Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office.
Last month I wrote a blog post on the sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat launch system, which is on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The National Archives, however, holds another document related to the famous sinking of the Lusitania: the log book of U-20, the submarine that fired the torpedo that sunk the ship.
The onset of the First World War saw the widespread use of weapons that had seen only limited combat in previous conflicts. In addition to machine guns and airplanes, gas and tanks, World War I was the first major conflict that saw the widespread use of submarines. The Germans, especially, relied upon a large fleet of Unterseeboats to harass British shipping.
In November 1914 the British blockaded the North Sea, restricting all shipping, including food and medical shipments. In retaliation the German High Command contemplated something unthinkable in the past: sinking all enemy ships regardless of military status. Imperial Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on November 4, 1914.
Concerned over the international response to this declaration, the German Embassy in Washington, hoping to avoid controversy, published notices specifically warning American passengers not to travel aboard the Lusitania and other passenger liners that sailed to Britain. It had little effect.
On the morning of May 7, 1915, U-20, a German submarine, spotted the Lusitania off the Irish coast. The submarine stalked her prey for much of the rest of the day. At 3:10 p.m. the submarine fired a single torpedo without first warning the crew, as had previously been required under the laws of war.
The torpedo hit the middle of the ship. U-20’s captain, Walther Schweiger, noted in the log that the torpedo caused an “extraordinarily large explosion,” which tore apart “the superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge” and covered much of what was left of the Lusitania in smoke.
Schweiger went on to describe the panic that ensued aboard the vessel as passengers and crew alike sought to abandon ship. Schweiger observed that the crew deployed lifeboats without anyone aboard only to have passengers jump directly into the boat, which caused the boats to fill with water and sink.
A later investigation found that the life boat deployment system was faulty, helping to explain why many of the boats were lowered without anyone in them.
U-20 left the survivors to drown. 1,198 civilians died as a result of the German submarine’s actions, including 128 Americans.
Schweiger’s decision to sink the Lusitania, as well as two other passenger ships, without offering civilians a chance to escape led to his eventual punishment. The German high command brought in Schweiger, in the face of international criticism over his actions, and forced him to apologize.
In need of experienced captains, the German navy let Schweiger return to work and eventually reassigned him to another submarine, U-88. She sank on September 5, 1917, after hitting a mine in the North Sea.
All told, Schweiger and his various crews sank 190,000 tons of Allied shipping, making him the sixth most successful U-boat commander of World War I. For his effort, Schweiger eventually received Germany’s highest honor, the Pour le Merite.
Despite her record of 39 ships sunk, U-20 did not survive the war either. After suffering damage to its engines, she ran aground off the coast of Denmark in November 1916. The crew, fearing her capture, attempted to blow the U-boat up before abandoning it. The attempt, however, failed and the submarine remained a silent reminder of conflict long after the war ended.
The Danish government removed both the turret gun and the conning tower (now both on display in Denmark) and eventually destroyed the submarine’s remains in 1925.
The sketch of the Lusitania’s lifeboats is on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, until June 3, 2015.
Interested in learning about how non-U.S. documents make it into the holdings of the National Archives? Then check out Greg Bradsher’s article “Hitler’s Final Words, His Political Testament, Personal Will, and Marriage Certificate: From the Bunker in Berlin to the National Archives,” in the Spring 2015 issue of Prologue.