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HMS Formidable in the Great War - The Wartime Memories Project -

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HMS Formidable



1st January 1915 HMS Formidable lost  

HMS Formidable

Under the command of Vice-Admiral Commanding, Channel Fleet, Sir Lewis Bayly, the 5th Battle Squadron spent 31 December participating in gunnery exercises off the Isle of Portland, supported by the light cruisers Topaze and Diamond. After the exercises, that night the fleet remained at sea on patrol even though submarine activity had been reported in the area. With rough sea conditions and the wind increasing, submarine attacks would have been difficult to carry out and so were not thought to be a significant threat. Formidable was steaming at 10 kn (12 mph; 19 km/h) at the rear of the squadron off Portland Bill just 20 nmi (23 mi; 37 km) from Start Point, when at 0220 on 1 January 1915 a torpedo from U-24 struck the number one boiler port side. It was thought that she might be saved by reaching the coast but by about 0240 she had taken a list of 20° to starboard and the Captain Noel Loxley gave the order to abandon ship. Darkness and worsening weather made it difficult to get the men and boats over the side; some small boats being thrown into the water upside down.

At about 0305, Formidable was struck by a second torpedo on the starboard side. Amidst a 30 ft (9.1 m) swell the pinnaces and launch along with other boats (one of which capsized soon after) were launched and the two light cruisers came alongside and managed to pick up 80 men in the deteriorating weather. By 0445, she seemed in imminent danger of capsizing and a few minutes later she rolled over onto many of the men in the water and sank quickly. Captain Loxley remained on the bridge along with his Fox terrier Bruce, calmly overseeing the evacuation of the ship.

In rough seas near Berry Head, a Brixham trawler Provident, under the command of Captain W. Piller picked up the men from one pinnace before it sank, saving 71 members of the crew. The second pinnace took off another 70 men, of which 48 were brought ashore alive after it was eventually spotted from the shore the following night, 22 hours after the sinking. The loss of life of Formidable was 35 officers (including Captain Loxley) and 512 men from a complement of 780. The body of Captain Loxley's dog Bruce, a war dog washed ashore and was buried in a marked grave in Abbotsbury Gardens in Dorset.

Formidable was the third British battleship to be sunk and the second to be sunk by enemy action, during the First World War.

The Royal Navy's Formidable-class battleships were an eight-ship class of pre-dreadnoughts designed by Sir William White and built in the late 1890s. The class is often further divided into a separate London class, and the London class sometimes is divided further into a separate Queen class.

HMS Formidable, the third of four ships of that name to serve in the Royal Navy, was the lead ship of her class of pre-dreadnought battleships. Commissioned in 1904, she served initially with the Mediterranean Fleet, transferring to the Channel Fleet in 1908. In 1912, she was assigned to the 5th Battle Squadron, which was stationed at Nore.

Following the outbreak of World War I, the squadron conducted operations in the English Channel, and was based at Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion. Despite reports of submarine activity, early in the morning of 1 January 1915, whilst on exercise in the English Channel, Formidable sank after being hit by two torpedoes. She was the second British battleship to be sunk by enemy action during the First World War.

World War I

At the beginning of the First World War, Formidable and the 5th Battle Squadron were based at Portland and assigned to the Channel Fleet to defend the English Channel. After covering the safe transportation of the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, Formidable took part in the transportation of the Portsmouth Marine Battalion to Ostend on 25 August.

On 14 November, Formidable and the other ships of the 5th Battle Squadron were rebased at Sheerness because of concern that a German invasion of Great Britain was in the offing. The squadron was relieved by Duncan-class battleships of the 6th Battle Squadron and transferred to Portland on 30 December.

Lassie

According to writer Nigel Clarke in the Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon, the original "Lassie" who inspired so many films and television episodes was a rough-haired crossbreed who saved the life of a sailor during World War I.

Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the port of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915 the Royal Navy battleship Formidable was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed the accident, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. In helping to deal with the crisis, the local pub in Lyme Regis, called the Pilot Boat, offered its cellar as a mortuary.

When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie, a crossbred collie owned by the pub owner, found her way down amongst the bodies, and she began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all who saved his life.

The sinking of the ship was a severe blow to Britain during these early years of the war. When the officers heard the story of Lassie and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told it again and again to any reporter who would listen as it was inspirational and heart-warming. Hollywood got hold of the story, and so a star was born.

John Doran


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