Diary of the War: February 1918

HMS Brown Mouse

If ever there was a name that sounds most unlikely for a warship, this is it. The Brown Mouse was no Dreadnought, Implacable or Dauntless . . .

Yet she went to war and what better cover could there be than such an innocuous-sounding name? All of 42 tons, she was built as a Brixham trawler, and launched in February 1908, official no.125110, a detail which might seem trivial or boring, but I’ve included it for a reason. (1)

In her original register entry Brown Mouse was described as a trawler, and assigned a fishing number of BM 276, but from the outset it seems that she was owned by the same man who later operated her as a yacht, Evelyn Pearson. (2) At least one other example of a yacht built on Brixham trawler lines still survives on the National Register of Historic Vessels. This vessel is the Golden Vanity, which was built in the same year at the same yard, Sanders & Co. of Galmpton, for the marine artist Arthur Briscoe, and this vessel was assigned the very next official number in the sequence. (3)

She appears to have fished locally at least in 1909, since during that year she was crewed by four or five men, with William Kingdom of Brixham as skipper. (4)

She was then fitted with an auxiliary steam engine by Simpson, Strickland & Co. of Dartmouth in 1910, whereupon she was re-registered, again at Brixham, due to the ‘material alterations’. She was no longer described as a trawler in the new registry, and it may be at this point that Evelyn Pearson and Brown Mouse became “regular” visitors to Brixham. (5) 

Then the war came and Evelyn Pearson joined up in September 1914, becoming a captain in the 12th Battalion, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. He would have been about 39, but he had previous soldiering experience in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the 1890s. (6)

In the meantime, the development of the Q-Ships as, effectively, fisheries protection vessels, had begun during 1915, as fishing smacks were targeted off the east coast, as described in our July 1915 post. Similar attacks took place thereafter on a fairly regular basis on the North Sea and Channel coasts, with enemy activity intensifying at intervals.

Protection against mass sinkings of the fishing smacks came from among their own: one vessel from each fleet would be commissioned as a ‘Special Service’ vessel to guard their fellows engaged in fishing. Their diminutive size inevitably led to their designation as ‘Q-smacks’, but they were no less ‘Special Service’ vessels for that. Some even engaged U-boats directly, as Inverlyon had done in defending the Lowestoft smacks, covered by one of our past blog posts for August 1915.

Sadly Captain Pearson was killed in action in Flanders on 8 January 1916, at the age of 41. (7) The next phase of his yacht’s history is slightly unclear. Her registry at Brixham was closed on 27 November 1916 ‘in consequence of material alterations’, with her prior ownership stated as Captain Pearson, Thomas Kirkland Rylands, and the Hon. Earl Stanhope, and on the same day her ownership is recorded as transferred to H F Eastick of Great Yarmouth. (8) Eastick had already lost other vessels during the war, such as the Copious in 1914. Brown Mouse would not have been the first or last Brixham trawler to have transferred to the Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth fleets. 

It seems, however, that she would remain within her familiar waters in and around Brixham, rather than in service with Eastick, for one month later she was a ‘Special Service’ vessel. Perhaps Earl Stanhope, who was involved in the War Cabinet, had drawn official attention to her as a suitable vessel for the purpose.

Despite Inverlyon‘s success, it wasn’t always possible for the Q-smacks to defend their charges. On 8 June 1917, another sailing Q-smack, the Prevalent, was unable to assist when four Brixham smacks were sunk in the fishing grounds off south Devon, in full view of Start Point. One of those vessels was the Onward, built in 1907, and assigned an official number of 125101. Other vessels also assigned numbers from the same batch of official numbers allocated to Brixham, all built locally at around the same time as Brown Mouse and Golden Vanity, had also fallen victim to German submarine attacks: Markum on 17 April 1917, Boy Denis on 26 April, and Rupee on 4 October 1917.

One contemporary writer suggested that the Prevalent incident prompted the retrofitting of an auxiliary motor engine aboard Brown Mouse. (9) With her existing engine it is more likely that she was identified as a suitable candidate capable of speeding to the site of any trouble with enemy submarines, and replaced the Prevalent on the Brixham station.

However her participation as a Q-smack locally came about, the circumstances of her loss suggest that Brown Mouse was out on patrol with the Brixham trawlers on 28 February 1918. Unlike the other vessels with whom she was registered, however, she was not a war loss and so is not mentioned in many of the standard sources. Details of what happened next were given by the skipper of another local trawler, the Leonora Minnie, who had a narrow escape when the Brown Mouse caught fire and seemed headed for his vessel, the worst nightmare for any skipper of a wooden vessel, but, fortunately, she cleared the Leonora Minnie’s bows. Brown Mouse was subsequently ‘lost by fire off Berry Head’, with the local RNLI being called out to assist, a service which cost them £24. Fortunately, it seems that no lives were lost on this occasion. (10)

Trawler, yacht, and Q-Ship: small, as her name implied, Brown Mouse was sufficiently versatile to operate in all three roles, and to do so locally in every case. Her story highlights a mini-landscape of war off Brixham, in which fishing vessels came under attack, leisure cruising ceased, and small ships took on a modern enemy.

With many thanks to John and Sandie of Brixham in Pictures for their kind assistance with this article.

Black and white photograph of the interior of a boat, with a fisherman landing baskets of fish.
A fisherman landing his catch from a Brixham trawler in the 1950s. The photographer, John Gay, was interested in recording traditional working lifestyles that were heading towards obsolescence. AA087818. Copyright Historic England

 

(1) Her tonnage is variously cited, dependent on source: see, for example, British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18, Section I, p26 (HMSO, 1919) stating 42 tons, following the vessel’s register books, whereas other source state 43 tons, such as the Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive

(2) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Sea-Fishing Boats, 1902-1979 DSR/BRI/2/1; Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff, MNL Appropriation Books, Official Nos. 125101-125150, accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(3) Description of her build as on sailing trawler lines, from The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; National Register of Historic Vessels, Golden Vanity, as another such vessel

(4) Devon Archives and Local Studies, transcripts of crew lists, 20 May to 30 November 1909, List A3, and 1 July to 31 December 1909, List D, both referenced to 1976/BROWN MOUSE/125110, and both accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(5) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(6) Gloucestershire Echo, 18 January 1916, [no issue number] p2; London Gazette, 11 August 1893, No.26,431, p4577; London Gazette, 8 June 1897, No.26,860, p3201

(7) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Captain E H M Pearson; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(8) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; Brixham Sailing Trawlers Heritage Archive

(9) Keble Chatterton, E. 1922 Q-Ships and their Story. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

(10) Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive; Western Times, 4 February 1919, No.21,170, p5

 

1066 and all that: 11th century wrecks

As we commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 I thought I’d cast an eye over the few 11th century wrecks for which we have some evidence.

Multicoloured tapestry scenes of ships laden with men and horses, with horsemen waiting at the left side of the scene, embroidered on a cream background, with border decoration in the lower register, and at top left.
Harold’s invasion fleet, Bayeux Tapestry. (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as I know there is no record of any of the Conqueror’s ships being wrecked on the crossing or attacked on arrival, although perhaps the course of history might have been altered if this had happened . . . I have come across references to a possible wreck among the invasion forces in a secondary source, but have so far not located a contemporary or near-contemporary reference for it, so if anyone knows, please do get in touch!

More securely, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which at least is a contemporary, albeit partial, source, offers tantalising clues that some of Harald Hardrada’s shipborne force may have been destroyed following the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, so we do have details of some virtually contemporary wrecks. (1). It is unclear where, exactly, his ships were berthed or where they were ultimately lost, but it was a significant force of some 300 vessels. It seems, according to the D manuscript of the Chronicle, that the enemy was pusued by the victorious English ‘until they got to their ships’, and they were ‘allowed to depart in 24 ships’.

What happened to the remainder? The Chronicle tells that some at least of the ships were fired – a plausible act of retribution, perhaps, and one easily achievable in haste, as Harold’s weary Saxons turned south to join battle on a second front.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record notable events in the Old English language even after the Norman Conquest, and in 1091 tells us that the Conquerer’s son, William Rufus, suffered the loss of ‘nearly all’ his fleet in late summer or early autumn gales ‘before they could reach Scotland’ on a punitive expedition against Malcolm III. (2) This suggests that they almost reached their goal, but not quite . . . being dashed to pieces on a rocky shore somewhere north of the Humber is, at best, an educated guess.

Much earlier in the century the Chronicle informs us that Aethelred the Unready was also extremely unlucky with his newly-built fleet of 1008, which appears to have been largely lost in an act of civil strife in 1009. One Brihtric accused one Wulfnoth of the South Saxons before Aethelred and took 80 of Aethelred’s ships stationed at Sandwich against Wulfnoth’s 20, but a storm arose and cast the fleet ashore, whereupon Wulfnoth fired the disabled fleet.(3)  A location somewhere on the Sussex coast seems plausible if conjectural, not too far from Sandwich and within South Saxon territory, with its characteristic sloping beaches allowing easy access for firing the stranded vessels.

These accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle allow us a rare glimpse into the world of 11th century shipwrecks and give us a hint of the potential archaeology. In fact the Chronicle is our principal documentary source for wreck events from the 8th century onwards, although occasionally we may discern details of real-life events through other surviving works such as the Life of St. Wilfrid – who definitively existed and is no mythical figure, with an interesting associated wreck event which has a logical rather than supernatural explanation. (4)

The Chronicle was intended to act as a record of major events of socio-political impact so the wrecks it recounts all have several things in common: the most important factor is that all survive because of their connection with significant events and/or people (a common thread in all the Chronicle‘s shipwreck narratives and indeed as far as St. Wilfrid is concerned)..

This significance is also reflected in the fact that all involve ships of war (which, historically, have always been the best-documented of all vessels for obvious reasons). Additionally, the numbers involved in each case were also very large if somewhat vague, adding to the striking nature of each incident, even if they sometimes sound somewhat ’rounded up’ (another characteristic of the Chronicle‘s wreck accounts).

Mercantile and fishing vessels there are none. Later in the Middle Ages we begin to see records for losses of trading ships, and occasionally towards the latter end of the medieval period, we might come across the odd fishing vessel here and there, but these would always be under-represented in the record until well into the post-medieval period.

There is, therefore, an enormous disjunct between documentary sources and archaeology, for 11th century vessels have occasionally been found in a number of contexts, for example at Billingsgate and Southwark, London (5) or at Warrington, none of which have corresponding documentary records (or at least, none have survived that we know of). Although wreck accounts become increasingly plentiful (and increasingly detailed) during the Middle Ages, it is not until the mid 15th century that we are able to tie a wreck site with surviving documentary details.

You may like to read an earlier post, on the legacy of the Normans – shipwrecks laden with Caen stone from Normandy which became a feature of Norman (and later) architecture in England.

(1) Whitelock, D (ed.). 1961. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, pp142-4

(2) Whitelock 1961: 169

(3) Whitelock 1961:88-9

(4) Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England Publishing, pp202-6

(5) Marsden, P. 1994. Ships of the Port of London: first to eleventh centuries AD. Swindon: English Heritage, pp153-162

 

 

 

Diary of the War No.21

Today’s post commemorates the Danish cargo vessel Asger Ryg, which disappeared in the English Channel on 6 April 1916.

She was built as the German Mimi Horn in 1902, but was sold the same year into Danish service as Asger Ryg for A/S D/S Skjalm Hvide (The Skjalm Hvide Steamship Company). The company’s name commemorated an 11th century chieftain of Sjaelland in Denmark, so what more appropriate name for one of their ships than that of one of his sons, Asger Ryg?

The Asger Ryg was bound from the Tyne with coal for Algiers when she disappeared with all hands. An official Danish source attributed the sinking to “being torpedoed or collision with a sea-mine”. That source was the Statistical Overview of Shipping Losses for the year 1916 of Danish Ships lost in Danish and Foreign Waters and Foreign Ships lost in Danish Waters (1) modelled on the British Board of Trade Casualty Returns, which had similar contents, but the Danish version also places a strong emphasis on narrative, making it more detailed in many respects.

Asger Ryg was sighted ‘to the south of the Isle of Wight in a badly damaged condition. It is supposed that she has been torpedoed.’ (2) The wreck was claimed by UB-29 as having been torpedoed just west of Beachy Head, (3) suggesting that her victim had drifted some distance before finally sinking.

The Asger Ryg‘s entry in the Statistical Overview reveals that she was valued at 700,000 kroner, and, together with many of the other vessels registered as lost that year, was also insured for war risks, at 924,000 kroner. Neutral Denmark was in a difficult position, with Germany on her sole land border and trade with Britain across the North Sea an important source of income. On the other hand, mines were no respecters of nationality or neutrality.

Denmark therefore continued to trade with both nations, but, as the German blockade of Britain intensified, ships carrying British cargoes became collateral damage in the efforts to strike at British trade. In English waters alone, we know of some 30 Danish ships lost during the First World War after being torpedoed, with further Danish vessels being lost to mines. (4) In a worldwide context losses were even greater. A few days after the loss of Asger Ryg it was reported that up to this point in the war the tally of Danish losses was 42 worldwide. (5) One of those was the Skodsborg, torpedoed a few weeks earlier, also by UB-29, off Suffolk.

Black and white profile view of steamship with single prominent funnel.
This may be Asger Ryg‘s wartime livery. Note that her name is painted in large white letters amidships. This was certainly the practice adopted by Norwegian vessels 1916-17, signalling their national identity at a distance in an effort to avoid being targeted.  Copyright unknown: wrecksite.eu

War risk insurance, therefore, was essential, a contingency that was prepared for from the outset, at least in Britain, where the State War Risk Insurance office opened the day after the declaration of war: the result of a collaboration between the Government and Lloyd’s of London. This innovative approach for British ships in 1914 would see further changes in the insurance industry to ease the pressure as their clerks left for the forces. In May 1916, therefore, a new Policy Signing Office opened, staffed almost entirely by women, to speed up the processing of policies. (6)

As the mounting toll of Danish ships demonstrates, by the early summer of 1916 it was acknowledged that neutral vessels were running significant risks: ‘For some time past a rate of 1 per cent has been accepted on the London market to cover the war risk in goods on neutral steamers across the North Atlantic.’ (7)  Thus, although neutral, each Danish ship was fighting its own war to stay afloat.

This is not the first post on the subject of neutral shipping lost in English waters – the War Diary opened with the Skúli Fógeti – and will not be the last.

(1) Statistisk Oversigt over de I Aaret 1916 for Danske Skibe i Dansk og Fremmede Farvande samt for Fremmede Skibe i Dansk Farvande: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen, 1917

(2) New York Times, 10 April 1916

(3) uboat.net

(4) National Record of the Historic Environment, valid as at 5 April 2016.

(5) New York Times, 13 April 1916

(6) The Times, 7 May 1916, p9

(7) The Times, 5 June 1916, p15

 

Diary of the War No.19

Franz Fischer

Interned German vessels have been a recurring theme or leitmotiv in this Diary of the War blog. This month’s double bill begins with another example, the Franz Fischer, detained as a prize at Sharpness in 1914, and the doubts over her manner of loss.

It is a story that exemplifies the dangers of the sea as the war drew near to its half-way mark, with terror from above and a message in a bottle.

As with most other detained prizes, Franz Fischer helped to fill the gaps in the ranks of sunken colliers, being one of 34 ships managed as colliers for the Admiralty by the Newcastle firm of Everett & Newbigin.(1) (Ironically she was the ex-British Rocklands, sold to Germany in 1913.) Despite reverting to Britain as a prize, she retained her recent German name, and it was as the Franz Fischer that she set off on her final voyage from Hartlepool on 31 January 1916, bound for Cowes with 1,020 tons of coal.

Around 9.30pm the following evening, having been informed that there were mines to be seen ahead, Franz Fischer prudently joined a group of laden vessels at anchor off the Kentish Knock Buoy.

What happened next was shrouded in some mystery. At 10.30pm Franz Fischer was rocked by an explosion amidships and sank within a couple of minutes at most. Only three men out of her 16-strong crew – a seaman from Newfoundland, the chief engineer, from Tyneside, and the steward,  a Londoner – survived to be picked up alive by the Belgian steamer SS Paul, by which time they were ‘close to collapse’, having heard the cries of other survivors gradually dying away overnight. (2)

Their story was told by Alfred Noyes in his serial for the Times, “Open Boats”, (3). (His radio drama of the same name was published in the New York Times as a powerful illustration of the sufferings endured by torpedoed crews.) The crew heard a noise approaching from the SE, which appeared to go away, then became ‘deafening’. As they investigated in the ‘black dark’ they were knocked off their feet by a ‘great mass of sea water which had been heaved up by the explosion.’ One survivor described an eerie sense that there was an aircraft ‘circling overhead in the darkness, dropping closer and closer to the vessel, like a great night-hawk’, the noise ‘several express trains all crossing a bridge together’ followed by a brief silence, then the explosion.

The chief engineer managed to swim to the lifebelt box, which rolled over when some of the crew tried to get onto it, so he decided to swim away. He managed to grab a lifebelt before passing out in the water: when he came to, he was aboard the Paul. (3)

The British press kept a beady eye on their German counterparts in a war of words that mirrored the physical war. The Wolff Bureau circulated a press release to German news outlets, claiming that the Franz Fischer had been sunk by a Zeppelin returning from the raid on England. The raid is well-documented, taking place on the night of 31 January to 1 February, so even at the Zeppelins’ lumbering speed they had already crossed the North Sea by the time the Franz Fischer was attacked.

All except one. L19 had engine trouble and crashed into the North Sea, where she was eventually found by a British fishing vessel, the King Stephen. The trawler crew rejected appeals from the Zeppelin crew for rescue, fearing that they would be overpowered and their vessel hijacked. The last heard from L19 was a despairing final report cast away in a bottle, dated at 1pm on 2 February, ‘wohl die letzte Stunde’, ‘at our last hour’. This message would wash up on the Swedish coast some 6 months later.

Front cover of French newspaper, with colour pen and ink illustration depicting an airship upended into the sea against a sunrise.
The front cover of Le Petit Journal, 27 February 1916: the headline reads “Punishing the Pirates”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The trajectory of L19 can be reconstructed, from the Midlands (although the crew believed they had targeted Liverpool) to the east coast at Winterton, Norfolk, well north of the Kentish Knock, whence she drifted as far east as the Dutch coast. Anti-aircraft fire from the Dutch drove her away again and she came down in the North Sea.  The wreckage was eventually discovered some 120 miles off the Spurn, so her wanderings throughout appear to have been too far north for her to be Franz Fischer‘s nemesis.

The most likely cause of the explosion was not from the air but from below. UB17 was in the area, and her Kriegstagesbuch, ‘war diary’ or log book survives (4) noting an attack on a steamer at the Hoofden (the Kentish Knock). The first torpedo missed her target, but the second struck, sinking her within a minute and sending up a ‘column’ of smoke. This sounds close to British accounts, and by the time the official history of the war had been written in the 1920s, the wreck had been attributed to UB-17. The official history of the war at sea also came to the same conclusion: UB-17 was responsible, since ‘no enemy aeroplane or seaplane from Belgium is known to have gone out that evening; and probably the aircraft heard was one of our own.’ (5)

One hundred years ago the survivors of Franz Fischer felt themselves overshadowed by an aerial presence, which had nothing to do with the loss of their ship. L19 has overshadowed the story ever since. However, recent research and retranslation of the very difficult Suetterlin script of the original Kriegstagesbuch has uncovered that the first torpedo not only missed the target, but also misfired. ‘No track was to be seen: it was a dud.’ Could this misfiring have been part of the ominous noise heard by the survivors?

With especial thanks to Thomas Foerster,who transcribed the Kriegstagesbuch, and helped unlock its meaning, and to everyone who helped in various ways with this story – Angela Middleton and Marion Page of Historic England, and Matt Skelhorn of the MoD.

(1) Hansard, 2 June 1919

(2) Times, 4 February 1916, No.41,081, p.7

(3) Times, 23 December 1916, No.41,358, p.4

(4) UB-17 Kriegstagesbuch, 22 January-6 February 1916, Deutsches U-boot Museum, Cuxhaven

(5) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp62-5. Admiralty, London

 

 

No.84 A family concern

This week’s post approaches wrecks from the viewpoint of family history and local heritage, which are often closely intertwined: today’s case study concerns a number of wrecks which all belonged to the same family with a very distinctive name, the Isemongers of Littlehampton, Sussex.

They seem to have been specialists in the coal trade between Sunderland and Littlehampton, with four collier brigs that we know of, associated with the family and lost within a 30-year timespan.

In 1842, the Economy struck near her home port ‘between Rustington Mills and the Hot Baths’ of the nearby resort, while waiting for a suitable tide to come in. The initial report that the crew had all drowned was later reported as false, and the very specific location described above, in a version in which all the crew survived, lends credence to the report of their survival. She was owned by one Thomas Iremonger (sic), and captained by his brother.

The Peacock of Arundel was lost on the coal route at Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk, on the 12th. On the 25th the Oswy of Littlehampton was beached to discharge her cargo of coal, at Worthing, as was common on the shores of Sussex, and was wrecked when the wind shifted and the weather became stormy – a fairly common manner of loss locally, too.

The Oswy was among the effects of ‘R & P Isemonger’ advertised in a bankruptcy sale in 1851, but the Admiralty Register of Wrecks of 1852-3 attributes her ownership to an Isemonger: did they manage to retain her after all, or buy her back, or was she bought by a relative? (1)

It is 1872 before we hear again of a collier brig owned by an Isemonger of Arundel in another loss incident. The Russell was driven ashore at Hauxley Point, Northumberland, in wind conditions SE force 9. She illustrates another typical manner of loss, for she was outbound from Sunderland for Littlehampton with coal. A severe SE gale could force vessels leaving, or making for, the east coast ports of Shields and Sunderland off course, driving them north to be wrecked along the Northumberland coast.

Patterns of family history are often revealed through wrecks, typically through the names of masters and owners, whose names are those most often recorded in the sources used to tell the story of wrecks. (We do sometimes receive information from people who have traced ancestors as crew members, but that is another post for another day!) There must once have been many families like this, based in coastal towns or villages, who owned a number of ships, usually specialising in a particular trade, and they would have been hit hard by the loss of any one ship. Their story ripples out beyond family and local heritage to become a microcosm of a ‘typical’ 19th century trade route, illustrating characteristic loss patterns at both ends of the voyages they undertook.

(1) Brighton Gazette, 4 December 1851, No.1,597, p1; Admiralty Register of Wrecks, 1852-3, in Parliamentary Papers, Vol.61, pp194-195(197)

No.73 HMS Formidable (Diary of the War No.6)

Lifebelt from HMS Formidable washed up on the Dutch coast during the First World War, presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1920. © IWM (MAR 66)
Lifebelt from HMS Formidable washed up on the Dutch coast during the First World War, hundreds of miles from the site of the sinking in mid-Channel off the Bill of Portland. Presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1920. © IWM (MAR 66) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30004000

As the year turned to 1915, the 5th Battle Squadron were deployed in the English Channel some 25 miles off the Bill of Portland on exercises, among them HMS Formidable, a pre-dreadnought battleship of 1898. Two hours and twenty minutes into the New Year, as the fleet crossed the path of some fishing vessels, and the weather began to worsen, a torpedo launched from U-24 roared out of the dark and into the Formidable. She began to list to starboard, compounding the difficulties of getting out the boats at night and in rough weather.

Twenty minutes later another torpedo struck the Formidable, causing her to capsize and sink completely at about 4.45am. One survivor told the Daily Telegraph of his ordeal bobbing about in the water as he watched the ship before she finally went under: “It was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in my life . . . All this time a very loud hissing noise was coming from the sinking warship.” To him the water temperature seemed warmer than standing in his pyjamas for “over two hours in the terribly cold wind on the deck”. (Daily Telegraph, 4 January 1915, No.18,636, p9). Out of a complement of 780, only 199 men were saved.

It was a fishing vessel, the Provident or Providence, a Brixham smack out at sea off Berry Head, Devon, which picked up a significant number of the survivors. One of the Formidable‘s boats was spotted under the lee of the smack and after several perilous manoeuvres in waves 30 feet high, all 71 men were successfully transferred from their open boat to the smack in half an hour – just in time, for she had “a hole under her hull. This had been stuffed with a pair of pants, of which one of the seamen had divested himself for the purpose”. Another survivor downplayed the situation they were in: “undress uniform: swimming costume!” (Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1915, No.18,634, p9).

Captain Pillar and his crew aboard the Provident received numerous awards for the rescue, including a Gold Medal from the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, ‘only given in exceptional cases of bravery’. There is a memorial to those who lost their lives at Lyme Regis: the site of the wreck itself is a Controlled Site under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

It would not be the last time that wartime naval exercises in mid-Channel off Lyme Bay were interrupted by enemy action. During the Second World War, as Exercise Tiger was taking place in April 1944, German E-boats torpedoed two of the American landing craft which were taking part, Landing Ship Tanks LST 507 and LST 531.