The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

Room 40, Naval Intelligence, and the Morality of War

The sinking of the Lusitania was the event that drew the United States into the First World War. Did the British Empire ignore knowledge of a German U-boat headed for the steamliner? Or did top British officials deliberately instruct the U-boat, using the Germans’ own encrypted communications, to target the passenger ship? Evidence suggests explosives aboard the Lusitania are what blew the hull open from the inside out.

I read a lot of books, and the one I just finished is titled Room 40: British Naval Intelligence 1914–1918 by Patrick Beesly. “Room 40”, also known as 40 Old Building, was the site where the British tried to crack German naval communication codes during the First World War. It was the predecessor of the now infamous Bletchley Park where Alan Turing would break the Enigma during WWII.

What Sank the Lusitania?

In a 2012 documentary about the May 7th, 1915, sinking of the RMS Lusitania — which was undeniably hit by one German submarine torpedo — Dr. Lee Glascoe, a researcher then working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, concluded after a series of experiments that, in all likelihood, one of the Lusitania’s boiler rooms must have exploded.

Due to a rapid influx of cold water, caused by the hole the torpedo created, the heated boiler must have blown up. This blowup is what then caused the greater of the two explosions (first the torpedo and then the boiler room), ripping such a big hole in the ship’s hull that its interior flooded with water while people hastily scrambled to lower the lifeboats.

Today, this is the accepted theory. It is a theory that allows the British, to this day, to blame the Germans for their brutaility — attacking passenger ships and killing innocent civilians. Indeed, the Germans never denied they torpedoed the passenger ship, and the U-boat’s captain even dryly remarked in his journal that, “I could not fire a second torpedo into the mass of people saving themselves.”

But that’s not the conclusion Patrick Beesly arrives at in his work. Beesly mentions a particular piece of information that argues against the boiler room theory, and in favor of munitions and explosives aboard the Lusitania. It is a piece of information also omitted from the 2012 documentary. It is this: there were surviving crew members from all three of the Lusitania’s boiler rooms, but the crew working the luggage rooms right above the section where the Lusitania might have stored explosives all perished.

None of the surviving crew working the three boiler rooms made any note of a second explosion. Based on these crew members’ eye-witness accounts — no explosions in the boiler rooms — we must draw a different conclusion.

Beesly presents evidenc that, on the Lusitania’s second-to-last voyage, the ship had been carrying, “Special shipments, Bethlehem, 18 cases fuses, 1466 cases shrapnel shells filled, … two Orlop and two refrigerator hatch …” These shells were filled with explosive materials, and their fuses consisted of a “highly sensitive substance”.


“But to admit all this would have been to concede the German claim that the liner sank so quickly, and with such appalling loss of life, only because her cargo, contraband in German eyes, exploded. Filled shells, even unfused, might conceivably have been caused to explode by the one torpedo; if the fulminate of mercury fuses were also in the same area, an enormous explosion would have been inevitable. Such facts would not only have blunted the revulsion of the world against German brutality, it would have raised questions about the British policy of shipping dangerous munitions in passenger vessels carrying civilian, not to mention neutral, passengers.”

The British enquiry into the Lusitania’s sinking then had to conceil this fact (explosives aboard) from public. The British Empire had to go looking for other ‘evidence’, namely that the Germans must have fired a second torpedo, or perhaps that the boiler room had exploded. As Beesly mentions, the surviving crew from the boiler rooms were never called to give evidence.

A Conspiracy Theory

In conclusion, the event that drew the United States into the First World War, helping support the Entente against Germany, may have been either of two possibilities.

In case of a genuine accident, the British were indeed transporting military equipment, shells, fuses, and explosives, aboard passenger ships like the Lusitania, mainly to supply the French (allies) and the front lines of the war with munitions. In this case, since the British intelligence at Room 40 had long cracked most of the Germans’ secret naval codes, no one apaprently informed the captain of the Lusitania about the U-boat headed its way. In other words, top British officials must have let the accident happen, knowing full well that a torpedo hitting the munitions room would sink the ship, killing 1,198 civilians.

But there is another, even darker, possibility. Namely this: Might the British, using the cracked codebooks of the Germans, have themselves instructed the German U-boot to target the Lusitania in the first place? If that’s what really perspired, the morality of war shall forever remain a thing wholly unfathomable to the general public, namely that our leaders would have their own people killed, deliberately, merely to win battles.

In this world, you’re either a sheep, a wolf, or a shepherd. And most of us are sheep.

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