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Sinking of HMS Formidable - 86 RMs lost

Updated: Jan 1

Unit/ Formation: Memorial

Location: English Channel

Period/ Conflict: World War I

Year: 1915

Date/s: 1st January 1915

HMS Formidable was sunk by torpedo off the English Coast on New Years Day 1915, only 199 men were saved out of a complement of about 750 including 86 Royal Marines.

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. The ship was laid down in March 1898, was launched in November that year, and was completed in September 1901. Formidable 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 in August 1914, the squadron conducted operations in the English Channel, and was based at Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion. In the first days of the war, the 5th Battle Squadron covered the crossing of the British Expeditionary Force to France. On 31 December, the squadron was conducting training exercises in the English Channel, and despite the risk of German submarines, was without anti-submarine protection; the German U-24 stalked the ships during the day and in the early hours of 1 January 1915, torpedoed Formidable twice, sinking her with very heavy loss of life.

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. The squadron received no escort of destroyers for the operation. After the exercises, that night the fleet remained at sea on patrol even though submarine activity had been reported in the area. Visibility that night was good, though the sea was rough enough to make detection of a submarine difficult. Bayly suspected no danger from submarines, and so steamed his ships in line ahead formation at a speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph). Formidable was the last battleship in the line, followed only by the two cruisers. Unknown to the British, the German submarine U-24 stalked the squadron while it was exercising all afternoon, trying to find a suitable attack position.

At around 02:20 on 1 January 1915, U-24 launched a torpedo at Formidable, striking her on the starboard side abreast of the forward funnel. Formidable's commander, Captain Loxley, hoped to save the ship by bringing her close to shore; the other British ships were at that point unaware of what had happened, but after Formidable turned out of line, Topaze increased speed to determine what she was doing. By the time Topaze closed with Formidable twenty minutes later, the latter vessel had already taken on a list of 20 degrees to starboard, and Loxley had issued the order to abandon ship. Men attempting to save the vessel remained aboard and through counter-flooding reduced the list, though Formidable was by then very low in the water.

At around 03:05, U-24 launched another torpedo at the stricken Formidable, hitting her again on the starboard side close to her bow. Topaze, joined by Diamond, began the rescue effort, but the heavy seas made it very difficult to bring men aboard. Formidable remained afloat for another hour and forty minutes, and at 04:45 began to capsize and sink by the bow. She remained afloat, with her stern in the air, for a few minutes before sinking.

Loxley was last seen on the bridge calmly overseeing the evacuation of the ship. Diamond picked up thirty-seven officers and crew from the water. The Brixham trawler Provident picked up 73 members of Formidable's crew from the battleship's launch at around midday, while Formidable's pinnace managed to reach Lyme Regis after 22 hours at sea, saving another 47 men. A total of 35 officers and 512 men were killed in the sinking.

An inquiry from the Admiralty into the sinking determined that the risk of conducting training exercises in the Channel without destroyer protection was excessive and should not be continued. Bayly was relieved of command for failing to take adequate precautions against submarine attack. [1]

The Rev. Bob Thorn recently received a letter from Patrick Kenny who thought we should put the record straight about the chaplain of this boat who is described above as " going down with the ship after risking his life going below to find cigarettes" . Tom Walker, was a survivor of the sinking, and over the years told Mr. Kenny his story of survival and he felt that he would not have lived had it not been for the Chaplain's example and assistance. Mr. Kenny read our story on the web site and felt it his duty to relate Tom's story as follows:-

Tom was 18 years at the time. He had recently been advanced to able seaman and received 'back-pay' that included a new gold sovereign. He was keeping this for his mother, in his kit locker, between decks.

On the night of the sinking Tom was on deck. He remebers it being 'a bright moon-lit night'. The ship was stationary carrying out the exercise 'pick up survivors'. He heard and felt the shudder of the first torpedo without realising what it was. The second torpedo caused the ship to list to starboard. Then the pipe ...'all hands muster on the quarterdeck'.

On the quaterdeck he joined the men waiting to go to the boats. Oddly, a few of them were reluctant to leave the ship; Tom shared this feeling:- leaving his sovereign behind may have been an influence! He decided to set off for his kit-locker.

Between decks the illumination was poor; this, coupled with the ship's erractic movements, made the journey slow and tedious. Tom had "thoughts" about this predicament........

He returned to the quaterdeck to find it deserted. The boats had left the ship. One boat was still quite close- he could not recognise people's faces. Why did they not acknowledge his shouts and waves? They were determinably pulling away from the ship. He was alone.

.....As if in answer to a prayer. The ship's Chaplain arrived on the quaterdeck. A huge feeling of relief ensued. Thankfully the Chaplain seemed to know intuitively, what the best to do. "Stay on the ship. Wait for their escort to come to them". He was confident that his friend- the First Leiutenant of one of the escort cruisers, would get to them when he discovered that he (the Chaplain) was missing. The Chaplain had officiated at this officer's wedding; Tom thought they may have been brothers-in-law.

.......the weather continued to deteriorate. The ship was, by now, low in the water- heaving and wallowing in rough seas. The starboard side three parts under water; holding fast on the quaterdeck was precarious. They awaited the moment they dare scramble up to the port guardrails, onto the port side, then, as the ship 'turned turtle', clambered onto the ship's bottom. They rested there for a few minutes, then struck out into the sea and held onto a wooden boom that came within range.

It was at this time that the ship's propeller struck Tom's left ankle. He felt the blow, not the pain. He hoped that there was still a foot at the end of the leg. They set about securing themselves to the boom, as best they could.

Large amounts of air from the ship, surfaced near them. Their attempts to paddle a safe distance away proved futile; then, as if to please , the ship glided away and disappeared from sight.

What now?...Keeping heads above waves.....Keeping each other awake.....Shouting, singing-(hymns)...Compalining...Praying...Waiting...Hoping...

Dawn was barely noticeable, visibility was poor, sleep beckoned, moral bottomed. Where-o-where is that b...y escort?#

Rescue came when they had been in the water for over 14 hours. They were unaware of the escort's arrival. Tom thought he was dreaming...Someone was shouting..."Formidable...Formidable...Formidable " quite close to them. He looked up to see the escort's 'welcome party' looking down on him from the deck.

Lines were thrown to them. Tom had difficulty detaching himself from the boom. He managed to secure himself to a line and was hoisted on board the escort.

On board Tom was bundled down to the mess deck and rubbed dry on a mess table. The doctor assured him that his left foot was still there, he would soon be in hospital.

Later he was taken up and put in a bunk in an officer's cabin. He refused a tot of rum offered him (having promised his mother never to drink!). He was left undisturbed until the following day.

Alongside at Portsmouth he was questioned by two officers - the Captain and, owner of the bunk...the First Lieutenant.

Anti-submarine orders had prevented the escort from either stopping or lowering a boat for them.

Sadly, HMS Formidable's Chaplain was not rescued. The large swell running at the time had taken him under the ship. He was not seen again.

Postscript. Tom Walker was discharged "medically Unfit for Naval Service" in April 1915. He received and "Honourable Discharge" certificate signed by HM George V. He joined the army in 1917, served in France and post-revolution Russia (builing rail tracks) In W.W. II he served with the B.E.F. and later as an Unexploded Bomb Disposal Officer.

He died in Padstow in 1970.

Ray West [2]

To see the 93 RM casualties search January 1915 or HMS Formidable on the Royal Marines Roll of Honour & War Graves Database

References/ Further Reading:

[1] Wikipedia - HMS Formidable (1898)

[2] The Story of the Sinking of HMS Formidable - Burton Bradstock Village Website

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