Dark Secrets of the Lusitania


#1

This morning, I watched the program “Dark Secrets of the Lusitania” on the National Geographic Channel, documenting the underwater exploration of the remains of the Lusitania, sunk off the southeast Irish coast. It will be re-run this evening (Saturday). It shows for the first time videos of the 4 million rounds of .303 ammunition from Remington that was aboard. Much is in original crates, but there is a large number of loose rounds shown laying around. They did recover a single round to bring to the surface (I wonder what that will be worth?). Aside from that, the conclusion was drawn that possible explosion of contraband munitions, or coal dust, or a boiler, did not contribute to the rapid sinking of the Lusitania. Rather, just a very good shot from the German sub, with the torpedo striking in exactly the right place to create maximum damage. Worth a watch.


#2

It is also said that it carried back toolroom prototypes of something. Whatever it was it was being sent back for approval prior to contracts being issued. I don’t suppose we will ever know if its true but its a good story.


#3

Just finished reading Ken Follet’s Novel “Fall of Giants” and he mentions that the Lusitania was carrying 173 TONS of Ammunition, Rifles and 3" Shells when it was torpedoed. Follet’s books are very well researched ( his Rifle, Pistol IDs are excellent, although occasional “common misconceptions” do creep in.)

I wonder what the condition of the sealed boxes is like…the deep water would prevent any internal Corrosion, especially if the cases were “Tin inside Wood”…

Regards,
Doc AV


#4

Just finished watching this special. Very interesting. Most of the wood rotted away exposing loose (not boxed) ammunition inside. The metallic parts of the ship are deteriorating at high rate. The ship lies in 100 metres (300 feet) of relatively warm water (good old Gulfstream) with strong currents, probably contributing to decay. Out of all the theories of the secondary explosion (which sank the ship in 18 minutes) the boiler room and gun cotton were considered highly plausible. What exactly is gun cotton?


#5

[quote=“sksvlad”]
What exactly is gun cotton?[/quote]

Nitrocellulose. Used as a propellent or low order explosive. Still used today in smokeless powder.


#6

Dennis, here is a detailed report on the ammunition cargo:



#7

I used to collect WWI Princess Mary .303 dummy pencil cartridges, which were part of the contents of brass Princess Mary Christmas boxes made in England for troops away from home for Christmas, 1914. The project grew beyond all expectations, and resulted in many different collectibles in addition to the variations of the .303 pencil cartridges. I had a pretty good collection and wrote an article about them that appeared in the Sep/Oct 2001 IAA Journal, number 421, on page 24. Here’s part of the final chapter, edited a bit for context:

“One of the most bizarre events in the six years of the Princess Mary Fund’s existence was the sinking of the Cunard liner Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Lusitania on 7 May 1915. Cartridge brass strip from which the Princess Mary Christmas boxes, containing .303 pencil cartridges, were made was in very short supply in England since all available stocks were being used to manufacture real ammunition, and the Fund eventually placed an order for 200 tons of it with the Phosphor Bronze Co. Ltd. of America. The initial shipment of 45 tons was delayed when it was discovered that the ship (the SS Portsmouth) it was to be shipped in was also carrying sulfuric acid, not known to mix well with brass. After some additional delay, the 45 tons of cartridge brass were placed aboard the Drum of Airlie. Then for a reason still not known, it was offloaded from the Drum of Airlie and placed aboard the Lusitania, which sailed from New York on 1 May 1915. Prior to the sailing the German embassy had placed ads in New York newspapers warning passengers that a state of war existed between Germany and Great Britain, and that any ship carrying implements of war was fair game for the German U-boats. Hardly anyone paid attention to the warnings, writing them off as German bluster. They should have. On 7 May 1915, the U-20 put one torpedo into the Lusitania amidships, which sank with the loss of 1,201 men, women, and children and the 45 tons of cartridge brass. …”


#8

Actually, according to National Geographic, some people even cancelled the trip entirely after reading that German Embassy ad. When the ship got close to Ireland, many people slept in the public places like dining halls not wishing to drown in their cabins and hoping to survive better in case of a U-boat attack. And those brass nuggets are still there, rather well preserved.


#9

Interesting about the cartridge brass. The NGC presentation did show metal ingots that were described as copper, but they could well have been cartridge brass.
In the show it was mentioned that there was guncotton (a form of nitrocellulose) aboard, but it seems that the only guncotton present would have been in the form of smokeless propellant in the .303 cartridges. Interesting that Hercules HiVel #2 was mentioned as one of the propellants. I have a rather large stockpile of HV #2 (now dwindling) which I still reload with.

Several times, the narrator referred to “contraband” munitions aboard the Lusitania. Would munitions shipped from the US to Great Britain prior to the US involvement in WWI have actually been contraband (other than to the Germans)? There doesn’t seem to have been much secrecy about the munitions shipment.


#10

Mel, is it possible to post a picture of a WWI Princess Mary .303 dummy pencil cartridge? I have no idea how they look.


#11

“Guncotton” as such, is Nitrocellulose, but the original formulation was somewhat unstable, in a dried form, and was usually only used for large Bore Cannon (Both BL and ML) and as a Blasting charge in the 1890s. It was usually stored Wet (ie, under water) due to this instability.

The development of what we call “Smokeless Powder” (Nitrocellulose) was possible by the the controlled Nitration of the cotton, with a 14 percent Nitrogen content. This was done by controlling the amount of Nitric acid used in the Nitration, and by a drying system ( with Sulfuric acid) which removed the Water produced by the Nitration. The resultant compound was found to be more stable than simple Guncotton, and was then used as a ( cartridge) propellant.

IN the Public mind,( back in the 1890s) the terms “Gun cotton” and “Smokeless Powder” were used interchangeably, and this persisted till well into the 1930s.

Hence the reference to “Guncotton” in the news reposts of the Sinking. ( Dumb journalists, as usual).

The reference in the Documentary to “Loose cartridges” seems to indicate that the paper/carton packets must have dissolved in the water, after the wood rotted away. Given the shallow depth of the wreck, there would be next to no “recoverability” of the cartridges, except as very oxidised scrap metal ( copper and lead–the zinc having been leached out by the seawater)…

But going to the official reports, there is no mention of “Rifles” as part of the cargo…in 1915, it would have been too early for P14 rifles ( production was only from 1916-1917)…the only other type would have been Remington Rolling Blocks (“M1914”) for France, or their order of M07/15 Berthier Rifles, if that).

Follet’s info about the Lusitania could be mistaken in this item.

Which brings up another interesting Point, How many loads of cartridges are there lying at the bottom of various seas, from WW I and WW II??? And given the better packaging of the WW II production, how much is still
"in good condition"?

Regards,
Doc AV


#12

I’m no enthusiast for conspiracy theories but the report shown by Fede only mentions ‘munitions’, there might well have been ‘components’ such as explosives in the general cargo loaded upon the Lusitania.

Happy collecting, Peter


#13

Peter, what would be the conspiracy theory here?


#14

[quote]The development of what we call “Smokeless Powder” (Nitrocellulose) was possible by the the controlled Nitration of the cotton, with a 14 percent Nitrogen content. This was done by controlling the amount of Nitric acid used in the Nitration, and by a drying system ( with Sulfuric acid) which removed the Water produced by the Nitration. The resultant compound was found to be more stable than simple Guncotton, and was then used as a ( cartridge) propellant.
[/quote]

The manufacture of smokeless powder requires two separate types or grades of nitrocellulose, only one of which is correctly called guncotton, or often in the industry, “high-grade.” It contains 13.4% nitrogen. The second type of nitrocellulose has 12.7% Nitrogen, is referred to as pyrocellulose, pyrocotton or simply pyro. Guncotton is more completely nitrated than pyro. The two grades are blended together to a Nitrogen content of 13.15% prior to processing the mixture into smokeless powder.

Guncotton itself does not make a very good propellant. I believe early attempts in that direction resulted in exploding cannon. I don’t know if it has been used to any extent as an explosive, but I imagine someone has.

I was a little confused when they spoke about guncotton being part of the munitions on the Lusitania, as it’s not something you would want to ship very far unless it was wet due to its extreme danger in a dry state. Most uses for it require captive production.


#15

Dennis, here is another report and a summary of the manifest:





#16

sksvlad; All of my Princess Mary pencil cartridges and their pictures are long gone. Go to gunshows.co.nz/documents/38.html for a very nice article with several pictures of the cartridges including their very rare cardboard mounting to keep them from rattling around inside the brass boxes.


#17

The program mentioned aluminum powder being in the cargo, as a component of explosives, and a dust explosion involving it was investigated. But I don’t see aluminum powder specifically mentioned (but there is a relatively small amount of bronze powder listed). I would assume that the 260,000 pounds of brass sheet listed was cartridge brass. I would agree that the Germans would have considered about everything on the cargo manifest to be contraband, not just the munitions.

Was aluminum powder used as an explosive component at that time? I know it was during WWII and later, but I don’t know when that started.


#18

Does anyone know which type of German torpedo was responsible for its’ sinking? I think it was the G7? If so, I have an inert example of the G7 four whiskered fuze :-)

Jason


#19

It was stated in the program but I do not remember what it was.


#20

[quote=“APFSDS”]Does anyone know which type of German torpedo was responsible for its’ sinking? I think it was the G7? If so, I have an inert example of the G7 four whiskered fuze :-)

Jason[/quote]

Jason, there were several different fuzes approved for the G7 variants.