“Churchill Sank the Lusitania to Get America into the War”

Published: 19 October 2023

By Richard M. Langworth
via The Churchill Project at Hillsdale College web site

Sinking of the Lusitania 1918 film extract

Extract from the 1918 film, “Sinking of the Lusitania.” (Winsor McCay, Wikimedia Commons)

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 so infuriate the Americans as to bring 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 Command, casually 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, Ireland. She experienced two explosions, the second catastrophic, and sank in only eighteen minutes. Among the lives lost were 128 Americans.

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

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”

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. The Lusitania (built in 1908 with possible wartime use in mind) did have twelve emplacements for small, six-inch guns. But no guns were ever fitted. If they had been, she certainly would have been an “armed cruiser.” The Germans had examined her in New York. Had they found mounted guns, they would have demanded she be interned. They never did, and 109 witnesses at subsequent British and American inquiries said they saw no sign of guns. Neither were any troops aboard.

Even if guns weren’t mounted, Simpson argued, they were on board—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 and was imprisoned.” 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.”

Read the entire article on The Churchill Project web site here:

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