British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry

Day 4

18 June 1915

[ in camera ]

The Commissioner:
Now, Mr. Aspinall, I have had a great deal of difficulty with the Captain. Read me the form of question put to us about the Captain. It is the last, I think?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, my Lord.

The Commissioner:
The question is: "Was the loss of the 'Lusitania' and or the loss of life caused by the wrongful act or default of the master of the 'Lusitania' or does any blame attach to him for such loss?" And then Question 3 is: "Were any instructions received by the Master of the 'Lusitania' from the Owners or the Admiralty before or during the voyage from New York as to the navigation or management of the vessel on the voyage in question? Did the Master carry out such instructions?" Those are the two questions which trouble me.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
If your Lordship pleases. At the outset of my remarks on behalf of the Captain what I want to emphasise, and I think it is a material matter, is this, that the Captain was, undoubtedly a bad witness, although he may be a very excellent navigator.

The Commissioner:
No, he was not a bad witness.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Well, he was confused, my Lord.

The Commissioner:
In my opinion at present he may have been a bad Master during that voyage, but I think he was telling the truth.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
And I think he is a truthful witness. I think he means to tell the truth.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
In that sense he did not make a bad witness.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No.

The Commissioner:
He made a bad witness for you.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Well, what I was going to say about him was this, that it was very difficult to get a consecutive story from the man, but I was going to submit that he was an honest man.

The Commissioner:
I think he is, and I do not think Sir Edward Carson or Sir Frederick Smith have suggested anything to the contrary.

The Solicitor-General:
No, my Lord.

The Commissioner:
The impression the man has made upon me is - I came here prepared to consider his evidence very carefully, but the impression he has made upon me is that he was quite straight and honest.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Quite. He had gone through naturally the very greatest strain both physical and mental. He lost his ship; he lost his comrades, or many of them; there was very great loss of life, and he was in the water for a very long period of time.

My Lord, with submission, I think that we have a complete answer to any suggestion of impugning the navigation and the management of the ship during the period of time that she was in this War Zone, and my submission to your Lordship is that in order to determine the question whether or not the Master was to blame, it is very important that one should have a consecutive account of the events which were happening on the 6th and 7th of May.

My Lord, the state of things, as I gather it from the evidence, is this, that on May 6th the vessel was approaching the War Zone, and under those circumstances the lifeboats are swung out and orders are given that the ports should be closed and that the bulkhead watertight doors should also be closed, and further, that the look-out should be doubled. Now, that is the conduct of a man who is appreciating the gravity of the situation, namely, that he is in command of a large vessel carrying a large number of passengers, and he has got to apply his mind so far as he can to ensure carrying those people to Liverpool in safety by the action which he takes on the day in question.

Then on this same day he receives two telegrams that were put to him by my learned friend Sir Edward Carson. One was a wireless message received from Valentia, to this effect: "Submarines have been seen off the South Coast of Ireland. Headlands to be avoided and harbours passed at full speed." It is to be noticed, if I may emphasise the point - and I have a reason for doing so - that when he is told that submarines have been seen, it is off the South Coast of Ireland - I emphasise the fact that they were off, the South Coast.

My Lord, in addition to that, he also received a further telegram, which is to be found at page 8 of the evidence which was given in camera: "Take Liverpool pilot at Bar and avoid headlands. Pass harbours at full-speed; steer mid-channel course. Submarines at Fastnet."

The Commissioner:
That means just outside the Liverpool Bar.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, my Lord. "Avoid headlands. Pass harbours at full speed; steer mid-channel course. Submarines at Fastnet." Now that was the state of information that he got on May 6th.

The Commissioner:
Where did this second wireless come from?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Sir Edward Carson did not tell us that. It was a question put at page 7 when Sir Edward Carson was examining the witness. "I suppose it came from Valentia, did it? - (A) I presume so."

The Commissioner:
It was a general telegram, apparently; not to the "Lusitania" alone, but to all British vessels. "Take Liverpool pilot at Bar and avoid headlands. Steer mid-channel course. Submarines at Fastnet."

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
Could you tell me how that would be sent out?

Admiral Inglefield:
It would be sent out from Crookhaven. It is a Post Office wireless station, but all the wireless stations are taken over by the Admiralty, and no message can be sent out without their permission. I might add that all the wireless stations now under Admiralty orders maintain Greenwich time.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
My Lord, passing away from the 6th and the 7th, what was happening so far as is material on this occasion, is as follows, that somewhere during the 8 to 12 a.m. watch - nearer 8 than 12 - the Captain ordered the speed to be reduced to 18 knots. I will deal with the propriety of his action later.

The Commissioner:
About 8 a.m., you say?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I cannot fix the time with precision, but it is between 8 and 12; it is nearer 8 than 12.

The Commissioner:
You are not referring to the 15 knots?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No. Shortly after that there was fog, and then there was a further reduction of speed to 15 knots, and soundings were taken. Your Lordship will be advised with regard to this, but I am told that this is the place where fog is met, and that again, I submit, is evidence of careful navigation, the reduction of speed and also taking soundings. It is a matter which the Board of Trade always emphasise very, very much, and very properly, when you are in thick weather in the neighbourhood of land.

The Commissioner:
Could you tell me what view you take about the importance of the Admiralty orders? If the Admiralty order is to go fast, is the Captain supposed to qualify that when there comes a fog? Is he supposed to disregard the Admiralty order?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Well, my Lord, I will deal with it now, but if I might I should much prefer to go on with the sequence of events, if your Lordship will bear with me.

The Commissioner:
Do, please.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Then the fog clears away somewhere before 12, and the vessel then goes on at 18 knots, and during the same 8 to 12 watch, the clocks are put on 50 minutes, and the time of the ship synchronises with the time at Greenwich. At 11.30 comes the important wireless message with regard to submarines being heard of south of Coningbeg. That is the telegram which your Lordship has got, to the effect that submarines were last heard of 20 miles south of Coningbeg. The vessel at that time is on a course of S. 87 E. At 12.10 those on board the ship, not having seen the Fastnet, see what they thought was Brow Head 2 points abaft their port beam. It was a guess; probably a correct guess, but at the best a guess; and, of course, in addition to that, it was a mere judgment at the best of the distance from Brow Head. At 12.40 p.m. they got a bearing of Galley Head, and about this time they hauled in about 30 degrees to the northward, the course being N. 63 E. (I will deal, of course, later with the propriety of that action), the intention being to get a fix at the Old Head of Kinsale, and so enable them to pass close to Coningbeg and thereby keep away from this position 20 miles south of Coningbeg.

At 1 p.m. they get a wireless to the effect that submarines had been sighted off Cape Clear ; that is in the neighbourhood of Fastnet; and about 10 a.m., heading to the westward.

The Commissioner:
Is that according to your idea of the telegram, Sir Frederick?

The Solicitor-General:
No, my Lord, I do not think it is.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
In order to exhaust the telegrams, my Lord, I merely called the attention of the Court to it. Then at 1.40 the course is altered back to S. 87 E., and the Old Head of Kinsale is then in sight and recognised and known to be the Old Head of Kinsale. From 12 to 4, your Lordship may remember, was the watch of Mr. Jones, the Chief Officer. He was relieved at 1.40, and left on the bridge a gentleman of the name of Besteg [sic], who was called yesterday - Hefford and Besteg [sic]. Hefford was the Second Officer; he was drowned.

Admiral Inglefield:
The Second Officer would be in charge, not that young officer. Under the Board of Trade Regulations they are bound to have Second Officer. He was drowned, I think?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. The reason I was calling your Lordship's attention to the fact that Besteg [sic] was there is that he was doing something.

The Commissioner:
Besteg [sic] is alive; Hefford not.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
That is so, my Lord. Besteg [sic] began to take a four-point bearing, and he tells us that at 1.50 the Old Head of Kinsale was then 4 points on the port bow, and he then began to take a 4-point bearing, in order to ascertain the distance they were from the land, but I suppose, roughly speaking, it would take them probably something in the neighbourhood of half-an-hour or twenty minutes to complete before they got the Old Head of Kinsale abeam. It was an isosceles triangle. Still, it is a process that cannot be done in a moment. I mean to say, roughly speaking, it would take about half-an-hour. Besteg [sic] was relieved at 2 p.m. whilst he was in the process of this operation. He was relieved by Mr. Stephens, one of the officers who, unfortunately, was also drowned, and before the operation was completed, unfortunately, the vessel was struck. My Lord, I think that is the statement of what I may call all the material facts which were happening on the 6th and on the 7th of May.

My Lord, having dealt with that, now I next go to the Admiralty instructions and the Admiralty recommendations, and deal with them as they were presented by Sir Edward Carson to the witness. At page 3 of the note of the evidence which was given on the second day of the trial in this room, the first instruction that was put to the Captain was this: "';All orders by British men-of-war must be complied with immediately'? - (A) Yes. (Q) Now listen to this: 'When on voyage vessels must scatter widely both sides of the track and should avoid all other vessels directly they or their smoke are sighted. Points where trade converges should, when possible, be passed through at night. Territorial waters should be used when possible. Remember that the enemy will never operate in sight of land if he can possibly avoid it.' Did you get that? - (A)Yes.'"

Admiral Inglefield:
That order applies more especially to the early operations of these cruisers.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. I think one may neglect that. Then the next is: "Every effort is to be made to avoid capture and to cause the enemy to burn coal." That again applies to the early stages. Then at the bottom of page 3: "Did you get this one; this is a telegram on the 30th January to Sir Norman Hill, the solicitor to the Company, from the Admiralty - 'Confidential' (it is dated 13th January, 1915): 'British Shipping should be advised to keep a sharp look-out for submarines and display ensign of neutral country, or show no colours while anywhere in the vicinity of the British Islands. British ensign must, however, be displayed when British or Allied men-of-war should be met. House flags should not be flown'? - (A) I remember getting that." I think I may dismiss that. In the middle of the page there is this question: "Did you get a copy of this, which is dated 10th February -?"

The Commissioner:
This is important.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. "This paper is for the master's personal information and is not to be copied, and when not actually in use is to be kept in safety in a place where it can be destroyed at a moment's notice. Instructions for Owners and Masters of British Merchant ships issued with reference to the operations of German submarines against British shipping." Did you get that one? (A) I do not remember that one." He did receive it later on. "Section 3: Vessels approaching or leaving British or French ports between latitude 43 degrees N. and latitude 63 degrees N. and east, of longitude 13 degrees W. a sharp look out should be kept for submarines and vessels navigating in this area should have their boats turned out fully provisioned and ready for lowering. The danger is greatest in the vicinity of the ports and off the prominent headlands on the coast. Important landfalls in this area should be made after dark whenever possible." I believe I am right, in saying that at this time there were only six hours of darkness, and in view of the fact that there is a continuity of land, it is apparently recognized -

The Commissioner:
On the 10th February?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No, my Lord, on the 7th May.

Admiral Inglefield:
ON the 7th May the sun rose at 4.24 and set at 7.30 roughly in that latitude.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. Now, my Lord, my submission is that he did not contravene that.

The Commissioner:
No, he did not.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Now, first of all, he is instructed that he is to have his boats turned out and fully provisioned. That he did. "The danger" it says "is greatest in the vicinity of the ports and off the prominent headlands on the coast." The Captain recognized that, and was not in any way contravening either the spirit or the letter of this in doing what he did. He was, as I suggested to your Lordship the other day, dealing with the navigation of the ship in this way. In view of the fact that at 11.30 he had a wireless telegram informing him that submarines had been seen 20 miles south of Coningbeg, he having applied his mind to this matter and having consulted the Staff Commander and his First Officer, said: "Now what I propose to do is to keep away from that position, 20 miles south of Coningbeg."

The Commissioner:
Let me see the chart. Is this Coningbeg (pointing to the chart)?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
That is Coningbeg there, my Lord.

The Commissioner:
And there is the channel that he had to go through.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
The Tuskar and the Smalls is the actual channel.

The Commissioner:
Now he has got word that there are submarines 20 miles to the south.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, in or about the neighbourhood of Coningbeg. Now, my Lord, in doing what he did, my submission is that there was no reckless disregard of this instruction. He discussed the matter; he had present to his mind that the main thing was to avoid submarines, and he had got general instructions, no doubt of very great value, which probably would give effect to that purpose, namely, avoiding submarines, but he had got specific knowledge that when last seen the submarine danger was out in about the neighbourhood of mid-channel and under those circumstances he said to himself: "What I will do will be, in view of my specific instructions, although I fully recognise the utility of the general instructions, in the circumstances of this case, in order to avoid that danger, he made up his mind to go close to Coningbeg. My submission is that that was a proper judgment in view of what he had been told.

The Commissioner:
This chart has not got his actual course marked upon it.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes it has, my Lord. It is very difficult to see, but it is there.

The Commissioner:
Where is it?

(The course was pointed out.)

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I do not think this large chart shows the Tuskar, and that was the utility, I thought, of the smaller one. I thought the utility of this chart was that you get a sight of the whole scene of operations; and before the course was altered at 12.40, information was received that the danger was that there were submarines 20 miles South of Coningbeg, and rightly or wrongly, a determination on the part of the Master, after thinking the matter over, to get his position by a fix, and then make a course which would take him close to the Coningbeg.

The Commissioner:
Am I to understand that he intended to change his course again?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
Because this course would take him right up to Coningbeg.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. What he would do would be this: As soon as he got the result of the 4-point bearing, if he ever did, that would enable him to go into his chart room with an officer and mark off on his chart the exact position. He sees where Coningbeg is, and he puts his ship then on the appropriate course to take her close to Coningbeg. Now in that connection I also want to emphasise this: he had met with fog and may meet with fog again, but once he has got his point of departure fixed, then having put his ship on to the appropriate course, if she is properly steered, then she will arrive at the destination which he wishes to reach.

The Commissioner:
How far in point of time was he from Coningbeg?

The Solicitor-General:
80 miles.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
At 18 knots it would be between 4 and 5 hours.

The Commissioner:
He knew at that time that submarines were about here (pointing to the chart)?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
And that they could shift in the 4 hours very considerably?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Undoubtedly. I quite appreciate that, but after all warnings had been given in New York that the "Lusitania" had been marked down for destruction and when once this gentleman, the Captain, was informed that submarines were off Coningbeg, I submit that it would be not an unreasonable inference for him to think that was just the spot where these people would be waiting for him.

The Commissioner:
Where is the Channel - is this it?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Between the Tuskar and the Smalls.

The Commissioner:
Do you suggest that it was wise to make for that Channel at all under the circumstances?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, my Lord, I do. I suggest that it was wise for two reasons. The big reason was this, that the submarines were operating off the South Coast of Ireland; therefore he gets away from the South coast of Ireland. If he comes through there, he in fact gets away and gets on to the East Coast of Ireland, and I submit that under those circumstances it was a reasonable thing for the Master to deal with the state of affairs as he knew them in the way he did. To have done otherwise, well, I do not know what he could well have done. He might have gone back; he knew that he had passed one, and possibly more submarines whence he had come.

The Commissioner:
He knew that one of them was going west.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, one of them was going west. It was probable, through the information which he received, that this was the danger zone most to be feared off the Coast of Ireland, and the sooner he got away from that, the better.

The Commissioner:
That is my difficulty. Was it wise to try and get away by approaching Coningbeg?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I can appreciate your difficulty, my Lord, if I may say so with respect. Of course it may be that it may not have been wise to go on, but if he does go on, I submit that it would be wrong to say that the man was guilty of any negligence.

The Commissioner:
If it was wise, I have been advised by the gentlemen who sit with me, to go through this channel at all, it appears to me it was wise to go as far to the North as he could.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
So far, that is all I am contending for. Then I have to meet the other matter which your Lordship put: was it wise to go through the channel at all? The man has got into the danger zone, and what is he to do? His wish is, if he can, reasonably safely, do it, to finish his voyage - terminate it.

The Commissioner:
And he had any time up to 9 o'clock next morning.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes.

Admiral Inglefield:
The time of High Water at Liverpool Bar that morning was 5.44. He could have crossed from 3 to 9. The High Water was 5.44 on the inside.

Mr. Laing:
On the 8th.

Admiral Inglefield:
I beg your pardon; it was on the 8th.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
The alternative of course would be for him to go on, but what was he to do? Was he to put back again away from the shore? That would be the only reasonable thing to do if he had made up his mind not to go on.

The Commissioner:
I think it is suggested by Sir Edward Carson or some one that he might have zigzagged about here ( pointing to the chart ), and that he had plenty of time to do it.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Now, my Lord, dealing with that, what would that have meant? If off the South Coast of Ireland he remained zigzagging about, it would have meant that whilst he was zigzagging - no doubt a very admirable manoeuvre for the purpose of avoiding a shot from a submarine - he in fact is covering a very large area of ground whilst he is zigzagging.

The Commissioner:
No doubt.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
But whilst he is covering that large area of ground, he may have been covering the very area which he wished to avoid. He is covering ground in the danger zone.

The Commissioner:
Yes, but he is covering it in a way which minimises danger very much.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No doubt, it may be that that is so. He is wishful to avoid this danger zone, and he had got to make up his mind what the best thing is to do, and he is confronted with a class of difficulty which is unusual to a mariner. He is not a man of war; he is a man of peace, and is accustomed to navigate his ship, and having applied his mind to it, he comes to the conclusion: let me get away from this danger zone.

The Commissioner:
Do you think he applied his mind in that way?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Well, he says he did. He may have been a courageous sailor, but, after all, one has got to judge of him by who he is and what experience he has had in the past.

Continued