Read Dead Wake Online

Authors: Erik Larson

Dead Wake (8 page)

He bought his ticket, No. 1297, from a Cunard agent in Boston, and while doing so asked whether the liner would be “
convoyed through the war zone.” The clerk replied, “Oh yes! every precaution will be taken.”

Lauriat chose the
specifically because of its speed. Ordinarily he preferred small, slow boats, “
but this year,” he wrote, “I wanted to make my business trip as short as possible.” At the
’s top speed of 25 knots, he expected to arrive in
Liverpool on Friday, May 7, and reach London in time to start work on Saturday morning, May 8. He planned to travel with a friend, Lothrop Withington, an authority on genealogy who had a particular expertise in the old records of Salem, Massachusetts, and Canterbury, England. Both men were married, but for this trip were leaving their wives behind. Lauriat had four children, one a baby, whose picture he planned to bring along.

He packed five pieces of luggage: a leather briefcase, a small valise, an extension suitcase, a large shoe case, and his steamer trunk. Dinner required formal wear and all that went with it. His various day suits required shoes of differing styles. There were braces and socks, ties and cufflinks. He also packed his favorite Knickerbocker suit, with its characteristic knickers, which he planned to wear while strolling the deck.

He and Withington were set to take the midnight train to New York, on Thursday, April 29, but first Lauriat stopped at his bookstore. There a colleague opened the store’s safe and handed him two volumes, each with a cover that measured 12 by 14 inches. These were scrapbooks, but of a high order. One contained fifty-four line drawings, the other sixty-four drawings, all done by the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray to illustrate his own works. At one time, Thackeray, who died in 1863 and whose best-known work was
Vanity Fair
, had been nearly as popular as Charles Dickens, and his satirical stories, essays, and serialized novels were widely and avidly read in such magazines as
. His drawings and books and just about any other artifact from his life—all known as “Thackerayana”—were coveted by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in America.

Lauriat took the scrapbooks back to his home in Cambridge, where he inspected them in the company of his wife, Marian. He then packed them, carefully, in his extension suitcase, and locked it. At the station later that night, he checked his trunk and shoe box for transport direct to the
but held back his other three pieces. He kept these with him in the railcar.

He and Withington reached New York early the next morning, Friday, April 30, the day before the
was scheduled to
sail, and here they temporarily parted company. Lauriat took a taxi to the home of his sister, Blanche, and her husband, George W. Chandler, at 235 West Seventy-first Street in Manhattan. Lauriat had one more task to complete before departure.

Waldorf Astoria, at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street, first-class passenger Margaret Mackworth, thirty-one, packed her things in a fog of gloom and depression. She dreaded her return to England. It meant going back to a dead marriage of seven years and a life oppressed by war.

She had arrived in New York the previous month, alone, after a tedious ten-day crossing, to join her father, D. A. Thomas, a prominent businessman, who was already in the city for discussions on ventures ranging from mines to Mississippi barges. She was delighted and relieved to find him waiting for her on the dock. “
In 1915, to come out into sunlit April New York, care-free and happy, after being under the heavy cloud of war at home, was an unspeakable relief,” she recalled.

The city charmed her. “
In the evenings—almost every evening—we went out, either to the theatre or to dinner parties,” she wrote. She bought dresses, paid for by her father, including a long black velvet gown that she loved. She saw her customary shyness—an “annihilating” shyness—begin to subside, and she began for the first time in her life to feel like a social asset to her father, rather than a liability. (Her shyness, however, had not kept her from fighting for women’s suffrage back in England, in the course of which she jumped on the running board of a prime minister’s car and blew up a mailbox with a bomb.) “Those weeks of openhearted American hospitality and forth-comingness, of frankly expressed pleasure in meeting one, did something for me that made a difference to the whole of the rest of my life,” she wrote.

She dropped her shyness “overboard” on that holiday. “
I have always been grateful to New York for that,” she wrote. “And, finally, it was one of the last times when I consciously felt quite young.”

Although she and her father would be traveling in first class on one of the most luxurious vessels the world had known, all she felt now was sorrow and regret.

morning, Captain Turner left the ship and made his way south to Wall Street, to the City Investing Building at 165 Broadway, an immense, ungainly structure that happened to stand beside one of the city’s most beloved landmarks, the Singer Tower, built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Here Turner made his way up to the law offices of Hunt, Hill & Betts, where, at 11:00
., he sat before eight lawyers for a deposition in one of the most compelling cases of the day, the attempt in U.S. Federal Court by the White Star Line, owners of the
, to limit their financial liability in the face of claims by families of dead American passengers, who charged that the disaster had resulted from the company’s “fault and negligence.”

Turner, testifying on behalf of the families, had been summoned as an expert witness, an acknowledgment of his many years as captain of large passenger ships and of the respect afforded him by other mariners, but it became quickly evident to those present that being questioned by lawyers was not something he enjoyed. He offered only abrupt, clipped answers—seldom more than a single sentence or phrase—but nonetheless proved to be a damning witness.

The lawyers managed to pry from him his account of being at sea when he first learned of the
disaster. He’d been captain of the
at the time. The
had departed on April 11, 1912, and the
on April 13, a fact Turner remembered because the date posed a problem for superstitious passengers, even though in seafaring lore the number 13 presents no particular hazard. It is sailing on a Friday that causes sailors dread. Upon receiving reports by wireless of ice along his course, Turner decided to veer well south. His wireless man brought him first word of the
’s collision with an iceberg.

Asked now whether he thought it had been prudent for the
to travel at 20 knots or more with ice likely to be in the vicinity, Turner offered one of his most energetic replies: “
Certainly not; 20 knots through ice! My conscience!”

The best way to proceed, Turner explained, was very slowly, or simply to stop. He allowed that wireless had become an effective tool for alerting captains to the presence of ice but dismissed sea studies that suggested that captains might derive warning by carefully monitoring the temperature of air and water as they sailed. This was useless, Turner explained: “No more effect than a blister on a wooden leg.”

Turner also expressed ambivalence about the value of lookouts. The Cunard manual required two in the crow’s nest at all times. “I call them Board of Trade ornaments,” Turner said; “all they think about is home and counting their money.”

Asked whether he gave lookouts binoculars, Turner replied: “Certainly not; might as well give them soda water bottles.”

Still, he said, when traveling through waters where ice might appear, he always doubled the lookout, adding two men at the bow.

Turner warned that no matter what precautions were taken, what studies were made, ice would always be a hazard. Startled by this, one of the attorneys asked Turner, “Have you learned nothing by that accident?”

“Not the slightest,” Turner said. “It will happen again.”

At various points during the deposition, the lawyers focused on Turner’s own ship, with emphasis on the
’s watertight decks and doors, and in particular its longitudinal bunkers.

“Which is very unusual with merchant vessels, but common enough with naval vessels, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Turner said, “a protection.”

Further questioning taught the lawyers that the captain had little interest in the structural design of ships, including his own.

“You are not a mechanical man,” one asked, but “a navigator.”


“You don’t pay much attention to the construction of ships?”

“No, as long as they float; if they sink, I get out.”

Asked if there was anything “peculiarly extraordinary” about the watertight doors on the
and her sister ship, the
, Turner answered: “Don’t know.”

A few moments later, the lawyer asked, “Before the ‘Titanic,’ it was supposed these great ships were non-sinkable?”

“Who told you that?” Turner snapped. “Nobody I ever went to sea with proved it.”

The deposition concluded with a question as to whether a ship with
flooded compartments could continue to float.

Turner replied, “My dear sir, I don’t know anything at all about it; it all depends on the size of the compartments, the amount of buoyancy; if she has buoyancy, she will float; if she has not, she will go down.”

Turner returned to his ship.


, F
, A
sort began making its way toward the British Isles, the German submarine Unterseeboot-20, traveling under orders that gave its new patrol a heightened urgency. The boat slipped from its harbor at Emden, on the northwest coast of Germany, at 6:00
., with no fanfare. The crews of U-boats nicknamed the North Sea “Bright Hans,” but today the sea and sky were gray, as was the flat terrain that surrounded the harbor. Submarines stood side by side at their moorage, roped to one another, their conning towers like distant castles. The wind came onshore at 4 knots.

U-20 moved seaward along the Ems River, in silence, and left almost no wake. Atop its conning tower stood Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, the boat’s captain, in his peaked cap and waterproof leathers. The tower was a squat chamber jutting up from the boat’s midsection that housed an array of controls and two periscopes, one his primary battle periscope, the other an auxiliary. During underwater attacks, Schwieger would station himself here within the tower’s thick carbon-steel walls and use the main periscope to direct his crew in launching torpedoes. When surfaced, the small deck on top of the tower gave him a promontory from which to scan the seascape around him but provided little shelter from the weather. The morning was cold; the scent of coffee rose through the hatch below.

Schwieger guided the submarine along the river and on into the shallows outside the harbor. The boat moved due west and by about 9:30
. passed the lighthouse and wireless station on Borkum, a small barrier island that served as an important landmark for departing and returning submarines.

Schwieger had just turned thirty-two years old but already was considered one of the German navy’s most knowledgeable commanders, so much so that he was consulted on submarine matters by his superiors, and his boat was used to try out new submarine tactics. He was one of the few captains who had been in the submarine service before the war began. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders. “
A particularly fine-looking fellow,” one of his crew members said. His eyes were pale blue and conveyed coolness and good humor.

Around noon, Schwieger’s boat entered the deep waters beyond Borkum, in a portion of the North Sea known variously as the German Bight or Heligoland Bight. Here the sea bottom fell away and on bright days the water turned a deep cobalt. In his War Log, kept for every patrol, Schwieger noted that the sea was running a three-foot swell from the west and that visibility was good.

Although he was free to submerge the vessel if he wished, he kept it on the surface, where he could travel farther and faster. His twin diesel engines could generate up to 15 knots, enough to overtake most conventional merchant ships.
At routine cruising speeds, say 8 knots, he could travel up to 5,200 nautical miles. Once submerged, however, Schwieger had to switch to two battery-powered engines, lest the diesels consume all the oxygen in the boat. These engines could deliver 9 knots at best, and only for a brief period. Even at half that pace, a submerged U-boat could travel only about 80 nautical miles. These speeds were so slow that sometimes U-boats trying to make their way against the fast currents of the Strait of Dover, between England and France, were unable to advance. U-boats in fact traveled underwater as little as possible, typically only in extreme weather or when attacking ships or dodging destroyers.

For much of his first day at sea, Schwieger was able to maintain
wireless contact with the station on Borkum Island and with a naval vessel in Emden Harbor, the
, which was equipped with wireless apparatus that could communicate over long distances.
Schwieger noted in his log that his ability to trade messages with the Borkum transmitter ceased when his U-boat was 45 sea miles out but that he maintained a good connection with the
. Along the way his wireless operator repeatedly sent test signals, something U-boat wireless operators often did, as if to postpone the inevitable moment when the boat would be out of range of all friendly sources and utterly on its own.

This isolation made the U-boat distinct among Germany’s naval forces. Surface ships usually traveled in groups and, given the height of their masts, could stay in contact with their bases; U-boats traveled solo and lost contact sooner, typically after sailing only a couple of hundred miles. Once at sea, a U-boat captain was free to conduct his patrol in whatever manner suited him, without supervision from above. He alone determined when and whether to attack, when to ascend or dive, and when to return to base. He had absolute control over the boat’s periscope. “
I want to stress that the submarine is only a one-eyed vessel,” said a U-boat commander, Baron Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim, who knew Schwieger well. “That means, only the one who is at the periscope with one eye has the whole responsibility for attacking or the safety of his ship and crew.”

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