Conspiracy or Foul-Up?

Did Winston Churchill engineer a conspiracy to sink Lusitania and bring the United States into World War I?

The speculation about the conspiracy theory comes from a letter Winston Churchill sent to Walter Runciman, the president of Britain’s Board of Trade.  In this letter, Churchill wrote the following:

It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.

Of course, the obvious hole in this argument is that while the United States was neutral, Lusitania was clearly a British ship and not “neutral shipping.”

One can also question the lack of action on behalf of the Admiralty in light of the Admiralty’s previous records of looking after Lusitania.  Lusitania was a symbol of national prestige.  Naturally, more privileges were granted to her than to any other ship.

When Lusitania was scheduled to arrive in Liverpool on 6 March 1915, Trade Division signalled Lusitania at Cunard’s request, relaying,”Owners advise keep well out.  Time arrival to cross bar without waiting.”

Admiral Henry Oliver also sent two destroyers, HMS Laverock and HMS Louis to receive and escort Lusitania, and sent Q ship HMS Lyons to patrol Liverpool Bay, even with the shortage of available destroyers at the time.  Captain Dow, not wishing to disclose his location to listening Germans, steamed Lusitania into Liverpool by herself.

Compare this with Lusitania‘s last crossing, where the Admiralty took no precautions to protect Lusitania.

No specific orders, no escorts, no Q ships.  Even when the destroyers LuciferLegionLinnet, and Laverock were sitting idly at Milford Haven, Wales, and were available for such a job.  Even when the Admiralty knew full well of the danger Lusitania was heading into, the Admiralty did not relay the news of the sinkings of Earl of LathomCandidateCenturion, and the attempt on the Cayo Romano, to Lusitania despite the fact that these incidents were reported to the Admiralty and specifically requested to reach Lusitania.

Twenty-three merchant vessels had been torpedoed in the general area Lusitania was steaming through since Lusitania left New York, and absolutely no word of any of these attacks were relayed to Lusitania.  Radio silence would not have been an excuse, as Admiral Oliver could have alerted Vice Admiral Coke at Queenstown of the danger if he could not reach Lusitania.

Furthermore, radio exchanges between Lusitania and the Admiralty from 5 to 7 May remain classified to this day.  This has led to speculation that Captain Turner had requested to divert Lusitania north around Ireland and through the North Channel and was denied.  The North Channel route was cleared of mines by 15 April 1915 and the Admiralty could permit merchant ships to pass through if given the OK.  Being denied this route, Captain Turner would have had to take Lusitania south, where she was torpedoed.

The fact that no correspondence between Churchill and First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher from the time of Lusitania‘s last crossing has survived has also fueled speculation that something was going on.

The precautions taken to ensure Lusitania‘s safety in March and the safety of other vessels since the Germans declared the waters around Britain a war zone were conspicuously absent on Lusitania‘s last crossing.  The Admiralty had ten days to aid Lusitania and did not.  From this, one would come to two conclusions:

  • The Admiralty did plan to expose Lusitania to danger in the off chance that a German submarine would attack her, enraging the American public.
  • The Admiralty fouled up, and their gross negligence resulted in a tremendous loss of life.

However, one must realize that if any conspiracy happened, it cannot be designed in great detail and must leave a great deal to chance.  The British codebreakers of Room 40 did not always have the most updated locations of German submarines, and the U-boats of the First World War did not have reliable aim.  The chances that any torpedo would hit the very spot that would have dealt Lusitaniaa fatal blow were impossibly remote; in fact, if Schwieger had not overestimated Lusitania‘s speed by four knots, the torpedo would have struck elsewhere, and the ship probably would not have sunk.

Any possible conspiracy could only have been one of withholding information from Lusitania and leaving chance to put the ship into harm’s way.  A successful U-boat attack would require the submarine to be, not within a few miles, but within a few hundred yards of Lusitania and on a bearing suitable for attack.  Furthermore, for a ship as meticulously designed as Lusitania, the plotters probably only imagined an injured but stable Lusitania limping into Queenstown, hoping that the attempt alone would anger the United States into joining the Allies.  A complete sinking with tremendous loss of life, however, would have been unthinkable and must have horrified the plotters, spurring them into a hasty cover-up.

One must realize that in the lack of hard evidence, any suspicion of a government conspiracy is only circumstancial.  That, in and of itself, is not proof of any government plot.

A foul-up, however, was also possible.  At the time, the Admiralty had been preoccupied with Churchill’s brainchild, the Dardanelles campaign, Lusitania must have only been an afterthought to the men of the Admiralty. This situation was worsened by the fact that both Churchill and First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher kept information to themselves and were known to micromanage. Their refusal to delegate jobs led to Churchill’s and Fisher’s subordinates being ill-equipped to act on their own, leading to no one acting, or even consider acting, to protect Lusitania.  Furthermore, it would have been unthinkable for a ship as fast as Lusitania to be attacked, let alone sunk, so actions to protect her might not have been deemed necessary.

A foul-up could also explain the cover-up:  if the truth of such a foul-up had been made public, it would have been a tremendous national humiliation played out in front of the Central Powers and a blow to British morale.  As it was, no one in the upper ranks of the Admiralty was held accountable for this bungling, and Churchill and First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher were eager to push the blame onto Captain Turner.

The idea of Churchill trying to pull the United States into the war would be unlikely due to the following reasons:

In 1915, the United States had not yet mobilized for war, and Britain was dependent on the US for the British Army in France.  If the US had declared war right after the Lusitania‘s sinking, the supplies that had once been going to Britain would have stayed in the US, leaving the British without ammunition to fight the Germans.

Churchill and Fisher were known to keep information to themselves and micromanage the affairs of Room 40.  Fisher was close to a nervous breakdown at the time and Churchill was in France at the time of Lusitania‘s sinking.  If Churchill had wanted Lusitania sunk, such a plan could not have happened without his explicit approval, and he would have stayed in Britain to supervise the plot instead of being in France.

Diana Preston advances a theory that, without Fisher and Churchill, Captain William Reginald Hall could have masterminded such a plot.  Captain (later Admiral) Hall was known to use cloak-and-dagger tactics, had access to all the relevant decodes of Room 40, and capable of acting independently of Fisher and Churchill.  Whether he could have executed such a plan without Churchill’s knowledge and approval, however, remains speculative.

 

3 Responses

  1. 1 – Lusitania ship « secretjack
    1 – Lusitania ship « secretjack 12 August 2012 at 17:05 ·

    [...] http://www.rmslusitania.info/controversies/conspiracy-or-foul-up/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized.Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment [...]

  2. R. Ullyot
    R. Ullyot 15 October 2013 at 04:13 · Reply

    In The Last Lion, William Manchester’s definitive biography of Winston Churchill, the Luistania is hardly mentioned. One would think that an eminent biographer as Manchester would have revealed a conspiracy theory if there were one.

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