Room 40 at Admiralty House, London, was the hub of British Naval Intelligence. Tracking German Navy units was one
of the main efforts of Room 40. A large amount of the Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) traffic from, to and between
submarines in the North Sea and the Atlantic was regularly intercepted and deciphered by the British. Once decoded,
this intelligence was passed directly on to the upper echelons of the Admiralty; namely: First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher,
First Lord Winston Churchill and Admiral Oliver.
Those three men needed to be fully aware of the very latest intelligence updates, particularly updates on the positions
of German U-boats. These were obtained by Naval Intelligence from Room 40’s wireless intercepts, from sighting reports
and from the reports of sinking's. Ultimately, it was those three men who made the operational decisions.
Background events leading up to the disaster
On Wednesday, 5th May, 1915, two days before the disaster, Churchill held a briefing in the Admiralty's war room.
Unfortunately, Fisher and Churchill were at odds over Churchill's disastrous Dardanelles campaign again. Fisher was
harbouring a good deal of resentment with Churchill's name on it, and Churchill himself was off to France that afternoon
to participate in a Naval convention which would bring Italy into the war on the side of the Allies. After that formality,
he was to visit the Headquarters of Sir John French, who was going to mount what would ultimately prove to be an
equally disastrous offensive on the Aubers Ridge the following Friday, a totally un-necessary diversion for Churchill.
One particular German U boat, U20, under the command of Kapitan-Leutnant Schwieger, was causing concern to
those gathered in the war room. She was known to be on her way toward Fastnet. Ever since she’d left her base,
U20 had been giving her position to the German Admiralty by Wireless Telegraphy every 4 hours. Unbeknownst to
her commander, U20’s messages were being intercepted and deciphered immediately by the Room 40 intelligence team.
In fact, U20 had her own ledger at Room 40. That ledger is now in the National Archives at Kew, London. It is part of
the ADM137 series. (The files ADM137/4152 are the U-boat history sheets compiled by Lt.Cdr. Tiarks).
Below is page 4 of U20’s Room 40 ledger from those files. It clearly shows that the British Admiralty had intercepted
and decoded EVERY message and sinking report from U20, right up to the sinking of the Lusitania. (In fact page 5
follows U20’s voyage home afterwards, via her intercepted messages). It also clearly proves that those in charge at the
Admiralty were FULLY INFORMED of U20’s activities throughout her patrol.
Click image to see full size
U20 wasn’t the only vessel headed toward Fastnet. So was the Lusitania, and the cruiser due to escort her, HMS Juno.
The U-boat and the cruiser would arrive there ahead of the Cunarder. The three agreed that as HMS Juno, being of an
obsolete design, was particularly vulnerable to U-boat attack, it would be best for her to be immediately recalled to
Queenstown. However, NO message was sent to Captain Turner of the Lusitania to advise him that the escort he was
expecting had now been cancelled. This was in case the Germans intercepted the signal. The danger was there for all
to see, but only the danger to the cruiser was apparently realised.
With that decision reached, the briefing was over. Churchill then had lunch with his wife, before he hurried off to
Waterloo station to catch his train. This left the Admiralty in the charge of First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, who was aged
75 and sadly by then showing the early signs of senility; and Admiral Oliver, who was deputising for Churchill whilst
he was away.
Late that same Wednesday afternoon, U20 sank a small schooner, the Earl of Lathom off Kinsale. The Admiralty
received separate notification of the sinking by 21.30 that night, but as can easily be seen from the ledger page, they
already knew about the Earl of Lathom’s sinking when U20 sent a message to Germany at 17:30. By midnight, other
news came in that the British Steamer Cayo Romano had been unsuccessfully attacked off Queenstown (now Cobh)
the night before. The ledger shows they intercepted U20’s message about that BEFORE the Earl of Lathom was sunk.
The only actions that were taken was the updating of U20's position on the great map in the London war room, whilst
the Naval base at Queenstown issued a general signal which said: "SUBMARINES ACTIVE OFF SOUTH COAST
The next day, Thursday May 6th, U-20 sank two cargo ships, the Candidate and the Centurion, in the entrance to
St. George's Channel, near the Conningbeg lightship. She also unsuccessfully attacked the White Star liner Arabic
By 11.00 on Thursday May 6th, the Admiralty in London had confirmation of the sinking of the Candidate, though
they didn't see fit to inform the Naval base at Queenstown, Ireland, for a further 24 hours. By 03.40 on Friday,
May 7th, they also knew the fate of the Centurion for certain.
Such is the background leading up to the morning of that fateful Friday. Now that you have this information, we can
examine Churchill's supposed "plan to get the Lusitania sunk".
Much has been made of his part in the disaster, largely based upon his supposed desire to purposefully have the
Lusitania sunk and so bring America into the conflict on the side of Britain. This would be achieved by the fact that
American citizens regularly crossed the Atlantic on the Lusitania and in the event of her destruction by a U Boat,
some of them were bound to perish, thereby inflaming American opinion, resulting in America subsequently declaring
war on Germany. All this sounds wonderfully sinister, especially when viewed in the light of the fact that Churchill
was indeed actively seeking to embroil the U.S. with Germany, but there are a number of holes in the argument
which tend to rather scupper it, (to keep it in a nautical context), as we shall see later.
Although the Admiralty certainly had a pretty good appreciation of U20's whereabouts, there is A LOT of ocean off
the South Coast of Ireland. Secondly, the Lusitania the U-boat and would have had to be somehow guided to within a
couple of miles of each other without arousing the suspicion of anyone else at the Admiralty and, more importantly,
without anyone arousing the curiosity of Lusitania's Captain. Thirdly, Churchill would have needed to be absolutely
certain that the U-boat Captain would indeed take the bait.
Given the recent advent of the Q-Ship and the fact that the Germans knew that British Merchant ships now
had Admiralty instructions to make a ramming attempt at any U-boat that challenged them, the U-boat
Captain could have been equally suspicious of such an apparently easy target.
Lastly, Churchill would have had to fulfil all three criteria in his absence. He did not return from France till the
following Monday. When he ended the briefing that Wednesday, all he KNEW was that U20 was heading for Fastnet
and would get there at about the same sort of time as HMS Juno. He wouldn’t at that point have been informed of
anything other than U20’s failed attack on the Cayo Romano.
Whilst Churchill had undoubtedly considered the possibility of such an attack happening and how to use such a
catastrophe to his own best political advantage, to physically ENGINEER such a cataclysmic event was, we think,
beyond even Churchill's capabilities. Even if one considers Churchill's penchant for intrigues, and he certainly was
actively intriguing against two other cabinet ministers at this time, we do not consider that he could have carried out
such a dastardly plan to fulfilment. He would then have been directly responsible for the deaths of 1,201 men, women
and children. The indelible stain of their blood would have been forever on his hands.
The only area where Churchill WAS guilty was in neglecting his duty by "going off on a jolly" as Fisher called it, and
joining in with the subsequent persecution of Captain Turner. He was not alone in this last action. Captain Richard
Webb of the Admiralty Trade Dept. and Admiral Oliver concocted the original case against Turner. Their problem was
that the Lusitania had sunk in a mere 18 minutes due to the explosion of the munitions that she was carrying on their
behalf, after all measures of protection for her had been removed. A scapegoat seemed to be urgently needed and who
better to fill that position than the Liner’s Captain? They passed their contrived report to Fisher to read. By the time
he'd read it, he was livid, adding in the margin:
"Fully concur! As the Cunard company would not have employed an INCOMPETENT man, the certainty is absolute
that Captain Turner is not a fool, but a knave! It is my profound hope that Captain Turner will be arrested after the
inquiry, whatever the outcome." (Fisher always wrote in green ink!)
Once Churchill returned from France and read the report, he added: "Fully concur! We shall pursue the Captain
without check!"(Churchill always wrote in red ink! )
To borrow a phrase: "Who shall we hang so that we don't all hang together?" The answer, was Captain William
Contemporary cigarette card depicting Churchill's
favourite weapon against U-boats: The Q-Ship.
Mitch Peeke/Lusitania Online.
The Q-Ship was outwardly an innocent-looking merchant ship.
(Like all other Merchantmen under Admiralty charter, the funnel
was painted black). In fact, a Q-Ship carried a naval crew, Royal
Marines and concealed 4.1" guns. As a U Boat made a surface
challenge in accordance with the “Cruiser Rules”, the Q-Ship
would obligingly stop. Sometimes they’d even lower a lifeboat
in the pretence of abandoning their ship. Then as the U Boat’s
boarding party made its way over, the White Ensign would be
suddenly unfurled and the Q-Ship would open fire. The now highly
vulnerable U Boat would be sent swiftly to the bottom in a hail
of shell and rifle fire. Q-Ships seldom took prisoners, as the crew
of U27 discovered to their cost when they were attacked by
the Q-ship Baralong. Even the survivors from U27's crew were
rounded up and murdered.