A Deadly Cargo and the falsified Manifests The Home Port of R.M.S. Lusitania Lusitania Online
For some time since war had been declared, the Lusitania had been used as a high-speed munitions carrier by the Admiralty's trade department. On her final voyage, she was carrying considerably more contraband than usual, including eighteen cases of fuses for various calibre artillery shells, which were listed on her manifest, and a large consignment of gun-cotton, an explosive used in the manufacture of propellant charges for big-gun shells, which wasn't listed on the manifest. These two items caused a minor sensation when their presence aboard the Lusitania was first revealed in the American press shortly after the sinking. The fuses carried in eighteen cases as cargo aboard the Lusitania were far from complete fuses and formed part of a mixed consignment of percussion fuse mechanisms for the British Army's 4.5-inch and 6-inch calibre high explosive shells, and the 13-pounder shrapnel shell. Despite being incomplete, they did contain a small quantity of explosive, which is why all eighteen cases were stored in the ship's magazine, aft. The gun-cotton was quite a large consignment and was stored in part of the new space created by the Admiralty, forward on E deck.It is worth recording that this large consignment was not packed in the proper containers usually employed to transport this explosive, due to a sudden shortage of them. According to the original ship's manifest, the 1, 271 cases of ammunition that are listed on page one of the manifest right, are actually '1,248 cases of shrapnel', (supposedly just the lead musket balls with which to fill shrapnel shells). Also, the large consignments of Lard, Butter and Cheese mentioned on page one of this manifest were actually consigned to the Royal Navy's Weapons Testing Establishment at Shoeburyness, Essex and they were not stored in the refrigeration hold purely because the consignments were far too large to go into that hold! Quite why such an establishment would want some ninety tons of therefore rancid dairy products has never been explained. The 1,248 cases of shrapnel came from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, and their shipping note was a little more specific than the ship's cargo manifest. The shipping note, dated 28 April 1915, shows 'consignment number 23' as being '1,248 cases of three-inch calibre shrapnel shells, filled; four shells to each case'. These shells were consigned to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich and as our own subsequent research, aided by the Royal Artillery Historical Trust has revealed, they were for use by the Royal Artillery in the 13-pounder field gun. So why was such a large consignment of live artillery shells being carried aboard the Lusitania, a passenger liner? It must be remembered that due to the deepening munitions crisis, speed was of the absolute essence. The British Army was firing more shells per week than the factories produced. Britain's factories were producing only one quarter of the daily output of shells that French munitions factories produced. Even more lamentable was the fact that Germany's armament factories were producing more than double the amount of the combined daily production totals of the British and French factories. Therefore, corners had to be cut and usual, time consuming peacetime practices such as stockpiling and using shells in rotation according to date of manufacture, were of necessity quickly abandoned, in the desperate rush to get the shells to the front. The American-made shells were indistinguishable from their British-made counterparts apart from the manufacturer's mark, and to save a considerable amount of precious time, as Colonel Phillips' staff confirmed to us in writing, they were imported from America as complete rounds, with a simple transit plug in place of the 'Type 80 Time and Percussion fuze' It is therefore important at this point to properly explain the difference between a shell and a complete round, and to explain a little about the anatomy of this ammunition and how it was packed, transported and used. The shell, or more properly, 'projectile', actually weighed 12.5 pounds and contained 234 lead musket balls, forty-one of which combined to weigh one pound, which were suspended in resin. The projectile itself contained only a small 'burster' charge, designed to discharge the shrapnel balls in flight, ahead of advancing enemy troops, like a shotgun blast. Against advancing troops, a fusillade of shrapnel was unrivalled as a killer of men en masse. The complete round, as imported from America, was made up of the unfused projectile, fitted with its cartridge, which contained a propellant charge of 1.25 pounds of cordite MD extruded into rods or 'cords'. Cordite MD was a modification to standard cordite and was designed to help prevent erosion of the gun's barrel. The propellant charge was sufficient when the gun was fired, to give the 12.5 pound projectile a maximum range of 5,900 yards and the 13-pounder field gun a muzzle velocity of 1,675 feet per second. Each of these unfused complete rounds weighed 16.5 pounds. Hereafter, for the sake of convenience, we shall simply refer to the complete round as a 'round'. The wooden crates containing the imported rounds were also made in America,  to the War Office specification. They were made of deal (untreated pine) with elm ends, had two metal bands running around them and two heavy wire handles, one at each end. The crates were unlined, contained no packing other than two wooden support spacers, and each empty crate weighed 6 pounds. A crate containing four complete 13-pounder shrapnel rounds without fuses would therefore weigh a hefty 72 pounds, hence the thick wire handles. The Type 80 time and percussion fuse was peculiar to shrapnel and anti-aircraft shells, both of which were designed to explode in flight. The fuse carried a percussion mechanism in case the timer failed and the projectile returned to earth. Upon receipt of the imported shrapnel rounds at the Royal Arsenal, they would simply be mixed in with other outbound consignments of ammunition destined for the front. In the case of the imported fuse parts though, it was a little different. The workers at the arsenal had to assemble and then arm each fuse. This involved inserting the fuse detonator into the imported percussion mechanisms and, in the case of those fuses destined to be fitted to shrapnel and anti-aircraft shells, fitting this assembly into a nose cone, which would also include the powder-operated timer rings. The now complete fuse would then be fitted with a protective soft lead cover. The assembled fuses would be packed into their own, separate, wooden boxes. The fuses were never packed with nor fitted to, the rounds until the two separate lots reached the gun battery's fusing station in the reserve lines. It was there that the round's transit plug was removed and the fuse, still with its protective cover, was finally fitted to the round to make it ready. Each round was then stencilled with the word `fused', re-boxed again in their original wooden crates (four rounds per crate) and then sent on the short journey up the line, for immediate use. The consignments of shrapnel rounds and fuse mechanisms carried aboard the Lusitania, were just part of a very large order supplied by Bethlehem Steel, totalling 214 consignments. The many components of this vast order were not carried solely by the Lusitania. The manifest featured on this page is the somewhat generalised and largely inaccurate manifest that was supplied to various American newspapers by the ship’s underwriters shortly after the sinking. The 27 page "supplementary manifest" which was filed after the Lusitania left New York was never featured in ANY newspaper. In January of 1940, President Franklin D Roosevelt sent for it. The then Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, Harry Durning, duly retrieved it and sent it to the President. Having read it, FDR locked it away in his personal archive, where it has remained to this day. It has never been made public. In November of 2012, we contacted the staff at the Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Archive, seeking this elusive document. After remaining hidden for 97 years, we can now announce that we have acquired a genuine copy of ALL 27 pages. We’ve also acquired the necessary permission to reproduce it in its entirety. If you would like to view the manifest please click on the image above ( 8 mb ) What must be remembered is that DEFINITELY aboard the ship, in the enlarged forward hold, was a total of 1,248 cases of LIVE 3" shrapnel shells (four shells per case) destined for use by the Royal Artillery, as well as two consignments of unrefrigerated "butter" and "cheese" that together weighed nearly 90 tons and were both destined for the Royal Navy Weapons Testing Establishment in Essex. Curiously, both of those consignments were insured at the special government insurance rate! Why insure rancid dairy produce?! Even more curious is the fact that having got those consignments covered, the insurance was subsequently never claimed! A much fuller account, is mentioned in "THE LUSITANIA STORY" Incidentally, On June 3rd 1915, The New York Times ran a front page story reporting a visit by the German Ambassador, Count Bernstorff, to President Wilson. On page two, there is a bye-line; SHELLS ON THE LUSITANIA. Bernstorff laid a copy of the ship's manifest in front of Wilson and then quoted direct from a copy of Bethlehem Steel's shipping note, that "the consignment of 1,250 cases of shrapnel was in fact 5,000 shrapnel shells, filled; and that the total weight of this consignment was 103, 828 lbs". Bernstorff left a memo of these and other figures with Wilson as proof and called Wilson's attention to the "deliberately incorrect marking" of this consignment as "Non-Explosive Shrapnel", when it was known (and proven) to have been filled shrapnel shells. Count Bernstorff seems to have been remarkably accurately informed! September 7th 2012. Speaking to his local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, about his latest dives to the wreck of the Lusitania and the five days of explosion trials at California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the Lusitania's owner, Greg Bemis, said that: "A munitions explosion would have been in the right place to create the devastation we have seen, as well as to create a significant additional inflow of water to make the sinking of the bow take place in such a record time. The Bottom Line for me, I think, is that the second explosion had to be on a par with, or greater than, the torpedo explosion to result in the ship vanishing beneath the waves in only 18 minutes. That is a record time...”
Above image couretsy of the Royal Artillery Historical Trust.
Cutaway view of the 13pdr shrapnel projectile. Lusitania Online.
Cargo stowage plan, viewed from starboard. (Likely impact point of the torpedo marked by the two concentric circles). Lusitania Online.
Likely area of Torpedo impact. Lusitania Online.
Lusitania Online
As well as reading this page you may be interested in reading our Shipping Munitions” page.
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