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
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.
Cargo stowage plan, viewed from starboard.
(Likely impact point of the torpedo marked by the two concentric circles).
Likely area of Torpedo impact.
As well as reading this page you may be interested in reading our
“Shipping Munitions” page.