A lengthy extract from a contemporary account of the sinking of H.M.S. Formidable in 1915 and the subsequent rescue of survivors by the Brixham trawler ‘Provident’…
Extract from the ‘Brixham Western Guardian’ 7th January 1915
It was officially announced that the battleship Formidable was sunk on Friday morning in the Channel, whether by mine or submarine was not certain. The Formidable was a twin screw battleship of the pre-Dreadnought class, of which there were eight in the Navy. She was 420 feet long, 75 feet beam, of 15,000 horse power, had a speed of 18 knots, and carried a complement of 760 men.
As far as could be ascertained the disaster to the Formidable occurred out of sight of land. The weather became very tempestuous and the waves were running high. At one moment the moon would be shining brightly; at the next dark clouds hid her light. there was no sign of the lurking enemy and it was not considered probable that there were mines so far down the Channel. Without the slightest warning however, there was an explosion on the starboard side of the Formidable, in such a spot that she was not only disabled but narrowly escaped the fate of her sistership, the Bulwark, the remarkable disaster to which had been witnessed by many of her crew. The ship took a list to starboard, but there was no panic. Officers and men manifested great coolness, boats,barges and woodwork were at once got over the starboard side, one of the barges being capsized and the occupants thrown into the raging sea.
It was not until a second explosion occurred on the port side of the battleship that it became evident that it was a case of every man for himself and that a great disaster was inevitable. Distress signals were sent up and it was more than an hour before the Formidable turned turtle and disappeared. Before that however, the other battleships had followed the instructions of the Admiralty following the North Sea disaster, and got clear away from the fatal spot.
SEVENTY SURVIVORS LANDED AT BRIXHAM
After being in their open cutter for nearly 12 hours, two officers and 70 men of the battleship were rescued by the Brixham fishing smack Provident some 15 miles from Berry Head. When taken on board the trawler they were accomodated in the engine-room, cabin and fish-hold, but such a number was a big tax on the carrying capacity of the boat. They were in a pretty bad way for they were less than half-clad, indeed some of them were not covered by a shilling’s worth of Navy clothing, but remarkably cheerful despite their experiences. During the night it rained, hailed and blew, and they were very fortunate to reach safety, for every two or three minutes the cutter was washed by the waves, and it was only men with a superb constitution who would have come through such a terrible ordeal. “Quite sixty out of the seventy men took off their boots and used them as balers,” said one survivor. “We were baling all the time, and managed to keep the water under. We worked with a will, though we were very glad when the Provident, after grand seamanship, saved us all.”
WELCOME HOSPITALITY ON SEA AND LAND
The needs of the men were attended to on board the smack. All the Provident’s stock of food was fairly divided and all the cigarettes and tobacco the men possessed was used. Hot coffee was continuously made by little Dan Taylor, the cook, who was quite a hero. On nearing Brixham, the Provident fell in with the tug Dencade,which towed her in, and she was berthed at the pier. The rescued men who were in a pitiable condition gave a hearty British cheer – the like of which only British tars could give – and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” and then in batches of four and five wrapped in blankets, they were taken, by waiting cabs, to the Bolton Hotel, the Globe, the Cafe, the Sailors’ Institute and Doidge’s, these being the distributing centres. Here the men were provided with hot food and warm clothing and either went to bed at these places or went into private houses which were thrown open to them.
HEROIC BRIXHAM SKIPPER
William Pillar, owner and skipper of the trawler is quite a young married man, not much over 30 years of age and all the crew are young men. It appears that about 9 o’clock on Friday morning the Provident was racing through mountainous seas of the Channel before a south-west gale with the hope of making Brixham Harbour. The foam-capped waves were running mountains high, but the sturdy little craft was handled with fine seamanship for which Brixham is famed.
Off the Start the trawler had to heave-to owing to the force of the wind, and just at that moment the vessel was struck with a particularly heavy sea. She had been running rigged with a reefed mainsail, a reefed foresail, and no jib.
THE DISTRESS SIGNAL
Hardly had the decision to heave-to been arrived at when the third hand, John Clarke, noticed a boat being tossed about like a cork on the waves some little distance off. He shouted to the captain and the mate to jump up, saying, “Here’s a sight under our lee!” They were amazed to see a small open boat drifting amid the mountainous seas, with a boat hook hoisted as a staff, from which was flying a sailor’s black scarf. One moment the boat would appear on the crest of a wave high up, and then it would be lost to sight for several minutes. With hardly a though of the collossal risk the captain and crew at once set about rescuing the men in the boat. After a great struggle they managed to haul down the second reef of the mainsail and set the storm jib. The cutter, which had been riding at a sea-anchor rigged by the men, drifted towards the Provident, but in the mountainous seas they missed each other, and the naval boat passed out of sight of the men on the smack. For the moment they thought she was lost.
A GREAT FEAT OF SEAMANSHIP
Clarke climbed the rigging, and presently discovered the cutter making heavy weather of it just to leeward. Captain Pillar gybed his vessel a very dangerous undertaking in such weather since the mast was liable to give way. Four times did the gallant smacksmen seek to get a rope to the cutter. Each effort was more difficult than the last, and it was only after between two and three hours’ hard fight with the seas and after four attempts, that the Provident obtained a good berth on the port tack, and a small warp was thrown and caught by the naval men. When made fast, the warp was coiled around the Provident’s steam capstan, and with great skill the cutter was hauled to a good berth astern. Then the warp was passed around the lee side, and the cutter was drawn up under the lee quarter.
JUMPING ON THE SMACK
The bluejackets at once commenced jumping from the boat to the smack, and although this was a hazardous task, in the heavy seas that were running 30 feet high, they accomplished it successfully in true navy fashion. All were rescued by one o’clock and a course was then shaped for Brixham.