The Lusitania is carrying its passengers and cargo from New York to Liverpool. Its route takes it round the south coast of Ireland, where a German U-boat is waiting. Thanks to a radio message from Germany, the U-20 is aware of the Lusitania‘s likely route.
The Lusitania is cruising at speed but unfortunately its route brings it close by the U-20. Walther Schwieger, the U-boat’s commander, orders the torpedo fired. The Lusitania is struck on the starboard side, towards the bow. The torpedo detonates… and then there is a second blast, almost as though explosive materials being carried by the ship have been ignited by the first explosion. The Lusitania is secretly carrying a cargo of munitions to Britain, so perhaps these have exploded, or perhaps something else has happened.
The ship sings in just 20 minutes, too quickly for all the lifeboats to be launched. Many of the people onboard the ship are left floundering in the water. It is several hours before help arrives from Ireland, by which time many people have drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. 761 people are rescued (including the ship’s captain, William Turner), but some 1,198 of the ship’s passengers and crew die.
The dead include the three mysterious German stowaways who were suspected of being spies. They also include many people prominent in British and American society (including the Irish art collector Sir Hugh Lane) as well as many others known only to their families and friends.
Within the ranks of the lost are 128 American citizens. Their deaths while travelling on a civilian ship are unlikely to go down well in the United States.
map (EyeWitness to History)
Lusitania sinking (Huffington Post)
The drowned and the saved (Wikipedia: The track of Lusitania. View of casualties and survivors in the water and in lifeboats, by William Lionel Wyllie)