Raising the Lusitania’s ammunition

At 88 metres, the wreck of the Lusitania is a challenging dive. But Irish divers have made a series of trips to the historic site off the Old Head of Kinsale, culminating in one when some of the ship’s controversial ammunition cargo was recovered, writes Timmy Carey, Blackwater Sub Aqua Club

 

In May 1915 the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the pride of the Cunard Line, created a tidal wave of revulsion around the globe; with sensationalist newspaper headlines such as “the ghastliest crime in history” being commonplace. In America, Theodore Roosevelt described the sinking of the Lusitania by U-20 as “piracy on a vaster scale than any old-time pirate ever practised”, with the American ambassador in London sending a cable to Washington to the effect that “the US must declare war or forfeit European respect”. The reaction as would be expected was much different in Germany, with Germany declaring the Lusitania as a legitimate target. Almost from the moment the torpedo sped from U-20, the Lusitania seems to have courted controversy on a grand scale and has always been a ship of intrigue.

Stewart Andrews preparing to dive the Lusitania. Photo: Timmy Carey

Just some of the controversial issues include whether or not the vessel contained priceless works of art in lead containers which were in the care of Sir Hugh Lane and whether or not the Lusitania was a legitimate target. Theories have also been put forward that the British admiralty steered the Lusitania into the path of U-20 to help bring America into the war. One of the biggest point of controversy, however, remains the fact of just why did she sink so fast after being struck by only one torpedo, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 people, including almost 100 children.

Many explanations have been put forward, many people initially thought that more than one torpedo had been fired but this has since been disproved. Bob Ballard attributed the second larger explosion to a coal dust explosion following his trip to the wreck in 1993 aboard a submersible. Paddy O’Sullivan has theorised that it may have been caused by an aluminium powder explosion – aluminium powder is listed on the manifest – while other people believe the boilers may have exploded.

Another theory often forwarded is that the Lusitania may have been carrying wartime munitions for the British, a claim denied by the British government. Undoubtedly the Lusitania was carrying a huge amount of ammunition (as it was listed on the ship’s manifest). As to whether the ship carried illicit cargo, who knows, as the first casualty of any war is generally the truth.

The commemorative statute to the victims of the Lusitania tragedy in Cobh, Co Cork. Photo: Timmy Carey

During dives to the vessel in 2006, two Irish divers, Harry Hannon from Waterford Harbour Sub Aqua Club and Victor Quirke from Wexford Sub Aqua club, located vast quantities of ammunition, but as the Lusitania is a protected wreck were unable to raise any of them for examination without a licence. Today the wreck is owned by American businessman Greg Bemis, who has been endeavouring to have some of the ammunition raised for examination since 2006.

Diving the Lusitania

In 2007 two Irish dive groups dived the vessel; one organised by Pat Glavin of Cork Sub Aqua Club (Pat had previously organised a number of successful trips to the Lusitania) and the second by Eoin McGarry from Dungarvan. Trying to relocate the same spot on a ship the size of the Lusitania is not as easy as it sounds ‒ apart from the depth being at almost 90 metres, the Lusitania is almost 785 feet in length and weighed in excess of 31,550 tons. Today it is covered in a large amount of discarded fishing net (which rises high off the wreck in a number of areas). Despite the best efforts of both dive groups, all dives would be unsuccessful in relocating the ammunition. As is often the case, the sea would not give her secrets too easily, but, undeterred, a number of Irish divers planned to dive the wreck again in 2008 to relocate the ammunition.

2008 again started poorly with the first dive trip organised by Pat Coughlan (who had previously successfully dived the Lusitania on a number of occasions) of Grainne Uaile Sub Aqua Club blown out by poor weather conditions. Later in the summer, the Lusitania was visited by a large ROV (remotely operated underwater vessel) from an American survey vessel, which spent almost a full week surveying the wreck. But even in this amount of time, the search proved unsuccessful in locating the ammunition. This was followed by another dive trip to the wreck organised by Eoin McGarry in early September and when this again was blown out by gale force winds, the prospects for 2008 weren’t looking too promising.

Luckily Eoin has a second permit granted for the last week of September and for a change, we would be greeted by a weather chart with well dispersed isobars.

Some of the bullets raised from the Lusitania. Photo: Timmy Carey

 

Since the 2007 trip, Eoin had spent many long evenings viewing and reviewing the video footage shot during the previous trip and used recognisable items from the footage to determine the exact dive location of the wreck. After comparing the GPS co-ordinates to the features on the wreck, Eoin then determined the areas to be searched in 2008.

A ROV-ing we will go

With a three-day licence from the National Monuments Service to explore the wreck, it was decided to sacrifice the first days’ diving and instead use a small ROV (which would have an unlimited bottom time). The ROV to be used was to be a Hytec H300 inspection class ROV, which is capable of operating to depths of 300 metres and was supplied by Karl Bredendieck of “Remote Presence”, based a short distance away in Skibbereen in West Cork. On arriving at the dive site, we were somewhat disappointed to see that the area of the wreck that we wished to dive was again being fished (as it had been in 2007), despite the fact that the Lusitania is in a restricted area. We were at least promised that all nets would be removed from the wreck for the following days’ diving.

Working from the Holly Jo, a catamaran hull boat skippered by Colin Barnes, dropping the shot line in the exact position in a gusty force four  wind was easier said than done, but as usual Colin made this task look easy. After lowering the ROV and umbilical to the wreck, Karl was soon displaying images of the wreck on a monitor in the wheelhouse. It quickly became evident that the wreck was entangled in a large amount of netting and almost inevitably the ROV became badly entangled too and could not free itself.

Eoin McGarry getting ready to deploy the ROV. Photo: Timmy Carey

 

With four bottom divers on board, comprising Eoin McGarry and Colm Humphreys from Dungarvan, Stewart Andrews of Dalkey Scubadivers and myself, it was decided that two would dive to free the ROV and that two would stay in reserve. Eoin and Stewart quickly kitted up and descended the ROV line and began to free it. Any remaining available bottom time was to be spent looking for the ammunition. After freeing the ROV, both divers began to search the general vicinity and from the wheelhouse we soon saw the silver coloured rebreather box of Stewie Andrews inside a hole in the hull plating. The next image we would all see would be of Stewie swimming up towards the ROV camera with a surgical scissors in one hand, a handful of bullets in the other and a large smile emblazoned on his face. After filling a plastic box full of ammunition, both divers then began the slow ascent to the surface. After completing the small matter of a long decompression hang, both were congratulated by the dive support team, consisting of Philip Murphy of Kilkenny Sub Aqua Club, Olan O’Farrell and Adrian O’Hara of Blackwater Sub Aqua Club and Steve Philips of TDI (who was unable to dive due to a leg injury). In addition to the dive, the boat crew consisted of an American journalist, Hampton Sides, who had travelled from America on behalf of Greg Bemis to cover the event for an US magazine and to get a radio interview for his wife, who is a radio journalist, as well as Connie Kelleher of the National Monuments Service Underwater Archaeology Unit, who as in previous trips was very helpful and even assisted many of the bottom divers in kitting up.

The one disappointing aspect of the whole day’s diving was that the video camera which Eoin had brought on the dive had flooded and the camera was destroyed. So, with this in mind, it was decided to dive the same area the next day with the full dive time to get footage using a backup camera. After returning to shore, the large amount of ROV equipment had to be unloaded as Karl was due to get a ferry to France to carry out an inspection of the Asgard in the Bay of Biscay.

On the following day, the sea had moderated to a welcome gentle swell and on descending down the shot line, we were greeted by almost six metres’ visibility, with ambient light at 90 metres (a rare treat off the south coast and of the three trips on which I have dived the wreck, by far the best conditions), and all divers would marvel at the skill of Colin Barnes, who had dropped the shot line within four feet of the spot on the previous day. After videoing the ammunition, everyone was free to explore the wreck and were all soon swimming past ornate portholes and large mooring bitts and capstans; with Stewart Andrews finding a docking telegraph in the sand at 92 metres.

 

Richard Wakefield decompressing after diving the Lusitania. Photo: Timmy Carey

 

A final dive

For the final dive, it was decided to dive the stern area and, unfortunately, the visibility had drastically reduced from the previous day. But various divers still saw portholes, tiles, a brass cage lamp, ceramics, an intact chamber pot and even an intact ornate pewter serving dish complete with the lid. The final trip back to shore passing Galley Head lighthouse gave everyone time to reflect on the huge loss of life aboard the RMS Lusitania and on the utter futility of war in general. As usual Colin would find whales and dolphins on the return journey and would get close enough for everyone to get a good view.

After passing the ammunition to the Receiver of Wrecks in the presence of the customs vessel “Suirbhear”, everyone had time to wonder would a detailed examination of the ammunition have any historical significance. Regardless of the outcome over the coming months, the dive team can at least reflect on completing the objective successfully and safely, and on the fact that a large number of Irish divers have now dived and been involved in exploring what is widely regarded as one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.

 The article by the on-board journalist, Hampton Sides, appeared in the January 2009 issue of Men’s Vogue. An online version is available at this link: www.vogue.com/magazine/article/lusitania-rising/#1