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
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.
out of the Pilot Boat.