Dorothy Dodd had lucky escapes from two of the most infamous maritime disasters the world has ever seen
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Around lunchtime on Friday, May 7, 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania – the fastest passenger ship in the world – was slicing her way through the Celtic Sea just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.
The 31,500-tonne, 240m-long ship was less than 24 hours from completing her journey from New York to Liverpool and had 1,959 people on board.
Among them was Dorothy Dodd, a nurse from Exeter who had gone to work in Edmonton, Canada, for several years before deciding to return home to Devon.
After a foggy morning, conditions had improved and it was turning into a glorious day, with warm sunshine and a smooth sea.
But, unbeknownst to her crew, Lusitania was not alone.
Less than half a mile away lay a German submarine, watching and waiting for her moment to strike.
At 2.10pm, Leslie Morton – an 18-year-old lookout on Lusitania’s bow – spotted two thin lines of foam rapidly approaching the ship.
“Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” he yelled through the megaphone next to him.
But it was too late.
A gyroscopic torpedo travelling three metres below the surface struck her directly below the bridge.
A small initial explosion was followed moments later by a much larger secondary blast which sent a plume of debris and water into the sky and even blew one of one her lifeboats off the deck.
One passenger later described the blast as feeling like ‘a million-ton hammer hitting a steam boiler a hundred feet high’.
What followed were 18 minutes of pure panic, chaos and terror.
By the end of the day, 1,198 people were dead. Just 761 people survived – Dorothy Dodd among them.
Work started on Lusitania in 1904 at Clydebank. She was built as one of a number of fast yet luxurious ships at a time when competition was fierce for trans-Atlantic passenger trade.
Cunard was battling with German companies Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) and Hamburg America Line (HAPAG) for domination of the the lucrative route packed with emigrants heading to the US.
NDL and HAPAG had the larger, faster ships and frequently held the Blue Riband title – an unofficial accolade given to the passenger liner that can cross the Atlantic in the shortest time.
In response, Lusitania and her sister ship Mauretania were commissioned with revolutionary new turbine engines that enabled them to maintain a service speed of 25 knots (29mph).
This, combined with the latest technology like lifts, wireless telegraph and electric light, made them revolutionary ships.
The British Government agreed to subsidise part of her costs so that she could be turned into an armed merchant cruise in the event of war.
She was launched in 1906, and made her maiden voyage on September 7, 1907 as the largest passenger ship in the world – a title she held until Mauretania’s launch three months later.
Lusitania’s speed soon became legendary.
On her first Atlantic crossing, despite being hindered by fog she managed five days and 54 minutes – just half an hour short of the record held by NDL’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Her return crossing was again delayed by fog but, on her second Liverpool-US voyage, she clinched the Blue Riband record in a time of four days, 19 hours and 53 minutes. Lusitania averaged 23.99 knots (27.6mph)
Over the next eight years she made 201 crossings, carrying a total of 155,795 passengers westbound and another 106,180 eastbound, swapping Blue Riband wins with Mauretania in the process.
While this race across the ocean was taking place, a young lady named Dorothy Dodd was living in Devon.
Born in 1893 in Plymouth, she lived on Cathcart Avenue with her father James, a building and railway contractor’s clerk, and siblings Herbert, Sydney, David, Mabel and Florence, plus Florence’s husband John.
At some point she moved to Exeter, where she had a brother who lived on Paris Street.
It is not clear whether she trained to be a nurse in England or Canada but, in 1912 aged just 18, she decided to cross the Atlantic for a new life.
It was here that she had her first stroke of good fortune.
She tried to buy a ticket aboard Titanic, the doomed luxury liner which had actually been built by Cunard rivals White Star Line in response to the success of Lusitania.
Such was Lusitania’s untouchablespeed that White Star Line decided to compete instead on size, grandeur and decadence. Construction began on Titanic in 1909.https://www.inyourarea.co.uk/widgets/established/localPublication?fixedheight&webreachnews
Her infamous maiden voyage came in April 1912, but she struck an ice berg and sank with the loss of 1,503 people. Only 710 survived.
Fortunately, Dorothy never boarded the ship. By the time she tried to buy her ticket, the ship was already full and her paper work failed to come through.
It had been a close shave.
The outbreak of World War One in 1914 saw Lusitania requisitioned by the British Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser.
Despite being a luxurious ocean liner, she was painted a dull grey for camouflage. When designed, she had a secret compartment built for weapons and ammunition and she was even listed in the 1914 edition of Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, along with sister ship Mauretania.
However, the Admiralty then backtracked and so she remained a civilian vessel.
The Declaration of Paris was supposed to protect ocean liners in war – but only if they abided by the rules.
Ships had to fly their own flags, stop when confronted and allow themselves to be boarded and searched. They also were not meant to take any hostile or evasive action.
People were still fearful of travelling in such ships though, and passenger numbers soon dropped. Some were confined to port, while others became hospital or troop-transport vessels.
Lusitania was kept on as a passenger liner but, to cut costs, one of her boiler rooms was shut down. This meant increased efficiency but – crucially – less speed.
It cut roughly 4.3 knots (5mph) off her maximum speed.
However, by 1915 and with no sign of trouble, she was again painted in her famous white as people’s fears receded, although her funnels remained dark grey.
However, Germany then issued a declaration that it viewed the seas around the British Isles as a war zone and ships would be sunk on sight if seen, although they would try to avoid hitting neutral vessels.
Her final voyage
Undeterred by her brush with fate, Dorothy Dodd had crossed the Atlantic in 1912.
In 1915 she was working as a nurse at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, Canada, but had decided to return home and purchased a ticket on Lusitania.
The ship left New York on May 1. The German embassy had a few days earlier placed adverts in American newspapers warning of the dangers of crossing the Atlantic by sea.
They appeared directly opposite the advert for Lusitania’s return crossing.
Lusitania was scheduled to arrive in Liverpool on March 6, 1915. She had been issued with instructions on how to avoid submarines, and was also assigned two destroyers as an escort while an armed merchant vessel patrolled Liverpool bay in anticipation of her arrival.
However, the destroyers could not find her. Lusitania’s commander, captain William Turner, would only give their position in codes to baffle any Germans eavesdropping on their transmissions.
The problem was that the destroyers did not have the codes, so the messages were meaningless to them.
One captain even telephoned Cunard, who refused to disclose the ship’s location and suggested he instead phone the Admiralty.
Lusitania carried on unprotected and vulnerable.
Turner – known as Bowler Bill for his favourite type of hat – was ordered not to fly any flags, contravening the cruiser rules of the Declaration of Paris which should have protected her.
She carried 1,959 people aboard – 694 crew and 1,265 passengers. Most were in second class and the majority were British, although many were Canadian and some 128 were American.
Also on board were four million rounds of small-arms ammunition in 4,200 cases, 18 fuse cases and 125 shrapnel cases for use in the war effort.
Bizarrely, shortly after departure, three German-speaking men were found hiding in a steward’s pantry. They were soon arrested by detective inspector William Pierpoint of the Liverpool police, who was travelling in the guise of a first-class passenger.
They were locked in the cells, where they would ultimately go down with the ship.
Despite the dangers facing Lusitania, she did have some factors working her favour – although they proved little help.
Her speed – even with one boiler room down – should have made her easily quick enough to avoid submarines.
A German submarine’s top submerged speed was 9 knots (10.4mph) – well below Lusitania’s cruising speed.
British code-breakers had also cracked German codes and knew German submarine U-20, commanded by captain Walther Schwieger, had sailed from Germany around Scotland and was now operating off the southern coast of Ireland.
However, desperate not to give away to the Germans that they had cracked their code, they issued no more than cursory warnings to shipping in the area.
Several ships had already been sunk by Schwieger in the area and a number of warnings made to vessels.
The morning of May 7 was foggy. Schwieger ordered his crew to head for home – they were low on fuel and only had three torpedoes left.
Capt Turner slowed Lusitania to 15 knots and started sounding the foghorn, concerning some passengers. However, the weather cleared and their speed increased to 18 knots.
At 1.20pm, Schwieger’s crew spotted funnels. Assuming it to be a military convoy, U-20 turned to engage. They soon realised that, rather than multiple ships, it was in fact one huge vessel.
At two miles’ range Lusitania changed course and it looked as though Schwieger’s luck was out as it was far too quick for the submarine to catch. However, the huge liner turned again and – at 2.10pm and from 700 yards away – torpedo officer Raimund Weisbach fired a lone torpedo which streaked towards the ship, striking it below the bridge on the starboard side.
Quite why Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes is not clear to this day. What is known is that a small initial explosion was followed by a massive secondary blast, leading some to speculate that additional munitions on board detonated.
One survivor claimed the blast sounded like the ‘chattering of a machinegun’.
Weisbach described the explosion as unusually severe, and he and Schwieger watched as the huge liner lurched into her death throes.
“Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge,” he wrote in U-20’s log.
“An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one [boiler or coal or powder?]… The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow… the name Lusitania becomes visible in golden letters.”
Within six minutes, the ship’s forecastle was submerged.
Turner tried to turn towards land, visible just 11 miles away, and stop the ship but she was already unresponsive. Two minutes later, all electricity failed, plunging the ship into darkness.
Just one minute later, the order to abandon ship was given.
There was time for an SOS to be sent out, which was acknowledged on the Irish shore, but help would not come for hours.
There were enough lifeboats on board for everyone on board, but it took 10 minutes for ship to slow down enough to launch them. By that time, she was leaning over to one side so far it was almost impossible.
Only six of her 48 lifeboats were launched successfully, leaving well over a thousand people in the 11C sea in a desperate struggle for survival.
One of them was Dorothy Dodd. After being unable to find a place in a lifeboat being launched, she tried to climb into one int he water but it was already full.
She clung on to some debris in the water and even helped a man on the verge of drowning onto another piece of wreckage.
Dorothy was rescued after spending two hours in the water.
An article in the Western Morning News on May 10, 1915, said: “She first assisted in the endeavour to launch one of the boats, but being a fairly good swimmer, she ultimately came to the conclusion that her best chance of escape would be to jump overboard.
“She was in the water for some seconds before she managed to get hold of a boat, but the boat was so full that her getting into it would probably endanger the lives of those already there. Accordingly she bravely released her hold, and recommenced her struggle in the sea.
“Finding herself becoming exhausted, she threw up her hands, mainly with the idea of attracting attention, but just at the moment she found her hand strike a piece of wreckage, and to this she was able to cling and to keep herself afloat. She also believes she saved the life of a man who was almost unconscious when she pushed another piece of wreckage under him.
“Miss Dodd was not herself rescued until she had been in the water two hours, and was then taken, with other survivors, to Queenstown. She kept up all right until she got to Queenstown, when she fainted, but with the help of kind Irish friends she soon came round.
“Miss Dodd added that when she was told she would have to go in a boat again to England she did not like it; but she came across all right, and now she felt little the worse for her terrible adventure.”
The sinking caused outrage.
A total of 1,195 people died in the disaster, and only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which were never identified.
It was not just the death toll which made it so controversial though.
According to international maritime law, any military vessel stopping an unarmed civilian ship was required to allow those on board time to escape before sinking it.
Schwieger had not done this, but had Lusitania been truly neutral? She was carrying millions of rounds of ammunition, shell casings and even had orders to ram German submarines if spotted.
An inquest concluded that the deceased had drowned following an attack on an unarmed non-combatant vessel contrary to international law.
A Board of Trade enquiry was shrouded in mystery, with many details of the ship’s cargo and anti-submarine measures kept under wraps due to the Defence of the Realm Act.
Many also felt the Admiralty was trying to make Turner a scapegoat.
Nevertheless, as an international row erupted over the legitimacy of Lusitania as a target, the death of 128 Americans proved pivotal in dragging a previously-neutral US into World War One.
It was not until April 6, 1917 that America finally joined the Allies in fighting Germany, but the sinking of Lusitania is viewed as perhaps the single most significant moment in that decision.
What happened next?
As we know, Dorothy survived the sinking.
She was one 20 people from Edmonton to have been on board, 11 of whom perished. One family of seven lost four members.
Turner also survived. He was plucked from the water unconscious three hours after the ship went down.
Schwieger was not so lucky though. He died with all of his crew aboard U-88 when they struck a British mine off the coast of Holland in 1917.
The wreck of Lusitania lies 305 feet (93 metres) down. The hull is deteriorating rapidly, there is no sign of her four funnels and the stern was badly damaged by depth charges in World War Two.
In potentially just a few years’ time, little will remain of one the fastest, grandest and most historically significant ships to have travelled the oceans.