May 7, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine torpedo. Eric Larson has written, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, that revisits the tragedy that pulled us into the first World War
Dead Wake will not disappoint. Larson keeps the stories short within the 353 pages alternating from three different perspectives. For example, one chapter is about the Lusitania. The following chapter discusses the German submarines fearfully known as U-Boats. Then the third chapter talks about Room 40 where code breakers worked to decipher German transmissions.
The Lusitania was known as one of the greyhounds in the Dreadnought era of transatlantic crossings. A member of the Cunard Fleet that included the Umbria, Etruria, Carpathia and Queen Mary to name a few, the Lusitania was a luxurious superliner capable of 26 knots. Called Lucy for short, the beloved ship successfully completed 201 Atlantic crossings by April 1915.
Walther Schweiger was the German captain of Unterseeboot – 20 (U-20) that sent the Lusitania to its watery grave. According to the book, the U -20 was 210 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 27 feet tall. The living space was a cylinder in the middle while two cylinders on each side were filled or drained of water depending on the desired depth.
Because submarines lost contact with their land base, the captains were allowed to make decisions without orders from superiors. It was said a U-boat took on the personality of the captain. Schweiger was an ambitious happy man caring enough to aide in the rescue attempts after torpedoing a helpless ship. U-20 was known as a happy ship.
In room 40 of the Admiralty, an old building overlooking the Thames, a group of code breakers deciphered the day’s transmissions from U-boats once they entered the North Sea. The Germans plotted the seas around England and Ireland in 6 mile squares. When chatting sub to sub, captains would indicate where they were by a number that represented one of the squares. Room 40 knew exactly where each U-boat was since submarines stayed in continuous contact.
As I write this, Dead Wake is number one on the New York Times bestseller list having shot to that coveted slot from its release date of March 10. Four weeks on the list and four weeks at number one is a feat all authors aspire to achieve. It is certainly a tribute to Larson’s writing talent and readers will find themselves enthralled.