I wrote about the basic facts of the case in an online article What Happened to the British Ocean Liner Lusitania? last year. But for the conspiracy angle, here is what I said in the book:
The RMS Lusitania was launched by Cunard in 1907. At 32,000 tons she was one of the largest passenger ships of the time, becoming a regular on the lucrative transatlantic route between Liverpool and New York. By April 1915, some nine months after the outbreak of the First World War, the Lusitania had completed no fewer than 200 Atlantic crossings.That’s just one of the 69 historical conspiracies discussed in the book. At the last count, there were still several billion people in the world who haven’t bought their copy yet, so you might be able to snap one up if you hurry:
Britain was one of the countries fighting the war. British ships like the Lusitania were prey to German U-boats, particularly in the waters around the British Isles which Germany had declared to be a War Zone. The United States remained neutral in the war, but was happy to supply Britain with arms and ammunition – transported across the Atlantic on whatever ships had space in their holds.
When the Lusitania arrived in New York on 24 April at the end of her 201st transatlantic crossing, she was duly loaded up with shells, machine gun ammo and other explosives in addition to almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Of the passengers, 139 were U.S. citizens – many more Americans had been deterred from travelling by a notice the German embassy had placed in newspapers warning that the ship was a legitimate target for their submarines.
On the last day of the return trip – 7 May 1915 – when the Lusitania was less than a day away from docking in Liverpool, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the coast of Ireland. The huge liner sank almost immediately, with the death of more than a thousand people – including 128 of the 139 Americans on board. In light of the German warnings, this tragic outcome seems all but inevitable.
Why did the British allow the Lusitania to sail, without an armed escort, through the very waters the Germans had declared to be a War Zone? There are only two possible answers – either the government was grossly incompetent, or they knew exactly what they were doing. Most conspiracy theorists would put their money on the second of these. Britain didn’t like the fact that America was remaining neutral in the war – they wanted to see Americans fighting alongside them against the Germans. An atrocity like the sinking of a civilian liner was just the sort of thing that could swing American public opinion in their favour. Shortly before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill – who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty – had written to another minister that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Translating from the deliberately obscure phraseology of the professional politician, this boils down to “the sooner an innocent ship gets sunk, the sooner the Americans will join us in the trenches”.
As it turned out, the ruse – if it was a ruse – was not immediately successful. Instead of joining the war, the Americans secured a promise from the German government that an incident such as the sinking of the Lusitania wouldn’t happen again. It was only when the Germans withdrew this promise, early in 1917, that the United States finally decided it was time to go to war.