Until the Irish territorial limit was extended to twelve miles in 1982, the wreck lay in international waters and was thus claimed by the British Receiver of Wrecks since Liverpool was her home port.
It took a long time to locate the exact position of the wreck. The first diver to visit her was a man called Jim Jarrett who reached her once only in 1935. The wreck site was regularly depth-charged during WW2 to prevent German submarines hiding in her shadow. Salvage operations were carried out, from time to time, by the Admiralty from 1948 to 1955. This claim is met with standard denials.
In the 1960’s an American diver named John Light undertook a series of dives to the wreck using only basic scuba equipment. In 1982, Oceaneering International Limited (OCI), under contract to Gregg Bemis, who by this time was the undisputed legal owner of the wreck, undertook the first private salvage operations. Many large artefacts, such as the propeller which acts as a memorial to the Lusitania on the Mersey dockside at Liverpool, were retrieved from the depths during this expedition.
Dr Robert Ballard, in conjunction with National Geographic, dived, filmed and wrote a book on the wreck. In 2011, under Licence from the Irish National Monuments Service (NMS), Gregg Bemis undertook the most recent diving expedition, using the specialised Irish Lights vessel the Granuaile, with the aim of establishing, definitively, why such a magnificent vessel as the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes. We understand that Gregg Bemis in planning some further expeditions in the coming years.
As soon as news of the disaster reached the Admiralty in London, Admiral Oliver and Captain Richard Webb [Director Trade Division] went into ‘save-our-skins’ mode with indecent haste. They had three problems: the Lusitania had been sunk by a German U-boat that the Admiralty knew to be operating in the area after the Juno, which was meant to escort the Lusitania from the Fastnet Lighthouse, had been withdrawn without Captain Turners knowledge; they had given the Captain confusing and inaccurate information about the position of U-boats off the south coast of Ireland and in the English channel; the explosive nature of the cargo the Lusitania carried. To prevent the obvious set of awkward questions being asked and important heads from rolling a scapegoat had to be found and quickly – Captain Turner became the easiest target because he was bound by Admiralty oath not to disclose crucial signal information. The cunning scheme almost succeeded as Captain Turner was unable to fully grasp what was taking place at the official enquiry being conducted by Lord Mersey, HMS Receiver of Wrecks. Near the end of the Enquiry, during the summing-up, the clever plan ran aground when Admiral Sir Frederick Inglefield referred to a particular signal in his Master File which Lord Mersey failed to find in his copy of the file – the two files did not match.
It was precisely this signal, sent incidentally via the Naval Wireless Station at Valentia by Vice Admiral Coke, advising Captain Turner to divert the Lusitania to Queenstown (now Cobh) that had been expunged from Mersey’s file. His oath of secrecy prevented Captain Turner from acknowledging receipt of this vital signal – precisely what the Admiralty had been relying on in their attempt to scapegoat him. It is worth noting that the page recording this signal in the WW1 Admiralty’s Signals Log is the only page missing! This series of ‘dirty-tricks’ has, inevitably, given rise to elaborate conspiracy theories about Britain’s real intentions regarding the final voyage of the Lusitania. Lord Mersey must be given full credit for standing by the honourable and upright Captain William Thomas Turner.
At ten minutes past two on Friday the 7th May 1915 all hell broke loose on the Lusitania. A single torpedo fired from the German U-20 submarine had just ploughed into the starboard side of the Lusitania at a speed of 38 knots from a distance of just 550 metres hitting the ship somewhere near the bridge and three metres below the surface of the water. The torpedo explosion was followed almost instantaneously by a second much larger explosion. Despite her size the ship immediately began to list steeply and her bows began to dip rapidly.
On the bridge of the Lusitania Captain William Turner, realising that his ship was doomed, gave the order to ‘abandon ship’. Looking back along her length he saw that all of the starboard lifeboats had swung out and all of the port lifeboats had swung in over the decks making their launch practically impossible. In an attempt to slow down the ship he next ordered a ‘reverse thrust’ with disastrous consequences. Unable to withstand the increased stress some critical valves failed with almost complete loss of boiler pressure leaving the ship without power. In any case the propellers were already beginning to rise out of the water.
Despite the immense practical difficulties, frenzied efforts to launch some starboard lifeboats were partially successful but on the port side there was mayhem. Released lifeboats careered down the steep deck crushing people in their path and dumping passengers into the sea or against solid obstacles. One or two port lifeboats were handled to the side but as soon as an attempt was made to lower them construction rivets which were projecting out from the Lusitania’s side ripped the lifeboats and dumped their passengers into the sea.
Suddenly the liner’s forward momentum ceased. Her bows had struck the bottom three hundred feet below. Her stern settled and she slowly slid under the water. The Lusitania was gone. The time was twenty eight minutes past two o’clock. Of the forty eight lifeboats only six were afloat. There were bodies everywhere and people were clinging to any piece of floating wreckage they could reach. The Lusitania carried 1,962 persons in total of which 1,201 perished. Of the 129 children on board, 94 perished. Of the 159 Americans on board, 128 died. The vast majority of passengers and crew were Irish and English of which many perished. People of many other nationalities also lost their lives. Many famous and wealthy people perished on the Lusitania. It was a monumental tragedy with historic repercussions.