The Lyme Maze Game

Daedalus escapes the maze


Universal Workshop



It was a dark and stormy night, and the captain said to the mate: “Tell us a story.” So the mate began: “It was a dark and stormy night.“.. So begins a famously silly story. But nobody laughs at the story of what happened soon after the midnight that began the year 1915, five months into the Great War. Out in the Channel, the midwinter wind and waves were terrific, the water deathly cold.
     Eight British battleships were passing Start Point on their way home toward Portland Harbour. They were sailing in a line, which exposed them all to attack by German U-boats (Untersee-Booten). The squadron should have been protected by destroyers, but was flanked only by two light cruisers. There had already been delay, so the admiral on the flagship denied the captains permission to zigzag or to lower their torpedo nets. (The admiral was afterwards disciplined by being ordered to haul down his colours.) H.M.S. “Formidable,” having had engine trouble, was last in the line.
     At 2:25 a.m. her starboard side was gashed open by a torpedo. Water flooded the machine rooms, the ship listed far to starboard, only the lifeboats on that side could be launched. Some smashed as they were lowered, killing all those in them; others were swamped by huge waves. Men tried to cheer each other by singing and joking, someone even played ragtime on the piano. Captain Arthur “Noel” Loxley ordered the signaller to warn off any ships that might come to the rescue, since they too might be struck. With him at the bridge was his dog, Bruce, a three-year-old Airedale-crossed-with-Irish-terrier, who refused to leave him for a lifeboat. (So that's the first doggy part of this story, told at greater length in Captain Loxley's Little Dog by “the author of Where's Master?,” with epilogue by R.M. Franklin, Diggory Press, 2003. Loxley's body was never recovered; Bruce's was washed up on Chesil Beach and buried with a headstone in the pet graveyard in the Abbotsbury gardens. Both of Loxley's brothers were killed later in the war.)
     The U-boat stayed around, and fifty minutes after the first torpedo it fired a second, which opened the ship's other side. More water rushed in, the dynamos failed, all lights went out. There was no more time for trying to launch lifeboats; even the piano was thrown overboard in the hope of using it as a raft. Men were dying of cold in the water; a few who had been in for more than half an hour got to a lifeboat and were pulled aboard. For the crew of 746 only three lifeboats were afloat, into which only somewhat over two hundred managed to pile. At 4:45 the “Formidable” capsized and sank, twenty-five miles off Portland Bill. (It is an official maritime war grave, with legal protection, but is repeatedly plundered by divers, who have stolen all its brass and tried to blow off its propellers.)
     One of the boats, with seventy men, was eventually picked up by the well-named trawler “Provident,” fifteen miles off Berry Head near Brixham; another by a Royal Navy cruiser. The third, with seventy-one aboard, was half filled with water through a hole over which a seaman sat, trying to plug it; others bailed frantically with their hands, boots, caps, a blanket. Men tried to keep each other going by jollying or, failing that, punching. The first day of the year dawned; but no coast was in sight. They spotted an ocean liner, later eleven other vessels, from all of which the little boat was hidden by tall waves. The gale grew even stronger. They battled their exhaustion and the sea all day and into the second night. If they were anywhere near a coast, they couldn't see it.
     At Lyme, part of the old Assembly Rooms had been converted in the early 1900s into a cinema, and the projectionist was working late that evening on the projector, and accidentally let a beam of light flash out to sea. The desperate men on the boat saw it and made for the town. But getting ashore past rocks and crashing surf is more often than not fatal. Half past ten at night: Mr. W.J. Harding was out walking near Cobb Gate with his daughter, and she noticed the faint outline of the boat out in the sea. For a moment they thought it was a German invader. They found a policeman; the alarm was raised; a small crowd of helpers turned out, ropes were thrown. It was a long struggle, the boat was brought ashore. It had been twenty-two hours in the water. Of its seventy-one, fourteen men had died and been thrown overboard; six were found to be dead on arrival; three more died on the beach.

     More townspeople came out to help, brought blankets. The forty-eight exhausted survivors were taken into the Pilot Boat inn. The dead were carried down to the inn's cellar and laid on the flagstone floor (though, according to another source, this final scene took place in the cinema). The Pilot Boat's landlady, Mrs. Atkins, had a dog named Lassie, a rough-haired collie. There lay the corpses, but Lassie persisted in licking the face of one of them, even when rebuked and called away. His name was John Cowan; he made a faint movement, revived, and was nursed back to complete health.
     Of the crew of 746, 547 had died. Six were buried in the municipal cemetery up Charmouth Road.
     Photographs of Lassie, along with Able Seaman John Cowan, appeared in the newspapers and on postcards. The journalist Eric Knight (born in Yorkshire in 1897) will have heard of her, and he gave her name to the heroine of his 1938 Saturday Evening Review serial story, later extended to a novel, Lassie Come Home. Lassie's poor family has to sell her, but she is determined to escape from bondage and make her way home from the Scottish Highlands to the Yorkshire Moors through every ordeal. Knight became a major in the U.S. army and was killed in a plane crash in Dutch Guiana, just before the 1943 release of the famous MGM Technicolor film, shot in California. Female dogs tend to shed hair when in heat, so, unknown to viewers, Pal, the magnificent collie playing Lassie, was male.

So were the Lassies of the seven sequels made between 1943 and 1951, and the seventeen-year American television series. And of course the hero of Son of Lassie. A new Lassie Come Home opened in 2005, with Peter O'Toole as the Duke of Rudling.
     Back out of the Pilot Boat.