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Secret mobilisation

Rodney Legg describes how Winston Churchill spirited the Royal Navy away from Portland before the outbreak of the Great War

A last picnic on Chesil Beach, between Wyke Regis and Portland, in July 1914

The truth is sometimes far more interesting than the contemporary account, and such is the case with Dorset’s crucial role as the European powers went to war in the summer of 1914. The Royal Navy’s First, Second and Third Fleets gathered at Spithead, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, for a review by King George V and the First Lord of the Admiralty, 39-year-old Winston Churchill, on 17 July 1914. Exercises followed in the English Channel as the yachts at Cowes Regatta were joined by Prince Henry, brother of the Kaiser, who had called on his cousin at Buckingham Palace and been assured by King George that Britain would remain neutral in the event of a European conflict.

Whether misinformation or linguistic misunderstanding, this was far from political reality, as Churchill realised on 23 July when he dispersed the Third Fleet to its home ports. The First and Second Fleets remained together and re-grouped in Portland Harbour. There they were said to have remained until the outbreak of war. Secret orders, however, had prepared them for action a whole week earlier. Personal effects were removed and put into store at the dockyard, although much of it would never be needed again. Red flags flew as ammunition was taken on board, including Dorset-made propellant charges from the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath, and projectiles from Whitehead Torpedo Co Ltd at Wyke Regis. Frenetic activity succeeded in readying the warships in a matter of days.

Captain G C C Crookshank had the eye, equipment and opportunity to picture the moment, though many of his glass negatives were lost to breakages or damaged by damp and dust. His ship was HMS Agamemnon, which went on to enjoy a ‘good war’, ending with iconic status under Vice-Admiral Sir Rosslyn Erskine Wemyss by taking the Turkish surrender in negotiations which began on 28 October 1918.

By noon on Monday 27 July 1914, ships of the Second Fleet were leaving Portland and sailing towards training establishments around the country. The dreadnought Bellerophon, from the 4th Battle Squadron, was steaming towards the Bay of Biscay, heading for Gibraltar to be re-fitted in a dry dock there. The remainder of the First Fleet – about to be re-designated the Grand Fleet – waited off Portland until Wednesday 29 July. That day the German Fleet began its mobilisation and the Admiralty and War Office responded by secretly moving the ships from Portland to a safer location. They were ordered to steam ‘at high speed, and without lights’ through the Straits of Dover into the North Sea and onwards to Scapa Flow, the anchorage between the isles in Orkney. The Admiralty feared that Portland was vulnerable to a surprise attack by German motor-torpedo boats. Operational ships were to be at their war stations before a declaration of war, ‘therefore if possible before we had decided ourselves’.

Those were Churchill’s own words. He later described these unfolding events which he successfully concealed from both the German High Command in Berlin and the British Cabinet in Whitehall: ‘We may now picture this great fleet with its flotillas of cruisers steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, 18 miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute darkness through the narrow Straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North Sea the safeguard of considerable affairs. The strategic concentration of the fleet had been achieved with its transfer to Scottish waters.’

Clearing personal gear and trunks from HMS Agamemnon as she was put on a war footing in Portland Harbour in July 1914
Loading barrels of cordite, the propellant charge for naval shells
13.5-inch shells are prepared for action

Back at Portland, the old battleship Prince of Wales remained, and was taking on coal in the harbour when the signal came through from the Admiralty that began the Great War. Ratings cheered before they resumed coaling with renewed vigour. Issued at 23.00 hours on Tuesday 4 August, and effective from midnight, the message read: ‘Commence hostilities against Germany.’

Fears of German motor torpedo boat or submarine incursions into Portland Harbour had already led to attempts at sealing its entrances with nets. The first version comprised thousands of small, round glass bulbs in floating cases. These were suspended on piano wire, with the idea that they would ‘bob about’ if activated by an intruder, but it was soon realised that by that time it would probably be too late to react.

The next development was torpedo nets, hanging like curtains across the channel, suspended from floats known as ‘cats’. Tom Pike, who was at Portland at the time, understood that the arrangement worked well for the north and east entrances but failed at the South Ship Channel when the main tide flowed out from the harbour. Then they ran sideways ‘like drapes in the wind’. Five-ton anchors (called ‘clumps’) were attached to the bottom of the nets to overcome the problem.

However, the experts had reckoned without the immense quantities of rubbish which float away from a huge battle fleet. This jetsam caused havoc: ‘The nets were clogged, and at full tide they naturally flattened with the stream and lay useless on the surface, despite their heavy anchors. It used to be said that you could walk on the nets when they were filled with gash.’

The Admiralty decided there was no time for further experimentation. The southern entrance into Portland Harbour was to be abandoned and blocked. This would be achieved by sinking an obsolete battleship. Selected for scuttling was the redundant iron-clad HMS Hood, 14,000 tons, which went down on 4 November 1914. The intention was that she would be raised after the war, but salvage was never attempted and the hull and crushed superstructure are still there today. She had turned turtle with her bilge keel showing above the surface at low water, Tom Pike told me: ‘In about 1960 the situation changed and the masts, gun-mountings and funnels of the Hood were no longer capable of supporting her upside-down weight. They snapped and the big whale-back of her hull sank from sight. She must now be lying on her gunwales.’

In the event, Dorset’s naval tragedy took place on the high seas, at 02.20 hours on New Year’s Day in 1915. The 15,000-ton battleship, HMS Formidable, sailing last in line with the 5th Battle Squadron from Portland, was torpedoed in Lyme Bay, 20 miles east of Start Point. German submarine UB-24 was responsible, with two torpedoes from close range. She herself only narrowly survived, having grazed the warship’s heaving keel.

An orderly evacuation was carried out for two hours, as the battleship appeared to be stable, but at 04.39 she slipped under quite suddenly. Deteriorating weather had hampered the evacuation. Of the crew of 780, only 233 were saved, some in their own cutter which took 20 hours to reach Lyme Regis. This Brixham trawler Provident carried out heroic rescues, as did the escort cruisers HMS Topaz and Diamond, which together brought a total of 80 survivors into Portland Harbour. For the reminder, the sea became their grave.

The ship’s dog, an old terrier named Bruce, was also lost. He was last seen standing on duty beside his master, Captain Loxley, who remained with Commander Ballard on the bridge. Rev. G Brooke Robinson, former curate of Burton Bradstock and a prominent member of West Bay Swimming Club, was chaplain on board and also went down with the ship.

There were 50 men aboard the boat washed up at Lyme but nine of them were dead or dying. Others had expired during the voyage from injuries and exposure and their bodies had been pushed overboard. At Lyme the press found their second ‘Man’s best friend’ story. John Cowen had been left for dead on the floor of the Pilot Boat Inn in Broad Street. During the night, however, the landlord’s cross-breed collie started licking his face and hands. The landlord, Charles Atkins, drew attention to his dog’s agitation and a groan was heard to come from the body. From the jaws of disaster the press had their miracle to report: ‘Immediately, willing hands completed the work the dog had begun and in a short time Cowen sat up. Since then the dog and Cowen have been inseparable, and as Cowen is not yet allowed out, he and the dog spend most of the time before the kitchen fire, cultivating the acquaintance so curiously begun.’

The obsolete battleship, HMS Hood, being prepared for scuttling to block the South Ship channel into Portland Harbour against U-boat penetration
HM Slips Russell, Exmouth, Cornwallis and Duncan leave Portland to join the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow on 29 July 1914.

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