A digital memorial to those who lost their lives on HMS Formidable
HMS Formidable was a pre-dreadnought battleship. Launched on 17th November 1898 and commissioned on 10th October 1901, she served with the Channel fleet from 1908, after a stint in the Mediterranean. Although her design had been rendered obsolete by HMS Dreadnought, she was still a powerful vessel and the lead ship of the Formidable class (image below © IWM (Q 38891)).
During the early stages of the war HMS Formidable served with the 5th Battle Squadron. The squadron was based in the English Channel to guard against possible German invasion and, after a period at Sheerness, they relocated to Portland in December 1914.
On Thursday 31st December 1914, the squadron was conducting firing exercises off the south coast. Unknown to them, they had been spotted by Rudolf Schneider, the commander of the German U-boat U-24. Biding his time he tracked the squadron and at 2.20am, New Year’s Day 1915, a torpedo struck
Formidable and she immediately began to take on water.
Standing orders dictated that if submarines were detected, unaffected vessels must make for port immediately and Formidable’s sister ships made for Portland. The two light cruisers Topaze and Diamond stood by to take survivors, but any hopes that the ship might be saved were dashed when a second torpedo
struck just after 3am, sealing Formidable’s fate. The crew abandoned ship, but in rough weather several of the ship’s boats were lost. It is even alleged that a piano was thrown overboard as a makeshift raft.
HMS Formidable finally sank at 4.45pm. Most survivors were picked up the following morning at sea, although one lifeboat wasn’t found for 22 hours. Some boats managed to row to shore, but many men died of exposure before they could be rescued. Of the 780 strong crew only 233 survived. Among those lost were Captain Loxley and his dog Bruce who were last seen on the bridge. Bruce’s body was later washed ashore and is commemorated by a headstone in Abbotsbury
Gardens in Dorset.
A life-belt from HMS Formidable was washed up on the Dutch coast during the First World War and presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1920. The life-belt has been connected with Ordinary Signalman Walter Ernest Melluish, he was only 18 years of age.
The Wreck Site
Formidable lies upside down on the seabed, almost cut in half by a large hole towards the bow. However, the vessel’s thick armour means that most of the hull is still intact. The wreck is designated as a Controlled Site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, meaning that diving on it is prohibited.
The Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War project has created a digital memorial to the 547 men who lost their lives on HMS Formidable in 1915 by creating a 'Community' on the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War website. This has been possible thanks to Forgotten Wrecks volunteers Richard Wyatt and Amy Wiles and LoFWW volunteer Richard Dickens from the Fife Military Project who has been able to find or create Life Story pages for the Formidable crew who lost their lives. As well as commemorating those who died, it is hoped that more information about the individuals will be uncovered as people from all over the world can add to this digital memorial.
The story of a boot at Lyme Regis Museum associated with HMS Formidable: http://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk/images/stories/museum_objects/16_boot_from_hms_formidable.pdf
Formidable's story on BBC Radio Devon: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02fbhwj (12 mins audio)
National Railway Museum's blog post on loss of Formidable: http://blog.nrm.org.uk/first-world-war-tragedy-lassie-and-bruce/
An article about 1st Class Boy Seaman William Durow J/29940. Researched and written by Terry Hall, made available here with his kind permission.