The Lusitania Disguised? Unraveling the Mystery.
by Eric Sauder
Over the years there have been numerous debates about whether the Cunard liner Lusitania was camouflaged when she left New York for her last voyage on May 1, 1915. Some historians have stated with a dismissive wave of the hand that, of course, her funnels were obviously this color or that without then offering any substantial proof or hard evidence to support their claims. It is as though they were somehow able to see into the distant past and speak with an absolute certainty.
Ken Marschall’s startlingly realistic paintings of the Lusitania sinking have again raised this unanswered question, and many people have requested information about how Ken decided which camouflage colors to paint the ship. Because of this, Lusitania historian Eric Sauder examines the available evidence and attempts to answer the question once and for all.
1 May 1915, 12:30 p.m. R.M.S. Lusitania departs New York on the return leg of her 101st transatlantic crossing. Six days later, she was lying on the bottom of the Atlantic. Over the years, much controversy has surrounded the question of whether Lusitania was camouflaged on her final voyage. New information has come to light which finally solves the mystery. (Painting copyright 1990 by Ken Marschall. Original painting, Eric Sauder Collection.)
On August 22, 1914, the Illustrated London News ran a full-page feature about Lusitania. It wasn’t the typical article about her breaking yet another speed record or mentioning some notable who was traveling on board. This story had a more sinister tone. Europe had been at war for less than a month, and the text related in the words of one of her passengers how Lusitania had been painted in camouflage colors while at sea on her voyage to England.
Several months later, in November of that same year, The New York Times reported that Lusitania had been repainted in traditional Cunard colors as a sign of British confidence that the war was going well for them. The question remains, however: Was she ever painted again in camouflage before her sinking on May 7, 1915?
The first place to start was obviously with the few remaining survivors of the disaster. Printed accounts will be around forever, but the survivors are a precious resource, and they are quickly disappearing. During my years of research into Lusitania, I have corresponded with, spoken to, and visited thirteen survivors and questioned each one quite closely about whether they could shed any light on the color of the funnels during the last voyage. The few who felt they could hazard a guess thought that the funnels were “red” although none were absolutely certain. A number of them had sailed on Cunard vessels before or since the disaster, and some said it was possible they were remembering a different voyage. (Although commonly referred to as “Cunard red,” the funnel color used on board Cunard ships was actually a shade of orange.)
In he early 1990’s, the only written documentation that could be produced to show that the funnels might have been painted black on the last voyage was Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger’s logbook. As the commander of the U-20, the submarine that sank Lusitania, and as the only eyewitness not on board the doomed liner but still close enough to give what might be considered an accurate description, he states in his log that “the funnels were painted black.” Of course, the sun angle and the limited optical quality of his periscope might have given only the appearance of black funnels. It is also possible that he simply wrote the entry hastily and may have meant that only the tops of the funnels were black. Even if one interprets what Schwieger wrote literally, he had a vested interest in giving a story favorable to Germany—that the Lusitania was camouflaged; that she was attempting to avoid detection; and that, therefore, she had something to hide.
Although two primary sources had been consulted—the survivors and Schwieger’s own words in his logbook—they contradicted one another so there was no definitive color information either way. Aside from Schwieger’s log, no written confirmation had been found that contradicted the survivors, and there was no reason to believe that they weren’t remembering correctly. After all, they had been on the ship for six days, and what could be better than a number of eyewitnesses all stating the same thing? Schwieger, on the other hand, was looking through a primitive periscope at a target nearly half a mile away.
My first independent confirmation of Schwieger’s account of black funnels came in July of 1990 after I had located and corresponded at length with George Henderson who, as a boy of six, had been standing with his father and two brothers on the Old Head of Kinsale that fateful day in May watching Lusitania steam past. He stated in a letter to me that, “from my memory [the funnels] were ‘black.’ Of course, after 75 years I could be wrong.” For the first time, another eyewitness seemed to confirm Schwieger’s account. Although from a distance of nearly twelve miles and seventy-five years after the tragedy, he could easily be mistaken as Mr. Henderson himself freely admitted. There was still no definitive evidence.
One of many photos taken the day Lusitania arrived in New York on her maiden voyage. These same images are more often than not passed off as her final departure.
Next to be considered is the well-known film footage which shows Lusitania backing away from Pier 54 in New York that purports to be her “final departure.” There was good reason to suspect that it wasn’t the last voyage at all. It is well known that many photos and films of the ship obviously taken early in her career, even on her maiden voyage, have often been passed off as “the last voyage” for dramatic effect and even profit. Although the footage does not show the tops of the funnels when the ship was still at the pier and near the camera, upon close examination of the clearest copy yet found of the black-and-white film, there seems to be a definite “color” difference between what would have been the black banding and the orange sections of the funnels. Of course, if the funnels were all black, these darker bands may simply be the shadows underneath the angle irons that joined the funnel segments together.
With old black-and-white film, colors often photographed differently from what the eye perceived. Typically, “warm” colors photographed darker than “cool” ones. For example, in many first-generation photos of Lusitania, the lighter orange sections of the funnels actually appear darker than the dense black upper sections. Some of this effect is caused by the type of paint used. The black tops were finished with a glossy paint, and on the lower sections a flatter, duller paint was applied. The glossier black tops often reflected the sun more brightly than the lower, colored area. Witness how dark Titanic’s buff funnels appear in photographs, and her yellow-painted sheer line, so obvious in period paintings of White Star ships, barely shows at all. By the 1930’s, the balance and sensitivity of black-and-white film had been greatly improved, and this is evident by the vastly lighter appearance of Olympic’s funnels and sheer line in photographs taken later in her career.
A boat-deck view showing how the dark-painted upper section of the funnels appears lighter in some photos than the orange-painted lower sections.
Further motion picture footage of Lusitania turning in mid-river and moving downstream, supposedly taken the same day as that mentioned earlier, is of little help because the ship is too far away and one can barely make out any color difference in many areas of the ship. If this film were to be of any help, it must be determined at what point in Lusitania’s career it was taken.
Because of changes in the lifeboat arrangement and various structural alterations made to Lusitania after August, 1914, there can be no doubt that the film footage is from her last few months of service. We also know from existing evidence that it could not have been taken between August and November, 1914. The film clearly shows a light-painted superstructure and not the dark "war gray" that is plainly seen in the Illustrated London News photos.
This still is from the footage purportedly taken of Lusitania’s final departure from New York. Although the brown stripe that was added to Lusitania’s paint scheme can be clearly seen between Promenade and Shelter decks (indicated by the arrow), no color difference is discernable between the upper and lower bands of the funnels. The brown stripe and the lifeboat arrangement date this footage to very late in Lusitania’s career.
The film, therefore, must have been taken after November, 1914, and a closer examination reveals clues that narrow down the date even further. For example, note the water level against the pilings under Pier 56, opposite the cameraman. It is definitely very near high tide. A quick check of the tide charts published in The New York Times each day shows that for Lusitania’s monthly sailings between December, 1914, and May, 1915, it was near high tide only twice: April and May. The December, January, February, and March sailings were closer to low tide.
Another clue in the film is that lying at Pier 56 immediately next to Lusitania is what appears to be a Cunard cargo ship. But, as of this writing, the identity of the ship remains a mystery because all that can be seen of her is a single funnel, a few small ventilators, and some masts. Several ships could match this broad description. If the identity of the other ship were known, it would without a doubt narrow down the date of the film to one sailing. For the moment, however, this avenue is a dead end.
In this film frame, we have the best view of the vents and cargo booms of the ship docked next to Lusitania on what may be her final voyage.
During Robert Ballard’s Lusitania expedition in August, 1993, Ken Marschall and I were fortunate to have two trips to the wreck in the small submersible Delta. After our first aborted dive when the sub became ensnared in a fishing net, Ken and I resolved that we would try to obtain irrefutable physical evidence about the funnel color from the wreck itself during our second visit in the form of a piece of outer shell plating from one of the funnels. Although Ballard forbade the salvage of “souvenirs,” we felt that the retrieval of such a sample, which was purely for historical research, would be pardoned.
Our task upon reaching the bottom was to locate and retrieve a small piece of a funnel’s lower outer casing, and we concentrated our efforts on the No. 4 funnel. We knew from previously salvaged parts of the ship that paint very often remained, particularly when buried under silt or sand. Using the sub’s manipulator arm, we picked and searched through funnel remains down in the sand for about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any of the outer plating because most of this 1/4-inch-thick steel had rusted away long ago. All we could find were bits of the inner casing, still caked with a thick layer of black carbon residue nearly 80 years after the sinking. As we picked various pieces up off the sea floor, chunks of carbon would break away, trailing a black cloud down to the sand below. With dive time running short, we were forced to abandon our effort. Once again, a dead end had been reached.
It was through funnel debris like this that Ken Marschall and I picked using the submarine’s claw in an effort to find a section of outer casing to determine the funnel color on the final voyage.
In mid-1994, THS historian Don Lynch added a piece of curious “testimony.” In Turn of the World by Elizabeth, Lady Decies, she states that several weeks before Lusitania was sunk she had a dream. Scheduled to sail from New York on Lusitania, at the last minute she changed her reservations to the American liner New York. When the New York departed, she passed Lusitania tied up at one of the Cunard piers, and Lady Decies noticed that “[Lusitania] had its name filled in and painted black; its funnels too were black. The ship was camouflaged....I saw the Lusitania in the shadow of black funnels whenever I thought of her.” Although only a dream, it is odd that she should choose black as the funnel color and not gray, the color she must have known the funnels had been painted the previous August. Why would she have dreamed they were black unless she had either seen or heard that they were this unusual color? Admittedly, though, a dream hardly counts as proof.
It seemed as though the evidence, although not definitive, was finally beginning to point to black funnels, but there was still no written, period confirmation of Schwieger’s log.
Able Seaman Leslie Morton added his own helpful tidbit about the ship’s color scheme in his autobiography. This was his first voyage on Lusitania, having joined the ship in New York, and he states, in part: “Towards the end of the homeward passage I was put on the job of painting the lifeboats on the boat deck with a grey paint....” Taking Morton’s account literally and judging solely by what he says in the text, it would seem that Lusitania left New York in civilian colors and was again camouflaged in mid-ocean as she had been in August of 1914. However, I would soon learn that this was not the case.
The most convincing piece of evidence that could have come to light is provided by Lusitania passenger Mrs. Alice Loynd, who, with her husband David, was traveling to Britain on that fateful voyage for a long-needed vacation. During the crossing, Mrs. Loynd kept a very detailed diary in the form of a letter to her sister Mary back in the States. The following is an excerpt from this letter, reproduced exactly as written and describing the first few hours on board:
...there was a large Warship in the distance English, and another on the other side of us, with the English flag flying. It was a cruiser.... It was painted a kind of dusky grey, nearly black. We found that the Lusitania has been painted a different colour. The Funnels are black, and the boat where it was white is now...grey.... [N.B. The spelling and punctuation of all original sources have been retained.]
It must be stressed that this letter was written on board Lusitania during the final crossing, not afterward. Both Mrs. Loynd and her husband were lost in the disaster, and the letter was found on the body of Reverend Loynd when his remains were recovered. Because it was written on board and not at a later date when Mrs. Loynd might have exaggerated the truth or her memory might have been faulty, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt its accuracy. Mrs. Loynd was a Baptist minister’s wife, a devoutly religious woman, and it may be presumed, not inclined to lie. What possible motivation could there have been to make up such specific details in a chatty, “newsy” letter to her sister?
This was the confirmation of Schwieger’s log that I had been waiting for all these years.
Since my discovery of the Loynd letter, numerous other survivors’ accounts have come to light in which they state that the funnels were indeed black, thus confirming what Alice Loynd had said in 1915.
After examining the available evidence, we can now be certain that Lusitania was indeed camouflaged again at least for her last crossing, possibly a few voyages earlier. The question remains: When was this repainting done? The most likely time for the color change seems to have been in February, 1915, after Germany declared their submarine blockade of the British Isles although a definite answer still remains a mystery.
Many thanks to Bill Sauder and Ken Marschall for spending countless hours debating, discussing, and playing “devil’s advocate” with me about all the points raised in this article. Parks Stephenson also deserves thanks for providing the original web space on which to publish my first Internet article on www.marconigraph.com. Kathy Savadel, proofreader extraordinaire, did an immense service by copyediting the article and making me look good. Thanks to Don Lynch for offering his own piece of the puzzle during my search for the answer. And finally, a sincere debt of gratitude is owed to the niece of Lusitania passengers David and Alice Loynd for her kindness in supplying a copy of Mrs. Loynd’s Lusitania diary, which finally solved the mystery.
I would, of course, like to hear from anyone who might have further information that could shed more light on the subject. Please feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of the Eric Sauder Collection unless otherwise noted.
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