Retro: Sheffield reporter’s revelations on Lusitania

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In 1975 a Star reporter, David Lewis, undertook a special investigation into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania.

It was prompted by a meeting in a Dublin pub with one of the surviving crew of the U-20 German submarine, who told him: “It was not a chance which took us to the Lusitania. We knew exactly where to find her.”

David Lewis said that many experts at that time believed that the ship had been deliberately sent to her doom “as part of a cold-blooded strategy to bring America into the First World War”.

The Star report said that Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had a map showing that the Lusitania and its escort cruiser the Juno were on course to an area that spies had managed to discover was the last indicated position of the U-20.

If she changed course, the collision would take place even earlier, said the report.

The captain of the ship, William Turner, maintained that he had been ordered to divert to Queenstown, something the Admiralty denied.

David Lewis said that evidence had come to light to prove that Captain Turner received a two-word signal at 11.02am on the day that the ship sank, which he acknowledged with a secret code word, Westrona.

The U-boat captain’s log noted that the change of course made it possible for his vessel to draw near for firing.

Captain Turner, who initially faced official criticism, was cleared of any wrongdoing by a Board of Trade inquiry.

The chairman of the inquiry, Lord Mersey, refused his fee and afterwards asked to be “excused from administering His Majesty’s justice”.

In private, he was said to have remarked: “The Lusitania case was a damned dirty business”.

David said that there was a lot of evidence that the ship secretly carried a large quantity of explosives, which could have explained why she sank very quickly, in just 18 minutes.

The presence of explosives was discounted in 1982 by the Ministry of Defence.

The Star investigation said that Lusitania had been fitted out as a war cruiser in 1913 but in the end was not used in the war effort and the British government stressed that she was sailing as a civilian liner on that last fateful voyage from New York on May 3, 1915.

Apparently advertisements were placed in the US press by the German embassy that passengers would travel at their own risk.

In March 1994, The Star reported that Dronfield pensioner Ronald Allsop, then aged 74, had told a TV documentary that his cousin, Randall Wass, was a gunner on board the Lusitania.

He said that Randall did not die because he decided to go AWOL rather than rejoin his ship.

“He had a premonition that something awful was going to happen and he went AWOL. It saved his life.”

Whatever the truth of the controversy that David Lewis reported on in 1975, it is certainly true that the outcry over the sinking of the ship increased the pressure on the Americans to enter the war as US citizens were on board.

Anti-German riots also took place in cities like Liverpool.