Book Summary and Analysis |

History, Philosophy, Politics and Society



A Summary and Critique of

Erik Larson’s

Dead Wake

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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1.    The Lusitania

Larson tells the reader about the luxury of the Lusitania that, to a certain degree, is similar to that of today’s cruise ships. The passengers were entertained with lavish dinners, games and talent shows. Beautiful and luxurious, the Lusitania was a “high-maintenance” ship, which constantly required attention and repairs. As Larson writes in his book, “Something was always breaking or malfunctioning. A baking oven exploded, injuring a crew member… During crossings in winter, pipes froze and ruptured. The ship’s light bulbs failed at an alarming rate… The Lusitania had six thousand lamps.”

By the end of April 1915, the Lusitania had made 201 crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. On May 1, 1915, she left New York under captain William Thomas Turner, Cunard’s most experienced captain. The ship carried 949 British citizens, 189 Americans, and a small number of people of other nationalities. The Lusitania’s departure was delayed by two hours as the ship had to wait for an additional 40 passengers transferring from another ship.

Larson describes in his book different people who travelled on the Lusitania: Richard Preston Prichard, a good-looking medical student who arranged numerous on-board games, a 7-year-old boy who was quarantined with measles, American architect Theodate Pope, the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman, the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, the art collector Hugh Lane, who supposedly carried paintings by Monet and Rembrandt that were sealed in lead tubes for the duration of the journey, and many other people.

Some passengers were aware of German announcements in US newspapers, according to which Germany declared the waters around the UK a war zone and promised that German submarines would sink ships entering the war zone. However, the majority of passengers ignored the warning, relying on the Lusitania‘s ability to outrun German submarines. They also were under impression that British warships would protect the ship. Their beliefs turned out to be very wrong.

Very few people knew that Cunard executives had ordered Captain Turner to light only three of the ship’s four boilers in order to save money. This reduced the ship’s speed, added a day to the trip and made the Lusitania an easier target for submarines. Moreover, the ship did not divert into safer waters. Instead, on May 7, 1915, she approached the south coast of Ireland, heading towards her deadly meeting with the German U-boat.

The Lusitania and the German submarine met on that day just a little after 2 p.m., when the ship was less than 24 hours from her arrival in Liverpool. Larson describes how the U-boat fired a torpedo loaded with 350 pounds of explosives. A large number of lifeboats on the ship that conveyed the sense of security turned out to be useless. The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes after the torpedo slammed into her starboard side, and there was not enough time to launch most of her lifeboats. Only six of the 22 lifeboats were launched. Only 761 of 1,959 passengers and crew were rescued. Larson’s description of the events that followed the torpedo’s impact is horrifying.


Analysis and Comments

Cunard received a loan from the British Admiralty in the amount of up to 2.4 million British pounds, which is close to 2 billion dollars in today’s value, in order to build the Lusitania and its twin, the Mauretania. Both ships were completed in 1907. The Lusitania was named after an ancient Roman province that is part of modern Portugal. She was also known at that time as “Lucy.” Before the Mauretania was completed, the Lusitania was the largest ship in the world. She was designed to “outshine” such German ocean liners as the Deutschland and the Kaiser Wilhelm der Gross.

Cunard was determined to make the Lusitania as spacious and luxurious as the greatest luxury hotels of the world. At the same time, the Admiralty required that “Lucy” be designed according to battlefield specifications. As a result, the ship was capable to carry guns and travel 25 knots, outpacing submarines. The Lusitania was a very fast ship. She won the Blue Riband Award for crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 4 days, 19 hours and 52 minutes.

Now that the Lusitania rests on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, it keeps attracting visitors who tamper with the evidence of what happened to the ship in 1915. The wreckage, which lies in just 295 feet of water, is easy to reach. Various salvage operations, as well as looting operations, have been carried out for the last hundred years. Some salvaging operations have been conducted by or for the Royal Navy since the 1940s.

Robert Duane Ballard, a former US Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who is famous for his discoveries of the wrecks of the Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck, and the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, investigated  the wreck of the Lusitania in 1993. He observed that the ship’s boilers were undamaged. Ballard proposes that the second explosion may have been caused by coal dust. He thinks that the torpedo probably ripped open coal bunkers, creating clouds of coal dust that mixed with oxygen and exploded when touched by fire. However, not all investigators agree with his hypothesis.

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph reported on April 8, 2015 that the current owner of RMS Lusitania had announced that strict rules on diving ruined his plans for recovery of the ship and blamed the Irish government for abandoning the shipwreck to treasure hunters and looters.


2. A Tale of Two Captains

In Larson’s book, the story of the final voyage of the Lusitania becomes a tale of two captains: William Thomas Turner, the 58-year-old captain of the Lusitania, and Walther Schwieger, the 32-year-old captain of the German Unterseeboot-20.

Larson describes Captain Turner as an “old-fashioned sailorman” who had already completed three voyages on the Lusitania. Larson pictures Captain Turner’s devotion to the safety of his ship, yet he notes that Turner refers to his passengers as “a load of bloody monkeys.”

Larson presents Schwieger as an eager hunter of enemy ships and a man who nurtured dachshund puppies on board his submarine. Captain Schwieger was given an order to sink any ship bound for the UK. He did not have any contact with his superiors, being solely responsible for his crew and his vessel. The submarine was rather slow and its torpedoes were not reliable. Larson’s book tells about everyday routines that the team of the submarine had to follow. It explains, for example, how a submarine descends, how the air/water ratio is adjusted in the dive tanks, how the buoyancy of seawater varies with temperature and salinity and how difficult it is for a submarine to getting close enough to a ship without being spotted.

Larson also describes how the damage the torpedo had inflicted on the Lusitania affected Schwieger, who later told his friend that the sinking of the Lusitania was the most terrible sight he had ever witnessed.


Analysis and Comments



Image 2. Captain William Thomas Turner


Captain Turner was born in Liverpool, England in 1856. He went to sea as a cabin boy when he was eight years old. He earned his Captain’s certificate in 1886.  In 1931, he achieved the rank of Commander in the Royal Navy Reserve. After the sinking of the Lusitania, the Admiralty’s Court of Inquiry accused Captain Turner of negligence because he failed to zigzag the ship (as a precautionary measure). However, he was found innocent of any wrongful action. The loss of the Lusitania haunted Captain Turner for the rest of his life. He died of cancer in 1933.



Image 3. Captain Walther Schwieger


Captain Schwieger was born in Berlin, Germany in 1885. He commanded the U-20 and the U-88. The submarines under his command destroyed 49 ships. After the sinking of Lusitania, the British gave him the nickname, “The Baby Killer.” His name was added to the Admiralty’s wanted list of possible war criminals. Captain Schwieger did not survive the war. On September 5, 1917, his U-88 was assumed to have struck a mine when heading toward the French coast. There were no survivors in the explosion.

Larson points out in his book that Captain Schwieger was out of wireless range of his superiors, and he had freedom of action when he made the decision to fire that torpedo. At that time, Captain Schwieger had the knowledge that the Lusitania was listed in Jane’s Fighting Ships as a cruiser that was possibly carrying munitions and gun parts.


3. The Politics behind the Tragedy of the Lusitania

According to Larson’s research, the British Admiralty had broken the German codes so that they could intercept German radio transmissions and track German submarines, including Schwieger’s U-20. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s secret intelligence unit (it was called Room 40) was tracking Schwieger’s U-20, and they were aware that the U-20 had attacked three ships in the previous 24 hours before it sank the Lusitania. The Admiralty had opened a safer northern channel but they did not instruct the captain of the Lusitania to use it. Moreover, the Admiralty never informed Captain Turner about the information they had obtained from the intercepted and decoded German Navy’s wireless communications.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, British officials tried to cover up the fact that they had broken the code that was used by the German submarines, and they blamed Captain Turner for the tragedy. Consequently, Larson does not discard the possibility that the British wanted an attack on the Lusitania to happen with the expectation that it would draw the US into the war. However, Larson argues that the Lusitania’s role in the entrance of the US into the war was different from what historians traditionally think. After all, the US entered the war only in 1917, two years after the sinking of the Lusitania.

For the British, the delayed entrance of the US into the war meant more combat casualties. Winston Churchill’s work, The World Crisis, which was his account of World War I, was published between 1923 and 1931. In The World Crisis, Churchill wrote,

What [President Woodrow Wilson] did in April, 1917 could have been done in May, 1915. And if done then what abridgement of the slaughter; what sparing of the agony; what ruin, what catastrophes would have been prevented.

Larson’s research reveals how President Woodrow Wilson was essentially preoccupied at that time writing love letters and going on romantic drives around Washington, D.C.


Analysis and Comments

The Admiralty’s Court of Inquiry brought up more questions about the Lusitania than it answered. Today, the only thing that historians know for sure is that the ship was sunk by the German U-20. Practically all other pieces of the tragedy remain debatable.

Larson points out in his book that the British Admiralty probably knew about the presence of the U-20 location on the day of tragedy and chose to do nothing. The Admiralty’s encryption experts repeatedly intercepted Schwieger’s radio transmissions, tracking the movements of his submarine around the British Isles. Moreover, the Admiralty new that Captain Schwieger had an order to sink any British vessel.

British naval intelligence had sufficient information about the U-20 to warn the Lusitania and advise her captain to take a different route, but they did not do that. In his book, Larson provides the results of his research on British naval intelligence and the political circumstances that prevented the Admiralty from providing the Lusitania with military escort. For example, in early 1915, Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at that time, wrote in his letter to Walter Runciman, the head of England’s Board of Trade, that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”

From the point of view of the British and Americans, the sinking of the Lusitania was a war crime. Yet, the Germans had their own interpretation of what happened. During the war, the Royal Navy blockaded Germany with the intention of cutting off supplies of raw materials (needed for military purposes) and food (needed for the population) to Germany. Whereas the German naval force was insufficient to openly engage with the British fleet, German submarines were superior to British submarines. Apparently, the Germans felt that the use of submarines against British ships was justified at that time, and the German embassy in Washington warned the public about their intentions through ads that were placed in New York newspapers on May 1, 1915. The ads clearly stated that a ship traveling through a war zone could be attacked.

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