Lusitania 7th May 1915

Victim of the fiendish Hun - or Churchill's cynical sacrifice?Launched: 7th June 1906

Builders: John Brown, Clydebank

Port of Registry: Liverpool

 

Passengers Lost: 794 (63%)

Crew Lost: 407 (58%)

Total Lost: 1,201 (61%)

 


William Thomas Turner (1856-1933) 'Bowler Bill' returned to Crosby to die

Captain of the Lusitania

    Liverpool-born "Bowler Bill" Turner was captain of the ill-fated Lusitania. Sailing from New York to Liverpool, the Cunard liner was sunk by a German torpedo off the Old Head of Kinsale, Southern Ireland on Friday 7th May 1915.

   Educated at Liverpool College, William Turner went before the mast at the age of 13, serving as a deck boy with his father, who was a sea-captain. He joined Cunard in 1878 as 3rd Officer of the Cherbourg. Steaming out of Huskisson Dock, Liverpool in heavy fog, the vessel collided with a barque, sinking her and drowning the pilot and four crew. Turner jumped into a boat and rescued a man and a boy from the water. In February 1885 he plunged in to Alexandra Dock to save a boy who had fallen in; for this rescue he was awarded the Humane Society's silver medal.

    After service on the Umbria, carrying troops during the Boer War, Turner was promoted rapidly, captaining the Carpathia, Ivernia and Caronia.  He then saw the Lusitania through her early crossings to New York, taking the Blue Riband in the process with a record speed of 25.88 knots, and earning for the ship the title "greyhound of the seas". The slightly faster Mauretania was his next command, and more Blue Ribands followed. After taking the Aquitania on her maiden voyage in May 1914, "Bowler Bill" was put in command of the Lusitania again. Despite being an extremely capable seaman with a legendary reputation for personal strength and ability, Turner loathed the social side of a captain's job, and deliberately took his meals on the bridge to avoid the passengers. They would have been very shocked to hear Captain Turner's opinion, delivered in his thick Liverpool accent, that they were "a load of bloody monkeys!" Cunard had to employ a Staff Captain, John Anderson, purely to undertake the necessary socializing.

    The Lusitania and Mauretania had been commissioned and designed specifically as armed auxiliary cruisers, the entire cost being met by the Admiralty, who also provided Cunard with an annual operating subsidy of 75,000 per ship. Her bulkhead design followed that of warships, with longitudinal bulkheads creating coal bunkers along the sides of the ship. Modern analysis has identified this as a weakness, which compromised Lusitania's buoyancy and stability. The problem was exacerbated by the decision to build 9 decks high with a narrow beam of 87 ft. The Royal Navy itself recognised the vulnerability of the bulkhead design in its own warships, ordering that similarly-designed cruisers should not enter danger zones un-escorted........

    At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Lusitania was handed over to the Admiralty and sent to the Canada Dock, Liverpool, where she was equipped with twelve 6-inch guns. She entered the Admiralty fleet register as an armed auxiliary cruiser, and it should be noted that her armament gave her a heavier broadside than the Royal Navy cruisers that patrolled the English Channel. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, visited Liverpool and surveyed the Lusitania. He made a remark that would haunt him - "To me she's just another 45,000 tons of livebait........"

    The Germans protested against the arming of merchant ships, pointing out that this would force them in turn to abandon the chivalrous "stop-and search" procedures that had hitherto been a feature of the U-boat war. Up to that time, a submarine would invariably surface, order the vessel to stop, board her, seize papers and anything else of value, and allow the crew ample time to take to the boats, before launching a torpedo. From now on the Germans would have no option but to attack without warning. They also lodged protests about the use of neutral flags by the British, particularly the Stars and Stripes. The German Embassy in New York placed prominent advertisements next to the Lusitania's timetable in the shipping pages, reminding travellers that a state of war existed between England and Germany and that the waters around the British Isles were considered a war zone........

    When the Lusitania left New York on the 1st May 1915, Captain Turner was concerned by the threat, but he had been assured by the Admiralty that a British cruiser, the Juno, would be there to meet him, as soon as he entered the danger zone off the southern coast of Ireland. On Wednesday the 5th May, Winston Churchill, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher held a meeting at the Admiralty, at which they decided to withdraw the Juno from the waters around Queenstown, Southern Ireland. Whatever their motivations were for this act, no-one saw fit to inform Captain Turner, and the Lusitania sailed on obliviously into the danger zone........

    At 1.20 pm on Friday 7th May 1915, Lieutenant Walter Schwieger of U-20 saw a smudge of smoke on his starboard bow. It appeared to be a large four-funnelled steamer heading for Queenstown. Schwieger manoeuvred the U-boat for a flank shot, correctly identifying his target as "either the Lusitania or Mauretania, both armed cruisers." Torpedoes in the early days of the First World War were rather uncertain weapons, and Schwieger would not have been greatly surprised if the leviathan had shrugged off the assault, like an elephant might dismiss a gnat, and continued majestically on her way. Schwieger fired a single torpedo, and his own log-book entry conveys his astonishment at what happened next:

"2.10 pm. Pure bowshot at 700 meters range, angle of intersection 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Shot strikes starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosion cloud (far beyond front funnel). The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn asunder, fire breaks out, smoke envelops the high bridge. The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship is going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. Great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity, are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first, and founder immediately. I could not have launched a second torpedo into that struggling throng of humanity........"

    The second explosion was so devastating that the Lusitania went down in only 18 minutes, taking with her over 1200 people, including 124 Americans - most notably Alfred Vanderbilt. Utter chaos reigned on board during those 18 minutes, and only 6 out of 48 lifeboats were successfully launched. Captain Turner was the last to leave the ship.

    What had caused the second huge explosion? The Lusitania's secret cargo manifest gives some clues. Among the mundane items were 3863 "boxes of cheese", each weighing 40 pounds. Their destination was a Liverpool post-office box number, which turned out to belong to the Superintendent of the Naval Experimental Establishment at Shoeburyness! Then there were the 323 bales of "furs", destined for the Liverpool firm of B.F. Babcock and Co.  Babcock's had never dealt in fur, but had previously received several shipments of gun-cotton, a commodity known to be highly explosive when coming into contact with water....... 

    The disaster was instrumental in edging the United States closer to joining the First World War. There were serious riots in Liverpool, where most of the crew lived, directed against shops with German-sounding names. Family legend has it that my own grandmother faced down a mob intent on destroying a butcher's shop on Scotland Road, Liverpool!

    Captain Turner returned to sea, in command of the Link, and was torpedoed again, 30 miles west of Cyprus. He survived and Cunard made him Commodore of the line. In 1921 Churchill published "The World Crisis" in which he sought to blame Turner for the sinking of the Lusitania, rather than admit that the Admiralty (and hence Churchill himself) were at fault by withdrawing the protection of the cruiser Juno. Wounded by these unfounded allegations, "Bowler Bill" retired and sought sanctuary away from Merseyside, first in Devon and then in Australia. He was unable to resist the lure of Liverpool for long, however, and returned to spend his final years in Crosby.

     For 20 years after the sinking the precise location of the Lusitania wreck was unknown. Shortly before his death Captain Turner was visited at his home in Crosby by the Lusitania's Third Officer Albert Bestic, who was now working for the salvagers. The sly old captain produced a stained and barely legible document - it was the very chart he had been working on when the torpedo struck, and he had thoughtfully stuffed it in his tunic before going over the side. The chart proved to be precise, and led to the first discovery of the wreck site in 1935.

     The British Government's attitude to the discovery of the wreck can be judged from the fact that for several years afterwards, the Royal Navy used the Lusitania as a target for intensive depth-charging exercises. Many of her secrets were undoubtedly obliterated in the process. The wreck is now unrecognisable as once being the pride of the Cunard fleet. However, one of the Lusitania's quadruple screws was salvaged in 1982, and can now be seen on the quayside at Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, Liverpool.

      Captain Turner died at home at 50 De Villiers Avenue, Crosby on 23rd June 1933. "Bowler" Bill shared his home with his long-time companion and house-keeper, Miss Mabel Every. On the King's birthday and St. George's Day he would instruct Mabel to fly the Union Jack from the flagpole in the garden. He kept his sense of humour to the end, entertaining local children with sea-shanties and an old violin. Stricken with intestinal cancer, he quipped "I'm all right fore and aft, but my longitudinal bulkhead's given way!".  But he never forgave Churchill for his attempt to blame him for the loss of the Lusitania. His estate came to 4,427 0s 9d.

      Mabel Every lived into her 90s, dying in 1978. Her most treasured memento was a medal inscribed
"W.T. Turner, Fourth Officer, City of Chester, who jumped into the sea to rescue a drowning boy, April 1883"

      By an eerie quirk of fate, Captain Turner's son, Percy, who was in Naval Intelligence, was killed during the Second World War, when his ship was torpedoed just a mile from where the Lusitania went down.


This remarkable photograph of the Lusitania passing the Waterloo shore circa 1908 was kindly provided by Pete Crosby, of Waterloo.

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