Germany fired the first shot in the new battle against America on February 4th 1915, when she announced a “blockade” against England to begin on February 18.

"The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the English Channel, are hereby proclaimed a war region. On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening. Neutral ships will also incur danger in the war region, where, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the British Government, and incidents inevitable in sea warfare, attacks intended for hostile ships may affect neutral ships also. The sea passage to the north of the Shetland Islands, and the eastern region of the North Sea in a zone of at least 30 miles along the Netherlands coast, are not menaced by any danger.

(Signed) Berlin, February 4th,
Chief of Marine Staff"

The first submarine to patrol the newly declared war zone left Ems on February 11, 1915. U-30 under Lieutenant Commander von Rosenberg-Gruszczynski crossed the Channel at Dover and reached the patrol area on the 17th. Another gas-powered sub, the U-16 under Captain Claus Hansen, had taken position in the Channel on February 1. On February 16 U-16 torpedoed the British Collier Dulwich off the coast of France, giving the crew time to launch lifeboats. Hansen blew up the small French steamer, Ville de Lille, a day later. The German commander meticulously followed search and seizure procedures as mandated by international law, even towing the lifeboats with the crew to the coast. Another French steamer, the Dinorah, suffered damages from a torpedo on February 18. This time, in accordance with the new orders, the U-16 attacked without warning.

The campaign proceeded full steam in April 1915. Thirty-seven ships – seventeen British, three French, three Russian, and eight neutrals (no American) – with absolute or conditional contraband sank after U-boat attacks. Two freighters, one French and one British, suffered damages but could be hauled into safety. One British and three neutral freighters were captured and hauled into German harbors for prize court proceedings, in which a panel of judges decided on the distribution of the captured ships and property. The submarine campaign thus destroyed 62,000 GRT and damaged 11,000 GRT in April, using fifteen submarines, of which thirteen were equipped with oceangoing diesel engines and tanks. The rapid increase of diesel-powered boats particularly alarmed the British war planners. Despite the raw number showing less than one percent of shipping vessels in and out of England being physically attacked, the psychological effects on sailors and neutral shippers began to show. A growing number of ocean carriers refused to take on freight destined for the war zone. Seamen, as well, rather switched to shipping lines not involved European trade.

German agents had carefully observed the comings and goings of British passenger liners from New York since the onset of the war. German secret agent Paul Koenig issued regular lists provided by informants in the New York customs department, among others, of contraband freight loaded on passenger ships. German spymaster in New York Heinrich Albert noted in his diary in February, “Shurz ./. Lusit. Armed – Malone.”  It is unknown whether the cryptic notation meant that Albert had received information as to armaments on the Lusitania from Dudley Field Malone, the Collector of the Port of New York whom Albert considered pro-German, or whether he intended to approach him with that information to take action against the ocean liner. The second possibility seems more likely since Malone later testified that there were no gun emplacements on the ship. However, as the RMS Lusitania readied herself for a return voyage to the United States, German agents might have suspected that she would be converted to an auxiliary cruiser while in port in Britain. The importance of this notation is the fact that the day before the official start of the German submarine campaign, Albert and his agents eyed the RMS Lusitania, the largest and one of five four-funneled British ocean liners in service at the time, with more than casual interest. Just a week prior, American newspapers had reported on a false flagging incident witnessed by Edward House. A British liner having carried contraband on many of her recent voyages, and listed in British naval registers as a potential auxiliary cruiser, she was a target for the German navy. Indeed, she represented a prize of highest significance, one that would show the world that the German submarine fleet had the means and resolve to stop traffic to the British Isles. The May 12, 1915 issue of the New York weekly Fatherland voiced the German desire to see the large passenger liner sunk. “Before long, a large passenger ship like the Lusitania, carrying implements of murder to Great Britain, will meet with a similar fate [as the Gulflight]…” When the paper went on sale in the newsstands, the dire forecast had already become reality.

On May 1, the same day U-30 torpedoed the American tanker Gulflight, the Cunard passenger liner, RMS Lusitania, readied herself in New York for the 202nd transatlantic crossing. She was the largest and fastest ship on the transatlantic circuit at the time, crossing the great divide between the United States and Europe in slightly less than five days. Ostensibly believing that the “American Government… still underestimated the dangers of the situation, and failed to take any measure of precaution,” German Ambassador Count Bernstorff is credited with issuing a stern warning to potential passengers traveling on British ocean liners, which appeared in the New York Times on May 1. 

Confronted with the warning, the Cunard Line press agent, Charles Sumner, tried his best to dispel the fear. “No passenger is permitted aboard them [Cunard Line ships] unless he can identify himself... Every passenger must identify his baggage before it is placed aboard. There are no German cruisers in the Atlantic, and the ‘danger zone’ does not begin until we reach the British Channel and the Irish Sea. Then one may say there is a general system of convoying British ships. The British Navy is responsible for all British ships, and especially for Cunarders.” The journalist then asked: “Your speed, too, is a safeguard, is it not?”…”Yes [Sumner answered]; as for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.” The Lusitania would neither travel at her full speed of twenty-five knots nor would she receive a British naval escort in the danger zone. She cleared pier 54 in New York on May 1st around noon with 1,257 passengers and 702 crew members on board. Only a handful of passengers had opted out of the voyage as a result of the published warning and sailed with slower and less luxurious neutral passenger ships. The Lusitania carried over 4,200 cases of small arms munitions, 1,000 rounds each, and 1,250 cases of empty shrapnel casings in her hold, considered absolute contraband by all warring parties.

Captain Walter Schwieger

Captain Walter Schwieger

Whether to save money (Cunard’s explanation) or because the naval war caused a shortage of willing trimmers and firemen (Naval Attache Karl Boy-Ed’s explanation), the Lusitania only fired three of her four boilers. The German submarine U-20 under the command of the thirty year old Walter Schwieger cruised near the Old Head of Kinsale on May 6 heading to a station off Liverpool with orders to “sink troop transporters.” He sank the British steamers, Centurion and Candidate, two cargo ships, without warning. Two other submarines, the U-30 and the U-27 had orders to the same effect with stations hundreds of miles away off Dartmouth and the Bristol Channel, respectively. Despite specific warnings sent to the Lusitania after the U-20 attacks on May 6 to watch for submarines off the Old Head of Kinsale, her Captain, Bill Turner, steered the Cunarder straight into the channel at reduced speed. He did not follow his orders for evasive measures, such as zigzagging and using speed as the most effective means to lose a stalking submarine traveling at fifteen knots. Additionally, the thick fog on the morning of May 7 caused the Lusitania to sound her fog horns “once every minute,” broadcasting her approach for miles. A chain of unfortunate events unfolded that, in combination, brought the Lusitania into the fateful contact with Schwieger’s U-20. Around 1:40 pm on May 7, Schwieger launched a torpedo from 700 meters (2,100 feet) distance at the ocean liner. The impact under the bridge on starboard created an explosion, followed by another even more massive than the first. The forward movement of the ship caused an almost immediate list and submersion. Captain Schwieger described the scene in his war diary:

"Clear bow shot at 700 [meters]… Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder?)… The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time. Great confusion arose on the ship; some of the boats were swung clear and lowered into the water… Many people must have lost their heads; several boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern first and filled at once… The ship blew off steam; at the bow the name Lusitania in golden letters was visible. The funnels were painted black; stern flag not in place. It was running 20 nautical miles. Since it seemed as if the steamer could only remain above water for a short time, went to 24 m. [meters] and ran toward the Sea. Nor could I have fired a second torpedo into this swarm of people who were trying to save themselves."

The torpedoed  RMS Lusitania

The torpedoed RMS Lusitania

The mortally wounded super liner disappeared below the waves of the Atlantic Ocean after only eighteen minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew on board, 1,198 perished in the ice-cold Irish Sea. One hundred twenty-eight of the victims were Americans. The international outrage over the senseless killing of civilians, many of them women and children, overshadowed any previous disagreements with the German conduct of the war. Spontaneous demonstrations against Germany broke out in New York and other large cities. The newspapers, filled with pictures of scores of caskets and eyewitness accounts, decried the barbarity of the German action. The large secondary explosion that hastened the demise of the ocean liner remains one of the hotly debated topics of the sinking. German propaganda immediately alleged that munitions and explosives aboard the ship caused the explosion. British propaganda alleged that multiple torpedoes were fired while passengers were trying to save themselves. Neither allegation was true. Scientists have inspected the wreckage in recent years and documented that a large boiler explosion or the combustion of coal dust in a forward compartment completed the destruction of the ship.

The circumstantial evidence supporting a concerted navy effort to sink the Lusitania on her 202nd voyage is overwhelming: The Lusitania represented a target that German officials publicly talked about. U-27 actively tried to sink the liner a month earlier. U-20 was sent into the shipping lane of the Lusitania in the week she was to cross with orders to sink “troop transporters,” which included large liners. The German propaganda office in New York, filled with supporters of the unrestricted submarine campaign, not the German embassy, initiated the publication of a warning to appear only on May 1, 1915, the departure day of the Lusitania, and only in New York papers. The American press also interpreted the warning as being directed specifically to Lusitania passengers. The Washington Times wrote prophetically on May 1: “Lusitania’s Passengers Warned of Ship’s Doom.” The counter argument, namely that the sinking occurred as the result of a host of circumstances that could not have been planned, is weak. Any such project requires luck. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the tremendous loss of life caused by the rapid sinking of the ship had not been intended. Sabotage agent Franz Rintelen told a B.I. agent in New York what many German officials likely believed, “…it was never intended that those on board the Lusitania should have been drowned as they believed under any conditions that the Lusitania would stay afloat for four or five hours at the least, and that all of these people would be rescued.”

Still, it would be presumptuous for a historian to conclude that the German naval leaders had thus presided over a disastrous and ineffective strategy. Clearly, the German admiralty knew that they had only a handful of U-boats in service, which they rather would have saved from likely destruction instead of trying to destroy the global merchant marine. In his memoirs, the commander of the submarine forces, Hermann Bauer, quoted his top-secret plan for a sea blockade of England dated December 27, 1914. The plan listed the strategic goals of Germany’s commerce war using four U-boats on patrol on average per day: “…Deterrence and as a result reduction [of the merchant traffic to and from England] and... increased cost through forcing uneconomical routes and high insurance premiums.”

The German supporters of unrestricted submarine warfare certainly took into account the possibility of losing the battle for public sympathy in the United States. They did not care. Frederico Stallforth explained the general feeling of Germany’s public opinion about the sinking of the Lusitania: “…the German Admiralty thought that the greatest demonstration of the efficiency of the U-boat as a weapon of war could be the sinking of the Lusitania, but the English claimed it could not be sunk by a submarine due to its speed, and that Captain Turner of the Lusitania had boasted before he left New York that his boat could not be destroyed in that way. There were warnings sent out from some source … it was likely that the boat was going to be sunk… the truth was that the U-boats were looking out for it [the Lusitania]. A service clerk who worked in the Hotel Astor at the time testified, “Summerfeld [sic] appeared very elated and expressed the hope that Germany would win…” Heinrich Albert wrote to his direct superior, Secretary of the Interior Clemens von Delbrück, on May 10, 1915: “…the Lusitania case is from a military- naval perspective one of the most significant victories we have achieved. Despite the hostile atmosphere I can currently conduct my work with a lightened heart.” A potential entry of the United States into the war as a result of the submarine campaign not only factored into the calculation but was considered desirable and purposefully provoked. Bauer wrote in his top-secret plan for a blockade under the heading “Amerika,” “An unbearable economic crisis which our U-boat blockade will cause with certainty could drive America into an intervention against us. This intervention…. would… be without deciding military influence on the war.” He was wrong.

If you want the whole story of Germany's secret war on the United States in 1915, check out the new book.