Battleship Sinks and Inspires the Story of Lassie
HMS Formidable, a pre-dreadnought class battle ship of the British Navy, was laid down at Portsmouth Dockyard in March 1898 and launched in November 1898. She was completed in September 1901, but due to difficulties with machinery contractors her readiness for service was delayed, and she was not commissioned for another three years. Following the outbreak of World War I, HMS Formidable was based at Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion.
On January 1, 1915 HMS Formidable was patrolling the English Channel under the command of Captain Noel Loxley. The night before 5th Battle Squadron had been participating in gunnery exercises off the Isle of Portland. The fleet remained at sea on patrol even though submarine activity had been reported in the area. With rough sea conditions and the wind increasing, submarine attacks would have been difficult to carry out and so were not thought to be a significant threat.
At 02:20am on January 1, 1915 a torpedo from German U-24 struck the number one boiler port side. By about 02:40 she had taken a list of 20° to starboard and the order was given to abandon ship admist 30ft swell and worsening weather. At about 03:05am, HMS Formidable was struck by a second torpedo on the starboard side. Two light cruisers came alongside and managed to pick up 80 men in the deteriorating weather. By 04:45, she seemed in imminent danger of capsizing and a few minutes later she rolled over onto many of the men in the water and sank quickly. Captain Loxley had remained on the bridge along with his Fox terrier Bruce, went down with the ship, calmly overseeing the evacuation of his ship. The loss of life of was 35 officers and 512 men from a complement of 780. HMS Formidable was the second British battleship to be sunk by enemy action during WWI.
In the stormy weather that followed the sinking, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis, a coastal town in West Dorset, England. The owner of the local pub, the Pilot Boat, offered its cellar as a mortuary. He owned a mix-breed half-collie named Lassie. When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie found her way down among the bodies, and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. This story is said to have inspired English American author Eric Knight when writing LASSIE COME HOME.