On February 5, 1918, the Anchor line steamship Tuscania, traveling as part of a British convoy and transporting over 2,000 American soldiers bound for Europe, is torpedoed and sinks off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U-77.
For the first three years of the war, the British Admiralty had resisted calls for a convoy system to protect merchant ships coming to Britain from the United States, Canada and other countries, on the grounds that such a system would divert ships and sailors from the defense of Britain’s own coastline or confrontation of the German enemy at sea. A stream of successful attacks by German submarines, however, finally forced the British to set up a system under which all merchant ships sailing across the Atlantic would travel in groups and would be given heavy protection by the British navy. A typical convoy could consist of 10 to 50 merchant ships, possibly including a troopship, escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and two torpedo boats, each equipped with an aerial balloon from which submarines and torpedo tracks could be observed from above.
The convoy system, introduced on May 24, 1917, became especially important after the U.S. entry into the war in April 1917, when large numbers of American soldiers headed across the Atlantic. Convoy gathering points were soon established along the North American coastline. The Tuscania, captained by Peter McLean, embarked on its final journey from Hoboken, New Jersey, on January 23, 1918, carrying 2,397 American servicemen bound for the front in Europe toward Le Havre, France, as part of the British convoy HX-20.
The German submarine U-77, with its crew of 34 men under the command of Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Meyer, spotted the Tuscania and its convoy on the evening of February 5, just eight miles off the Irish coast. After moving into position, Meyer fired two torpedoes at the Tuscania. The first torpedo missed, but the second torpedo scored a direct hit on the starboard side, causing a terrific explosion. The 14,384-ton steamer immediately took a great list and crewmembers were plunged into darkness as they began lowering lifeboats into the sea. Of the 2,397 American servicemen on the Tuscania, the convoy was able to rescue 2,187, along with the majority of the ship’s British crew.
On the whole, the British convoy system was highly successful. In the last two years of the Great War, it drastically reduced the number of ships, men and supplies lost to the Germans at sea. Above all, it played a crucial role in protecting U.S. troops crossing the Atlantic to aid the Allies: of the 1.1 million American troops transported in convoy to Europe between May 1917 and November 1918, only 637 were drowned as a result of U-boat attacks.