The first day of 1915 did not go well for the Royal Navy. Whilst on Channel patrol, in bad weather, the battleship HMS Formidable was torpedoed off Portland Bill at 0220 by U-24. 45 minutes later she was hit by a second torpedo. She remained afloat until 0345 and then sank, her Captain, Noel Loxley, remaining on the bridge accompanied by his Fox terrier ‘Bruce’. She sank quickly with 547 of the 780 crew perishing. Five from NI were lost.
Teenage Midshipman of well known local family lost
Formidable was the third British battleship to be sunk and the second to be sunk by enemy action, during the First World War.
In the ship were five from Northern Ireland who perished. One was the teenage son of a well-known family. John Smiley Coey was a 16 year old Midshipman whose parents Edward and Mary lived in Merville House at Whitehouse. The Coey family were well-known benefactors of local causes. The family endowed Larne Grammar School and Sinclair Seaman’s Mission Church in Belfast. The family was associated with Whiteabbey and Gardenmore, Larne, Presbyterian churches.
Sir Edward Coey – Mayor of Belfast and Philanthropist 1805 – 1887
Merville House was built in 1795 by the Belfast banker and merchant John Brown (c.1740-1808). It was intended as his country retreat. Other fêted people would come to reside at the sprawling 24-acre shoreline manor.
Between 1849-1887 it was the home of Sir Edward Coey (1805–87), noted as the first and only Liberal Party Mayor of Belfast (1861) and prominent wealthy businessman, who helped make the city one of the most prosperous manufacturing centres in the world during the 19th century.
Coey was born in Larne, and commenced work as an apprentice butcher. He started to build his own business, and became the proprietor of the ‘Northern Shoe & Boot House’ in Belfast, with his brother James. After a short period working in the USA, Coey established a provisions and curing business in the dockland district of Belfast in 1841, called Coey & Co. This business was very successful, and led to Coey developing his business interests including property in Belfast, London, Liverpool and in the United States.
Sir Edward Coey and John Crawford founded Larne Grammar School in 1886. Coey’s philanthropic work was much more widespread than this. He was a donor to causes as varied as the Belfast Charitable Society, the Presbyterian Orphan Society, and the Presbyterian Sabbath School. He was Patron of the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Belfast Sailors Home, and the Malone Protestant Reformatory, a life Governor of the Belfast Royal Hospital, a Governor of the Belfast District Hospital for the Insane Poor, and Belfast Ophthalmic Hospital. In 1867 was appointed Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of County Antrim. He was also a Borough Magistrate in Belfast, member of the Grand Jury and Belfast Harbour Commissioners, and in July 1869, was one of the eight founding subscribers of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Three sons from Ballymacarrett in the RN – Two lost
Another Northern Ireland crew member lost was William John Newell of Lackagh Street, Belfast (off Newtownards Rd, Ballymacarrett). He was one of three brothers to serve in the Royal Navy during the war. His brother Thomas was lost in HMS Natal.
On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 Formidable was assigned to the Channel Fleet’s 5th Battle Squadron. The Channel Fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Cecil Burney was made up of pre-dreadnought battleships and light cruisers forming the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Battle Squadrons.
During the first few weeks after the outbreak of war the 5th Battle Squadron was employed patrolling the English Channel to protect the Straits of Dover to ensure the safe passage of troops and supplies to France and Flanders. In early September the squadron was sent to Portland for gunnery practice and returned to Sheerness amid fears of a German invasion of the east coast. On the 17th December Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayley assumed command of the Channel Fleet and was of the opinion that the 5th Battle Squadron required further sea exercises and battle practice at Portland. His concerns were supported by the Admiralty and he was given permission for the squadron to sail from Sheerness to Portland.
The squadron sailed from Sheerness during the morning of the 30th December, and were escorted by six destroyers from Harwich to ensure their safe passage through the Straights of Dover. As the Squadron passed Folkestone during the afternoon the escort destroyers departed leaving the two light cruisers to protect the battleships from submarine attack. Bayley, in his flagship HMS Lord Nelson led his squadron in line -ahead formation steaming at 10-knots. HMS Topaz and HMS Diamond were stationed a mile astern of the last battleship, HMS Formidable. Vice-Admiral Bayley had not ordered his squadron to zig-zag as the Admiralty had had no recent reports of German U-boat activity in the Channel. On the 28th December however, Kapitn-leutnant Rudolf Schneider, the commanding officer of U-24 had penetrated through the defences of the Straits of Dover and into the English Channel.
By first light on the 31st the 5th Battle Squadron was approximately 13 miles south of Portland Bill and with a severe gale expected the ships battened down for heavy seas. Bayley exercised his ships throughout the day steaming down towards Start Point and then turning on to a reciprocal course back towards St Alban’s Head. During the hours of darkness the squadron was to carry out course changes as ordered by Bayley who intended to be off Portland Bill at dawn on 01/01/1915.
Earlier in the day Kapitn-leutnant Schneider had seen the 6th Battle Squadron which had been on exercises steaming away from Portland. Later he sighted three large warships steaming down channel and he decided to shadow them. Although a heavy sea was running visibility was good throughout the day and into the evening. Just after midnight on 01/01/1915 aided by a full moon Kapitn-leutnant Schneider was able to identify the three vessels he had been shadowing by their silhouettes as battleships. Manoeuvring U-24 towards the ships undetected, he selected his target and fired one torpedo at HMS Queen but missed. He then saw five large warships which appeared to have become detached from the other three. At 2.20am he fired another torpedo at the last ship in the line, HMS Formidable and struck her amidships on the starboard side under the forward funnel.
Captain Arthur Loxley was on the bridge of HMS Formidable when the torpedo exploded beneath him in No.2 Boiler Room. Ordering all watertight doo
rs to be shut and the crew to their collision stations he turned his ship which had begun to list into the wind and rising sea. Water poured into the ship, flooded the engine room, the steam pressure rapidly fell to zero and all electrical power was lost. The weather conditions were steadily deteriorating but amidst the chaos and darkness the crew remained calm and disciplined. Captain Loxley ordered the ships boats to be launched and men began to arrive on the weather deck, most of whom had been asleep when the torpedo exploded, were only wearing their night attire.
HMS Formidable carried two 56-ft steam pinnace’s, one 36-ft pinnace, one 36-ft sailing pinnace, one 40-ft sailing launch, two 34-ft cutters and one 30-ft cutter, three 27-ft whalers, one 28-ft gig, one 16-ft dinghy, and a 13-ft balsa raft. With a 20-degree list to starboard, only boats on that side could be launched. Despite the angle of the deck two boats full of men were lowered into the rough sea but one was overturned and the men drowned.
U-24 had remained close by her victim unseen and a few minutes after 3am her captain fired another torpedo at the Formidable which exploded in No.1 Boiler Room below the after funnel on the portside. The effect was to bring the Formidable on to an even keel. Captain Loxley ordered everyone up on to the main deck as there was no prospect of the saving the ship. With no steam power available the heavier boats could not be launched and some were too badly damaged. All available portable material which would float was thrown overboard to help keep men afloat in the water. A passing merchant ship was seen from the bridge of the Formidable and distress flares were fired to attract her attention but she continued on her course having not seen the flares or ignored them.
HMS London had noticed the Formidable leave the line and signalled the flagship but gave no explanation. With the loss of electrical power H.M.S. Formidable was unable to use her wireless equipment. HMS Topaz and Diamond closed towards the stricken ship to assist in rescuing men from the sea. Kapitn-leutnant Schnieder satisfied that the Formidable’s fate was sealed turned U-24 away and headed out into the English Channel. The two cruisers were unable to take any offensive action as there were many men struggling in the water and they would have become victims of their own ships.
HMS Topaz signalled the flagship that Formidable had been torpedoed by a submarine and Bayley followed Admiralty instructions on encountering submarines in such circumstances and ordered his ships to change course and then head towards Portland at full speed. HMS Topaz and Diamond were ordered to remain with Formidable and continue the rescue effort. Torpedo boats and small craft were ordered to sail from Devonport and Portland but the bad weather forced them to return.
As the Formidable began to settle in the rough sea those who remained on board knew that they would not be among the survivors. Those who jumped into the rough sea were never seen again. The bow dipped beneath the waves and she turned over on to her starboard side. At the last moment men were seen to slide down the ship’s hull only to injure themselves on the bilge keel and then tumble into the sea. Just after 4.30am HMS Formidable sank beneath the waves of the English Channel approximately 30 miles south of Lyme Regis. Topaz had rescued 43 men from a boat and Diamond 37 men from the water of whom were 14 officers. They were wearing a Gieves waistcoat – an early type of life jacket – rather than the Admiralty swimming collar issued to the men which was supposed to support them in the water. Topaz and Diamond remained in the area until first light. With no prospect of rescuing any more survivors both ships set a course towards Portland. It took them more than ten hours to reach the safety of the harbour due to gale force winds and heavy seas.
One damaged sailing launch from the Formidable, with 71 men aboard had drifted away from the scene of the disaster into the darkness. At approximately 9.30am the launch was 15 miles from Berry Head where it was seen by the ‘Provident’ a Brixham sailing trawler, captained by William Pillar with crew of four. With great difficulty in 30-ft seas the men from the Formidable clambered on to trawler. As the last man was hauled aboard the launch broke up and sank. The ‘Provident’ after battling through the appalling weather reached Brixham at 7pm where the survivors were landed ashore. They were organised into three groups and respectively taken to a hotel, café and the Sailors Institute, given dry clean clothing, hot food and drinks.
A sailing pinnace which had been launched safely from H.M.S. Formidable and overloaded with 71 men had also drifted away into the stormy night. The boat was soon swamped with water which made it difficult for those who could to row. The rudder had been lost, there was no compass and the helmsman Leading Seaman Thomas Carroll steered as best he could with a single oar. There was no food or water aboard for the men who had to keep baling out sea water continuously with their boots. For 22 hours they were unable to make any landfall and had to endure the winter storm. Desperately they had tried and failed to attract the attention of passing ships. Fourteen men died and were lowered over the side to ease conditions in the open boat.
A few minutes before 11pm Police Sergeant Stockley who was on duty with another officer in the square at Lyme Regis were alerted by a group residents who had heard shouting which appeared to come from the seashore. The two policemen proceeded to the seafront and saw near the Cobb Gate a large open boat heading towards the shore. The sergeant sent his colleague to get more help and himself went down to the shoreline where he managed to grab a line hurled from the boat as it was being driven ashore by the waves.
Sergeant Stockley managed to hold on to the line as one sailor jumped from the pinnace into the water and scrambled ashore. Another followed, but weakened by exposure and exhaustion lost his grip on the line and was carried back into the sea. Stockley, seeing this rushed into the heavy surf, grabbed the sailor and with difficulty dragged him on to the beach. More residents from the town began to arrive at the Cobb including the local coxswain of the lifeboat to assist in the rescue effort. Two local doctors initially assessed the condition of the sailors on the beach before that were taken to various public houses in the town. The Landlord of the Pilot Boat Inn and his wife were awakened by the rescuers and they opened their doors for a group of exhausted sailors.
All of the 48 survivors who arrived at Lyme Regis owed their lives to the skill of Leading Seaman Carroll who steered the pinnace and to Petty Officer Herbert Bing who cajoled, shouted and encouraged the men to sing and keep baling and rowing until they reached safety. Although blackout rules were in force at Lyme Regis it was fortunate that Leading Seaman Carroll had seen a light shining ashore long enough for him to get a bearing and steer the boat towards the beach. He kept the light to starboard and thus avoided a rocky outcrop.
Six bodies were in the bottom of the boat. Two of them were twins, John and Henri Villers Russell, both sick berth attendants. The bereaved parents claimed the bodies of the twins and took them to their home town of Crewe where they were buried in St. Michael’s Churchyard, Coppenhall.
The Commanding Officer of Formidable was one of three sons to die in the war. The Reverend Arthur Loxley and his wife Alice of Northchurch, Buckinghamshire, lost Captain Arthur Loxley in HMS Formidable, Captain Vere Loxley, RMLI., killed on the Somme on the 13/11/1916 and Captain Reginald Loxley, Royal Air Force, killed on the 18/10/1918.
The Pilot Boat Inn in Lyme Regis where the survivors were brought for food, clothes and medical aid.
One of the survivors brought to the Pilot House inn was deemed to be dead. The dog at the inn, named “Lassie” refused to leave the body and kept licking his face for an hour and a half. After further inspection it was discovered that the sailor was still alive. He was taken to hospital and recovered. It is said that from this true story Holywood invented the legend of Lassie, the super-intelligent dog film star.
At Abbotsbury Graveyard a headstone marks the grave of Captain Loxley’s dog ‘Bruce’ whose body was washed up after the disaster. The Captain was last seen holding the Fox terrier in his arms as his ship perished.
The Blame Game
The loss of a battleship and so many lives prompted the Admiralty to point the finger of blame at Vice-Admiral Bayley for risking his squadron in the presence of enemy U-boats. Bayley robustly refuted the accusations and he asked to be tried by Court Martial which was refused. He was relieved of his command on the 17th January and appointed President of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. A few months later he resumed an active command as Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches at Queenstown, Ireland where he served for the rest of the war. In 1919 he again wrote to the Admiralty about the loss of HMS Formidable and included written testaments and documents in his submission. The Admiralty demurred to investigate the loss of the battleship and in their reply to Bayley offered their approbation for the work he had carried out Queenstown as Commander-in-Chief.
Kapitn-leutant Rudolf Schneider became a very successful U-boat commander during the First World War sinking 140,783-tons of shipping. On 13/10/1917 whilst in command of U-87 he was washed overboard during a storm in the North Sea. He was rescued and brought back aboard the submarine, but died shortly after and was buried at sea.
King George V presented Captain Pillar of the sailing trawler ‘Provident’ and three of his crew with the Sea Gallantry Medal. They also received the Shipwrecked Mariners Benevolent Society’s gold medal and awarded a gratuity. A young nephew of Captain Pillar was also on board the Provident, but as he was not officially a crew member he did not receive a medal. Police Sergeant James Stockley received the Board of Trade Silver Medal for Gallantry in Saving Life at Sea and the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society.
ROLL OF HONOUR – HMS Formidable
RN. Sick berth steward. 351213 (Ch). HMS Formidable. Died 01/01/1915. Age 28. Son of James and Lucy Broad, of Wantage, Berks.; husband to Priscilla F. Hughes (formerly Broad), Stranmillis Gardens, Belfast
+COEY, John Smiley
RN. Midshipman. HMS Formidable. Died 01/01/1915. Aged 16. Son of Edward and Mary R. D. Coey, Merville, Whitehouse. A report in Ulster and The War column, Belfast News Letter, 08/01/1915, on a motion of sympathy passed by the Minister, Committee and Session of Whiteabbey Presbyterian Church to the Coey family. Chatham Naval Memorial. Whitehouse – PCI RH & Larne, Gardenmore – PCI RH. IMR. ADM196/120
+MAXWELL, Edward Wallace
RN. Petty Officer. 347388. HMS Formidable. Died 01/01/1915. Formerly RM Ply/12449. Enrolled 22/02/1906 for 12 years. In Formidable 04/04/1911 – 01/01/1915. Served as William Leigh. Born Dublin 28/08/1882. Victoria Rd., Belfast. Sydenham WM. Family memorial Holywood cemetery. IMR. ADM 188/527/347388
RN. AB. 215399. HMS Formidable. 01/01/1915. Age 30. Boy service from 15/05/1901. Enrolled 17/02/1903 for 12 years. In Formidable 26/03/1913 – 01/01/1915. Born Belfast 17/02/1885. Son of the late James and Anna Maria Fleeten McLurg, Broadbent St., Belfast. Chatham Naval Memorial. ADM 188/377/215399
+NEWELL, William John
RMLI. Private. CH/17878. Chatham Division. HMS Formidable. Died 01/01/1915. Enlisted 26/03/1913. In Formidable 30/07/1914 – 01/01/1915. Born Belfast 18/01/1895. Son of Thomas and Mary Jane Newell, Derwent St, Belfast. “Mr Thomas Newell of Lockage, Newtownards Road, has received official information from the Admiralty that his son Private Wm. J. Newell, Royal Marine Light Infantry, perished with HMS Formidable, which went down on New Year’s Day. Private Newell had 18 months service, and prior to enlisting was an apprentice platter in the employment of Messrs. Workman, Clarke and Co.Ltd. He was 20 years of age, and has two married sisters living in Ballymacarrett” News Letter 08/01/1915. Photo in Belfast Evening Telegraph. His brother Thomas was lost on HMS Natal on 30/12/1915. Samuel of the same address served in RN and survived the war. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 13. ADM 159/129/17878
+OWENS, Samuel James
AB. J31624. HMS Formidable. Died 01/01/1915. Age 21. Born Belfast. Son of the late Thomas and Letitia Owens, Utility Street, Belfast; and Ballyclare. Chatham Naval Memorial. Great Victoria Street – PCI RH. Ballynure Presbyterian Church WM
Served in HMS Formidable
The following served in Formidable previously
CONNOR, James F
RN. Stoker. HMS Formidable
GAGE, Alexander Hugh
RN. Chaplain 1900. Ordained 1899. Served on HMS Formidable 1901-04. Retired 1916. Rathlin Island. Ramoan Parish, Ballycastle RH
RN. HMS Formidable. Belfast
McCLURGAN, C J
RN. Stoker 1st Cl. HMS Formidable
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