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Mr. William Thomas Turner, Captain, Royal Naval Reserve

William Turner
Captain
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Captain Turner. Click for full image. Image credit: Michael Poirier/Daily Mirror, 24 June 1933.

Born William Thomas Turner
23 October 1856
Everton, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom
Died 23 June 1933 (age 77)
Great Crosby, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom
Cause of death Intestinal cancer
Age on Lusitania 58
Rescued by Bluebell
Citizenship British (England)
Commands Star of the East
– Aleppo
– Carpathia
– Ivernia
– Caronia
– Transylvania
– Ultonia
– Lusitania
– Mauretania
– Aquitania
Spouse(s) Alice Hitching (1883 – 1903, separated)
Domestic partner(s) Mabel Every (1908 – 1933, his death)

Captain William Turner (1856 – 1933), 58, was commander of the Lusitania when the ship was torpedoed. Nicknamed “Bowler Bill,” he was one the Cunard Line’s most respected captains and first received command of Lusitania in 1907 before he was promoted to Mauretania and Aquitania. Turner resumed command of Lusitania in April 1915. Turner stayed at his post throughout the sinking and stayed with the ship until she sank from under him. Captain Turner was rescued from the water by Bluebell. The Admiralty sought to blame Turner for the loss of Lusitania, but was exonerated by the Mersey Inquiry and Mayer hearings. Captain Turner’s role in the loss of Lusitania remains a matter of discussion among scholars and authors of the Lusitania disaster.

Contents

  1. Running from the devil-dodgers
  2. From officer to captain
  3. Commodore for Cunard
  4. Last captain of the Lusitania
  5. The annoyance of passengers
  6. Into the war zone
  7. Torpedoed
  8. Bluebell
  9. The Admiralty’s scapegoat
  10. Last commands
  11. In the shadow of the Lusitania
  12. Media portrayal
  13. Links of interest

Running from the devil-dodgers


William Turner was born on 23 October 1856 to Charles and Charlotte May Johnson Turner in Everton, Liverpool, Lancashire, England. William’s father Charles was a Liverpool sea captain, and his mother Charlotte came from a respectable cotton mill-owning family, the Johnsons. Will’s parents wanted him to be “respectable” and become a minister, but refusing to become a “devil dodger,” he managed to persuade his parents to let him go to sea at the age of eight as cabin boy of the barque Grasmere. When the Grasmere was wrecked in a gale off the northern coast of Ireland, Will refused offers of “strong arms” and swam through the stormy seas to shore all by himself.

Turner’s next ship was the clipper White Star [perhaps the namesake of the White Star Line?]. As a deckboy, he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope on his first voyage. When the White Star reached the Guanape Islands, off the coast of Peru, in 1869, who else would he just happen to meet there other than his own father, commander of the sailing ship Queen of the Nations.

For the next year, young Will Turner sailed with his father. During a gale, the Queen of the Nations lost her sails and sprang a leak off the Cape of Good Hope. Will’s father threw the cargo overboard in order to save the ship and the Queen limped into the Falkland Islands for repairs for three months.

Will Turner also served on the War Spirit where many of the crew died of yellow fever. The ship’s deck load was washed overboard in a trip outbound from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, and the ship became waterlogged. The War Spirit drifted for four days before being rescued by a steamer and towed to a Spanish port.

Other fullriggers that Turner served on included Duncraig, Royal Alfred, Prince Frederick, Thunderbolt, and Royal George. William boasted that he was the quickest man on any sailing ship, “except for a Greek I once met. And he must have had a monkey for a not very remote ancestor.”

Turner always stuck to his original to become a captain, and when he wasn’t at sea he was reading about the oceans and how to navigate them. Turner was also fond of storytelling. He told of an experience while a cabin boy scrubbing out the captain’s cabin, he had helped himself to a slice of bread and butter which had been laying on the table. He soon heard the captain coming and slapped the bread, butter-side-up, on the bottom of the table and thus escaped detection.


A younger Turner. Image credit: Michael Poirier.

From officer to captain


As a second mate on the Thunderbolt, Turner had been swept overboard on the way to Calcutta, India, fishing for dolphins. The first mate threw him a lifebuoy which kept Turner afloat for the next hour and twenty minutes it took for the Thunderbolt to reset her sails and come to his rescue in the shark-infested waters. Climbing back on the ship, the Thunderbolt‘s captain told Turner, “Well, you can come aboard and go to your bunk for three days . . .. Empty your watch before you turn in . . . or the water may rust the works.”

Turner traveled around the world many times, and even though his first love was sail, the future of ships was in steam. Turner briefly served as junior officer on the Inman liner Leyland before joining Cunard in 1878 as third officer aboard the Cherbourg, which ran in the Mediterranean. Turner was twenty-two at the time. One time while steaming out of Liverpool’s Huskisson Dock in heavy fog, the Cherbourg collided with and sank a barque, drowning the pilot and four of the crew. Turner promptly jumped into a boat and saved a man and a boy from the barque’s cross tree.

Upon learning that Cunard would not make a man without a previous command a captain, Turner briefly returned to sail as captain of the clipper Star of the East. Cunard welcomed Turner back in 1883, after receiving “glowing testimonials” from the owners of the vessel (Hoehling/Hoehling, 66). William followed an old maritime custom and purchased a brand new bowler hat when he was given command of Star of the East. He would wear this hat when on ship’s business in port and when going to and from his vessel. As a result he earned the nickname ‘Bowler Bill’, by which he was known to his dying day.

When ashore William lodged with a widowed aunt, Anne Hitching, and her two children, Alice Elizabeth and Wilfred, in Chorlton, Lancashire. On 31 August 1883 in Manchester William married his cousin, Alice Elizabeth Hitching. The couple had two children, both sons, named Percy and Norman, and resided for a time at 31 Springfield Road, Sale, near Manchester.

On rejoining the Cunard Steam Ship Company Ltd William served a chief officer on a number of the company’s vessels, including the Cherbourg, Catalonia and Umbria. In February of 1885, while serving on the Catalonia, Turner jumped into Liverpool’s Alexandra Dock to save a boy who had fallen in the water. For his heroic action, Turner was awarded the Humane Society’s silver medal.

As chief officer of the Umbria, he helped carry hundreds of troops safely to South Africa during the Boer War. For that he was awarded the Transport Medal. Finally in 1903 at the age of forty-seven, William Turner received his own Cunarder, the Aleppo. He knew the ship well, as he had served on her as third officer before. By that same year, for reasons unknown, Alice had moved out of the marital home with their two sons. The couple were to live apart for the remainder of their lives, although they did not divorce.

Promotions came quickly. Although his manner was rather gruff when dealing with people, especially passengers, Turner was still extremely popular with passengers, despite doing his best to avoid them. In 1904, Turner went on the command the Carpathia for an entire year, followed by, Ivernia, Caronia, and others. Cunard considered Turner to be the fastest, safest, and most skilled when it came to docking ships. His salary came in at £1000 a year.

By 1906 it was obvious to all that William and Alice’s marriage had ended, and he moved into a house in the Aintree area outside Liverpool, while Alice took up residence with their two sons at Bowdon, close to Manchester. William advertised for a house keeper and engaged Miss Mabel Every, a housekeeper in her early twenties, who remained with him for the remainder of his life.  Mabel was the youngest of seven children to a one-time captain of the Indian Army and governor of Gibraltar and Dartmoor Prison. Mabel’s mother had died soon after giving birth to Mabel. Mabel became a student nurse with a propensity for hijinks, and pulled a brief stint as a nurse before arriving in Liverpool to look after Captain Turner. With Mabel around, Turner was now enjoying his domestic life. It is generally accepted that they had a very private yet loving relationship for the remainder of William’s life.

Commodore for Cunard


image credit: Michael Poirier.

In 1907 William Turner succeeded Captain Jim Watt as commander of the Lusitania. With Watts’ retirement and endorsement of Turner, Turner was promoted to Commodore of the Cunard Line, and on 16 November 1907 he commanded the Mauretania, the Lusitania‘s sister ship, on her maiden voyage. With the Cunard sisters, Turner set new speed records. The Mauretania‘s 1909 record of an average speed of 26.06 knots held undisputed for twenty years.

William held command of Lusitania until 26 January 1910, when he left to take command of the Mauretania. During his time on the Lusitania, the liner completed 38 transatlantic crossings. In 1910 on the retirement of Mauretania’s captain, Commodore John Pritchard, William was given full-time command of her. He was in command when Cunard announced a ‘Christmas Special’ voyage of the Mauretania – Liverpool to New York and back in twelve days. Thanks to his skill, and the superhuman efforts of the crew, the task was successfully completed. Although a strict disciplinarian, or maybe because of this, he was much-loved by his crew.

While captaining the Mauretania in 1912, Turner saved the crew of the burning steamer West Point and was awarded the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society’s Medal.

In 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Commodore by Cunard and bestowed with the rank of commander in the Royal Naval Reserve by the Admiralty. He also had the honour of escorting the King and Queen on a tour of the Mauretania while they were on a visit to Liverpool.

On 30 May 1914, Turner commanded of Cunard’s newest and largest, the RMS Aquitania, on her maiden voyage. When war broke out, Mauretania and Aquitania were requisitioned for war duty. The Lusitania was taken to Halifax to undergo a conversion to auxiliary cruiser, but the operating costs of a ship such as the Cunard’s speed sisters were too uneconomical. The Mauretania and Aquitania became troop transports instead whereas the Lusitania was reinstated in the North Atlantic service.

Meanwhile, Turner’s elder son, Percy, was “never happy unless mixed up in a fight” had gone to sea in the Merchant Marine, but he had given that up and became involved with Huerta’s rebellion in Mexico. Percy narrowly escaped “being shot against a brick wall.” His younger son Norman was an officer with the Royal Regiment of Artillery, fighting somewhere in France.

Early in 1915, Turner was in command of the Transylvania off the Irish Coast. He received an order to divert to Queenstown because three British ships had been sunk by German submarines the previous day. Calming the passengers and after reaching Liverpool safely, Turner remarked, “I fooled them that time.”

Last captain of the Lusitania


“Fairweather” Daniel Dow, then captain of the Lusitania, felt the strain of war get to his nerves, and so Cunard chairman Sir Alfred Booth re-assigned Turner to the Lusitania for the ship’s 101st voyage.

On 16 April 1915, the Admiralty issued a memo to Captain Turner about zigzagging. This was the text as read at the Mersey Inquiry:

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.

Turner would later admit that he received an order about zigzagging, and Third Officer Bestic would recall a conversation with Second Officer Hefford about trying to understand what the zigzag memo meant. Authors Bailey and Ryan would claim that Turner received the order as worded this way. Simpson and Beesly, noting that “it sounded rather different” to Turner when it was read aloud to him at the inquiry, suggests that Turner received a different zigzag order, as the general memo about zigzagging was not approved by Churchill until 24 April — after Lusitania left Liverpool for the last time — and was not distributed outside of the Admiralty until 13 May, almost a week after the Lusitania sinking.

In New York on 30 April 1915, Captain Turner testified for Judge Julius Mayer to give his insight on the Titanic disaster. When asked if he learned anything from the sinking, Turner said that he had not and that such a disaster “will happen again.” Turner then called at the custom house where he swore that the single-page cargo manifest there was an honest and complete list of all goods being shipped aboard the Lusitania. The supplimentary manifest, which was to be presented after departure to include last minute changes, ran 24 pages long. While in New York, Turner’s favorite restaurant was Lüchow’s, which was near Cunard’s 14th Street pier and owned and operated by August Lüchow, a German immigrant from Hanover.

Turner had reason to be concerned of his crew on the voyage home. Several men who would normally working the ship were serving in the Royal Navy. Those who weren’t took advantage of the Lusitania‘s transatlantic crossings and jumped ship once reaching America to avoid conscription. As for the submarine threat, Turner was sure that even with the reduced speed that the Lusitania would have to cross because of the shortage of manpower, that he could outdistance any submarine out to get his ship. In any case, Turner promised that he would take “every precaution.”

Captain Turner and his niece, Mercedes Desmore
Captain Turner and his niece, Mercedes Desmore. New York Times, 8 May 1915.

While waiting for the Cameronia passengers to transfer, Turner’s niece, actress Mercedes Desmore, came to visit him aboard Lusitania. Chief Officer Piper had ordered the gangway raised for casting off when Turner ordered him to put it back down. Mercedes was still aboard and needed to get back ashore.

The annoyance of passengers


As captain, Turner was not inclined to socialize with the passengers. He saw socialization as a chore and often let Staff Captain James Anderson handle the passengers. Turner, however, did make an appearance at the first dinner in saloon class and played the part of the host. Anderson informed Turner of the German stowaways, but Turner did not consider them to be more than the usual nuisance.

Turner attended the lifeboat drill on Sunday afternoon. Only the crew attended the jumping in and out of lifeboats #13 and #14. Chief Officer Piper reported that everything had been carried out properly. There did not seem to be any need to distress the passengers about needing to attend to the lifeboats. That night, Chief Engineer Archie Bryce reminded Turner at dinner that Lord Kitchener had predicted that the war would really start in May.

On Monday, 3 May, saloon class passenger George Kessler burst into Turner’s day room to ask about preparations made due to the “torpedo scare.”

“Then I have a suggestion,” Kessler said, “I think it would be an excellent idea if each passenger was given a ticket listing the number of the boat he should make for, in case, you know, anything untoward happens.”

Turner only gave the impression of being annoyed and replied firmly, “The company has already considered such a suggestion, Mr. Kessler. It was made to them after the Titanic disaster, but they considered it would not be practicable.”

Kessler was not satisfied with Turner’s answer and did not hesitate to say so. Turner only responded with, “But Mr. Kessler, you must understand that I could not possibly act on your advice unless I had received authority.”

On Wednesday, a similar complaint came from second cabin passenger Professor Ian Holbourn. Holbourn had thought it important that all passengers know how to put on their lifebelts and what to do in case of an emergency. This action had alarmed several women passengers and so, on Tuesday, their men thought it best to insisted that Holbourn stop what he was doing. Holbourn insisted that there be a lifeboat drill, but Turner said was, “I understand, Mr. Holbourn. I shall speak to the Chief Officer about it.”

Turner noticed that on Thursday noon, the Lusitania had only logged 484 nautical miles in the last twenty-four hours. Not satisfied, the captain instructed Chief Engineer Bryce to bring the Lusitania to top cruising speed under existing steam, volume, and safety conditions. Turner and Bryce could only do as much as they could with three operational boiler rooms. The lack of engineering crew due to the war had left the last boiler room cold the entire voyage. The Lusitania would not be able to make her top speed this crossing under any circumstance.

As Thursday evening was to be the last full day of the voyage, several passengers were throwing parties in their cabins. Captain Turner made a brief appearance at the party thrown by Charles Frohman, as did Staff Captain Anderson and Alfred Vanderbilt. Turner probably made a conscious decision not to show up at George Kessler’s party, where Kessler pestered Anderson about the lack of a lifeboat drill.

Into the war zone


Turner was called away early from Frohman’s party as a bellboy handed him a radio message from the British Admiralty at 7:52 p.m. It read: “SUBMARINES ACTIVE OFF SOUTH COAST OF IRELAND.”

Puzzled by the vagueness of the warning, Turner asked for a repetition and went back to the bridge. The request was tapped out at 7:56 p.m. and minutes later came back the reply. It was identical to the first.

That night, during the intermission of the Seamen’s Charities Concert, Captain Turner addressed the audience. He told the passengers that there had been a submarine warning, but had assured them that “on entering the war zone tomorrow we shall be securely in the care of the Royal Navy . . . of course there is no need for alarm.” Continuing, he added that on Friday the ship would be steaming full speed for Liverpool to make the bar on time. Finally, he warned passengers not to light their cigarettes on deck.

Turner returned to the bridge as the Lusitania continued eastward into the darkening night. At 8:30 p.m. a more specific report came through the airwaves from the Admiralty: “TO ALL BRITISH SHIPS 0005: TAKE LIVERPOOL PILOT AT BAR AND AVOID HEADLANDS. PASS HARBOURS AT FULL SPEED. STEER MID-CHANNEL COURSE. SUBMARINES OFF FASTNET.”

Checking with Bryce again, the Lusitania would proceed at the full possible speed of 21 knots until fog set in. He ordered the lifeboats swung out, watertight bulkheads closed, lookouts doubled, and portholes closed and blacked out. Turner was impressed by the urgency of the “0005” message. The Admiralty repeated it seven times throughout the night and into the early morning. Turner retired into the night with instructions to be alerted of further wireless messages or if for any reason the officer of the watch was in doubt.

Friday morning dawned foggy and the Lusitania slowed down to 15 knots. Midmorning, the ship passed Fastnet Rock, but Turner noted that he “did not see it.” Due to the fog, the Lusitania reduced speed and periodically sounded her fog horn. The fog dispersed by 11:00 a.m. and the weather was clear and calm. Turner ordered the ship’s speed be increased to 18 knots and the course to remain straight so they could take their point bearings at first landfall. Eighteen knots, while faster than most merchant ships and faster than any submarine, was still well below the speed she was normally capable of due to her coal being rationed. With a reduced number of passengers making the transatlantic crossing due to the war raging at that time, the Lusitania the was operating on only three boilers in order to reduce her consumption of coal and keep her operating costs down.

The second reason for the reduced speed was that Captain Turner was calculating the time he would most likely reach the Mersey Bar, the entrance to the River Mersey. The Lusitania could only negotiate the shallow and narrow channel into Liverpool when the tide was right, and he did not want to have to lie at anchor for any length of time at the Mersey Bar as it was known that German submarines patrolled the area seeking just such a target. His intention was to reach the Mersey Bar at the optimum time so that he would not have to slow down or stop in that area.

At 11:25 a.m. another message came in from the Admiralty: “SUBMARINE ACTIVE IN SOUTHERN PART OF IRISH CHANNEL, LAST HEARD OF TWENTY MILES SOUTH OF CONINGBEG LIGHT VESSEL. MAKE CERTAIN LUSITANIA GETS THIS.”

Ireland was sighted around noon and Turner noted that the previous day’s run had only been 462 miles. Turner asked Bryce to make sure the boilers were ready for full-emergency steam should he give the order for wide-open throttles. Third Officer John Lewis was sent to check up on secured portholes below.

Yet another Admiralty dispatch reached Turner at 12:40. This one was wired through Valentia wireless in Ireland: “SUBMARINE FIVE MILES SOUTH OF CAPE CLEAR, PROCEEDING WEST WHEN SIGHTED AT 10:00 A.M.”

Turner, thinking that his ship had passed Brow Head, believed to have left the submarine danger behind him. He thought that the fog had saved them. Believing that being closer to shore would be safer, Turner altered course to 67 degrees East.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Turner picked up landfall at Galley Head. Then he realized that the Lusitania was much farther west than previously thought. Still, he believed the submarine to be behind him and kept course on 67 degrees East. By 1:30 the Lusitania had entered what the Admiralty Charts had labeled War Area XXI. Turner, Anderson, Bryce, and other officers were puzzled by the complete lack of British patrols, cruisers, and destroyers.

At 1:40 the Lusitania came upon the Old Head of Kinsale. Turner knew where he was and remembered the Admiralty order to pass all ports, such as Queenstown, Ireland, at full speed. Turner also knew that if he followed this directive, he would arrive at Liverpool ahead of high tide, meaning circling for hours outside of Liverpool, being vulnerable to attack. In case a submarine was spotted, Turner knew to take the evasive measure of zigzagging. In fact, second-cabin passenger Daniel Virgil Moore describes the ship as having zigzagged around lunchtime on 7 May; however, Turner would later state that he was under the impression that the orders only instructed him on evasive maneuvers after a submarine was sighted.

Turner had thought that, like previous wartime voyages, an escort ship would greet the Lusitania at this point and safely guide her to port. This time, not a single escort or auxiliary was in sight.

At 1:45 p.m., Turner changed course to 87 degrees East, putting the ship directly in position for attack by the German submarine U-20.

Torpedoed


Captain Turner was on the port side of the bridge when Second Officer Hefford relayed a message from the crow’s nest: “There is a torpedo coming, sir!”

Turner looked up. The torpedo was so close now that he could see the torpedo’s wake on the starboard side from all the way across the ship. Turner took one step towards the bridge when a banging sound and a tremendous explosion reeled underfoot. The time was 2:10 p.m.

Steam and water shot into the air and the Lusitania listed to starboard at once. Turner gave the order to Quartermaster Johnston, at the helm, to put the wheel hard over. Perhaps the ship was close enough to Ireland to beach her. Johnston brought the bow towards Kinsale, but then the ship kept swinging to port.

“Hard a’starboard!” Captain Turner shouted out, but the ship was not responding. The hydraulics had failed and the ship’s rudder was stuck. The Lusitania would keep tracing an arc in the water. Turner then ordered the ship’s engines reversed, but again, there was no response.

Turner sent Staff Captain Anderson to halt the launching of the lifeboats. Perhaps the Lusitania could still be beached. All he needed was another hour.

A woman passenger called towards the bridge, “Captain, what do you wish us to do?”

“Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.” Turner answered reassuringly.

“Where do you get your information?” The woman asked.

“From the engine room” was all Turner could say.

Turner then went back to the commutator. He said to Johnston, “Keep your eye on her to see if she goes any further.”

The commutator reading was not very encouraging. The list increased to 16, 17, 18, 19 . . .. At that moment, Chief Officer Piper shouted to Turner, “I’m going down to the fo’csle to help Hefford with the hatches — she seems to be sinking fast by the bow! Perhaps we can slow her a bit!”

And then Piper hurried out. Now there were only Turner and Johnston left on the bridge.

“Twenty degrees to starboard!” Johnston called out.

The Lusitania continued to plunge. Soon the starboard bridge wing was submerged.

“Twenty-five degrees!” Johnston called.

Turner knew it was useless. He said to Johnston, “Save yourself.”

Johnston ran off to starboard and found himself in the ocean.

Turner struggled uphill to the port side of the bridge and certainly must have realized that he soon would be a captain without a command. At that moment, he believed himself to be the last person aboard, though that was not the case. He decided that he would go down with his ship.

Pulling his cap tight on his head, Turner climbed up to the halyards so that he would not be swept away. He was staying with his ship to the very last. Upwards he climbed on the tar-drenched ropes when he saw an oar floating by. Instinctively, he made for it. Then he struck out for a nearby chair and clung onto that.

It was only when he was at a great enough distance away from the ship did he realize that he was not the last person off his ship. As the ship continued to plunge beneath he saw a mass of humanity and the rolling wave of water coming to devour them. As the funnels dipped underneath, he saw Inspector Pierpoint sucked in and then blown out as the boilers exploded.

Turner clung onto his chair as his ship disappeared beneath a mass of foam and then flat calm. Sea gulls descended upon Turner and he beat them off with his arms. Eventually, he found a collapsible boat that was close to being swamped and climbed aboard for a bit before striking out in the open water again.

Turner was in the water with Master-at-Arms William Williams.  Williams kept encouraging the captain not to give up the hope of being rescued.

In an interview given in Queenstown and published in the New York Herald on 10 May 1915, Captain Turner told the newspaper’s reporter of his experience:

“I saw the periscope of the submarine myself, as did several of my officers and many of my passengers and crew.

There was no mistaking the streaky wave of the torpedoes she sent into the Lusitania.  She was only about two hundred yards away when we saw the periscope peep out of the water.  Two torpedoes struck us, both on the starboard side.

I stood on the bridge of my vessel until she went under me.  I could do no more.”

At the inquest held on the death of Lieutenant Robert Matthews, one of the Lusitania’s passengers, on 8 May, at Kinsale Market and Court House, presided over by Coroner John J Horgan, Captain Turner gave his version of the sinking, the first time he had told his story and in many ways, one of the clearest accounts he was to give. The statement was obviously given in reply to questions from the Coroner and stated:

“I was acting as Captain of the Lusitania on the occasion of her being sunk.  I left New York on May 1st about noon.  The voyage was without incident of any kind.  I was fully aware that threats had been made that the “Lusitania” would be torpedoed.   The vessel was not armed.  I had all the boats swung out and bulkhead doors closed when we came within the danger zone.

We passed the Fastnet about 11 a.m., on Friday 7th May.  We saw no submarine from then to the time of the accident.  There was a slight fog bear to the Fastnet and we slowed down to 15 knots.  We were in wireless communication with the shore all the way across.  We received messages with reference to submarines being off the Irish Coast.  I did not receive any message as the sinking of a schooner the Earl of Lathom off the Old Head of Kinsale.

I received special instructions.  I carried them out.  I am not at liberty to say what they were.

The weather cleared up after passing the Fastnet and we went along at a speed of 18 knots.  I was on the port side of the lower bridge when I heard the second officer Mr. Hefford call out “There’s a torpedo”.  I ran over to the other side and just saw the wake of the torpedo approaching the vessel.  We were then about fifteen miles south of Kinsale.  I then heard the explosion and saw smoke or steam rising between the third and fourth funnels.  There was a slight shock to the vessel.

The torpedo was almost on the surface.  Immediately after the report of the first explosion, there was another.  I gave the order to lower the boats down to the rails and get all women and children into them.  I also gave the order to stop the ship but could not do so, as the engines were out of commission.  Therefore it was not safe to lower the boats till the weigh was off the ship.

There was some headway on her up to the moment she went down.  She listed to starboard the moment she was struck.  I remained on the bridge all the time and the ship went down from under me.  She sank about 18 minutes after she was struck.  It was a quarter past two by my watch when she was struck.  It was thirty six minutes and a quarter past two o’clock when my watch stopped.

I was picked up about two and a half hours afterwards by one of the boats and placed on a trawler.  At the time of the collision there was no warship convoying us.  We did not meet any war vessel after sighting the Irish coast.  There were no living bodies in the water as far as I could see when I was picked up. I did not know any of the people by whom the inquest in being held.  The normal speed of the vessel is 25 knots, it is reduced to 21 knots since the war.

We were going at the speed of 18 knots in order to arrive at Liverpool Harbour Bar about two hours before high water so that we could go right in without stopping for a pilot.  Those were my instructions.  There was a double look out specially for submarines.  We were not going on a zig.zag course at the time of the accident.  It was bright, clear weather and smooth water and we could see full range on the horizon.

A submarine could easily have been there without being seen.  All the boats on the port side could not be lowered owing to the list of the ship.  I can not say how many boats were launched safely.  A few even were launched on the port side.  There was very little panic on board and all my orders were promptly obeyed by the officers and crew.

There were about 1,500 passengers and about 600 crew.  I made no application to the Admiralty for an escort.  I got no wireless ordering me to steer the vessel in a northerly direction.  I headed straight for the land immediately after being torpedoed.  All watertight bulkheads and ports were ordered to be closed prior to the explosion.  All the passengers were served with lifebelts.

There was no warning whatsoever given before the torpedo was fired.  I saw a statement in the New York Herald under the Cunard Company’s Advertisement of Sailing and over the America Line advertisement, warning that all persons sailing by British ships did so as to their own risk and this advertisement came from the German Embassy.”

On his eventual return to Liverpool, Captain Turner was called to give a deposition on oath, concerning the sinking, to an official of the Board of Trade. Consequently on 15 May he said that:

“The ship was in good condition and well found.  She was unarmed, having no weapons of offence or defence against an enemy.

Boat drill was carried out at New York before the vessel left, also fire and ****head drill.  There was boat musters at various times each day of the voyage.”

The main part of Captain Turner’s deposition was written down for him and stated:

“Deponent was on A Deck first outside his room’s door on the port side.  The vessel was at least 15 miles from the Old Head which was bearing before the beam.  The vessel’s speed was 18 knots.  Deponent momentarily observed the track of a torpedo on the starboard beam and instantly was struck on the starboard side, as far as deponent could observe, between the third and fourth funnels.

The ship listed on the instant, throwing deponent off his balance.  Deponent went up to the navigation bridge, rang the “engines full speed astern” and headed the vessel for the land.  There was no response from the engines.  At the same time he ordered the boats to be lowered to the rail and the women and children to be put into them first.

Almost instantaneously after the first torpedo struck the ship, deponent felt the concussion of a second.  Deponent’s orders were being carried out.  There was very little panic.  It was impossible to lower the port boats owing to the heavy starboard list and dangerous to lower the starboard boats until the way was off the ship.  Several of the boats got away.  The vessel righted a little and commenced to sink by the head rapidly.

Deponent remained on the bridge, put on a lifebelt and the ship went from under him.  Deponent was in the water for two and a half to three hours when he was picked up by one of the ship’s boats, transferred to the trawler Bluebell and landed at Queenstown.”

In an interview published in The Daily Mirror after the sinking he said: –

“Let there be no mistake made concerning the deliberate intent with which the Germans set about destroying the ship.  We were attacked without warning, and without question it was a submarine that sent us to the bottom.

I saw a periscope myself, as did several of my officers and many members of the passengers and crew, and there was no mistaking the streakey wake of the torpedoes she sent into the Lusitania.

She was only about 200 yards away when we saw her periscope peep out of the water, and almost at the same moment her first torpedo was launched against us.  Two struck us and both on our starboard side.

We were given no grace by the devils between the firing of the first and second torpedo.  The second came less than a minute after the first , as is it were the deliberate intention of the submarine’s commander to ensure that not a sould of the 2,000 odd people on board the liner should live to tell the tale for how could we be expected successfully to lower our boats and save so many lives at less than one minute’s notice.

We listed badly after the first torpedo struck, and it was all over at the end of some twenty minutes, when the ship headed for the bottom, bow first.”

Bluebell


Hours later, John Roper, a seaman from the Lusitania, picked up by the small steamer Bluebell, spotted in the water the gold officer’s braid Turner was wearing. Roper called to the Bluebell‘s Captain Thompson, “There’s a ship’s officer!”

The Bluebell maneuvered to pick Turner up and Thompson offered his sympathy to Turner. Later, a woman (who some researchers think might have been Beatrice Witherbee)  came up to Turner, scolding him, saying, “My child’s death was not necessary. It was due to the lack of discipline and organization aboard your ship.” She had recounted how she had been told to place her son in a lifeboat that had capsized.

Third Officer Bestic (whom Turner always called “Bisset”) saw Turner sitting alone in the mess hall of the Bluebell and said to him, “I’m very glad to see you alive, sir.”

“Why should you be?” Turner asked. “You’re not that fond of me.”

“Fondness doesn’t enter into it, sir. I’m glad to see you alive because I respect you as my Captain and I admire you as a seaman.”

Turner didn’t respond. How much comfort could Bestic bring when others were possibly asking why the captain had survived when so many others had not.

It was 10:00 p.m. when the Bluebell arrived in Queenstown. Captain Turner was the last to disembark. Before he did so, he turned to Captain Thompson and said, “Well, it is the fortune of war.”

The next day in Queenstown he bought candy for children who had survived the disaster. It was the least he could do.

Turner in Queenstown
Turner in Queenstown. Image: New York Times, Sunday, 30 May 1915.

The Admiralty’s scapegoat


Yet, the worst was not over for Captain Turner. When word reached London about the sinking of the Lusitania, First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher said of Turner, “The certainty is absolute that Captain Turner is not a fool, but a knave! It is my profound hope that Captain Turner will be arrested after the inquiry, whatever the outcome.”

Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill said pretty much the same: “Fully concur! We shall pursue the Captain without check!”

Fisher and Churchill had hoped to put as much blame of the sinking on Turner as possible. They did not wish to make it known the Britain was using passenger liners to ship war goods that may, or may not, have exploded, causing the ship to sink so quickly. They did not wish to make it known that in the Admiralty’s internal squabblings and preoccupation with the failed Gallipoli campaign that they had completely neglected the protection of the Lusitania. In fact, survivors, propagandists, and scholars have even wondered if the Admiralty’s negligence was deliberate, hoping that even an abortive submarine attack would anger the United States into joining the Great War on side of the Allies. But the Admiralty probably did not anticipate the scale of the disaster that unfolded, and so it rushed to cover up anything that would point any blame for Lusitania‘s loss at the Admiralty.

Solicitor Horgan had arranged for an inquest in Kinsale where Turner testified as to what had happened. The Admiralty had hoped to forestall any exposure of damning evidence of their neglect that they sent Harry Wynne, Crown Solicitor for Cork, to stop the inquest.

“Too late, Harry.” Horgan told him, “It’s all over.”

Five weeks later Captain Turner was summoned to the official inquiry conducted by the British Board of Trade, overseen by Lord Mersey, the same man who presided over the Titanic inquiry three years previously. During this inquiry, Turner changed his testimony. While during Horgan’s inquest he admitted that the second explosion may have been internal, for Mersey he said that it was from a second torpedo that had hit the engine room. He was, however, adamant that his ship was not carrying any explosives.

Turner also admitted that he received Admiralty memos to zigzag, but thought that they would only be used after a submarine had been sighted. The the Crown Solicitors also sought to show that Turner’s 40 minute four-point bearing that made Lusitania vulnerable to attack had been unnecessary, and that a sun bearing or cross-bearings would have been just as accurate in a much shorter amount of time. Turner did not believe that the other bearings were as accurate and defended his choice of a four-point bearing.

Going against the wishes of Fisher and Churchill, Mersey exonerated Turner and put the blame for the sinking squarely on the shoulders of the Imperial German Government. This was a wise calculated on Mersey’s part, as he knew that any other verdict could be used as propaganda by the Germans.

Shortly after the Board of Trade Inquiry William’s estranged wife Alice emigrated to Australia with their two sons.

Last commands


In November of that year, Turner was assigned to the small freighter Ultonia and sailed her from France to Quebec. While in North America, he took the time to go to New York City to visit his friend Dr. Edwin Sternberger. There, to Sternberger’s surprise, Turner agreed to an interview with the New York Times. He was adamant that nothing could have been done to avoid being torpedoed, and that there were possibly 2 or 3 submarines lurking in the area, “just waiting to blow her up with all on board.” Turner hoped that after the war he would be given command of the Aquitania again, or the next big ship that Cunard had in the production line.

On Saturday, 20 November 1915, Turner and Sternberger were at Lüchow’s. Restaurant owner August Lüchow embraced his old friend, saying, “I am sorry about your Lusitania, Captain. I knew her as well as my own restaurant.” Lüchow was glad that the Captain had not changed his attitude towards him because he was a German immigrant. But something had changed that night — there was no Lusitania docked just right down the street. On Tuesday, 23 November, Turner sailed the Ultonia back to England and never saw New York again.

In the fall of 1916, Turner, at the last minute, was assigned the Ivernia when the original captain of the ship fell ill. Thirty miles off the coast of Greece, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine UB-47. One hundred and twenty lives were lost, but once again, Turner survived. Soon afterward, Cunard decided that all Turner would be captain of, from then on, was his desk.

In the shadow of the Lusitania


In October 1917, Judge Julius Mayer summoned Turner as chief witness into the American Lusitania inquiry. Julius, like Mersey, exonerated Turner and blamed the German Government. This verdict was a popular one – the United States was now at war with Germany.

At the behest of the Chairman of the Cunard Steam Ship Company Ltd, William was awarded the Order of the British Empire medal (OBE) in January 1918, but still the Lusitania haunted him. In November 1919, Turner retired, telling Mabel, “All I want now is a quiet life.” They moved to Yelverton, Devon, and built himself a cottage, close to Mabel’s childhood home of Dartmoor. Often depressed and convinced that people avoided him because he didn’t go down with his ship, he lived the life of a recluse. He never forgave Churchill for blaming him for the loss of the Lusitania. Soon, however, neighbors and reporters found out that Captain Turner lived among them. Turner could not escape the shadow of the Lusitania. Once the press discovered his whereabouts he left for Australia to search for his sons, whom he had not seen since the opening of the Mersey Enquiry.

Not having found them, he returned to Liverpool 18 months later and resided at 50 De Villiers Avenue, Great Crosby, near Liverpool with his companion Mabel Every as his housekeeper.

According to Colin Simpson in his book ‘Lusitania':

“He became a great favourite with the local children, teaching them sea shanties and accompanying them on a fiddle.  He died of cancer of the intestines in 1933 being bedridden for the last five years of his life and remarking to visitors with bitter humour : “I am all right fore and aft but my longitudinal bulkhead’s given way”.”

Albert Bestic came to visit Captain Turner in the fall of 1932, upon learning that Turner was ill with stomach cancer. Mabel answered the door to the house in the Liverpool suburbs when Bestic called. When she relayed the information to Turner, he said that he never heard of Bestic. Bestic was hurt and about to leave when he suddenly remembered: “Would you be kind enough to tell the Captain that my name is really Bisset.” Mabel was suspicious, but she returned smiling after delivering the message, saying, “He said, ‘Why the hell didn’t he say so in the first place?’ ”

Turner and Bestic sat down and Turner recounted stories of his past. When Bestic got his chance, he asked, “The Lusitania, sir . . . did you think she was going to be torpedoed?”

“I was worried, Bisset.” Turner answered. “Naturally I was. What Master wouldn’t be? I thought we had an odds-on chance of escaping, you know. I didn’t get a fair deal. I mean to say, no escort to meet us, despite the signals about submarines. Gave me false confidence. If the Admiralty didn’t think it necessary to worry about a ship worth millions, not to mention hundreds of passengers, I reasoned they must think there’s not much danger. No, I didn’t get a fair deal. A good two years went by before they started issuing definite orders. What courses ships should take. The distance they should keep off headlands. I was told I should have taken a mid-Channel course. And my ship in the Atlantic? They didn’t even explain to me about zigzagging.”

Mabel continued to take care of Turner until his death at his home in Great Crosby, Lancashire on 23 June 1933, aged 76 years. He was buried in the family grave in Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey the following Monday. His coffin, draped with a Union Flag, had been taken by motor hearse from Great Crosby to Liverpool, after which the Commander made his last ever sea journey, across the River Mersey, by ferry to Seacombe, Wallasey, and from there was conveyed to the cemetery.

The coffin was carried to the graveside by six quartermasters of the Cunard Line and followed by many former shipmates who had served under him and many relatives and friends. Many other representatives of the shipping fraternity on Merseyside, including the Cunard Company were also present.

Two former members of the Lusitania’s crew on that fateful May day in 1915 were also present. They were former Second Steward Robert Chisholm and former First Class Bedroom Steward William Fletcher, both of whom came from Wallasey.

The funeral service was held in the Cemetery Chapel and was conducted by he Reverend AP Miller of Great Crosby, after which the body was taken to the grave for interment.

Commander Turner’s remains still lie there today, the inscription on his headstone stating:

“ALSO

CAPT WILLIAM THOMAS TURNER,

O.B.E.,  R.N.R.

COMMODORE OF THE CUNARD S.S. LINE,

WHO WAS IN COMMAND OF THE R.M.S. LUSITANIA

WHEN SHE WAS TORPEDOED 7TH MAY 1915.

BORN 23RD OCT. 1857, DIED 23RD JUNE 1933.

“FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH”.”

The date of his birth is incorrect on his headstone.

William’s father had died in October 1900 aged 74 and his mother died in March 1920, aged 90.

Probate of his will on 31 July left his estate of £4,427-0s-9d (£4,427.04) to George Ball, described as a bank manager. Aside from £100 which he gave to his maid Josephine Cathroll, Mabel inherited all of Turner’s property. Mabel died in 1978. Turner’s son, Norman died in 1968. Percy died in World War II.

Media portrayal


In the 2007 British-German co-production, Sinking of the Lusitania: Terror at Sea (also known as Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic, in German: Der Untergang der Lusitania: Tragödie eines Luxusliners), Captain Turner is portrayed by Scottish actor Kenneth Cranham.

Links of interest


Captain William Thomas Turner at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Captain Turner at Lusitania Online

Captain Turner on the English Wikipedia

Turner Family Headstone on Flickr

Contributors
Peter Kelly, Ireland
Michael Poirier, USA
Judith Tavares

References
Minutes of Evidence as presented at the Mersey Inquiry.

Bailey, Thomas A. and Paul B. Ryan. The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy. The Free Press, 1975.

Beesly, Patrick. Room 40. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Daily Telegraph, “Commander of Lusitania Dead.” 24 June 1933.

Daily Mirror, “The Lusitania’s Captain Dead.” 24 June 1933.

Hickey, Des and Gus Smith. Seven Days to Disaster. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981.

Hoehling, A. A. and Mary Hoehling. The Last Voyage of the Lusitania. Madison Books, 1956.

New York Times, Saturday, 8 May 1915.

New York Times, Sunday, 30 May 1915.

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Berkley Books, 2002.

Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania. Little, Brown, and Company, 1972.

Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths

1861 Census of England and Wales

1871 Census of England and Wales

1881 Census of England and Wales

1891 Census of England and Wales

1901 Census of England and Wales

Cunard Records

Probate Records

New York Herald

PRO ADM 137/1058

Tragedy of the Lusitania

Wallasey News

About the Author