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Who Sank The Lusitania?

June 2024
9min read

THE LUSITANIA DISASTER: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy

by Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan The Free Press, 306 pp. $10.95

About two years ago this magazine was approached by Thomas A. Bailey, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford University, with the suggestion that he submit a review of Lusitania , a book about the famous World War I sea disaster by Colin Simpson, published in 1972. The proposed review would “expose the major misconceptions … about this subject, including Simpson’s.” We agreed, and in due course the review arrived— written by Professor Bailey in collaboration with Captain Paul B. Ryan, a retired naval officer.

Simpson’s book, published both in England and in America, had enjoyed a considerable success. This was attributable in part to an easygoing narrative style, in part to the impressive bibliography and notes (which seemed to puncture any suspicion that the breezy prose reflected any lack of serious research)—but above all to Simpson’s sensational thesis. Briefly, his book claimed to present evidence showing that the sinking of the gigantic liner by a German submarine, with a loss of some twelve hundred lives, was not only justified from the point of view of international law but in fact was deliberately provoked by the British Admiralty (with Winston Churchill the mastermind of the plot) in order to outrage American opinion over the 128 American lives lost and bring this country into the war as Britain’s ally. It was because we at AMERICAN HERITAGE found this thesis rather unconvincing that we welcomed Professor Bailey’s proposal to write a rebuttal of Simpson’s book.


What frankly took us by surprise was the harsh tone of the Bailey and Ryan review, which we have never run. It got off to a fierce start by calling the Simpson book “fictionalized history”; it then wound up, after several pages of concentrated attack, by calling Simpson “an authentic throwback to the sensational yellow journalism of the Spanish-American War era, when the reporter was not supposed to invent or exaggerate unless he improved the story.” When we reflected that Bailey and Ryan were, as they had informed us, currently at work on a book on the Lusitania affair themselves and therefore might be suspected by some as not quite impartial, we felt growing doubts about the propriety of running their review.


Nevertheless it is an intriguing document—not least because of a strange ambiguity: after apparently rejecting some of Simpson’s basic arguments about the Lusitania, Bailey and Ryan go on to produce paragraphs that seem to support those same arguments.

Take the question of the Lusitania ’s armament. Simpson argues that the great steamer was in effect a warship because she was equipped (he claims) with twelve 6-inch guns—hidden, to be sure, but capable of being put into place and used against enemy shipping in a matter of minutes. True or false, Simpson’s point here is meant to partly justify (“like the Germans of 1915,” Bailey and Ryan say) the U-boat commander who, on the afternoon of May 7, 1915, fired a torpedo into the bowels of the Lusitania totally without warning and sent to the bottom the world’s biggest, fastest, and most luxurious ocean liner. Bailey and Ryan do a good job of making Simpson’s evidence on this point look egregiously flimsy and exaggerated, and the dispassionate reader must conclude that in high probability there were no guns, hidden or otherwise, on the Lusitania . It is all the more surprising, therefore, to have Bailey and Ryan proceed, in the next paragraph, to jump over on Simpson’s side of the fence:

But in a sense this “innocent” passenger ship was armed offensively, with a massive steel prow, and was hence in German eyes a warship subject to destruction without warning. The luckless captain, William T. Turner, was carrying top-secret orders from the Admiralty to “steer straight for” any menacing submarine “at your utmost speed,” provided that ramming or attempted ramming seemed a safer course than trying to escape. This tactic, of course, was offensively defensive; and if the American case against Germany had been submitted to impartial arbitration, as Berlin proposed, a body like the Hague Tribunal might have regarded the Lusitania … as in effect a warship.

Thus, “like the Germans of 1915,” Bailey and Ryan tend to justify the sinking of the liner just as Simpson does, only on better grounds.

Again, Simpson spends a lot of time arguing that the Lusitania ’s cargo consisted in part of cartons of high explosives disguised as cheese and furs. If so, this was contraband, of course, and further reason to justify a German attack; but besides that, if the high explosives were really there, they may have caused a second heavy explosion after the torpedo struck, and helped to sink the massive liner in record time (eighteen minutes). Bailey and Ryan demonstrate that Simpson’s evidence on the supposed high explosives is dubious, and they make a good case for believing that the almost incredible impact of the German torpedo resulted from a lucky strike on one of the ship’s boilers, which then devastatingly exploded. What seems to be more important, however, is that they carefully document the fact that some 4,200,000 rounds of rifle ammunition were indeed part of the Lusitania ’s cargo. Again, therefore, Bailey and Ryan actually support an argument that they attack Simpson for pushing, namely that (as they put it) the ship was “a potential armed merchant cruiser actually carrying munitions for the making of German widows and orphans.” In view of their promotion of this line of argument, their nasty tone toward Simpson seems considerably overblown.

But it is Simpson’s contention that Winston Churchill deliberately exposed the Lusitania to German submarines that most arouses the wrath of Bailey and Ryan. “If,” they say, “a bloody-handed Churchill had contrived to slaughter some twelve hundred men, women, and children, he was a wholesale murderer of human beings, most of them his own people.” This sensational choice of words, it should be noted, is not Simpson’s; and it should also be noted that nobody, including Churchill, could have predicted the amazingly rapid sinking of the Lusitania or the consequently enormous loss of life. What Simpson argues is that Churchill was ruthless enough in war to contemplate with equanimity the loss of a considerable number of lives, whether military or civilian, for the sake of gaining a distinct advantage over the enemy. Churchill’s whole career lends ample evidence to support that view. In the present case the relevant questions are whether the First Lord of the Admiralty was eager to get America into the war in 1915 and, if so, whether he may have considered exposing the Lusitania , with her 197 Americans aboard, as a means to that goal.

Although Bailey and Ryan explain why few British leaders in 1915 wanted America in the war (she was too valuable as a “neutral” supplier of war materiel which, if she became a belligerent, would be diverted to her own use), they may not fully have considered Churchill’s penchant for looking ahead. In this instance, with the western front settling down to a long war of attrition, he almost certainly foresaw the time when direct American military assistance would be wanted. More specifically, there is evidence that Churchill had required a subordinate to submit a paper “on the political results,” as Simpson puts it, “of an ocean liner being sunk with American passengers on board.”

Yet this is a far cry from proving that Churchill conspired to expose the Lusitania unduly in May, 1915. Everything considered, Bailey and Ryan are persuasive in arguing that Colin Simpson was mistaken and that Winston Churchill, however adept he may have been at thinking the unthinkable, was not the mastermind of a plot that brought about the disaster. They also produce many carefully documented details that throw serious doubt on Simpson’s methods of research and his reliability as a historian. One interesting question revolves around a letter written, according to Simpson, in 1915 by “a lady whose family to this day forbid her name to be mentioned, possibly because one of them in due course became a President of the United States”—a letter supporting the idea that the Lusitania carried concealed armament. Professor Bailey has declared that this letter does not exist; and indeed, when AMERICAN HERITAGE attempted to track it down, the search proved futile. Simpson’s notes credited it to “the Robert Lansing papers…; but it is not to be found in that collection, and when we urged Mr. Simpson repeatedly, by mail and by telephone, to send us a photocopy of the letter, he became quite vague and failed to produce one.


As indicated above, the violence of Bailey and Ryan’s attack on Simpson, plus certain ambiguities and confusions in their essay, gave us pause about publishing their review. It is a pleasure to report, now, that Professor Bailey and Captain Ryan have completed their own book, The Lusitania Disaster , and that it not only adopts a far calmer and more detached attitude toward Mr. Simpson but seems in every way to be the most judicious and thoroughly researched book on the Lusitania affair ever published. If the work has a major fault, it is derived from its virtues: the average reader will be told far more than he wants to know about the rules of international warfare before and after the introduction of the submarine, sinkings of merchant ships prior to that of the Lusitania , boards of inquiry afterward, and so on; and he may grow irritated over the seemingly endless repetition of certain facts, important though they may be.

This dogged thoroughness is most satisfying when Bailey and Ryan get around to the basic questions. Winston Churchill may have been grimly pleased when he heard of the Lusitania ’s sinking—it was obviously going to give Great Britain a tremendous propaganda advantage over Germany —but, as the authors demonstrate, he must have been at least equally surprised. It was true that the great liner had no naval escort as she made her way up the Irish coast, but that conformed to British policy at the time (there was a shortage of destroyers); moreover, as the fastest passenger ship in the world she should have been an exceedingly difficult target to hit, especially if she had been zigzagging, as repeated radio warnings from the Admiralty had urged. She was not zigzagging on the fatal afternoon of May 7, 1915; she was moving at about eighteen knots when she easily could have made twenty-one, and contrary to instructions she was hugging the coastline, where submarines were known to lurk.

Why? Colin Simpson would have us believe that the strange behavior of Captain William Turner of the Lusitania was part of a conspiracy to make her a sitting duck for the U-20, the lone German submarine in the vicinity. Bailey and Ryan effectively dismantle this theory; yet perhaps Simpson’s naivete on the question is made somewhat less absurd when one considers the epithets these sophisticated authors feel obliged to apply to Turner’s conduct: “incredible” and “unbelievable.” It appears that Turner was indeed an old sea dog of stubborn habit and invulnerable self-confidence: he did not believe in the efficacy of zigzagging, he doubted the destructive potential of the U-boats against a ship as fast as the Lusitania , and he was too smugly devoted to the venerable rule that a ship’s captain is, in the end, solely responsible for her fate and thus free to disregard advices and warnings if he sees fit. As a prime example of his attitude: he was deliberately holding down his speed in order to arrive at Liverpool harbor in time to go in with the tide. At least half of the true explanation of the Luisitania catastrophe hangs on the “incredible” behavior of Captain Turner in the face of known danger.

A good part of the other half hangs on the character and luck of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of the U-2O. Only thirty years old, he was in 1915 already an ace as a submariner: not a ferocious “Hun” but a handsome and urbane young officer who was completely professional in his approach to his naval responsibilities. As Bailey and Ryan explain, “he was operating under orders that permitted him to sink, with or without warning, all enemy ships. …” In the interest of selfpreservation against gunfire or ramming, Schwieger had learned to prefer to sink without warning whenever it was feasible. On May 7 he was nearing the end of a successful three-thousandmile voyage from the German base at Emden, up around Scotland, and down the west coast of Ireland; he was then to hover briefly in the Irish Sea and go home. On May 6 he had sunk without warning two British ships of about six thousand tons each; he now had only three torpedoes left and was ready to start back—not, however, without a last look around for a possible strike. He was not, as many have supposed, lying in wait for the Lusitania ; but when, at about 1 P.M. on May 7, he surfaced and saw in the distance “starboard ahead four funnels and two masts of a steamer with course at right angles to us” (as he recorded it in his war diary), he knew that he had a good chance at an extraordinary prize. He submerged, got within range, fired a torpedo, and observed— undoubtedly with amazement—that his one lucky shot had mortally wounded his leviathan quarry. Without further ado he dived to twentyfour meters and headed out to sea, leaving in his wake one of the great calamities of maritime history. With remarkable objectivity Bailey and Ryan express their judgment on the act that has been so frequently denounced as unspeakably inhumane:

Schwieger was in danger not only from the prow of the Lusitania but also from the naval authorities at home. He operated under strict orders to sink all ships of the Lusitania ’s description whenever the opportunity arose. If he deliberately passed up such a rich prize for reasons of humanity, he ran the risk of severe disciplinary action. … In sum, the only safe, effective, and expedient alternative for Schwieger was to torpedo the Lusitania without warning.

There are some who will find this conclusion as startling and sensational as Colin Simpson’s “conspiracy” theory about Churchill. The difference is that it is very firmly grounded on a long and meticulous sifting of the evidence, study of the circumstances, and reasonable judgment. Yet in the last analysis Simpson’s book may not be as much an affront to history as Bailey and Ryan thought it was when they wrote their agitated review for AMERICAN HERITAGE . They then expressed the fear that his book would “set back the truth for decades; his account will be resting on library shelves when the Republic celebrates its tricentennial.” Now their own excellent book is out; it will be resting probably on those identical shelves for just as long; and any discriminating reader who goes through both books will be able to determine without much effort which gives the more reliable account of how, why, and by whom the Lusitania was sunk on May 7, 1915.

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