Disaster and Rescue
On Friday 7th May 1915 at 11.00hrs, the Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine on route from New York to Liverpool. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline. But there was no sign of any other ships.
At 11.55 the Master of the Lusitania, Capt. William Turner was informed of U boat activity off the southern Irish coast. At 13.40hrs, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him as his own front door; a Long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which was painted with black and white horizontal bands. The Old head of Kinsale. To avoid reported U-Boat activity in the area, the captain was instructed by the British admiralty to change course and head for Cobh then known as Queenstown.
However, at 13.20 hrs, the German U-Boat U-20 under the command of Kapitan-Leutnant Walther Schwieger spotted the smoke from a 4 funnel steamer astern approximately 12-14 miles away. Once the U-boat closed into its target, it fired a single torpedo.
At 14.10 hrs, the torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was “like a heavy door being slammed shut.” Almost instantaneously there came a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5 as it came back down. On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard. The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty, but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch.
When this Lusitania tragedy occurred, children at play in nearby Butlerstown National School in the Parish of Barryroe suddenly stopped as they heard two loud explosions in the distance. A witness to the event, Ciss Crowley of Coolbawn told us in 2005 when she was 98 years old “It sounded like thunder”. Ms Crowley still vividly remembers the events of that fateful day “We heard a huge explosion and went outside. Then I saw the ship on the Horizon, with smoke pouring out. For days, I saw nothing but dead bodies washing up on the beaches” she said (1).
At approx. 2.30pm, intelligence was received by Rev William Forde; the then Hon Secretary of the Courtmacsherry RNLI Station of a large four funnel steamer in distress South East of the Seven Heads. Rev Forde immediately went to summon the volunteer lifeboat crew. On his arrival at the Lifeboat Station, then located at Barry’s Point he was met by the Coxswain and his 14 man crew.
The last surviving crew member of Courtmacsherry Lifeboat who responded that day was Jerry Murphy of Lislee, he recounts on events of the call to service:
“I was working when the coxswain came along; he was doing coast watch out. He was employed doing coast watch by the English government. I was south along the coast and he saw the Lusitania been torpedoed out there in the bay and he ran from there to the secretary of the lifeboat, Mr Forde who was west in Lislee and he told him, he ran over here and he saw me down the back of the house rolling manure and shouted to me “come on Jerry the Lusitania is gone down south there”. So I went away immediately after him and as soon as the crew were assembled she was launched and we went off south. There was no breeze of wind at all, it was quiet calm we could not raise any sail so we rowed the whole way out to where she went down”(2).
At 3pm, the Courtmacsherry RNLI Lifeboat, Ketzia Gwilt under the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (father of hero Antarctic explorer Patrick Keohane) was launched. In calm conditions, the sails were of no use so the entire distance of approx. 12.6 nautical miles to the casualty had to be rowed.
An extract from the original Courtmacsherry Station RNLI Return to Service log states “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance – On the way to wreck we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach the place but it took us at least 3 ½ hours of hard pulling to get there – then only in time to pick up dead bodies”. The Courtmacsherry Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring bodies back to Cobh.
In 2010, the oldest survivor of the Lusitania tragedy, Audrey Lawson Johnson died aged 95 years old but years before her death; she and her family came to visit Courtmacsherry. She had grown up with the understanding that it was Courtmacsherry RNLI Lifeboat that had plucked her frozen tiny body from the cold sea and handed her over to one of the many ships on scene recovering bodies back to Cobh for burial. What a joy it must have been in such gloom, to discover on board that the young baby girl was in fact alive.
During a 2005 Courtmacsherry RNLI wreath laying event at the disaster site commemorating the 90 year anniversary of the sinking, Mrs Lawson Johnson spoke via satellite phone to the Courtmacsherry RNLI lifeboat crew that day “I’m thinking of you all. I’m there with you in spirit. Thank God for the lifeboat” (1), she told all on board. In 2004, Mrs Lawson Johnson donated funds for a Lifeboat in New Quay, Wales named after her mother “Amy Lea”. Last year, the current New Quay lifeboat, also donated by her family was named the “Audrey L J” in her honour.
The final entry from the return to service log written by Rev Forde who also joined the crew that day reads “Everything that was possible to do was done by the crew to reach the wreck in time to save life but as we had no wind it took us a long time to pull the 10 or 12 miles out from the boat house. If we had wind or any motor power our boat would have been certainly first on the scene – It was a harrowing sight to witness – The Sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on others holding on pieces of rafts – all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”.
Courtmacsherry Lifeboat stayed on scene remaining engaged in the work of recovering bodies until 20.40Hrs when they were then towed back to the entrance of Courtmacsherry bay by a Steam Drifter fishing vessel. They partly rowed and partly sailed back the rest of homeward journey, reaching the boat house at approx. 01.00Hrs on 8th May.
Local Courtmacsherry Lifeboat crewman and committee organiser, Dara Gannon tells us what this event means to the local area and especially the local lifeboat station: “The heart breaking loss of the Lusitania is a huge part of our Parish history and it’s only a few years ago that some were still around to recall it. The magnitude of the event was immeasurable. Every crewman today holds admiration for all of the hardy crewmen of long ago that responded in the attempts to rescue life that tragic day. We have big shoes to fill indeed and hope that this centenary commemoration not only makes people think of the loss of life but also the gallant efforts made to save it”.
The sinking of the Lusitania was a significant event in drawing America into the Great War.
We would wish to thank Mitch Peeke from Lusitania online (www.lusitania.net).
(1) Courtesy of Irish Examiner article by Eoin English, 9th May 2005.
(2). Courtesy of radio interview by Donncha O Dulaing, RTE presenter of Highways and Byways.