On May 7 1915, a German submarine U20 fired one torpedo at the British merchant ship the Lusitania off the coast of southern Ireland and sent her to the bottom in 20 minutes. Amazing as it may appear, some writers actually believe that the sinking was arranged or prompted by the British first lord of the admiralty, none other than Winston Churchill.
What we know for sure is that Churchill was warlike. In July 1914, before the outbreak of the first world war, he mobilized the British home fleet, the greatest assembly of naval power in the history of the world up to that time. He never even brought his order to the attention of the British Cabinet, although prime minister Asquith did give his approval.
Once hostilities with Germany were declared, Churchill was thus instrumental in establishing the hunger blockade of German ports which caused around 750,000 people to die of hunger and associated diseases. In terms of efficiency, the blockade was probably the most effective weapon employed on either side in the whole conflict. In terms of international law and convention, it was likely illegal too.
Nobody can prove, although several conspiracy theorists have tried, that Churchill arranged for the sinking of the Lusitania. A week before the disaster he wrote to Walter Runciman, president of the board of trade, that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Many highly placed persons in Britain and America certainly believed that the German sinking of the Lusitania would bring America into the war. Over 100 Americans, many of them influential, died in the disaster.
Thus Patrick Beesly, in his book Room 40 which is a history of British naval intelligence in world war one, points out that the British admiralty was aware that German U-boat Command had informed U-boat captains at sea of the sailing dates of the Lusitania. Moreover the U20 which was present in the vicinity of Queenstown in the path of the Lusitania had recently sunk two other ships in the Atlantic.
There is no surviving record of any specific warning to the Lusitania from London. She was not even advised to zigzag as a precaution. No destroyer escort was sent to accompany the ship to port, nor were any of the readily available destroyers instructed to hunt for the submarine. In fact, no effective steps were taken to protect the Lusitania. The author Beesly concludes, “Unless and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that an abortive attack would bring the United States into the war.”
What cannot be denied is that Churchill’s policies made the sinking quite likely. The Lusitania was a passenger ship loaded with the munitions of war, especially shell casings and ammunition. Churchill had given orders to the captains of merchant ships, including liners, to ram German submarines if they encountered them. The Germans were well aware of this fact and of Churchill’s stated policy objective to get neutral nations embroiled in the conflict.
In the midst of this bloody conflict Churchill was most certainly dedicated. Sometimes his hunches worked out well, for instance the introduction of tanks on to western front battlefields. At other times, he was very wrong indeed, as instanced by his belief that the Turks could be driven out of Gallipoli to facilitate an allied march on the Turkish capital of Constantinople. The Turkish fiasco caused Churchill to be dropped from the British Cabinet, but his reaction was typical. Pointing to maps on the wall he said, “This is what I live for. I care only for the waging of war, the defeat of Germany.”
It is, of course, possible that Churchill did not after all have a secret hand in the sinking of the Lusitania. He could not be sure America would enter the war as a result, and indeed she did not do so formally until two years later. To believe that Churchill deliberately sent over a thousand souls to their deaths in the cold waters of the Atlantic, including many women and children, requires a very strong stomach or a strong dose of cynicism. Nor could anyone know that the huge liner would sink in just 20 minutes. It appears that the torpedo caused a secondary explosion in the engine rooms which tore another great hole in the liner’s hull. Moreover, it is certainly possible that the admiralty underestimated the danger from submarines which were primitive devices in the first world war.
The Lusitania was a blue-ribbon holder for the fastest Atlantic crossing and it may have been assumed that she could simply outrun any submarine trying to track her. Perhaps the U20 simply had a lucky hit on a fast moving ship. Or maybe Churchill planned the whole thing. You pay your money and you take your pick.