Lusitania was built at the famous John Brown shipyard on the Clyde
Lusitania just prior to launch
In service, Lusitania was briefly the largest liner in the world and held the speed record fro crossing the Atlantic (being eclipsed only by her sister ship when she came into service). She made 201 successful crossing of the Atlantic.
Lucitania entering the Port of New York
On 1st May 1915 Lusitania departed from New York Pier 54 for her 202nd Atlantic crossing bound for Liverpool via the south of Ireland.
At 14.10 hours on Friday 7th May 1915 she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat while about 10 miles southwest of Old Head Kinsale, Ireland, and sank within 18 minutes.
Of the original 1,961 passengers and crew who left from New York, only 764 people survived the sinking. The final death toll was 1,197.
It is believed the two Radio Officers (then known as Wireless Operators or Telegraphjy Operators), Bob Leith (senior) and Donald McCormack, who were responsible for sending the SOS message which was received at Queentown and resulted in the saving of the 764 lives, both survived the sinking. Bob Leith gave evidence at the British Wreck Commissioner's Enquiry.
Unlike the reports and stories about the Titanic, very little appears to have been written from the focal point of the radio system and personnel. This page is trying to pull some of the relevant information together.
Wireless Cabin Lusitania
There was an understanding and an agreement that Liners would not be targeted. However, there appears to have been a belief on the part of the German authorities that Lusitantia may by carrying materials relevant to the war. The UK authorities did admit that Lusitania carried about 500 cases of cartridges which were entered on the manifest but no other munitions. The German government claimed the ship has masked guns, trained gunners with special ammunition and was carrying Canadian troops.
Lusitania's 202nd voyage across the Atlantic appears to have been somewhat routine. The only slightly unusual event might have been an advert in the US press, published prior to the ship's departure, in which the German authorities warning potential passengers that a state of war existed between Germany and the United Kingdom and that Germany could not be held responsible should anything unforeseen happen. On 1st May 1915 Lusitania departed New York Pier 54 bound for Liverpool routing via the south of Ireland.
On 7th May 1915 at 13.50 the Captain, having sighted what he believed to be the Old Head of Kinsail at an estimated distance of 10 to 15 miles, commenced taking a four point bearing which would give him a more precise position. Passengers at this time were finishing off thier mid-day meal.
At 14.15 the Captain, when he was on the port side of the lower bridge, heard the voice of the Second Officer calling "There's a torpedo coming sir." The Captain went over to the Starboard side and observed the wake of the torpedo which then struck starboard side of the ship somewhere between the third and fourth funnels, the impact of the explosion shattering lifeboat number 5.
According to an annex to the Board of Trade report, this first explosion was followed almost immediately by a second hit on the Starboard side by a second torpedo fired from the same submarine. The annex also claimed that a third torpedo had been fired towards the port side of the ship by a second submarine. The undisputed first torpedo was fired from German submarine U-20.
Robert Leith, the Senior Radio Officer - or Wireless Telegraphist, as recorded in the enquiry report - was in the after dining saloon, situated on D deck aft, at the time the torpedo struck. His assistant David McCormick was in the Wirelss Room, or "Marconi Cabin", which was situated between the 2nd and 3rd funnels on the Hurricane Deck. Leith reported that he "felt some shock or other and I thought it was a boiler explosion. I could not conclude at the time what had taken place" and he immediately made his way to the Radio Room to join McCormick.
On arrival in the Radio Room Bob Leith sent a distress call using the SOS signal followed by he message "Come at once - big list" and a position given as "Off South Head, Old Kinsale". This distress call was immediately acknowledged by a Wireless Coast Station. Although the account unfortunately does not record which station, it is known that MFA had received a message via Valentia Radio at 11.02. The other possibilities could be Landsend Radio or the Lloyds Signal Station at Old Head.
Leith continued continuously sending the SOS message, updating the ship's position to "10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale" when advised by a Bridge Officer. This updated position was again acknowledged by the Coast Radio Station.
Initial wireless transmission had been made on full power using the ship's electrical supply but about 3 or 4 minutes after the torpedo struck the ship power failed. Transmissions switched to the emergency equipment located within the radio cabin and continued "until just a few moments before the ship sank". Leith reported that he had stayed at his post for "as long as it was possible" and that when he left the radio cabin the boat deck was already under water and he jumped into a lifeboat which was full of water but right outside the radio cabin. Observing that the "ship's funnel appeared to be coming down on top of me at the time" he sprung onto another lifeboat.
The Lusitania's survivors were mostly saved by fishing boats, and other small craft that took time to reach the scene.
From the account of Oliver Bernard
Oliver Bernard (1881 – 1939), 34, was an English architect, and scenic, graphic and industrial designer. He was returning to England aboard Lusitania after working on a theatrical set design for Boston millionaire William Lindsey. Bernard was escorting Lindsey’s daughter, Leslie Mason, and her husband, Stewart Mason, across the Atlantic. Bernard saw the torpedo strike the ship and attempted to help Leslie find her husband, only to be separated from Leslie. Bernard escaped in lifeboat 11 and was rescued by the Wanderer (Peel 12) and Flying Fish.
Climbing onto the funnel deck, Oliver saw a stoker covered with soot and a scarlet smear on his face, the crown open “like a bloody sponge pudding.” Wondering how long the ship had left, Oliver saw a naked man swimming away from the sinking liner on his back. Oliver, too, began to undress and neatly folded his clothes and unlaced his boots, thinking about life.
He was next to the radio room at the time and saw Chief Electrician George Hutchinson and wireless operators Robert (Bob) Leith and David McCormack. Leith was sending out his last SOS. Hutchinson commented, “There are plenty of boats around.”
“That doesn’t interest me much.” Oliver replied. “I can’t swim a stroke.”
McCormack then pushed a swivel chair towards him, telling Oliver, “Here’s something for you to hang on to, sir.”
“I’m no good at working waterwheels either.” Oliver joked.
They all laughed as the chair slid out of the room and crashed into the starboard rail. McCormick rushed outside with his camera and took a picture of the event, facing the bow.
Oliver made his way to lifeboat 11 and helped others into the boat, including Member of Parliament D. A. Thomas. Lifeboat 11 was one of the last to leave the Lusitania.
Oliver's wards Leslire and Stewart Mason both lost their lives. Both their bodies were recovered. Leslie was repatriated to the USA. Stewart is buried in Common Grave B of the Old Church Cemetery in Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland.
The formal British inquiry into the disaster was headed by Lord Mersey, who had resided over the Titanic hearings and also the inquiry into the loss of Canadian Pacific's Empress of Ireland. The hearings were extremely unfavorable to Captain Turner at first. Several top brass accused him of negligence, incompetence and even cowardice. The Admiralty denied ever ordering Turner to put into Queenstown, and the list of messages the naval attorneys produced did not include the last communication Turner received. Although both wireless operators aboard Lusitania survived, the one who took the message in question was ignored. His partner, who wasn't even on duty at the time of the message, was instead put on the stand. He, of course, had no knowledge of the message! Additionally, several passengers testified to the fact that no lifeboat assignments had been given and although the crew had performed admirably the evacuation of the ship was chaotic. It looked as though Turner would be made to be the scapegoat, but in the end the usually stern Lord Mersey all but absolved Turner of any blame.