence) at Pearl Har­bor. Why not the Lusi­ta­nia as well? No wor­ries, the experts were on to that one years ago.

Lusitania redux

On 7 May 1915, Roy­al Mail Ship Lusi­ta­nia was sunk with­in sight of land by a Ger­man sub­ma­rine. Of her 1962 pas­sen­gers and crew, 1199 (some esti­mates are high­er) lost their lives. In the midst of the Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli cri­sis, the tragedy seemed inci­den­tal to some. Yet for a cen­tu­ry, rumors swirled that Lusi­ta­nia was delib­er­ate­ly sac­ri­ficed by the British, chiefly Churchill. His alleged aim was to infu­ri­ate the Amer­i­cans, bring­ing them into the war against Ger­many. More recent­ly, crit­ics charged that Churchill’s Admi­ral­ty pur­pose­ly con­trived to steer the ship into harm’s way. 

The com­plaint against Churchill reached crit­i­cal mass in Col­in Simp­son’s The Lusi­ta­nia (1972). This pop­u­lar work was select­ed by four book clubs and excerpt­ed in the Reader’s Digest and Life. Simpson’s charges have fre­quent­ly been repeat­ed, espe­cial­ly since the arrival of the Inter­net. As recent­ly as 2014, a book on Franklin Roo­sevelt, The Man­tle of Com­mandcasu­al­ly alleged that the Churchill had a role in the loss of the “ill-fat­ed Amer­i­can lin­er.

The Lusi­ta­nia was British, not Amer­i­can, oper­at­ed by Cunard, com­mand­ed by Cap­tain William Turn­er RNR. Inbound from New York, she was tor­pe­doed by the Ger­man sub­ma­rine U-20 eleven miles off the Old Head of Kin­sale, Ire­landShe expe­ri­enced two explo­sions, the sec­ond cat­a­stroph­ic, and sank in only eigh­teen min­utes. Among those lost were 128 Amer­i­cans. 

Schol­ar­ly tes­ti­mo­ny to the most log­i­cal events has been pub­lished, but lack­ing glitz and pathos, it tends to be ignored. Yet rebut­tals to Simpson’s claims were in print long before his book, which main­ly res­ur­rect­ed old canards.

“Armed cruiser containing troops and munitions” 

The New York Times, 8 May 1915. The news­pa­per marked this pho­to with an “X” and “XX” to sug­gest two tor­pe­does hit. His­to­ri­ans now gen­er­al­ly set­tle on only one. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

After the sink­ing, the Ger­man gov­ern­ment referred to its pri­or warn­ings to trav­el­ers to avoid the ves­sels of Germany’s ene­mies. Such ships were liable to be sunk, the Ger­mans declared, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they were armed. Simp­son described the sight­ing of the lin­er, by Kapitän­leut­nant Walther Schwieger: “either the Lusi­ta­nia or the Mau­re­ta­nia [her iden­ti­cal sis­ter], both armed cruis­ers used for trooping.”

If that was how Schwieger saw her, it is inac­cu­rate. RMS Lusi­ta­nia (built in 1908 with pos­si­ble wartime use in mind) did have twelve emplace­ments for small, six-inch guns. But she car­ried none. If she did, she cer­tain­ly would have been an “armed cruis­er.” Nor were any troops aboard. 

Even if guns weren’t mount­ed, Simp­son argued, they were there—not explain­ing what use they would be unmount­ed. His­to­ri­an Thomas Bai­ley con­found­ed even that argu­ment, writ­ing that a Ger­man reservist claim­ing to have seen mount­ed guns “con­fessed [to] per­jury.” M.R. Dow, a review­er with fam­i­ly con­nec­tions to Cunard and the ship, wrote: “Simp­son must have seen a Ger­man pro­pa­gan­da poster show­ing the Lusi­ta­nia with guns pop­ping out all over.”

“Explosives payload” 

Anoth­er claim is that Lusi­ta­nia car­ried a huge car­go of gun­cot­ton, whose det­o­na­tion blew the bot­tom out. “This is also pure fan­ta­sy,” wrote Dow. Simpson’s explo­sives count near­ly equalled “all the explo­sives deliv­ered to the West­ern Front.”

Wit­ness­es con­firmed two explo­sions, the first caused by a Ger­man tor­pe­do, the sec­ond of unknown but con­spir­a­to­r­i­al inter­est. The Lusi­ta­nia was “loaded with muni­tions,” goes the sto­ry; these caused the sec­ond explo­sion, which did most of the dam­age. More recent schol­ar­ship sug­gests the sec­ond explo­sion occurred when incom­ing sea water hit the ship’s boilers.

The Ger­mans’ best case for claim­ing that Lusi­ta­nia was a ship of war was an order by the British Admi­ral­ty for mer­chant ves­sels to ram U-boats. But this was not their main line of defense. Speed, not ram­ming, was the ocean liner’s chief advan­tage. At her flank speed of 28 knots, Lusi­ta­nia was three times as fast as a sub­merged U-boat, and near­ly twice as fast as one on the sur­face.  

Sailing into danger 

The schol­ar Har­ry V. Jaf­fa placed most of the blame on human error: “Not only was her steam reduced; her crew was also…. Lifeboat davits were vir­tu­al­ly unwork­able from the moment the ship began to list. But the great­est of all the fail­ures was the captain’s, since he nav­i­gat­ed almost exact­ly as he would have done in peace­time.” Cap­tain Turn­er had slowed down after strik­ing the Irish coast in order to arrive with the tide at Mersey­side. 

In the 1930s, polit­i­cal oppo­nents anx­ious to dis­cred­it Churchill’s warn­ings about Hitler claimed he had pur­pose­ly endan­gered Lusi­ta­nia. This view was wide­ly held by the Ger­mans, includ­ing the Kaiser, Bai­ley wrote: “No evi­dence has ever been pre­sent­ed to sup­port the theory.”

In 1972, Simp­son claimed that Lusi­ta­nia had “sail­ing orders” instruct­ing Turn­er to ren­dezvous with a naval escort, the cruis­er HMS Junooff south­west Ire­land. This put her on a direct course for U-boat-infest­ed areas. But Sir Courte­nay Ben­nett, the British Con­sul-Gen­er­al in New York, was quot­ed by Simp­son as say­ing no such orders were issued.

Cap­tain Turn­er nev­er referred to any orders, and Churchill said they would have made no sense. The navy did not have the resources to escort hun­dreds of mer­chant ships. Excep­tions were some­times made, but not for fast ships like Lusi­ta­nia. “In a chan­nel, where she could not maneu­ver, the Lusi­ta­nia might well have need­ed an escort,” Jaf­fa wrote. “But why she should need one forty miles west of Fast­net is some­thing it was incum­bent upon Mr. Simp­son to explain.”

Lusitania “was now alone” 

The sec­ond alle­ga­tion against Churchill is a meet­ing said to have occurred on 5 May 1915 in the Admi­ral­ty map room. Present were Churchill, First Sea Lord Fish­er, Chief of Naval War Staff Admi­ral Oliv­er, Direc­tor of Naval Intel­li­gence Cap­tain Hall, and Com­man­der Ken­wor­thy of Naval Intel­li­gence. On the map were mark­ers denot­ing U-20 (appar­ent­ly the British knew exact­ly where she was), Juno and Lusi­ta­nia, “clos­ing Fast­net at upwards of 20 knots.”  

Simp­son writes: “Admi­ral Oliv­er drew to Churchill’s atten­tion the fact that the Juno was unsuit­able for expo­sure to sub­ma­rine attack with­out escort, and sug­gest­ed that ele­ments of the destroy­er flotil­la from Mil­ford Haven should be sent forth­with to her assis­tance.” Here, Simp­son wrote, “the Admi­ral­ty War Diary stops short…. Short­ly after noon on May 5 the Admi­ral­ty sig­naled Juno to aban­don her escort mis­sion and return to Queen­stown…. The Lusi­ta­nia was not informed that she was now alone….

Churchill’s “conspiracy” 

Trag­i­cal­ly, she sank in only eigh­teen min­utes. (Tack­ney os, Cre­ative Commons)

The “Admi­ral­ty War Diary” men­tioned in this melo­dra­mat­ic para­graph appears nowhere else in Simpson’s book, not even the bib­li­og­ra­phy. No his­to­ri­an has found it. Pro­fes­sor Jaf­fa con­clud­ed that it was mix of accu­rate records and sheer sup­po­si­tion: “How­ev­er much the ebul­lient Churchill inter­est­ed him­self in naval oper­a­tions, it was not his pri­ma­ry task to make oper­a­tional decisions”—particularly in the pres­ence of Fish­er, with whom Churchill was then “quar­rel­ing bit­ter­ly over the Dar­d­anelles.” (Fish­er resigned ten days lat­er.) 

The only eye­wit­ness Simp­son offered was Com­man­der Joseph Ken­wor­thy, lat­er Baron Stra­bol­gi, a Lib­er­al turned Labourite and promi­nent paci­fist. In his 1927 book, The Free­dom of the Seas, he said Lusi­ta­nia “was sent at con­sid­er­ably reduced speed into an area where a U-boat was known to be wait­ing and with her escorts with­drawn.” The only part of this that is cred­i­ble is the last four words.  

HMS Juno (laid down 1898) made no sense as an escort. Her top speed was 19.5 knots, well below Lusi­ta­nia’s. It might be argued that Turn­er with his “sail­ing orders” slowed to ren­dezvous with Juno, hav­ing not been “informed” he was “now alone.” But Turn­er, who sur­vived, nev­er con­firmed this. 

Sailing orders that did exist 

In recount­ing the tragedy in 1937, Churchill him­self quot­ed four dis­tinct Admi­ral­ty orders: 

6 May, 0050: To all British ships: Avoid head­lands. Pass har­bours at full speed. Steer mid-Chan­nel course. Sub­marines off Fast­net. 

6 May, 0750: To Lusi­ta­nia: Sub­marines active off south coast of Ire­land. 

7 May, 1125:  To all British ships: Sub­marines active in south­ern part of Irish Chan­nel. Last heard of south of Con­ing­beg Light­house. Make cer­tain Lusi­ta­nia gets this.”  

7 May, 1240: To Lusi­ta­nia: Sub­marines five miles south of Cape Clear pro­ceed­ing west when sight­ed at 10 am. 

The ship acknowl­edged all these messages.

Lusi­ta­nia arriv­ing in New York after her maid­en voy­age in 1907. (Pho­to by N.W. Pen­field, Library of Con­gress, pub­lic domain)


Except for Kenworthy’s account, no oth­er evi­dence, even cir­cum­stan­tial, exists of a con­spir­a­cy to sink the Lusi­ta­nia. The chief cause of her loss was Cap­tain Turner’s deci­sion, after sight­ing the Irish coast, to pro­ceed north­ward at reduced speed to “make the tide” at Mersey­side, as he would have in peace­time. He did not avoid head­lands. He did not zig-zag, a rou­tine pre­cau­tion in sub­ma­rine-infest­ed waters. Though he had the time, he did not head out to deep­er waters, main­tain­ing speed to min­i­mize the dan­ger. At his nor­mal cruis­ing speed, there was far less chance of a suc­cess­ful tor­pe­do attack. There was no advan­tage and every dan­ger in slow­ing down. 

Should destroy­ers have accom­pa­nied her? Per­haps. But as Lusi­ta­nia his­to­ri­an David Ram­say not­ed: “…the Dar­d­anelles oper­a­tion entailed the diver­sion from home waters of destroyers—the one class of ship in which the Roy­al Navy had a neg­li­gi­ble supe­ri­or­i­ty over the Ger­mans. Com­ment­ing on the loss of the Lusi­ta­niaAdmi­ral Duff wrote: ‘Indi­rect­ly the Dar­d­anelles oper­a­tion con­tributed; the [destroy­ers] that should be guard­ing mer­chant ship­ping are being used there.’”

Ram­say, writ­ing in 2004, con­firmed the find­ings of Bai­ley and Jaf­fa. He also quot­ed his­to­ri­ans Stephen Roskill and David Stafford, “who are at one in reject­ing any con­spir­a­cy, by Churchill or any­one else.”

Related articles

“Who Sank the Titan­ic? Hope­ful­ly Not Churchill Again,” 2019.

“Churchill Knew About Pearl Har­bor,” 2015.

“Sink­ing the Lusi­ta­nia”by The Churchill Project, 2020. The first chap­ter of Nigel Hamilton’s book, The Man­tle of Com­mand, states that RMS Lusi­ta­nia was an “ill-fat­ed Amer­i­can lin­er.”  He leaves the impres­sion that Churchill, then First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, had played a role in the sink­ing in order to get the Unit­ed States into the First World War. Any com­ment? 

“Churchill Con­tentions: The Age of Fable and Myth,” by Richard M. Lang­worth, 2020. Churchill, who won a Nobel Prize, and did a few oth­er things, can­not reply. He lies at Bladon in Eng­lish earth, “which in his finest hour he held invi­o­late.” He’d love the con­tro­ver­sy he stirs, on media he nev­er dreamed of. He once said the vision “of mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men who are my polit­i­cal oppo­nents being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me.”

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