The Lusitania Case

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The Sinking of the Lusitania and a Refusal to Obey an Order on Board SM U 20

On 13 May 2007, a 90minutes British-German TV Co-Production with prominent actors was shown to the public, which presented through a movie the events around the sinking of the 31,000 GRT British passenger liner Lusitania by the U-Boat U 20 of the Imperial German Navy on 07 May 1915 off the Irish southern coast. 1,200 people on board lost their lives, including 128 US citizens, which led to severe political tensions afterwards. Since, this TV movie has been shown repeatedly on British, US and German TV, also many other countries, as this movie is been marketed very efficiently. Meanwhile, specialized channels such as “History Channel”, “Disco-very Channel”, “National Geographic”, as well as “N 24”, “ntv” and “Phoenix” (last shown on 01st of March 2012) present this movie frequently. In the US the movie was shown first time on 13 May 2007, the BBC presented it first time on 27 May 2007, and the ARD in Germany showed it first time on 28 December 2008.



One of the key sequences of the movie is devoted to the events on board U 20, showing the period from spotting the English passenger liner, to target evaluation, to eventually launching the fatal torpedo. The climax is the refusal of one of the crew members, “helmsman” Charles Vögele, to obey the order of the Commanding Officer, Kapitänleutnant (= Lieutenant Commander) Walther Schwieger, to pass on the torpedo firing order to the torpedo department, because “the target would be a passenger liner with women and children embarked”.

The movie´s script has adopted that sequence from Naval historic literature about the Lusitania incident, as it has developed from a letter of 09 November 1972 to the editor of the French newspaper “Le Monde”, to a preliminary highlight created in 1981 by the Irish authors Des Hicksey and Gus Smith through their book “Seven Days to Disaster: The Sinking of the Lusitania” (German edition in 1982: “Lusitania – Die Chronik der letzten Fahrt eines Ozeanriesen”), followed by a similar book in 2002 by the British author Diana Preston “Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy” (German edition in 2004 “Wurde torpediert, schickt Hilfe – Der Untergang der Lusitania 1915”).

Since, the alleged insubordination by Charles Vögele and his subsequent court martial and sentence to three years imprisonment at the Kiel Naval prison enjoys a healthy life and is treated like a fact. The current version of the German issue of “Wikipedia” simply repeats the story, the movie´s “helmsman”, Charles Vögele, is even promoted to the job of “First Officer” of SM U 20.

Our friends from the “Arbeitskreis Krieg zur See 1914-1918 e.V.” (= “Working Committee The War at Sea 1914-1918 ltd.”) have done some research, as published it in March 2012 in volume Nr. 8 of their “Marinenachrichtenblatt” (= “Naval Newsletter”), having found out that the story about the alleged insubordination of a certain Charles Vögele is utter nonsense and absolutely fabricated. There has never been a “Charles Vögele” on board U 20, and a refusal to obey an order during the sinking of the Lusitania has not been recorded anywhere. Any record or other document of an alleged court martial against a Charles Vögele does not exist, as well as there is no proof of his alleged three years imprisonment at the Kiel Naval prison. However, there are records in exist of a certain Carl-Alfons Vögele, who stemmed from the city of Straßburg, which was part of the German Reich until 1918. According to those, Vögele served during WW I some years with the Second Naval Aviation Group at Wilhelmshaven, and from February 1917 as stoker on board torpedo boat S-142 in the North Sea.

p260_1_01Before we focus on the legacy of the myth about an insubordination on board a U-Boat of the Imperial German Navy, we should remember some basic mathematic knowledge when assessing the above mentioned key sequence. This in particular, to recognize the dubious events around the torpedo launch shown in the movie and described en detail in books, to then re-assess the alleged refusal to obey an order and recognize an unwanted effect. At the time the torpedo was fired Lusitania had a speed of about 18 knots (= 33,33 km/h), the distance between U 20 and the Lusitania was about 700 meters, and U 20 ´s torpedo had a speed of about 27 knots (= 50 km/h).

Kommandant von SM U 20 Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger
CO of SM U 20 Kapitänleutnannt (Lieutenant-Commander) Walther Schwieger

Logically, the torpedo needed about 50 seconds after its launch to run for 700 meters, during that time the Lusitania was proceeding about 400 meters. These data are taken into account when setting course, speed and cruising depth to the torpedo aiming device. Apart from accurately estimating the target´s course and speed, the key result is the setting of the right lead angle when determining the torpedoes course, since the target moves on during the running time of the torpedo. According to the war diary of U 20, the Lusitania was hit midships shortly behind the bridge. Assuming the insubordination on board U 20 has taken place as described, this would have meant a delay of about 30 seconds, during which the Lusitania would have sailed another 200 meters or so. Consequently, it was only the insubordination and the delay of the launch which in the end enabled the hit midhships, as the data set to the torpedo have not been changed during the delay period. If the torpedo would have been launched as ordered in the beginning and no delay to the launch would have occurred U 20´s torpedo would have certainly passed the 239 meter long Lusitania unsuccessful at short distance, as the target data at launch time would not have led to a hit. So far, basic mathematics against movie fiction, unfortunately leading to an unwanted result.

Now, a few more facts in addition to the above mentioned claims within the story of an insubordination.

The letter to the editor in question of “Le Monde” in 1972 stems from a certain Monsieur Ricklin, who was professor of literature at the University of Straßbourg at that time. He referred to “Le Monde” ´s presentation of Colin Simpson new book about the Lusitania. Ricklin writes about the Alsatian Charles Vögele among other things: “…that he was on duty on the 07 May 1915, when the Lusitania was reported. He refused to obey the formal order to torpedo the vessel arguing that it would be a passenger liner, and women and children were identified clearly on the bridge of the vessel through the periscope. The captain ordered to arrest him straight away. After U 20 had returned he was transferred to Kiel Military Prison, to await his court martial. Only in October 1918 he was freed by sailors from the rebelling personal of the Imperial German Navy. The harsh treatment experienced during his imprisonment had impaired his health to such an extent that he survived few years only after his return to Straßbourg.”

And, now the facts.

  1. Carl-Alfons Vögele was born on 17 November 1886 at Straßburg, at that time being part of the German Reich, and he went through an apprenticeship as an electrician after his school time. From 1907 to 1910 he passed a three year national military service in the Imperial German Navy, to be re-drafted 1914 at general mobilization. At the end of WW I he returned to Straßburg, calling himself rather “Charles” (French) vice “Carl-Alfons” (German) after 1919.
  2. The war diary of U 20 does not mention any insubordination. On 13 May 1915, U 20 returned to Wilhelmshaven from its war patrol, which started on 30 April 1915 at Emden, Germany. However, the following war diary notes on 14 May 1915 an unusual personal mustering of the crew of U 20 by the Commander-in-Chief Fleet himself. Reason for that might have been the intent of the Naval Leadership to seek a highest level possible instruction of the crew how to further behave, since at this moment the sinking had gained an obvious utter political dimension.
  3. With some certainty, the trained electrician Vögele was employed in the Imperial German Navy in technical branches only. Given that he actually served on U 20, he for sure would have been detailed to serve in technical functions only, which in turn would have prevented him from catching any events in the ops room, as the story about the insubordination would like us to believe. Hence, Vögele acting as “command transmitter” in the ops room is just as unlikely as him gaining any specific target information by means of the periscope. As a side note: Likewise, he has never been the “First Officer” of U 20.
  4. Even when Vögele would have joined the U-Boat force at the outbreak of WW I in 1914, his Naval basic training plus his U-Boat specialist training on top would have lasted at least to Spring 1915, making it very unlikely him to have been detailed to U-Boat on a combat mission as early as April 1915.
  5. There is neither a “Charles Vögele” nor a “Carl-Alfons Vögele” mentioned in the crew list of U 20, which, however, can be recompiled indirectly only. Also, there are no files of the justice system of the Imperial German Navy available which deal with a disciplinary procedure against a certain “Vögele” on accounts of a refusal to obey an order.
  6. It can be proven that Vögele served with units reporting to the Naval Command North Sea, where even U 20 was belonging to at that time. Disciplinary cases, such as an open insubordination, would never have been dealt with by a court martial at Kiel, where all units and agencies were reporting to the Naval Command Baltic Sea.
  7. No court martial of the Imperial German Navy has ever sentenced to 3 years imprisonment in cases like this, as it has been allegedly the case with Vögele. Besides, Naval personnel sentenced to long imprisonment were locked away as a rule at the military prison of Cologne-Wahn, but never at Kiel.
  8. Most probably, the story by the Alsatian professor Ricklin in 1972 in “Le Monde” can be traced back to narra-tions about the “hero” of the family by the Vögele family in the 1960ies and 1970ies among a wider circle of friends, whether it be the Vögele widow or her son, with Ricklin simply have got knowledge of it. A reason for the family as well as professor Ricklin that cannot be excluded, might be that the alleged insubordination had provided for an ideal opportunity to demonstrate, how an upright Alsatian had taken the courage to refuse to obey an inhuman order of a German, given the eventful history of Alsace-Lorraine sandwiched between France and Germany. p260_1_03


And so, when embarking on hard thinking and a bit of research the story of Charles Vögele allegedly refusing to obey an order collapses in every aspect, although it was a perfect running pass to any movie maker or writer. But, who dares to do away with that myth? Least of all, renowned authors of military history, which would mean for them to admit to have fallen for a simple fabricated story without proper cross checking.


  • Hicksey, Des and Smith, Gus “Seven Days to Disaster: The Sinking of the Lusitania”, Collins, London 1981. (German Edition: “Lusitania – Die Chronik der letzten Fahrt eines Ozeanriesen” bei Droemer & Knauer, München 1986)
  • Preston Diana, “Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy”, Frank Walker Co, Chikago 2002.(German Edition: “Wurde torpediert, schickt Hilfe – Der Untergang der Lusitania 1915” DVA, München 2004)
  • Simpson, Colin, “The Lusitania”, Little, Brown Book Group, Boston 1972. (German Edition: “Die Lusitania – Amerika´s Eintritt in den Ersten Weltkrieg”, Fischer, Frankfurt a.M. 1987