Daily Event for January 1, 2012

One man's glory was a tragedy to a nation on January 1, 1915 when HMS Formidable was torpedoed and sunk by SMS U-24. Formidable was launched in 1898 at HM Dockyard Portsmouth, but not completed until 1904. The 14,921 ton battleship carried four 12"/40 (305mm) main guns and twelve 6"/45 (152mm) secondary guns, but was outdated and no longer a front line ship having been assigned to defense of the English Channel with the 5th Battle Squadron under the overall command of Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly.

On Dec. 31, 1914 Formidable and the 5th Battle Squadron steamed down the Channel from Sheerness for gunnery exercises off Portland Bill and then to patrol the area between Portland and Start Point. The eight battleships, all in line, were moving at only 10 knots and on a steady course. They were flanked by two cruisers, but no destroyer screen as they had been detached earlier. As the squadron moved through the Channel they were seen by Kapiänleutnant Rudolf Schneider through the periscope of SMS U-24.

Schneider, understandably excited at the prospect of such easy targets, made every attempt to move his boat into a position to attack, however his boat could not make 10 knots while submerged. The thought of Weddigen's success against three British cruisers (HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue) on Sept. 22, 1914 must have been fresh in his mind, and to find himself in somewhat the same position with no chance of action must have been dispiriting to him and his crew as they followed the ships throughout the day and into the evening. Schneider finally had to break off because of low batteries and the ships sailed on unmolested and ignorant of their enemies presence. When the British ships were over the horizon Schneider surfaced his boat to recharge the batteries, he was still on the surface when the column of battleships returned.

At about 0150 Schneider was in position and fired a torpedo, after several minutes he realized it had missed. He surfaced and gave chase using the darkness and the worsening weather to cover him, he circled around behind the squadron at his best speed, overtook the ships and fired a second torpedo. At 0225 the explosion was heard, it had hit the last ship in the line, HMS Formidable. She was hit amidships on the port side which caused flooding in the boiler rooms, a list and slowed her down. About 20 minutes later Captain Arthur Noel Loxley, the commanding officer, ordered the ship stopped and abandoned, an attempt to make land seemed unlikely.

Heavy seas, darkness and a 20° starboard list hampered the men struggling to get off the doomed ship. A third torpedo which struck a little after 0300 sealed the fate of the ship. As the boats were lowered further tragedies occurred, one or more of them capsized drowning all, but according to most accounts there was little or no panic. Loxley remained on the bridge during the whole ordeal supervising the evacuation, one survivor stated "Capt. Loxley gave his orders as calmly as if his ship had been in harbour with her anchors down." Another stated that he heard him say; "Keep cool and be British! There's tons of life in the old ship yet."

There may have been tons of life, but there was not tons of time, at 0445 Formidable rolled over and sank with Loxley still on the bridge. When she capsized the ship landed on dozens of men who were unable to get far enough away. Survivors were picked up by the cruisers HMS Diamond and HMS Topaz, others were picked up by the trawler Provident, the only other survivors made land in one of the lifeboats the next day, but a number of men in the boat had died of exposure and exhaustion. Five hundred and forty-seven men, including Loxley, were lost, only two hundred and seventy-seven men survived.

The loss was announced to the public immediately by the Admiralty, in stark contrast to that of HMS Audacious which sank on Oct. 27, 1914 after striking a mine and whose loss had still not been officially announced by the Admiralty, in fact her loss was not announced until Nov. 14, 1918. Formidable was the third battleship lost by the British in the Great War, HMS Bulwark, which exploded at Sheerness on Nov. 26, 1914 and HMS Audacious being the first two, but within a five months five more British battleships would join them, all lost during the Gallipoli campaign (HM battleships Irresistible, Ocean, Goliath, Triumph and Majestic).

It was not known exactly what had caused the loss, it was assumed either a mine or torpedo and most believed it had been a mine. It was thought that submarines could not effect such an attack in stormy weather, but on Jan. 4th the Germans announced that a submarine had in fact torpedoed Formidable. This announcement caused some consternation in the Admiralty, and it was decided that new tactics would have to be employed to defend against such attacks. The mines and nets, no matter how many laid, failed to keep a determined U-boat commander from entering the English Channel, and they never would. It was not until the next war when effective sonar and radar were developed that the U-boat was rendered ineffective.

Rudolf Schneider was just such a commander, he sank 44 merchant ships for a total over 125,000 tons, surprisingly Formidable was the first ship Schneider ever sank. He later commanded U-87, but was washed overboard and drowned on Oct. 13, 1917.

On Jan. 2, 1915 the Admiralty ordered Bayly's flag hauled down, but he was later cleared of the charge of negligence in the loss of Formidable. He retired in 1919 and passed away in 1938, just before the next war.
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock