The Sinking of R.M.S. Lusitania,
the rescue of survivors and the recovery of bodies.
Friday 7th May 1915
At 11.00, the Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline.
But there was no sign of any other ships. No Juno.
Captain Turner increased the ship's speed to 18 knots. Barely had he done this when a messenger from the Marconi room brought him a signal.
It was 12 words, but he did not recognize the cypher. It was from Vice Admiral Coke in Queenstown.Because of the high-grade code used to
send the signal, he would have to take it down to his day cabin to work on it.
At 11.55 there was a knock on Turner's door. It was the messenger with another signal from the Admiralty; he broke off from his decoding work
to read it.
"SUBMARINE ACTIVE IN SOUTHERN PART OF IRISH CHANNEL,LAST HEARD OF TWENTY MILES SOUTH OF CONNINGBEG LIGHT
VESSEL.MAKE CERTAIN LUSITANIA GETS THIS."
This gave Captain Turner another problem. According to this latest message,another U-boat was operating in the very middle of the channel
he was aiming for.If this were true,then despite his Admiralty instructions,a mid channel course was now out of the question. More than ever,
he now had to determine his exact position, if he was going to have to play a potentially deadly game of cat and mouse with a U-boat in a
narrow channel entrance. But first he decided to finish deciphering Coke's earlier message.
By 12.10 he had finished decoding it completely. What he read galvanised him.He went straight to the bridge and immediately altered the
ship's course 20 degrees to port.The turn to port was so sudden that many passengers momentarily lost their balance. The Lusitania was now
closing to the land at 18 knots on course North 67 East. The clock on the bridge said 12.15, GMT. Atlantic Ocean, 22 miles off Waterford
The German submarine U-20 blew her tanks and surfaced. The fog, which had been troubling her commander, Kapitan-Leutnant
Walther Schwieger, had finally cleared.
They were now down to the last three torpedoes and his orders were to save two for the trip home,just in case they encountered an enemy
warship and had to fight their way out of it. Schwieger checked his watch. It was 12.20 GMT as the U-20 headed back toward Fastnet at full speed.
At 12.40, whilst Lusitania was still on course N67E,Turner received another Admiralty signal.
This one read:
"SUBMARINE FIVE MILES SOUTH OF CAPE CLEAR, PROCEEDING WEST WHEN SIGHTED AT 10 AM."
He allowed himself a slight smile. Cape Clear was many miles astern of the eastbound Lusitania.
This latest signal effectively meant that the immediate danger was passed.The entrance to St. George's Channel and therefore the next
notified U-boat threat,would still be four to five hours away, if he had maintained his original heading.For now, he was safely in the middle.
As far as Captain Turner knew, there were NO U-boats in his immediate vicinity.
At 13.20 GMT, U-20 was still running on the surface, heading back toward Fastnet.Schwieger was up on the conning tower with the lookouts.
Suddenly, the starboard lookout saw smoke off the U-20s starboard bow. Schwieger focussed his binoculars on it. One, two, three, four funnels.
He estimated the distance between them to be 12 to 14 miles. It would be a long shot, but if the ship was heading for Queenstown,it might
just be possible.
As the diving klaxon screeched out it's warning.U-20 altered course to intercept the ship,submerging as she did so.
At 13.40 GMT, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him as his own front door. A Long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which
was painted with black and white horizontal bands. The Old head of Kinsale.
Now that he knew where he was, he ordered Lusitania's course reverted to South 87 East, steady. He urgently needed to fix his position,
in order to plot a course to Queenstown. They were not going to Liverpool after all, not yet anyway. The message from Vice Admiral Coke which
was sent in the high-grade naval code was ordering him to divert Lusitania into Queenstown immediately. Standard Admiralty practice in
situations of grave peril.
Turning back to his officers on the bridge,he noticed the ship's newest officer, whom he had christened Bisset (Junior Third Officer Albert Bestic),
due to go off watch in about 15 minutes. "Ah, Bisset. Do you know how to take a four point bearing?" he asked. Bestic certainly did.
He also knew that it took the best part of an hour with the ship's course and speed having to remain rock
steady whilst it was done. "Yes sir." He replied. "Good. Then kindly take one off that lighthouse, will you?"
And with that Turner left the bridge and went into the chartroom. Bestic needn't have worried. Lewis came back at 14.00 and relieved him
anyway, knowing what the "old man" had done.Bestic took the first set of bearing figures to Will in the chartroom on his way off the bridge.
Captain Turner calculated that they were now 14 miles offshore and slightly West of the Old Head. He now had to plot a course through the
mine-free channel into Queenstown harbour.
Kapitan-Leutnant Walther Schwieger meanwhile, was studying the big ship through U-20's attack periscope. Calling to the U-boat's pilot,
Schwieger said,"four funnels, schooner rig, upwards of 20,000 tons and making about 22 knots." Lanz, the pilot, checked in his copies of
Jane's fighting ships and Brassey's naval annual. Lanz called back to Schwieger, "either the Lusitania or the Mauretania, Herr Kapitan-Leutnant."
(Both were listed in Brassey's as being armed merchant cruisers). "Both are listed as cruisers and used for trooping."
U-20 prepared for action. One G6 torpedo was loaded into a forward tube. Schwieger then noticed the target altering course. He could not
believe his luck! He noted later in his logbook that "the ship turns to starboard then takes a course to Queenstown....." Exactly what he had
hoped she would do!
At a range of 650 yards, Schwieger gave the deadly order, "Feur!" There was a loud hiss, the U-boat trembled and Wiesbach,
the torpedo officer confirmed to Schwieger "Torpedo Los!" The G-Type torpedo had cleared the tube and was streaking toward its intended
target at 38 knots with its running depth set at three metres, about ten feet.
Captain Turner had come out of the chartroom and was standing on the port side of the Lusitania's bridge. He was watching Lewis working
on the four-point bearing.Beyond him, stood a Quartermaster right out on the bridge wing acting as a lookout.There was another on the starboard
bridge wing. But it was from the crows nest that the sudden warning came,via the telephone. "Torpedo coming on the starboard side!"
The torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was "like a heavy door being slammed shut." Almost instantaneously came
a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5
as it came back down.The clock on the bridge said 14.10.
Watching events through his periscope, Kapitan-Leutnant Schwieger could not believe that so much havoc could have been wrought by just
one torpedo. He noted in his log that "an unusually heavy detonation" had taken place and noted that a second explosion had also occurred
which he put down to "boilers, coal or powder." He also noticed that the torpedo had hit the Lusitania further forward of where he had aimed it.
Schwieger brought the periscope down and U-20 headed back to sea.
On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then
went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung
inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard.The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty,
but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch.
Panic by John Gray
Each of the wooden lifeboats weighed five tons unladen. To steady them, each had a metal chain called a snubbing chain which held it
to the deck.Prior to lowering the boat, the release pinhad to be knocked out using a hammer, otherwise the boat would remain chained to the deck.
Beaching the ship was obviously out of the question. Turner knew they were fourteen miles from shore and she was sinking so fast that
they'd never make it. He had to stop the ship so that the boats could be safely lowered. Instinctively, he rang down to the engine room for full
The engine room dutifully complied but unfortunately, the overall steam pressure had now dropped drastically, so the Lusitania's massive turbines
were virtually out of commission.At 14.11, the Lusitania had started sending distress signals from the Marconi room.
"SOS, SOS, SOS. COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST. 10 MILES SOUTH OLD KINSALE. MFA."
The last three letters were the Lusitania's call sign.When Vice Admiral Coke in Queenstown received his copyof that distress signal,it must have
seemed as thoughhis worst nightmare had come true.
He had tried in vain all morning to obtaina firm decision from the Admiralty in London. In the end, Coke had been so worried by the obvious danger
that he had taken it upon himself to divert the Lusitania into Queenstown. Unfortunately, it was all too late.Still, there was something he could do.
He sent a signal to Rear Admiral Hood in command of HMS Juno and sent him to the rescue. Coke then sent a detailed signal to the Admiralty,
advising them of what had happened and of his actions. On the Lusitania, the list indicator had just gone through the 15 degree mark.
Captain Turner was still out on the port side wing of the bridge. He had ordered Staff Captain Anderson not to lower any of the boats until the ship
had lost a sufficient amount of her momentum to render it safe.In some cases, on the port side, that meant getting the passengers out of the
lifeboats in order to lower them to the rail. But the passengers did not want to get out of the boats.
At port side boat station no.2, junior Third Officer Bestic was in charge. Standing on the after davit, he was trying to keep order and explain that
due to the heavy list, the boat could not be lowered. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a hammer striking the link-pin to the snubbing chain.
Before the word "NO!" left his lips, the chain was freed and the five-ton lifeboat laden with over 50 passengers,swung inboard and crushed
those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure.
Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it,slid down the deck
towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, right beneath the spot where Captain Turner was.
Bestic, determined to stop the same situation arising at the next boat station, jumped along to no.4 boat; just as somebody knocked out it's
linkpin. He darted out of the way as no.4 boat slid down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the
wreckage of the first two boats.Driven by panic, passengers swarmed into boats 6, 8, 10 and 12. One after the other they careered down the
deck to join 2 and 4.
The sea was now swirling over the bridge floor. Then Lusitania's stern began to settle back and a surge of water flooded the bridge, sweeping
Captain Turner out of the door and off the ship.
As the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, that same surge of water swept junior Third Officer Bestic out through the first class entrance hall into
The Lusitania was gone, and with her had gone 1, 201 people. It was now 14.28 GMT, on Friday 7th May, 1915.
REMINDER: You may wish to return to the page about Captain Turner at this point, if you entered this page from there.
At approx. 2.30pm, intelligence was received by Rev William Forde; the then Hon Secretary of the Courtmacsherry Lifeboat Station,
that a large four funnel steamer was in distress South East of the Seven Heads. Rev Forde immediately went to summon the volunteer
lifeboat crew. On his arrival at the Lifeboat Station, then located at Barry’s Point he was met by the Coxswain and his crew.
At 3pm, the Courtmacsherry Lifeboat, Ketzia Gwilt under the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (Father of Antarctic explorer
Patrick Keohane) was launched. In calm conditions, the sails were of no use so the entire distance of approx. 12.6 nautical miles to the
casualty had to be rowed.
Almost identical lifeboat to the one sent out to the Lusitania from Courtmacsherry.
Photo; Dara Gannon, RNLI.
An extract from the original Courtmacsherry Return to Service log states “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance – On the way
to wreck we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach
the place but it took us at least 3 ½ hours of hard pulling to get there – then only in time to pick up dead bodies”. The Courtmacsherry
Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring
bodies back to Queenstown.
Copy of Courtmacsherry Lifeboat Station Log for 7th May 1915. Photo: Dara Gannon, RNLI.
The final entry from the return to service log written by Rev Forde, who also joined the crew that day, reads: “Everything that was possible
to do was done by the crew to reach the wreck in time to save life but as we had no wind it took us a long time to pull the 10 or 12 miles
out from the boat house. If we had wind or any motor power our boat would have been certainly first on the scene – It was a harrowing
sight to witness – The Sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on others holding on pieces of rafts – all dead.
I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”.
Courtmacsherry Lifeboat stayed on scene engaged in the work of recovering bodies, until 20.40Hrs when they were then towed back to
the entrance of Courtmacsherry bay by a Steam Drifter fishing vessel. They partly rowed and partly sailed back the rest of homeward journey,
reaching the boat house at approx. 01.00Hrs on 8th May.
Meanwhile the Wanderer, a little fishing boat from the Isle of Man, was among the first to reach the scene and they picked up about 200 survivors.
Although they were in danger of sinking with the overload, they still managed to take two of the Lusitania's lifeboats in tow.
The Wanderer was intercepted about two miles of the Old Head of Kinsale by the Admiralty tug the Flying Fish, under the command of
Captain Thomas Brierley. The survivors were transferred to the tug and taken to Queenstown (Cobh), under Admiralty orders. Captain Brierley
and the Flying Fish made several such trips, gathering and ferrying survivors from the scene to Queenstown, and many of those survivors owed
their lives to him and his vessel. Most of the rescue ships were sailing vessels of the local fishing fleet and would have taken hours in the light
winds prevailing that day to reach the scene of the disaster, 12 miles offshore.The Flying Fish was an old side-wheel paddle steamer built in
1886 at South Shields. Although just 122 feet long, and affectionately known amongst the locals in Queenstown as the "Galloping Goose",
she rendered a service that day which far outshone her diminutive size. As well as serving as a tug, she was also used as a tender from the
White Star Line pier at Queenstown, taking passengers and mail out to the waiting liners.Captain Thomas Brierley was born in 1859, not 1861
as shown in the image above and was 56 at the time of the disaster. He was awarded a medal for the outstanding gallantry he displayed during
the endless trips he and his vessel made back and forth from Queenstown, to where the Lusitania had sunk. Bringing back the living, as well
as the dead. What must have been particularly frustrating to this gallant mariner, was the fact that having heard of the disaster that had
overtaken the Lusitania, he had to wait, champing at the bit, for over an hour, for Flying Fish to build up steam before they could head out to
the scene, knowing all the while that lives were being lost all that time.
Even after overcoming that obstacle, Captain Brierley found himself caught up in red tape later when he tried to land survivors at a pier not
normally used by his vessel. He was kept waiting for "official permission" to dock, for what must have seemed like an eternity to him, when
his only concern was to safely offload his human cargo as quickly as possible so that he could return to the scene and save more lives.
Captain Brierley died in 1920, aged just 61. He was buried in the same area as many of the victims of the Lusitania disaster. Victims that he
personally had tried so hard to save from the jaws of death.
Captain Thomas Brierley, Master of the FLYING FISH.
The Recovery Operation.
On the afternoon of the disaster, the crews of the Royal Navy cruisers that were based in Queenstown were put to work tending to the injured
survivors and helping with the dead. The day after the disaster, the Bluejackets were sent out aboard the Admiralty tugs Stormcock, Warrior
and Flying Fish to recover bodies. Henry Grew was among those sent to perform this grisly task. The bodies were brought back to Queenstown
for subsequent burial in the mass graves that had been dug in the old church cemetery.
Henry Grew also recovered the cushion seen here, which was floating amid some bodies.
He dried it out and kept it, eventually passing it on to his son, David. David very kindly passed
it on to Lusitania Online in September 2003, for preservation.
As for the man who recovered the cushion, Henry Grew turned out to have the luck of the Devil.
On 27th May 1915, he returned to his own ship the 19,250-ton "St Vincent" class Battleship
HMS Vanguard. He was with HMS Vanguard when the ship fought at Jutland and both Henry
and the ship came through the battle unscathed.
In this photo above, sailors from HMS Venus, an "Eclipse" class cruiser
belonging to the 11th Cruiser Squadron are helping to unload
recovered bodies from the rescue vessels in Queenstown. The sailors
are carrying the bodies to one of the many temporary mortuaries that
were set up in requisitioned buildings. Third from right is 17 year-old
Boy 1st Class Sailor Henry Grew temporarily attached to
H.M.S. Venus. (Lusitania Online)
HMS Venus, seen here in 1899 visiting the French port of Rouen.
(Musee de Maritime Rouen).
Henry Grew, photographed just after he was
promoted to Ordinary Seaman aboard HMS Vanguard
(David Grew/Lusitania Online).
She was thereafter thought to be a "lucky ship" and certainly Henry's former shipmates must have envied him his posting. On the morning of
July 9th 1917, after serving for a little over two years on HMS Vanguard, Henry was routinely posted to HMS Pembroke. He duly packed his kit
and left the ship at or just after 10:00. At about 14:00 hours, and within four hours of Henry's departure, HMS Vanguard suddenly blew up at
anchor, killing all but 20 of her crew of 838.
Henry survived the war and was pensioned off in 1938 having attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Torpedo Coxwain. However, the Navy
hadn't quite finished with him!
On 3rd September 1939, World War II broke out. Chief Petty Officer Henry Grew was called up from the Royal Navy Reserve and served once
more for the duration of the conflict.
A final "signal" to the then 48 year-old CPO Grew
(David Grew/Lusitania Online)
FLYING FISH seen here at the White Star pier in Queenstown.She is on the
extreme left of the picture, next to the jetty.
Clipping taken from the CORK EXAMINER.
The first section, Disaster, follows the events of "fateful Friday" from 11.00 in the morning to the time that the LUSITANIA sank beneath the
The second part, Rescue, has been written for the website using information and images supplied by Thomas Brierley, Great-Grandson of the
Captain Brierley mentioned in the text, to whom we are extremely grateful for this most personal of memories and Dara Gannon, of the
RNLI Lifeboat Station at Courtmacsherry, Ireland.
A third section, Recovery operation, has now been added thanks to information received from David Grew, the son of a late crew member
of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Venus.
Any wireless instructions received by the LUSITANIA prior to 11.00 are not featured in the following excerpt but they are of course fully dealt
with in the books. What Captain Turner DIDN'T know at this point, was that the Admiralty in London had WITHDRAWN his escort
(without telling him) due to the KNOWN presence of a U-boat.
At this point in the story LUSITANIA was steering course South 87 East at 15 knots through thick fog, 25 miles off the south coast of Ireland.
Captain Turner was fully expecting to meet his naval escort, the light cruiser HMS Juno, at any time.
Thanks to our good friend Peter Boyd-Smith of "Cobwebs", we now know that the cushion came from a sofa in the First Class Music Room,
located within the First Class Lounge on the Lusitania's Boat Deck between funnels 3 and 4. On 1st November 2003, Lusitania Online duly
presented the cushion to the Merseyside Maritime Museum for permanent display.