The Lusitania Resource > Controversies > The Culpability of Captain Turner

The Culpability of Captain Turner

Was Captain Turner at fault for the torpedoing of the Lusitania?

Firstly, let it be said that Captain Turner was an experienced captain, one of the best in the business.  Cunard would not have entrusted one of its prized possessions to an underqualified captain.  As the captain of the ship, however, Turner was ultimately responsible for anything that happened to his ship and passengers and crew.

Admiralty instructions that Turner had been following were:

1) posting extra lookouts
2) keeping lifeboats ready for lowering in the war zone
3) keeping radio silence within 100 miles of land
4) blacking out lights at night

Worth noting was that Lusitania did not have all of her portholes closed as ordered, nor was her crew trained in handling lifeboats.  Even with the ship’s heavy list, many fatalities on the port side of the ship could have been avoided if the crew had been better trained in handling lifeboats.

Now, let’s examine Admiralty instructions that Turner had been accused of disregarding during the inquest:

a) Failure to avoid headlands

The Admiralty’s legal team would lead people to believe that Captain Turner was too close to land when Lusitania was torpedoed, therefore Turner was in violation of the directives to avoid headlands and to steer a mid-channel course.  Turner himself stated that at the time of the torpedoing, Lusitania was 13 to 15 miles from land, which is confirmed by the location of the wreck.  The Admiralty’s attempt to smear Captain Turner, however, insisted throughout the inquiry that Lusitania was only 8 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale.  Regardless of the true distance, during peacetime, ships pass the Old Head of Kinsale at a distance of 2 miles.  Captain Turner had exceeded this distance by more than 10 miles.  Had Turner ignored this directive and took Lusitania on her peacetime course, she would have missed the U-20 entirely.  As for the possibility of being farther out from the Irish coast, the message Lusitania received on Friday, 7 May, 11:25 a.m. read: “SUBMARINE ACTIVE IN SOUTHERN PART OF IRISH CHANNEL, LAST HEARD OF TWENTY MILES SOUTH OF CONINGBEG LIGHT VESSEL.”  With this information, Turner had believed (wrongly) that going farther out to sea would have put Lusitania in the path of this reported submarine.

b) Failure to steer a mid-channel course

An examination of the geography of Europe would show that on her last crossing, Lusitania had not been in a channel and was not in a channel when she was torpedoed; she was in the Celtic Sea.  The land directly south of Ireland is not France but Spain.  Anyone would have interpreted “mid-channel” as being applicable to only the North Channel, St. George’s Channel, and the English Channel, particularly the Straits of Dover.  Lusitania was in none of these places.  Steering a mid-channel course would have been impossible for Lusitania as she was not in a channel.

Furthermore, Captain Turner was making landfall after 6 days at sea and steaming through thick fog.  At this point, he would have been concerned with accurate navigation, running aground in rocky waters, and submarines.  Making landfall would have been required for navigation unless special instructions were sent to the ship.  An example of special instructions would be such an order given to the cruiser Gloucester, which, while returning to Britain from Gibraltar, was given instructions “to pass 60 miles west of Cape Finisterre, to cross the parallel of 50 North in Longitude 9 West and then steer a mid-channel course up the Irish Channel.  After passing 49N she was to maintain a speed of not less than twenty knots and to zigzag” (Beesly, 100).

Relying on general instructions that Lusitania received to steer a mid-channel course without making landfall is absurd.  Given the detailed instructions that the Admiralty gave to ships traveling through the war zone, it is not surprising that the lack of such specific orders on Lusitania‘s last crossing and issuing only general orders would have confused Turner.

c) Failure to steam at full speed

True, at 18 knots, Lusitania was not steaming at full speed.  Keep in mind, however, that Lusitania‘s speed was second only to her sister Mauretania.  At her reduced speed of 18 knots, Lusitaniawas still faster than all but eight other ships in the merchant marine, and faster than all the German submarines, regardless of whether they were submerged or on the surface.

d) Failure to zigzag

This charge is more problematic.  Olympic had zigzagged to avoid a U-boat in the fall of 1914, so this practice was not unknown.  Lusitania fireman John O’Connell was also familiar with this practice and thought it curious that the day of the sinking Lusitania was sailing in a straight line.

Turner himself stated during the inquiry that he was aware of the Admiralty promoting zigzagging, but his private conversations with Albert Bestic stated that “they didn’t even explain to me about zigzagging.”  But how could this be?  Attorney-General Edward Carson questioned Turner about receiving this Admiralty instruction, dated to 16 April 1915:

War experience has shown that fast steamers can considerably reduce the chance of successful surprise submarine attacks by zigzagging — that is to say, altering the course at short and irregular intervals, say in ten minutes to half an hour. This course is almost invariably adopted by warships when cruising in an area known to be infested with submarines. The underwater speed of a submarine is very slow and it is exceedingly difficult for her to get into position to deliver an attack unless she can observe and predict the course of the ship attacked.

Bailey and Ryan state that this order is “reasonably clear” (pg 142), and Turner himself acknowledged receiving such an order, but he also stated, “it sounds very different from when I read it.”

Around the time of Lusitania‘s last departure from Liverpool on 17 April 1915, Captain Webb of the Admiralty’s Trade Division was preparing new instructions for merchant ships on how to deal with the U-boat danger.  These instructions included, for the first time in print as a general instruction, how merchant ships were to follow Royal Navy practice and zigzag in danger areas.  These instructions had to be submitted to Churchill for approval before being sent out, which Churchill did not do until 25 April, the day after Captain Turner brought Lusitania to New York for the last time.  Distribution of this order outside the Admiralty did not start until 13 May, almost a week after Lusitania’s demise.  Therefore, whatever orders Turner received on 16 April could not have been the same orders that were not issued until 13 May.  Then it is no wonder why Turner’s recollection of the order was different from what Carson read at the inquiry.  The order that Carson read was not the order Turner received but the order issued on 13 May, conveniently backdated to 16 April, the day before Lusitania departed Liverpool for the last time.

The orders the Admiralty issued on 13 May were for all ships.  What Turner received on 16 April must have been specific to Lusitania and must have mentioned zigzagging, but in words less clear on what it was, how to do it, and why it was important than what Carson read to him.  This earlier version of instructions must have been more open to misinterpretation, as Turner himself had stated that he thought zigzagging was only to be used when a submarine had been sighted.  That being the case, it is no wonder that Carson read the 13 May directions instead of the directions that Turner actually received and would have found familiar.  The clearer, and later, instructions that Carson read served to paint the Admiralty in a better light while making Captain Turner a convenient scapegoat.

Furthermore, Turner had been zigzagging on the afternoon of 7 May, steering a serpentine course for more than an hour around noon.  Second cabin passenger Daniel V. Moore stated that “Lusitania was zig-zagging along at a speed of about 19 knots,” and between 1:00 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. Lusitania “swerved so violently that she listed heavily” (Bailey/Ryan 143).  Of course, faced with a legal team determined to prove Turner guilty of negligence, Turner did not have much of a chance to to state that his unconventional course changes that afternoon were a faithful adherence to his instructions.  At the New York liability trial, and even to the end of his life, Turner maintained that he had been following Admiralty instructions to the best of his abilities.

What remains inexplicable is why, at 1:45 p.m. on 7 May, Captain Turner decided to turn and hold Lusitania onto a course of 87 degrees east for a steady four-point bearing.  This action required 40 minutes of steaming in a straight line, which in a war zone goes against common sense.  Had whatever orders Turner received been so unclear that he thought zigzagging was only necessary after danger was sighted?  It was more than halfway through these 40 minutes that U-20 fired upon Lusitania, as the ship had not changed her bearings for the previous 25 minutes, making her vulnerable to attack.

Patrick Beesly attempts to explain away this action by pointing out that Turner was making landfall for the first time in 6 days.  With all the rocks off southern Ireland, of course Turner needed accurate navigation, hence the four-point bearing.  Continued zigzagging would not allow Turner to establish his position, and he had already mistaken some other piece of land for Brow’s Head.  The four-point bearing would allow Turner to confirm, beyond a doubt, where Lusitania‘s exact position was.

This would be a fine explanation, except that a sun-line bearing (requiring five minutes) or a cross bearing (requiring only three minutes) would have sufficed and were no less accurate than a four-point bearing.  When presented with this evidence at the inquiry, Turner remained unconvinced that cross-bearings were just as accurate as a four-point bearing.  It would seem that Turner was more concerned with running aground than an attack from a submarine, but, to be fair, rocks were a certainty off the coast of Ireland; submarine attacks were not.  A.A. Hoehling even wonders if Turner’s lapse in judgment was attributable to a medical condition, “elevated blood pressure,” or even “a small stroke” (Hoehling and Hoehling, 247).

On the other hand, one should keep in mind that the order Carson read wanted ships to change course every “ten minutes to half an hour.”  Turner had held Lusitania on a straight course from 1:45 p.m. to 2:10 p.m. when she was struck.  Twenty-five minutes is within the 30 minute window suggested by the Admiralty.  Admittedly, this is a weak defense as Turner was clear that he intended to hold the course for another 15 minutes, which would have been over the Admiralty’s 30 minute limit, unless the directives Turner received on 16 April specified longer or no time intervals on zigzagging.

Beesly also wonders if Turner’s course of action had anything to do with the Admiralty orders that are still unavailable to the general public.  The fact that crew was bringing luggage on deck, remarks to a member of the US Embassy, and the recollection of Quartermaster Hugh Johnston “at half past one . . . we altered the course two or three times in towards the land; I do not know what for,” indicates that Lusitania was not bypassing Queenstown, but rather heading for it, a theory echoed by Patrick O’Sullivan.

If this had been the case, Lusitania would have had to make another abrupt turn in course after 2:25 p.m. to enter Queenstown Harbour, and not continue to steam in a straight line that Bailey and Ryan have accused Turner of planning.  Bailey and Ryan’s accusation that Turner did not even consider taking Lusitania through the safer North Channel is equally unfair.  As the radio exchanges between the Admiralty and Lusitania from 5 May to 7 May are still classified, one cannot say with certainty that Turner did not request to take his ship through the North Channel, only to be denied.

To fully understand the actions Turner took that fateful Friday afternoon in 1915, one would have to look at the signals exchanged between the Admiralty and Lusitania from 5 to 7 May.  Until these records become public, however, the reasons for Captain Turner’s actions or inactions can only be theorized.

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