It is generally accepted now that the ship was carrying arms destined for Britain and her Allies. This fact alone made the ship a legitimate target for a U-boat, particularly when the British blockade of the German fleet was an attempt to starve Germany out and, for some time, it seemed to account for the speed with which Lusitania sank. The explosion caused by the German torpedo was immediately followed by a far bigger explosion and, though nowadays it is believed that this was due to the torpedo igniting coal dust or one of the engines, for a while it was thought that it was due to the igniting of the hidden arms. In a scene reminiscent of the bombing of an Iraqi hospital, which was said to be built over one of Saddam’s arms depots, the innocent passengers were basically used as a human shield. Of course, the killing of civilians (including children and citizens of a neutral country) cannot be excused but I believe that the greater guilt lies not with Walter Schwieger, who captained the U-boat, but with Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill.
Churchill – the man who wrote, when millions of people were dying: “I LOVE this war!” - had sent several ‘top secret’ memos saying that it would be ideal if American ships could be enticed into the areas where U-boats were operating, so that they would be sunk and America would join the Allies. He did not care how many people were killed as long as he succeeded in his war game. Captain Schwieger, on the other hand, had sunk several ships but had always given the crews time to escape. Only days before sinking Lusitania, he surfaced before firing a torpedo at another vessel so that the crew would see him, abandon ship and make their way to safety before they were struck. No one was killed. When he saw Lusitania, he was aware that the ship had sufficient lifeboats for all the passengers. He also knew that a ship like that would take a long time to sink (Titanic took two hours) and, since they were very close to the Irish coast, the passengers would have time to make their way to the shore. In fact, due to the second explosion, the ship listed, rendering half the lifeboats useless and in the ensuing panic, other lifeboats were dropped too hastily into the sea and capsized. The whole ship sank in less than twenty minutes.
A couple of weeks before the ship left New York, the German Embassy in Washington posted a notice warning that all ships bearing the British flag were liable to be attacked. Several prominent bankers also received specific telegrams from some ‘unknown’ source, telling them quite specifically that Lusitania would be torpedoed. Some of them cancelled their passage.
A British battleship, Juno, had been patrolling the waters and could have served as an escort to Lusitania but this ship was recalled to port and no alternative was sent out. British intelligence was aware that the U-boat was operating but no specific warning was sent by Churchill. Lusitania was capable of great speed and could have out-sailed any U-boat, but the owners had ordered the captain to use only some of her engines in order to save fuel, and for the same reason the ship did not zig-zag as others did to make a torpedo attack virtually impossible. Basically, Lusitania was a sitting duck.
The evening before the attack, King George V asked an ambassador whether the USA would enter the war if a U-boat sank Lusitania. Churchill then went on holiday. Who was to blame for the murder of over a thousand people? Who was the real – and more cowardly – aggressor?