Genealogical & Family History Research
Commander Daniel Dow RD, RNR
Like the ill-fated “Titanic” the “Lusitania” has achieved cult status in the annals of maritime history. There has always been some element of mystery about the sinking for it was always a puzzle why she sank so quickly. My grandfather was known to have said that the ship would remain afloat for some considerable time on receiving a hit by torpedoe and that there would be plenty of time to get passengers and crew into safety, provided that the torpedoe did not hit a boiler room.
It remains a mystery to this day as to the exact cause of the sinking of this great ship in less than twenty minutes. Examination of the ship by Ballard showed the ship to be lying on her side with the torpedoed side buried in deep mud. There are three schools of thought, one that the torpedo hit empty coal bunkers adjacent to the boiler rooms which detonated gases caused by coal dust resulting in a terrific internal explosion which took out a considerable part of the ships side. Another that the ship was carrying a significant amount of ammunition and explosives which the US had sent to Britain to assist in the war effort and that the torpedo had hit the very spot in the hull where this was stored, and, lastly that the torpedo did, in fact, hit a boiler-room as predicted and ruptured high pressure steam pipes. This, and the inrush of cold water resulting in further damage to the hull and plating. If it was explosives then it does beg the question as to how, what would have to have been a significant quantity of explosives, managed to get through the stringent checks that were in place by the US authorities at that time. Although it is generally agreed that military stores were being carried these were unlikely to have been of an explosive nature sufficient to cause so much damage. It is now generally agreed that the ship was not carrying any high explosive material. Neither had the ship been altered whilst my grandfather was in command in order to stow contraband cargo.
There is no doubt that my grandfather was deeply concerned about a number of factors caused by wartime operations. There is also a question mark concerning the activities of the British Admiralty which had commandeered cargo spaces on board the ship for cargo and whether, or not, the nature of which were being kept from the Captain. Whatever it was my grandfather, Commander Dow, felt, quite justifiably in my view, that his authority was being thwarted. The ship was under strict Admiralty orders and the captain’s authority on board his own ship was no longer supreme. Further, the ship had been stripped of many of its expertise by conscripting stokers, firemen and engineers into the Royal Navy in addition to which wartime restrictions also meant that coal was now in short supply so some of the boilers on board had been shut down. Many of the crew were inexperienced and discipline suffered accordingly and the performance of crew duties lacking in the high standards expected of Cunard crews. This factor alone may very well have played a large part in the ship's fate. Turner had reason to complain of this. This also resulted in a significant amount of empty coal bunkers which also tends to support Ballard’s view that a coal dust explosion had been the main cause of the sinking. The shutting down of boiler capacity also meant that the ship could not get up to full speed another factor which came into play on the day of the sinking.
My grandfather had had command of the “Lusitania” since November 1913 which was unusual as captains tended to alternate ships fairly frequently. However, wartime meant that many experienced crews had been drafted into the Navy and general passenger traffic had been reduced. Grandfather had thus been able to become accustomed to wartime operations in the “Lusitania” and had already experienced a number of scares.
It must be remembered, too, that it was not uncommon for the Admiralty to commandeer such ships as “Mauretania” and “Lusitania” and to use them as armed merchant ships or to act as support and troop vessels. This is because these ships are frequently part funded by the government a condition of which is that they allow themselves to be utilised in times of war. (The QEII was used as a troopship during the Falklands war and might just as easily have been targeted by an Exocet as any other warship in the theatre).
My grandfather made it clear to his chairman, Alfred Booth, that whilst he was quite prepared to command any ship in times of war it was asking too much to expect him to protect his passengers when the ship was being classed as an armed merchant cruiser, even if she wasn't actually one at the time and, what’s more, one that was overtly likely to be carrying military supplies. The Germans had made it quite clear that because of this they were treating such ships as legitimate targets. In the words of one author Commander Dow had had enough! There is no doubt that he was both tired and stressed and he was suffering from a severe stomach complaint probably due to long hours on watch and snatched meals on the Bridge. Booth insisted that he took some leave.
Subsequent books about the “Lusitania” and the sinking have sought to elicit the truth and some have attempted to lay the blame fairly and squarely with the British Government and, in particular, with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill was a wiley and astute politician and whilst he was quite capable of using the sinking to his advantage there was no way in which he would have ‘engineered’ the situation; that suggestion is a total absurdity. There is also the fact that William Turner was very badly affected by the incident and some authorities have also tried to blame him but I think it is fair to say that the Germans would have managed to sink the ship sooner or later no matter who was in charge! Turner was, to some extent, unlucky although some of his actions were somewhat debatable. My father said he should not have been in the position he was in at the time and he should have been much further out from the coast and traveling much faster than he was; but it is easy to judge in hindsight.
Unfortunately, some authors have deliberately tried to establish some sort of conspiracy theory on the grounds that a scandal would make a much better book, thus selling more books and making more money. Why let facts get in the way of a good story?
The sinking upset my grandfather considerably, many passengers and crew were known to him and he felt their loss and that of the ship keenly. He and Turner had been long time colleagues and he was sorry for the appalling position in which his old friend now found himself. William Turner was a completely different character to that of my grandfather but both were excellent seamen with similar backgrounds and experience. The author J. Kent Layton in a recent book comes to the conclusion that the sinking was a most unfortunate incident and that the Mersey Tribunal came to the right conclusion in that Germany was responsible for the loss and no one else. In this I wholeheartedly agree and that should, perhaps, be the final verdict as no useful purpose will be served by further useless speculation.
There will, of course, remain one or two ‘niggles’ not the least of which is why did Winston Churchill and Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, apparently appear to attempt some control over the handling of the enquiry by Lord Mersey. And why should they do so if HMG had not been involved in some way with the sinking and the events leading up to it? That Lord Mersey was unhappy about the manner in which his enquiry was managed is also clear but I am of the view that this was just political influence trying to make the most out of a matter which would make international news and speed up the USA’s entry into the war. As it happens it would not have suited Britain for the US to come into the war at that time and in the event by the time they did come the Lusitania event was past history and had little or no bearing on the matter.
There have been a number of books written about the events leading up to the final voyage of the “Lusitania” and the aftermath. Unfortunately those by Colin Simpson, two volumes published in 1972 and a further Special Edition in 1996 have now been largely discredited. Many of his alleged facts can not be checked and his interpretation of those that are available are largely wide of the mark. His opinions were frequently full of discrepancies, contradictions and fantasy. Two of the more reliable books, so far, are those by David Ramsay and J.Kent Lyon. Another book, by Diana Preston, supposedly an Oxford University trained historian, couldn’t even get his name right and refers to him as David Dow! Yet still the books come although thankfully are getting far more academic in their approach and authorship. Gone, too, are the fanciful theories as it slowly dawns on most that the sinking was just one of those appalling wartime events.
My family knew both William Turner and his housekeeper, Mabel Every, for they lived near to us in Great Crosby, Liverpool. Turner was not a well man and had spent some years previously trying to find his estranged wife and family who had left England after the enquiry. He never did see his family again and died a very sad and disillusioned man. Cunard managed to get him awarded an OBE for services to his country!
It has been asked why, Commander Dow, Commodore of the Cunard line, had not been awarded a knighthood. In fact up to this time the knighting of Cunard Commodores was not standard practice and it is possible that Captain Rostron, another contemporary of both Dow and Turner, was the first to so honoured in 1926. Captain Arthur Rostron distinguished himself when, in command of the SS “Carpathia” went to the rescue of the survivors of the “Titanic”. In fact in many early books and reports on these great ships it is noticeable that the names of the Captains are often omitted as they were not considered important! It is only in recent times that people have become interested in the human element of such events.
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