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Devon County

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HMS Formidable

HMS Formidable

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


At 2.0am during the night of 1 January 1915, not long after the start of the First World War, HMS Formidable, a Royal Navy Battleship,  was patrolling the English Channel off Portland Bill. From 20 miles away,  a German U-boat sent two torpedoes towards the vessel. The first hit the port side, destroying the main boiler, the second explosion caused the ship to list to starboard. In strong winds and heavy seas, HMS Formidable immediately began to sink. Different sources give the number of crew on board as being between 750 and 780. Of these men, 547 were to lose their lives, many of them in the ship's boats which were smashed or swamped as they were lowered into the stormy waters. The Captain remained on the bridge with Bruce, his dog and went down with his ship.


Of the small number of pinnaces to survive the launch, one, with some 70  men on board, drifted in the Channel for hours next day, hoping for rescue. There was plenty of shipping about but mountainous seas meant that no-one spotted the little boat bobbing up and down in the waves. Then, as night drew on once more, a young woman, walking with her parents on the sea shore at Lyme Regis, glimpsed the outline of a small boat and raised the alarm. Of the men on this pinnace, 14 had died out in the Channel while awaiting rescue and had been buried at sea; 6 were found to be dead on arrival and a further 3 died after landing at Lyme.


But the men on another pinnace had been more fortunate. Rescue came to them just after 9 o'clock in the morning of New Year's Day and their exposure to the elements had been shorter giving them a better chance of survival. All 71 men on this boat made it back to shore and they owed their lives to an amazing piece of seamanship by the skipper, and his crew of two men and a boy, on a little Brixham trawler (or fishing smack) called the Provident, fishing in the vicinity of Berry Head at the time.

All four were later awarded the Albert Medal for their gallantry and were to receive rewards from the Admiralty - £250 for the Skipper,  William Pillar (later always referred to as "Captain" Pillar), £100 each for crewmen William Carter and John Clarke and £50 for the young boy, Daniel Taylor.

The Provident, also known as BM291, was built in the shipyard of J. Sanders on the River Dart at Galmpton in 1910 and was a Brixham Sailing Trawler (also known as a "smack") distinguished by reddish-brown sails and forming part of the Brixham Fishing Fleet. She was replaced in 1924 by another Provident which was built with a Government grant awarded in recognition of the heroic rescue of men from the Formidable.


William Pillar
Captain William Pillar of Brixham


On 30 January 1915, while the event was still uppermost in everyone's minds, the Devonshire Association gathered in London to present Captain Pillar with an illuminated address. It was a huge event (to which several Brixham dignitaries were also invited) and the presentation was made by George Lambert MP, who, at that time, was Civil Lord of the Admiralty. In his speech, George Lambert describes the rescue in his own words:


From the presentation speech given by George Lambert MP

30 January 1915:

"The New Year was ushered in with gloom; the Formidable was sunk in the early hours of the morning. Picture for yourselves New Year's morning. It is half-past nine, a heavily southerly gale, and big seas running. A boat full of men is sighted, with a shirt or a scarf at the end of an oar as a signal of distress. Then Captain Pillar in his smack, seeing this boat in distress, had to close reef his mainsail, shift over his jib, and then had lost sight of the boat.

He made on to the course which the had drifted, sent his third hand - there were but four on board - aloft to sight the boat. The  boat was sighted. Three times after he got near, they threw the line; three times they failed. the fourth time they were more successful. They reached the boat but on the weather side. Then with fine skill they brought round, and got the rope to the leeward, fastened it to the capstan, and brought sixty-nine sailors and two petty officers, seventy one in all, on  board the smack. The last two were hurt and had to be carried aboard. 

Then came a battle with the seas for six hours more. It was one o'clock; at seven o'clock they reached Brixham where these men were looked after. Official reports, as you may know, do not err on the side of luxuriant eloquence but here is the official record of the deed done by Captain Pillar and his men and I can add nothing to it:"


"The rescue was only effected by careful and splendid seamanship, and not without danger to the smack. An error of half the ship's length would have swamped or crushed the boat, which was holed in several places and kept afloat by baling with sea boots and clothing, and even a leg or an arm stuffed into the holes. As the rescue was completed, the small boat was cut adrift and sank almost immediately."


Address peresented to William Pillar
The Address presented to William Pillar 30 January 1915


You can discover more about the HMS Formidable event at the Philpot Museum in the centre of Lyme Regis.


William Pillar is remembered in his native Brixham by street names - Pillar Avenue, Pillar Close and Pillar Crescent - all in the vicinity of the cricket ground.


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