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Issue 28: The Marconi Men and the Sinking of the Lusitania

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

At the mouth of the River Mersey, on England's Northwest Coast, is a town of 60,000 by the name of Wallasey. Wallasey is part of the historic county of Cheshire, a region that has been the home of fishermen and those who love the sea for hundreds of years. Wallasey was also the home of Robbie Leith, an early Amateur Radio operator and commercial radio man for the Marconi International Marine Communication Company.

Above a fireplace in a cottage home in Wallasey hangs a silver-plated key. It's not a morse code key. Instead, it's an antique that has been a Leith family heirloom for more than 100 years. That key once unlocked the Marconi Room on the huge passenger ocean liner, the Lusitania. This week in Trials and Errors, I’ll share what I’ve read about the history of this disastrous sailing, and about how two radio men put their lives at risk to do what they could to save passengers and crew. 

The Beginnings of American Involvement in WWI

The sinking of the Lusitania, one of the most horrific incidents at sea during early WWI, proved to be a key reason behind America entering the war. In early 1915, the German government had declared to the world that all Allied ships would be targets of German U-boats if they were in British waters. Despite this, the Lusitania sailed from New York on May 1st of 1915 with 1962 people on board. Just a few days later (May 7) the ship was near the town of Kinsale on Ireland's Southern coast when it was torpedoed at 2:10PM by the German submarine U-20.

The sinking of Lusitania had huge repercussions for the world. The ship sank in under twenty minutes with the loss of nearly 1200 lives. More than 400 crew members, most of them based out of Liverpool, England, perished that day. Close to 200 Americans were on board and 128 lost their lives.


Robbie Leath, the lead Marconi Man on the voyage, left David McCormick (Assistant Radio Operator) in charge of the equipment at 2PM and went down to the second class dining hall to get a late lunch. As he sat down, a bit too late for a full meal, a kind waiter found him a bowl of soup and put it down in front of him. It wasn't the first time that he'd missed a meal due to his duties in the Lusitania's Marconi room. Robbie lived and breathed radio and had been a wireless enthusiast as a boy.

On the ship, it was up to Robbie and David to ensure that everything regarding the still relatively new "at sea" technology worked flawlessly. Up until May 7th, most of the work had been decoding telegraph messages sent by the British admiralty concerning the known locations of German U-boats for the Captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, to take note of. There were also lots of messages coming in for the elite, First Class passengers -- like Mr. Vanderbilt who was on board. However, the radio men were forbidden to send code back out as it might give away their location to the Germans (even though Robbie was a master at the telegraph key).

Barely a sip or two of soup had passed his lips when an explosion rocked the dining hall, followed by a second and even more dramatic detonation. As the ship quickly took a list to one side, Robbie took the stairs to the radio room at a breakneck pace. He was almost knocked off the stairway by a mother with her two small children, and although not a word passed between them, their faces were etched in Robbie's memory. (Years later, Leith's memoirs speak of the effect on him to see their bodies in the morgue.) 

Moving quickly past the wires and antennas that emanated out of the Marconi room, he saw that McCormick had already engaged the motor powering the transmitter. The assistant operator had not yet sent a message, so Robbie slid into his chair, grabbed his telegraph key, and sent their first message since the voyage began:

Come at once, big list, 10 miles south Old Head Kinsale

As the two radio men looked at their equipment, their eyes were fixed on the ammeter needle on the front panel of their transmitter. It was wavering. Robbie knew that he had but a moment or two before they would lose power. While David began the process of readying the emergency batteries, Robbie keyed one last message -- this time a bit more urgently:

Send Help Quickly.  Am Listing Badly!

It isn't clear in the historical records who was the first to respond to the Lusitania's SOS, but it was later determined that the two Marconi men were heros. The ship was substantially under water at the time they made their historic connection, and both men waited until the very last moment in order to ensure their message was received. 

One passenger later reported how surprised he was to see the Marconi room still occupied as the ship was clearly only moments from sinking. When the radio operators saw that passenger at their doorway, they slid him the wooden radio shack chair and suggested that he use it as a flotation device. No thoughts at all about their own safety -- in fact, David McCormick pulled out a camera and took a photo of the deck being completely level with the ocean surface. 

After the two Marconi men knew their messages had been received, they parted company; each found his own way off the boat in the very last moments. Robbie spotted a small, partially submerged boat that had been tied to the sinking ship, and he lept in to help get the craft released from the sinking Lusitania. David decided to go down with the ship, literally. He entered the whirlpool of suction at the surface, only to pop up again like a cork and get rescued by a fishing trawler. 

Later, the Captain of that trawler noted that his ship reached the exact location of the Lusitania only because of the transmissions sent by the two Marconi men who had risked their lives to get that message out.

On the German U-Boat, U-20

Visibility was poor the morning of May 7th. The submarine U-20 was low on fuel and had only three torpedoes left. Captain Walther Schwieger decided not to take the submarine into the Irish Sea and decided to begin their way home. The submarine submerged at 11:00 AM. after sighting a fishing vessel that Schwieger believed might be a British patrol boat. However, just after 1:20 PM, the chief engine room officer spotted the Lusitania on the horizon, a rich target for the U-20.

Seeing the opportunity, Schwieger brought U-20 into position.  At a 700-meter range, Schwieger ordered one gyroscopic torpedo to be fired, running at a depth of about ten feet. His first orders to fire on the Lusitania were refused by officer Charles Voegele, an Alsatian. He would not fire on a passenger ship (he was subsequently court-martialed). Still, another officer took the order and fired the torpedo at Lusitania. Schwieger was shocked at the secondary explosion which even rocked the sub. The torpedo had been a direct hit on the stokehold, with its boilers and storage of fuel. 

When he peered through his periscope at the disasterous loss of life and the mad scramble on board the ship, Captain Schwieger decided not to fire another torpedo into the Lusitania. Witnesses later stated, however, that they saw the submarine rise to the surface, raise the German flag, and had seen the Captain on deck for a few minutes before he submerged again and pointed his sub for home. 

The sinking of the Lusitania was a disaster and certainly pushed the world further into War in 1915. But that story also illustrates to us how important radio had become on the sea. And, with the two Marconi men -- Robbie Leith and David McCormick -- history shows us the direct connection between committed radio operators and the many lives they saved.

Please join us in the attached discussion forum and suggest other interesting stories from the last 100+ years of radio history.

73 for now,


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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated September 25, 2023 01:23