Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Image of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Release Date: 
March 10, 2015
Reviewed by: 

Dead Wake is a masterfully researched, engrossing, and evocative book . . .”

Upon departing New York City on May 1, 1915, the Lusitania was a testament to man’s ingenuity, power, and hubris. The pride of the Cunard Line, she was a monster of the oceans: fast, sleek, and luxurious. Just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, Larson delivers a powerful and haunting expose, guaranteed to captivate the reader.

In 1915, World War I was raging in Europe and Germany had publicly warned that all merchant traffic to Europe would now be considered war material and subject to being taken as a prize or sunk. German diplomats even took out an ad in the New York Times warning Lusitania’s passengers and crew.

Yet few passengers heeded the Kaiser’s caveat. Most believed that no nation would deliberately sink an ocean liner filled with innocent women and children, that the Lusitania was far too fast to be a viable submarine target and (falsely) that England would use her Navy to protect the ship.

Passengers believed that the Lusitania was so huge and with all boilers lit, so fast as to make her unsinkable. Yet unknown to almost everyone, Captain Turner of the Lusitania was ordered by Cunard executives to light only three of her four boilers to save money. This decreased speed made her an easier submarine target.

Following the Titanic disaster only three years earlier, maritime law required passenger liners to use as many lifeboats as necessary, giving passengers a false sense of security. Almost no one considered the possibility that a ship of that size could sink in minutes after being hit by only one torpedo or that her swift starboard list would make it nearly impossible to launch most of the lifeboats.

Almost everyone believed that England would use her battleships and destroyers to protect large passenger ships in the “war zone.” In reality, the Royal Navy feared losing critical warships to German submarines more than they felt it necessary to protect commercial passenger ships that carried no troops. The leader of the Royal Navy, Winston Churchill, therefore decided to leave the Lusitania unprotected. Documents show that he secretly desired a German attack so that the event would prompt America to enter the war.

Dead Wake is a masterfully researched, engrossing, and evocative book from all perspectives. Larson provides numerous layers of hidden information, including intimate details of President Wilson’s private life that influenced his decision-making.

We learn about intelligence secrets of the English Admiralty, leading to the interception and decoding of communication between the German submarine U-20 and her base; yet that information was retained from those whose intervention might have prevented the catastrophe. We witness the fateful decision of Lusitania’s captain to delay entry into the “war zone” and to zig-zag directly into the path of the U-20. And we learn a great deal about the cunning and ruthless German submarine captain.

Finally, we learn that the Royal Navy blamed Captain Turner of the Lusitania, even though they knew that he had been innocent and that the information they had deliberately withheld from him and Cunard could have been used to save his ship.

Larson delivers an engrossing account of one of history’s most enduring seafaring tragedies with pure, driving narrative. Here we find a perfect storm of orders and conditions; all required simultaneously to achieve this horrific result.

Larson’s meticulous research and talent leaves the reader riveted and personally involved, as though we had been one of the fortunate few rescued from a lifeboat. This is a book that will remain vividly within the reader’s memory long after it has been read.