Saturday, 23 April 2016

REVIEW: "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
Broadway Books
ISBN: 978-0307408877
Reprint Edition Copyright March 2016
Paperback, 480 Pages

Dead Wake is a phenomenally masterful and incomparably heartbreaking reenactment of the tragedy that befell Lusitania. A maestro in the craft of narrative and writing, Larson dexterously maneuvered the steady escalation of suspense and sense of foreboding that ultimately led to the climactic tragedy of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Brewing a sense of dreadful anticipation in readers, Larson adeptly weaved together the unfortunate convergence of events that culminated into the Lusitania eventually and fatefully sailing directly into the path of Kptlt. Walther Schwieger who commandeered the German submarine Unterseeboot-20, thereby positioning itself in a sweet spot as an assault target.

Larson skillfully drew the reader's attention to the many paradoxical elements in the narrative that magnify the heart-rending consequence of the brutal torpedo attack: 1,195 deaths out of the total 1,959 passengers and crew. The book frequently mentioned Room 40 in the Old Building which offered British access to intercepted coded and enciphered German messages; Room 40 officials had closely followed Schwieger's U-20, was well aware of Lusitania's schedule broadcasts by a German wireless station, and gained inside knowledge of newly dispatched U-boats en route to coincide with Lusitania's path to Liverpool. Four destroyers - the HMS Laertes, Moorsom, Myngs, and Boyne - were assigned to escort the HMS Orion, but none were allocated to the Lusitania.

Larson emphasized the informed parties' negligence. Captain William Thomas Turner of the Lusitania was not timely nor adequately informed of potential threats, nor was he notified or advised to take a “newly opened and safer North Channel route.” Regretfully, Captain Turner received the first warnings about German submarines only the night prior to the assault. As impending danger neared, messages received were similarly vague, conflicting, and confusing; The location reports of the submarines were not up-to-date, and Lusitania's Captain still was not informed of the sinking of two Harrison Line vessels, the Candidate and the Centurion, and the Earl of Lathom.

Larson strategically included in the book research and information that amplify the extent of tragedy that befell the Lusitania. A German tally cited indicated that “60% of attempted torpedo firings resulted in failure.” Applied to Schwieger's current patrol, it meant that were all seven torpedoes fired, “only three would succeed in striking a ship and exploding.” Readers will gasp at the extraordinarily ill-fated Lusitania as Larson shared incidences of torpedo attack failures Schwieger suffered on the same journey: He had misfired, had missed his target, and on multiple occasions abandoned intentions to attack due to unfavorable circumstances.

The day Schwieger's U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania was mournfully identified as the “last full day” of the week-long voyage due to arrive in Liverpool immediately the next morning. Moments before the tragedy, Lusitania passengers distinctly expressed an overwhelming “relief of having made it to England safe and sound.” To readers' further dismay, just the day before, Schwieger actually decided to begin his return trip, and more importantly, “as far as he was concerned, this patrol was over.”

Nonetheless, readers knew that Germany's supreme military leader, Kaiser Wilhelm, authorized U-boat commanders to “destroy anything that resembled a troop transport,” and to sink any ship regardless of flag or markings as long as the vessel was even remotely believed to be British or French. One may shudder to learn of Schwieger's unhesitant willingness to torpedo “a liner full of civilians,” and that he played a role in gaining greater notoriety for U-20's ruthlessness by sinking three merchant steamers without warning on January 30, 1915. His brutality was however ironically contrasted with friends' and junior officers' perception of Schwieger as one who “couldn't kill a fly”, who possessed “the soul of kindness”, and who qualified as “a wonderful man.”

Larson transparently explored Cunard's stance as Lusitania's owner. Regarding German warnings published in the papers, Cunard unscrupulously convinced potential passengers that steps would be taken to “protect the ship during the crossing”, along with providing false promises that Lusitania would be in the care of the Royal Navy upon entering the “zone of war” as designated by Germany; No escort was offered or planned for the Lusitania. Cunard also failed to disclose the decreased maximum speed with which the ship will travel, which led to passengers' prevailing belief that the Lusitania still traveled at its top speed of 25 knots.

Readers will be brought on a journey to cultivate a deeper understanding of German U-boats, such as learning the phenomenon of the “U-boat sweat” that occurs when submerged. One will be introduced to the mechanics and specificities of submarine diving, and learn that a U-boat was at its most vulnerable while diving. The firing of a torpedo would relieve a U-boat of around 3,000 pounds, and the U-20 customarily dived to its cruising depth of 72 feet that ensured its passage underneath vessels of even the deepest draft. One will learn that U-boats commonly spend nights on the ocean floor in the North Sea, traveled solo, and typically traveled underwater only in extreme weather or when attacking ships or dodging destroyers.

In reading the book, the reader will get further acquainted with concepts such as a fundamental maritime code known as the “cruiser rules” or “prize law”, the maritime superstition about Friday departures, and the Admiralty forbiddance of British warships from rescuing U-boat victims. Larson included interesting anecdotes such as the HMS Dreadnought's successful ramming and sinking of the German U-29, and the “accident” that befell U-3 that led it to sink on its maiden voyage. One will also learn a disadvantage of Lusitania's design specifically involving its longitudinal coal bunkers, and the fact that under certain conditions, “a single open porthole could admit water at a rate of 3.75 tons a minute.” Interestingly, Captain Turner was sought as an expert witness to testify on behalf of the families of dead American passengers in a deposition for the Titanic case.

The reader cannot help but feel throbbing and growing discomfort with the knowledge that Lusitania passengers mostly preferred to dismiss the news of the foreboding German warning as “maniacal” and a travesty. They avoided confrontation with the brutal reality, and refused to believe any indication towards a perilous journey. The Lusitania Captain himself referred to the prospect of being torpedoed by a German submarine as the “best joke I've heard in many days.”

In light of a Lusitania passenger named Mrs. Arthur Luck traveling with two sons, Kenneth Luck and Elbridge Luck, Larson dramatically expressed, “Why in the midst of great events there always seemed to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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