RMS Lusitania, 31,500 tons, was built by the Cunard Line in 1906. (The vessel was named for a province of the Roman Empire, a region roughly corresponding to the Portugal of today.) On 7 May 1915 she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the south coast of Ireland, en route from New York to Liverpool, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, 128 of them American. Allegations of a conspiracy to sink the Lusitania center upon the claim that the first Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, colluded with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jack Fisher, and other senior leaders of the Royal Navy, to place the liner in peril, anticipating that heavy loss of U.S. lives would hasten the intervention of the United States in World War I. While it is accepted that part of the Lusitania’s cargo comprised munitions for the Allied war effort, there have also been suggestions of a conspiracy to conceal both the precise nature of these war supplies and the military capacity of the ship itself.
More intriguing is the debate about what caused the fateful “second explosion” on board the ship. Although the admiralty maintained for some years that U-boat U-20 had hit the ship with two torpedoes, it is now widely accepted that the submarine fired only one torpedo at the Lusitania, and that the second catastrophic detonation, the one that sank the liner so quickly with such huge loss of life, was caused by an unknown object or substance the ship was carrying in its cargo. The second explosion has been explained in a number of ways, ranging from the lurid (the Lusitania was carrying a cargo of secret explosive powder) to the banal (the ship was sunk by a detonation of highly flammable coal dust following the impact of the torpedo). But no comprehensive explanation for the second explosion has ever been offered, and the admiralty’s initial insistence on the “two torpedo” scenario has kept alive the theory of a high-level cover-up regarding the contents of the Lusitania’s holds.
As well as the cause of the second explosion, one further aspect of the Lusitania conspiracy remains unresolved. In the aftermath of the sinking, early accounts estimated that the liner had taken to the bottom of the sea several thousand dollars in cash. By 1922 these estimates had been revised, with some commentators valuing the ship’s cargo at $5–6 million, much of it in gold. During the 1950s the activities of the salvage company Rizdon Beezley around the wreck revived suspicions of Churchill’s involvement in the disaster, with allegations that Churchill had commissioned the company to remove evidence of contraband from the wreck. To this day, no convincing explanation has been offered as to why the Lusitania would have been carrying millions of dollars of gold into a war zone.
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