Researched and written by Anne Wright
Lt-Commander E T Favell, RN
Ernest Torre Favell enrolled in the Royal Navy as a fifteen year old boy on 15 May 1900. He would become part of naval history, losing his life when HMS Pathfinder was the first ship to be sunk by a submarine fired, self propelled torpedo.
He was born on 20 November 1894 to Colonel Thomas Milnes, a civil and mechanical engineer, and Anna Jane (nee Bainbridge) Favell. His birth was registered in Stoke-on-Trent and he was baptised on 6 January 1895 at Hanley, Staffordshire. Ernest’s parents came from Durham and Northumberland respectively, his father, the son of a landowner and his mother, the daughter of a clergyman. They married in Croydon in 1873. Ernest was the fourth of at least six children. His elder brother, Francis, also served in the Royal Navy and survived the war; he died in his eighties, in South Africa. The family lived at Seabridge Hall in Seabridge, close to Newcastle-under-Lyme until the early 1890s; they then moved to Heatherlea, Wolstanton, also in Staffordshire where they remained until at least 1900. It is likely that ‘Fairwood’, Pine Grove in Weybridge became their home in the early years of the new century.
By 1901 Ernest was a naval cadet on board the training ship ‘Britannia’, stationed at Plymouth. He rose steadily through the ranks: Midshipman (1901), Sub-Lieutenant (1904), Lieutenant (1906) and finally Lieutenant-Commander on 15 March 1914. The ships he served in included, Diadem, Vengeance, Irresistible, Albion and Pathfinder, which he joined on 25 April 1914. His overseas service included time in Mediterranean waters. Ernest’s service reports record that he was ‘zealous’, ‘capable’, ‘hardworking’ and ‘very trustworthy’. Ernest was a keen sportsman: he played regularly for the United Services Rugby team; he was a well-known Service Hockey player and won numerous prizes for sailing and rowing.
HMS Pathfinder, a light cruiser, served with the 8th Destroyer Flotilla based at the major naval base of Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. At the beginning of September 1914, Otto Hersing’s U-21 entered these waters. His presence there may have been due to information provided by the German spy, Carl Hans Lody, who had been monitoring the Firth of Forth. On the morning of 5 September, Hersing spotted the SSE course of HMS Pathfinder and destroyers of the 8th Flotilla. The destroyers turned back towards May Island at midday, but Pathfinder continued her patrol. At 15.43 Hersing launched one torpedo as his target was on her return journey. Look-outs on Pathfinder spotted a torpedo wake heading toward the starboard bow at 15.45. Ernest Favell was the officer of the watch and ordered immediate evasive action. At 15.50 the torpedo detonated beneath the bridge and caused a tremendous explosion as the magazine blew up.
There was not enough time to lower the two boats, the others were left ashore, and five minutes after the explosion the bow section sheared off as the stern heaved up to a sixty degree angle. HMS Pathfinder then slipped below the surface. Aldous Huxley who was staying at St. Abbs witnessed this dramatic end and described it to his father in a letter dated 14 September 1914:
……we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion – a great white cloud with its foot in the sea. The St Abbs’ lifeboat came in with most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man – and over acres the sea was covered with fragments – human and otherwise.
Fishing boats, destroyers and steamers also rushed to the scene to be greeted by Pathfinder’s poignant debris: seamen’s clothes, letters, photographs and books including the ship’s Bible. There were just eighteen known survivors, one of whom was the Captain, who with his secretary had been the last to leave the ship. About two hundred and fifty men lost their lives. The authorities tried to cover up the circumstances of Pathfinder’s demise saying that the ship had been blown up by a mine; however, they could not ignore the potent threat of submarine warfare.
The wreck of Pathfinder lies upright two hundred and twenty feet below the surface off St. Abbs Head. Carl Hans Lody was captured and executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on 6 November 1914. Otto Hersing and U-21 survived the war. Hersing died in 1960 and U-21 sank in 1919 while being towed to surrender. Some think Hersing may have caused this.
Lt-Commander Ernest Torre Favell is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial (Panel 1) and by a wrought silver chalice inscribed in his memory and given to the Church of St Michael and All Angels in Princes Road; on the demolition of this church in 1973 it was passed to the Church of the Ascension in Aldershot. The crew of HMS Pathfinder are commemorated on a plaque in St Clements Church, Ipswich. His father served as an Urban District Councillor and both parents remained in their Weybridge home until their deaths in 1936 and 1937 respectively.
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915, www.ancestry.co.uk
HMS Pathfinder, The First Ship to be Sunk by a Torpedo from a Submarine, www.medalsofengland.com
Kelly’s Directories, 1892, 1896 & 1900, Staffordshire, UK, City & County Directories, 1766-1946, www.ancestry.co.uk
Lieutenant Commander Ernest Torre Favell – Royal Navy, HMS Pathfinder, www.favell.org.uk/Pathfinder.htm
Milmo, Cahal The First Execution at the Tower of London for 167 years, The Independent, 15 April 2014
Royal Navy Officers’ Service Records, 1756-1931, The National Archives, ADM 196/143/860
Surrey, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1962, www.ancestry.co.uk