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.