In the 100th anniversary year of the sinking of HMS Formidable, the first British battleship to be lost to submarine action, a new book pays tribute to the Brixham trawlerman and his crew who put their own lives at risk to save 71 sailors.
Although the sailors had managed to get clear of the sinking battleship, they knew their small cutter couldn’t survive the horrendous weather and that they were facing almost certain death.
But having spotted the vessel, experienced seaman and lifeboatman William Pillar and his three-strong crew decided to mount a rescue, navigating their fishing boat, Provident, through stormy ice-cold waters and gale force winds. For hours they struggled against the elements, but eventually managed to get all the men onto the trawler, only to face another six-hour battle against the elements before being able to reach the outer harbour of Brixham.
“It’s an amazing story that’s often overlooked because there were so many acts of heroism in the First World War,” said author Steve Dunn. “But I think Pillar’s bravery was remarkable and hope my book, Formidable, goes some way towards making sure that he’s never forgotten.”
At the time Pillar and his crew – two men and a boy – were awarded the Albert Medal for their gallantry as well as rewards from the Admiralty. Individuals sent them letters and gifts in admiration and gratitude while the national press reported the incident exhaustively.
Dunn believes that the government deliberately manipulated the facts to turn the disaster into a propaganda triumph and that the media coverage simply added to this.
“Although Pillar absolutely deserved the plaudits and recognition, it was wrong that no-one questioned why the sinking of Formidable actually happened. Had they done so they would have realised it could have been avoided.”
Dunn’s book blames the poor decision making of the admiral-in-charge Lewis Bayly, who refused to accept the threat posed by the new technology – U-boat submarines. Bayly like many of his contemporaries couldn’t accept that the world was changing and hung onto the belief that to ambush a battleship unseen, from below the surface, would be ungentlemanly and therefore unthinkable, so despite the threat from u-boats, he kept his ships at sea.
And as a result 583 sailors, from a total of 780, lost their lives 30 miles south of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast.
“It was an emotional story to write but I hope I have done justice to those involved in the tragedy.”
Although Pillar is remembered in Brixham by street names – Pillar Avenue, Pillar Close and Pillar Crescent – Steve believes his book will also help to ensure that his name lives on.Follow