Peel Heritage Trust: Presentation about the Lusitania

A picture of the sinking of the Lusitania

A picture of the sinking of the Lusitania

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Tony Pass, chairman of the trustees of Manx National Heritage, had a large audience enthralled with his dramatic presentation on the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in the First World War.

The opening question was why should a retired architect and MNH chairman be so interested in this Cunard liner and the tragic events surrounding her loss? Apparently, at five years old, he was transfixed when he saw the Manx turbine steamer, Viking, in Liverpool.

He developed two passions – ships and buildings. About the same time, he was found to be a talented artist but was chided for only drawing houses and ships. However, he earned his living from the first and shipping was and remains, a great passion.

Tony bought a book in 1959, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, when on a school camp. He found this a compelling story that fired up a continuing interest in what, on May 7, 2015, became a story of three vessels – The Lusitania, U Boat 20 and the Peel fishing boat, the Wanderer. The deliberate torpedoing of a passenger liner with the loss of 1195 lives stunned the world and caused international outrage, This didn’t cause any concern with the German High Command and they stepped up their attacks on merchant shipping and repeated the same, of course, in the Second World War.

In 1907, when built, The Lusitania was the largest moving object, ever. However, such was the rate of technological development, by 1916 she became the 6th largest. Interestingly, one loop in the tale was completed when we learned that Cunard used the Manx ship, Viking, as a working example of a successful marine turbine rather than the old, reciprocating engine. So it wasn’t just the red funnels with black capping they copied from the Steam Packet!

The illustrations on the full screen during the talk, added much to both the interest and the drama as the story unfolded. The liner was tested off the Isle of Man and could be seen achieving a remarkable 24 knots that enabled her to hold the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing to New York. She had a prodigious appetite consuming 800 tons of coal a day and needed 5000 tons of coal to refuel. This required 20 coal trains! All of this coal was shovelled in by stokers, day and night, with clinker having to be removed at regular intervals.

In February 1915, Germany declared a shipping blockade on all vessels, arriving or leaving Britain. Von Tirpitz found his U Boats very effective and set about mass slaughter. They were fast on the surface with diesel engines and with electric motors when submerged.

Even fishing boat design and building raced ahead. Peel, alone, had 194 boats with 1500 men and boys in the industry. Graves, the shipbuilders, launched a new boat every few weeks.

The Wanderer was a Dandy rigged lugger. Built in Peel in 1883. She was 30 tons compared to the Lusitania’s 30,000.

We saw the last known photograph of the doomed ship, taken from her sister ship, the Caronia. There were warnings of submarines off Ireland and Captain Turner was given instructions, by the owners as to the course he should follow. It was agreed that he would charge up the Mersey, not stopping at the bar for a pilot. The hope was to outrun any submarine. The ship was blacked out, with even the funnels painted black. Unfortunately, fog caused navigational problems – no radar in those days. This proved to be fatal.

In the process of course changes to get a bearing, the hovering U20 sighted Lusitania. The Wanderer became aware of her presence at about the same time as the Germans. She saw the torpedo strike and two explosions followed just beneath the bridge. The ship was lost in just 19 minutes. Despite having lifeboats out on their derricks, the crew was not trained for this event and many jammed or were smashed against the sides.

The Germans were noted for firing at any rescue ships to kill as many people as possible. Despite this, the Wanderer sailed in, the first on the scene, rescuing about 160 people, including two boats taken in tow. Amazing heroism and seamanship! The crew were all awarded medals and we saw the men and their decorations after presentation on Tynwald Day.

I’d love to tell you more, including the question session that followed. You should have been with us! With this in mind, be in the Centenary Centre, Peel, on Wednesday, June 15, at 7.30pm. Alex Downey will be talking about Manxmen at Trafalgar. He will, apparently, be accompanied by weaponry from the period.

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