Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

Book cover of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, 2015.

The grand ocean liner RMS Lusitania.

Author Erik Larson.
Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania shows once again that he is a master of narrative non-fiction. Even though we know the tragic fate of the Lusitania before the book begins, it’s still a page-turner. Larson has worked a similar spell in several other books, including the huge best-sellers The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. (I reviewed In the Garden of Beasts last year here.) The passenger liner RMS Lusitania was one of the most advanced ships of the early 20th century, allowing passengers to cross the Atlantic in sumptuous luxury and at very fast speeds. The Lusitania was launched in 1906, and it provided excellent service until it was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, and nearly 1,200 people lost their lives. World opinion was outraged at Germany for targeting a civilian ship during wartime. 

Larson takes us inside the Lusitania on its final voyage across the Atlantic, as it headed from New York City to its appointment with destiny. Larson also uses the captain’s log from U-20 to reconstruct its mission to destroy as much Allied shipping as possible. We get a vivid sense of what life was like on these two very different ships. Larson combines the storytelling ability of a novelist with the historian’s ability to craft a readable tale from many different sources. 

Like many great disasters, luck and chance played significant roles in the fateful meeting between the Lusitania and U-20. The morning of May 7th had been very foggy, and if the fog would have held for another hour, the Lusitania and U-20 would have passed each other totally unaware of the other’s presence. The Cunard Line, who owned the Lusitania, was trying to conserve coal, so the Lusitania was only using three of its four boiler rooms. This decreased the top speed the ship could reach, and added a day to the voyage. Had the Lusitania been traveling at top speed the entire voyage, she would have reached Liverpool before U-20 reached the southern coast of Ireland. The captain of U-20, Walther Schwieger, had already sunk several ships on his mission, and by the afternoon of May 7th he had turned the submarine around and was heading home. But he happened to see the Lusitania through his periscope and the big ship suddenly turned to give him a perfect angle to fire at it. Schwieger had miscalculated the speed of the Lusitania, as he thought it was traveling at 22 knots, but it was really moving at 18 knots. But Schwieger’s miscalculation meant that the torpedo struck the Lusitania at the perfect spot to produce maximum damage. That the torpedo found its target at all was remarkable, as 60% of German torpedoes failed for one reason or another. The Lusitania quickly listed 15 degrees to starboard, making it impossible to launch any of the lifeboats on the port side. Just 6 of the Lusitania’s 22 lifeboats were launched successfully. Just 18 minutes after the torpedo struck the ship, the Lusitania had slid beneath the ocean’s surface. Even under the most ideal conditions, there was no way nearly 2,000 people could have evacuated the ship that quickly. The poor souls on the Titanic at least had 2 ½ hours. 

Dead Wake is a fascinating look at one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th century, and if you’re a fan of Erik Larson’s terrific writing, you need to read it.

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