What Sank the “Lusitania”?
Reproduced in its entirety from The Scientific American, May 29, 1915
In its endeavor to becloud the issue, official Germany has claimed that the ammunition carried by the “Lusitania” contributed largely to the swift sinking of that great ship.
Now this is a technical question, and to anyone who is technically qualified to judge the matter, the explanation offered is, on the face of it, absurd.
This war has proved over and over again that one submarine torpedo of the German type, carrying 420 pounds of high explosive, is sufficient to sink a warship–even a battleship which, exclusive of the double bottom deck, is divided into no less than two hundred and fifty separate watertight compartments, big and small.
The question of the length of time a ship fully subdivided will remain afloat after being torpedoed, depends largely upon where the blow gets home. In the case of a battleship, especially a thoroughly modern ship like the “Audacious,” the blow of a mine ofr a torpedo, in addiiton to the local damage, may so badly shake up and loosen her internal structure, that gradual seepage of water will occur through the bulkheads, and she will eventually sink several hours after the attack. But should the blow strike in the region of a magazine, as in the case of the Russian “Petropavlovsk” and the Japanese “Hatsuse,” the explosion of the torpedo warhead may instantly be succeeded by the far greater explosion of the whole magazine, and the ship, no matter what her size, will go down in two or three minutes’ time.
Now the fact that the “Lusitania” remained afloat eighteen or twenty minutes after being torpedoed completely disproves the assertion of the Germans that her cargo of ammunition exploded–and nobody knows this so perfectly well as Admiral von Tirpitz himself and the subordinate in command of the submarine which sank the ship.
To be convinced of this, let us consider the case of two warships in which the ammunition exploded, and see what happened. In the case of the U.S.S. “Maine,” when the flame and shock of the mine which contributed to her swift sinking reached the forward magazine, they exploded and the enormous force of the gases lifted her forward deck and rolled it back upon the after part of the ship just as one would turn the leaf of a book. Again, take the case of the French battleship “Liberte,” whose forward magazine exploded through deterioration of her smokeless powder. Exactly the same thing happened as in the case of the “Maine,” but on a larger and more destructive scale. The decks of this great ship lying above her magazine were torn loose from the hull, lifted high in air and rolled back, upside down, upon the after part of the ship.
If the cargo of the ammunition carried by the “Lusitania” had been set off by the torpedo which struck her, similar results would have followed. The enormous expansive force of the gases of the explosion would have blown out the sides of the ship above the waterline and torn open her decks above, folding them back upon themselves. Did any such destruction occur? Was there any evidence whatsoever of such an explosion? The very fact that the ship remained afloat as long as she did proves that nothing of the kind happened, and that the ammunition in her hold had no part in the sinking of the ship.
So enormous is the charge of explosive carried by the submarine torpedo of the Germans that the single torpedo which struck her not only tore a vast opening in the outer skin of the ship, but the disruptive effects of the gases let loose under high pressure within her hull structure were sufficient to wreck the inner wall of the side bunkers and produce an immediate and enormous inrush of water, besides loosening up in the frames and bulkheading in the neighborhood of the explosion to such an extent that less than a half an hour was sufficient to put the great ship below the surface.
A battleship not only carries a heavy watertight protective deck, but the underwater portion of the ship below this deck is divided and subdivided transversely and longitudintally until she contains, as we have said, over two hundred and fifty separate watertight compartments, bit and little.
The “Lusitania” contained below the waterline only thirty-four such compartments–and this was all that could be conveniently accommodated within a ship whose primary purpose was for the uses of commerce and not to face the perils of modern submarine warfare. Since she was designed the explosive charge in the warheads of torpedoes, at least of those used on submarines, has been more than doubled. The commander of the German submarine, when he discharged his torpedo at point-blank range and saw it strike home, knew that the “Lusitania” would probably go down fast and long before her helpless passengers could take to the boats. This was expected and so intended by the Imperial German Admiralty.
Note: Other than the front cover none of these illustrations are from this specific magazine. The article itself has no illustration or accompanying photographs.