The History Place - World War I

A rare photo--taken on board a ship after it had been torpedoed. The Sussex passenger steamship, carrying 380 persons, was struck by a German torpedo at 2:50 pm on March 24, 1916, while steaming along its normal Channel route from England to France. Some of the civilians standing on the deck had thought the approaching torpedo was a large fish swimming toward them. The explosion cut the ship in half, blowing off the bow and killing everyone there. More deaths occurred as panicked passengers jumped into the water and drowned. A lifeboat also capsized. The watertight stern of the ship remained afloat and passengers climbed back on. They drifted 20 miles over nine hours toward the coast of France where a French trawler finally came to the rescue. In all, fifty persons were killed. International controversy soon erupted as the German government denied responsibility. However, under intense pressure from the United States, and in the face of mounting evidence including pieces of the torpedo along with testimony by survivors and others, the Germans admitted responsibility in May 1916. They described the attack as a mistake by the submarine commander who "has been appropriately punished" although no details on his punishment were ever provided.

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