Diary of the Second World War: September 1939

Alex van Opstal

As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).

The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.

The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.

On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.

The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)

It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.

‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).

The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7) 

According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos. (8) 

A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10) 

By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous(11)

As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12) 

The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13) 

This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.

In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.

This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.

(1) Evening Star (Washington), 16 September 1939, No.34,836, p7; Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(2) Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(3) Thomson, G. 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.)

(4) e.g. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 16 September 1939, No.20,571, p1, and widely reported in similar articles in the British press  

(5) ibid.

(6) Newcastle Journal, 19 September 1939, No.29,150, p5

(7) Die Kriegsmarine, October 1939, repr. in Ships Nostalgia (nd), with photograph of ship in 1937 from the Kriegsmarine article; uboat.net (nd) 

(8) The Atlanticos was herself mined off the Thames Estuary laden with North American grain in 1942. 

(9) Belfast Telegraph, 16 September 1939, [no issue number on masthead] p7; Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1939, No.16,418, p5 

(10) De Banier, 22 September 1939, No.3,507, p10

(11) Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 September 1939, No.5,134, p1, p6

(12) UKHO 18617

(13) Divernet, Wreck Tour No.152, repr. from the print edition of Diver, August 2011. 

(*) Leeuwarder Courant, 19 September 1939, Vol. 188, No.221, p10

 

Diary of the War: June 1918

A tale of two ships

History has a habit of repeating itself, not least at sea. Today’s First World War wreck has a namesake with a very similar history in the Second World War: both vessels were owned by the same firm originally and were likewise lost to enemy action on Admiralty service in English waters, both with significant loss of life.

On 13 June 1918 HMS Patia was sunk by in the Bristol Channel in a position said to be 25 miles west of Hartland Point, while on service as an armed merchant cruiser. She was built in 1913 for Elders and Fyffes (of banana fame), whose early 20th century ships took advantage of modern refrigeration technology to transport bananas across the Atlantic to ensure fruit reached market in peak edible condition.

A photograph of her sinking is in the Imperial War Museums Collection online.

Their second Patia, built in 1922, entered Admiralty service first as an ocean boarding vessel, then underwent conversion to a fighter catapult ship. She too was sunk on 27 April 1941 off Beadnell Point, Northumberland, by an aerial attack, but not before her crew had downed the attacking aircraft – continuing the theme of mutually-assured destruction covered in last month’s post.

It’s worth reiterating that the War Diary has showcased the war service of many of the world’s commercial shipping fleets during the First World War, and these companies would reprise that service during the Second.

Wartime deployment would depend to some extent on their original civilian roles. We have already seen how trawlers became minesweepers, Scandinavian colliers were requisitioned and redeployed in British collier service, and ocean liners became troopships and hospital ships – and also armed merchant cruisers, a form of vessel we have not hitherto covered in the War Diary.

Patia‘s speed as a specialist banana carrier made her suitable for carrying out this auxiliary naval role, which she successfully performed from November 1914 right up until 13 June 1918, armed with 6 x 6in howitzers and 2 x 3pdr anti-aircraft guns. She served principally in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, and from 1917 took up convoy escort duties. Her logs survive up till 30 April 1918, showing that in February she had escorted a convoy home from Dakar (Senegal) before docking at Avonmouth on the 25th for maintenance. Subsequent entries reveal “chipping and painting” over the next month, that is, getting rid of rust before applying a fresh coat of paint. (1)

No further logs survive, highlighting one of the key difficulties in researching the events of a century ago. As usual, the Admiralty press release was extremely brief, hiding the location of loss:

‘The Admiralty on Monday night issued the following: – H.M. armed mercantile cruiser Patia, Acting Captain W. G. Howard, R.N., was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the 13th inst.

‘One officer and 15 men, including eight of the mercantile crew, are missing, presumed drowned. The next-of-kin have been informed.’ (2)

The details which made it into the press at the time focused on the human interest aspect, including the deaths of local men, which had been depressingly regular reading in regional newspapers since the outbreak of war. For example:

‘CASUALTIES AMONG MIDLAND MEN.

‘The following additional particulars of local men killed have been supplied:-

‘Signalman William Harold B. Roe, RNVR, HMS Patia, lost his life through the Patia being torpedoed on the 13th inst. The elder son of Mr William Roe . . . he was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School, holding scholarships. On leaving school he entered Lloyds Bank and rapidly progressed. On January 10, 1918, he was married to Miss Alice Williams . . . ‘ (3)

Likewise, the Western Daily Press reported:

‘A Portishead man, Mr Leslie Victor Atwell, lost his life in the ill-fated Patia. He was a naval reservist and joined up on the outbreak of war. He was 35 years of age, married, and previously an employee of the Docks Committee.’ (4)

More happily, another feature referred to the ‘Exciting Experiences of Famous Young Walsall Violinist’:

‘One of the able seamen who was saved from the Patia was Harold Mills, Walsall’s brilliant young violinist. He arrived in Walsall after a short stay in an English hospital, and in a chat with a representative of the Observer, spoke on all subjects except his being torpedoed.’

It emerged that he spent an hour in a boat which then picked him up and transferred him to an American destroyer. Mills gave good copy:

‘Most of his kit was lost, including his violin, but, as he philosophically expressed it, it was not his best.’ (5)

The stories of the two Patias are not wholly similar, however. The second Patia is almost certainly identified off the Northumberland coast (6), whereas the location of the 1918 Patia is not fully clear.

A site formerly attributed to Patia has since proved to be the Armenian, another First World War casualty of 1915, identified by her bell. (7) Patia is now believed to lie in a different location in the Bristol Channel, itself further west than the stated position of 25 miles west of Hartland Point, although such positions are not necessarily reliably expressed. That site’s charting history reaches back to 1928 but no further: this does not necessarily preclude its identification with Patia, since, after all, many First World War vessels have only been discovered in recent years. (8)

The submarine which attacked the first Patia in 1918 was herself sunk in August of that year off Start Point by HMS Opossum. The Heinkel responsible for sinking the second Patia in 1941, and shot down in its turn, has to date not been located.

(1) https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-08-HMS_Patia.htm

(2) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 21 June 1918, No.7,160, p5

(3) Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 20 June 1918, No.18,738, p7

(4) Western Daily Press, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.18,728, p6

(5) Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.2,591, p3

(6) UKHO 4390

(7) UKHO 16089

(8) UKHO 17227

 

Diary of the War: March 1917

Mousse Le Moyec

This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.

The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.

On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.

 

Enfant Moyec2
Commemorative plaque for mousse Maurice Le Moyec, stating his date of death as 29 March 1916 (in error for 1917). La Rochelle © and by kind permission of M Bruno Baverel

The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.

After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.

This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here (in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).

As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.

When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.

 

 

 

No. 96 HMT Resono

Diary of the War No. 17

In the second part of our Christmas double bill, we commemorate a loss on Boxing Day 1915 and finish off with a poem as an extra special feature.

We have looked at fishing vessels in the War Diary before – how, at the outbreak of war, neutral fishing vessels found themselves on an unexpected front line of minefields, how the sailing fishing fleets of Lowestoftwere targeted and how they fought back.

In commemorating the loss of HMT Resono 100 years ago, today’s post pays tribute to the efforts of the steam trawling fleets. They saw action principally as minesweepers and patrol vessels, many requisitioned from the beginning of the war. They were eminently suitable to backfill these roles: as smaller ships, they were at less risk of detonating mines, their crews knew the seas intimately, and they needed little modification.

Sweeping was monotonous, deadly, and dangerous, with a high casualty rate: it was inevitable that a number of sweepers and patrol vessels would be lost in the minefields littered around the coastline. On 26th December 1915, Resono, one of the famous Sleight fleet of trawlers operating out of Grimsby, was blown up 2 miles SE of the Sunk Light Vessel in the Thames Estuary.

The Sleight fleet saw distinguished service in both World Wars. Sir George Sleight’s obituary of 1921 states that over 50 of his ships were requisitioned: it also states that he developed from a cockle-gatherer to the owner of the largest steam trawler company in the world. (1) His fleet is readily identifiable among wartime casualty lists by its distinctive house naming scheme: Recepto, Remarko, and Remindo were other First World War losses from the fleet. Many Sleight vessels participated in both wars: Resolvo and Resparko, First World War veterans, were both lost in 1940. Yet others survived two wartime services, including the Revello, built in 1908 and therefore a contemporary of Resono, which was eventually wrecked in 1959.

Black and white photo of steam trawler, with steam coming out of its funnel.
Sleight trawler Revello, which sprang a leak and sank off Kilnsea in 1959, after seeing service in both World Wars. She had been sunk in 1941, but was salvaged a few months later. © Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre. George Scales Maritime Photographs.

To conclude this month’s edition of the War Diary, here is Kipling’s poem Mine Sweepers, also a century old. It was first published as the introduction to an article on the work of the minesweeper-trawlers for the Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1915: the original can be read here.

Dawn off the Foreland – the young flood making

Jumbled and short and steep –

Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking –

Awkward water to sweep.

“Mines reported in the fairway,

“Warn all traffic and detain.

“Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Noon off the Foreland – the first ebb making

Lumpy and strong in the bight.

Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking

And the jackdaws wild with fright!

“Mines located in the fairway,

“Boats now working up the chain,

“Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Dusk off the Foreland – the last light going

And the traffic crowding through,

And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing

Heading the whole review!

“Sweep completed in the fairway.

“No more mines remain.

“Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

To borrow a phrase: the poem counted them all out and counted them all back!

(1) The Times, Monday 21 March, 1921, No.42,674, p16.

No. 93 Ionic Star

Degrees of separation 

Today I have the pleasure of introducing my guest bloggers Mark Adams, Archaeological Services Manager, Museum of Liverpool, and local historian Martyn Griffiths, who describe the wreck of the Ionic Star on the anniversary of her loss in 1939. The Ionic Star has a connection with one of the most famous wrecks of the Second World War in fewer than ‘six degrees of separation’, as Mark and Martyn demonstrate in words and pictures below. For more links, please see the bottom of the article, including drone footage of the site as she now lies. Many thanks to them both.

The Sefton Coastline in Merseyside is a belt of wide sandy beaches and dunes which run from Formby in the south to Southport in the north. Possibly better known to archaeologists for the prehistoric footprints recorded by Gordon Roberts, the area also has a rich maritime history, largely a result of its location on the approaches to Liverpool. This includes the remains of Britain’s first Lifeboat Station and several shipwrecks, some of which are accessible by foot in the company of an experienced guide.

One of these wrecks is the Ionic Star, which was researched by a local historian, Martyn Griffiths. Built in 1917 by Russell & Co. of Glasgow, she was a refrigerated cargo liner with dimensions of 389.8 x 53.2 x 32.4 feet, and had a triple-expansion steam engine by D. Rowan & Co., Glasgow. Launched as the Rubiera, she belonged to the Blue Star line and was renamed the Ionic Star in 1929.

Black and white photograph of steamship in side view, depicting a star logo on the funnel amidships.
Ionic Star, showing the Blue Star logo on her funnel.

She was wrecked on October 16th 1939, after having lost her way whilst steaming up the Mersey Channel. She was carrying a cargo of meat, fruit, and cotton and was inward bound from Rio de Janeiro and Santos in Brazil to Liverpool, but sank on the edge of Mad Wharf, about one mile west of Formby Point. Her cargo was saved and no lives were lost, though she later became a total loss.

Although a salvage firm tendered for the job of breaking her up for scrap and the offer was accepted by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the difficult access with the rising and falling tides meant that they were only able to break up about 50 tons and then gave up the job.

During the war she was used as target practice by aircraft flying from the nearby RAF Woodvale and elsewhere, but a considerable amount still remains firmly embedded in the sand and she remains a significant local landmark.

View of shipwreck on sands at sunset, showing skeleton of vessel.
View of Ionic Star as she lies today on Mad Wharf, showing a significant break in the hull structure. © Martyn Griffiths

The Blue Star Line had several other steamers in their fleet at the time, one of which was the Doric Star. It was this steamer that only two months later on the 2nd December 1939 was to be sunk by the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of South Africa – rather a bad few months for the Blue Star line. Only 15 days were to go by until the Graf Spee herself was scuttled outside the harbour at Montevideo in the Battle of the River Plate.

Black and white photograph of German warship on fire and sinking, with smoke billowing out of the vessel to the right.
Graf Spee on fire following the Battle of the River Plate, December 1939.

The site was recently used for a test-flight of a UAV by Prof David Burton of the General Engineering Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, who supplied the dramatic video in the Youtube link.  The long-term aim of the group is to use a range of telemetry, including LiDAR, mounted on UAVs to provide a means of recording otherwise inaccessible sites such as the Ionic Star.  The flight was also run as part of a guided walk to the site organised by the Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership and Archaeological Services, Museum of Liverpool.

Links: 

http://www.bluestarline.org/ionic1.html

http://www.martyngriff.co.uk/page12.htm

http://formby-footprints.co.uk/

http://www.formbycivicsociety.org.uk/2003%2003%20originsbritainsfirstlifeboatstation.html

http://digiart-project.eu/consortium/ljmu/ljmu-geri/

http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol/archaeology/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cph79ESYaWE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKEH-GsbvPk

No.79 James Eagan Layne

In this week’s post, we commemorate the loss of the US Liberty Ship James Eagan Layne 70 years ago on 21 March 1945, torpedoed while bound from New Orleans, last from Barry in Wales, for Ghent with what was then termed ‘Government stores’. Translated, that meant military vehicles and other war materials destined for the liberation of Europe as the war was drawing to a close. Historic recoveries from this vessel have included numerous shell cases. (1)

The forward section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship
Forward section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. There is much scattered debris, evidence of extensive post-war salvage.

The James Eagan Layne was one of several Liberty ships and other vessels bound for Belgium in the spring of 1945, following the successful conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The Allies had repulsed the German advance, or ‘bulge’ in their lines, with heavy loss of life, particularly among the US troops who bore the brunt of the fighting. Allied access to the Belgian ports was now secured, barring minefields and U-boats, resuming the communication links severed by the fall of Belgium in 1940.

The pattern of wrecks on the seabed mirrors the fate of those communication links. Ten ships, bound either to or from Belgian ports, were sunk in English waters following the declaration of war in September 1939. It was a similar figure in early 1940 prior to the fall of Belgium in May, with 11 ships sunk by mine or torpedo on the same route.

The aft section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship, and showing scattered debris
Aft section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. This image allows an insight into the box-like construction characteristic of the Liberty Ship.

Transport links with occupied Belgium were then severed and are reflected in the lack of corresponding wrecks from late 1940 to early 1945: then, as Allied ships were once more able to reach Antwerp and other ports, there was also a recurrence of wreck events. Between January and May 1945, 10 ships are known to have been sunk in English waters en route to or from Belgium: they included other Liberty Ships, the Henry B Plant and the James Harrod. The John R Park was also torpedoed the same day as the James Eagan Layne, albeit on a different route, bound from England for the United States.

For more on the James Eagan Layne, please have a look at the dedicated SHIPS (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) and Promare Liberty 70 site.

(1) Receiver of Wreck droits.

With many thanks to MSDS Marine and Swathe Services for permission to reproduce these beautiful images.

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.