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Portpatrick Radio GPK
On 31st January 1953, Bob Mason was off duty and in his garden with
the broadcast radio humming away in the background. As he worked away
he heard the musical note of GPK, the Coast Radio Station at Portpatrick
and at which Bob was a Radio Officer, breaking through. This was not
an unusual event - but what Bob was hearing that day was unusual and
he picked up a diary and a pen and started jotting the Morse Code signals
as they came through.
On 31st January 1953 the railway steamer
PRINCESS VICTORIA, radio callsign GZMN,
on passage between Scotland and Northern Ireland,
sank with great loss of life
On 31st March 1982 the voice of Bob Mason on 2182kHz announced "All
ships, this is Oban Radio - closing down - for ever." Bob had transferred
from Portpatrick to Oban many years before and this last day of service
for the Oban station also marked Bob's retiral from the Coast Radio
Station service. After closing Oban down, he brought out a diary which
was sealed with sticky ticker tape - the type of tape which used to
form the content of telegrams. This was the diary in which Bob has written
down the GPK signals on 31st January 1953 and which had been sealed
since that day. He slit the diary open and there was the record of the
sad tale of GZMN.
By Bob O'Hara
"A 19th century disaster in the middle of the 20th century".
Those were the headlines following the sinking of the Stranraer to Larne railway ferry with the tragic loss of 133 lives. The story is revealed in several files in the National Archives held at the Public Record Office in Kew.
The Inquiry opened in Belfast on 23rd March 1953, the report of which was issued on 11th June 1953 under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. Judge J H Campbell presided. i
He heard that the 'Princess Victoria' was built by William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton in 1947 and was owned and operated by the British Transport Commission. Evidence was given by many witnesses, including survivors, about what happened on the fateful day.
On 31st January 1953, Captain James Millar Ferguson, took the decision, despite bad weather, to make the routine journey from Stranraer to Larne. 'Princess Victoria' with 172 passengers and crew onboard, sailed at 0745. Two hours after departing from Stranraer she reported that she was not ?under command? and requested assistance from a tug. No tug was available in Stranraer and 45 minutes later the ferry sent a distress message asking for immediate assistance. By this time the Captain of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla had been informed and ordered HMS 'Contest', the duty destroyer located at Rothesay, to proceed with all haste to provide assistance to the endangered ferry.
According to her log , ii 'Contest' received orders at 1026 to proceed to assist MV 'Princess Victoria'. She prepared for sea and slipped her buoy at 1109, set a southerly course and was underway with a speed of 21 knots at 1117. An entry in the 'Contest' log shows the reported 1200 noon position of the stricken ferry as bearing west by south from Corsewall Point, at a distance of 5 miles. Corsewall Point is just outside the mouth of Loch Ryan. 'Contest' reached that position shortly after 1300 but found no signs of the 'Princess Victoria' and continued southwards. She recorded her own position as 54 degrees 40 minutes north, 5 degrees 21 minutes west, (almost the mid-point between the narrowest part of the Scottish and Irish coasts) at 1450. By this time Lieutenant Commander H P Fleming, captain of HMS 'Contest' realised that he must have gone too far south and returned northwards. At 1523, wreckage was sighted and 'Contest' began searching for, and embarking survivors, in the mouth of Belfast Lough. Eventually, the survivors were landed in Belfast at 2345.
According to the Meteorological Office, in a weather forecast broadcast by the BBC at 0655, there was a gale but no more than Captain Ferguson and the ferry had encountered on other occasions. However, the gale did not moderate as expected; indeed the force increased, and it is now considered to be amongst the worst weather experienced in Scotland in the 20th century. The forecast of worsening weather was not available when Ferguson took his decision. iii
After leaving Stranraer, the 'Princess Victoria' had been drifting slowly South West away from Corsewall Point and Loch Ryan and towards Mew Island and Belfast Lough. As a tug was not available and the vessel was then in distress, the Coastguard had launched the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats from Portpatrick and Donaghadee and they were en route to the stricken ferry. However, they headed for the position broadcast from the 'Princess Victoria' and, like HMS 'Contest', the lifeboats did not find her.
Neither the Inquiry nor the subsequent Appeal court, were able to establish why the 'Princess Victoria' had transmitted wrong positions. A witness at the lower court was asked, "Were steps taken to check the positions given by the ship"? The witness explained how "snap" bearings were taken by Portpatrick and Malin Head radio stations, (and later by Seaforth Radio), but these were unreliable for technical reasons, although the bearing taken at 1101 by Portpatrick was relayed to the 'Contest'.
50 years later, a member of the Radio Officers Association, Ernie Jardine, recalls being on duty at Portpatrick Radio Station when he made the exchanges with the 'Princess Victoria'. Despite having dwelt on the matter for so long, Ernie still could not explain why the 'Princess Victoria' continued to give erratic positions with reference to Corsewall Point when she was almost in the Belfast Lough.
Nor could Ernie understand why the 'Contest' had failed to get a bearing. He recalled that the line bearings taken from Portpatrick, were class A bearings, (within 2 degrees), and that if a cross, (of any quality), could have been obtained, more accurate knowledge of the distress position would have been available. Bearings from the Irish side and from Seaforth did not provide a cross from Portpatrick whilst a bearing from 'Contest' would have been almost at right angles to that from Portpatrick. Yawing by 'Contest' should not have totally eliminated the possibility of a bearing of some sort and this would have made a great difference.
Radioed reports continued to show the 'Princess Victoria' near Corsewall Point. As late as 1200, 'Princess Victoria' was still indicating her position relative to Corsewall Point and at 1232 she radioed that she was 7 miles West of Killantringan Light House, (near Portpatrick), and still on the Scottish coast. It was not until 1335 that Captain Ferguson said the Irish coast was visible and a few minutes later, at 1347, a message was broadcast saying that they were now off the entrance to the Belfast Lough. The final message sent at 1358 was addressed to HMS 'Contest' and repeated the information about the location outside Belfast Lough. A little after 1400 'Princess Victoria' sank near Mew Island.
Lieutenant Commander Fleming of 'Contest' appeared before Judge Campbell and stated that his ship could not have reached the 'Princess Victoria' in time even if the correct position had been given. He said that during her journey from Rothesay 'Contest' had achieved 31 knots at times, but occasionally had to slow to 16 knots. Fleming agreed with the Court that it would have been difficult for Captain Ferguson to give an accurate position with the ship listing over 45 degrees. He also stated that radio direction finding was impossible from 'Contest' because of yawing.
Commander P J H Hoare, Staff Officer at the Royal Naval Air Station at Pitreavie, Scotland told the court that on 31st January six other vessels in UK waters were sending distress signals. He stated that the sea area to the west of Portpatrick was under the command of the Commander-in-Chief Plymouth and that the distress messages from the Admiralty would have been sent to all ships and stations on the Royal Navy shore-to-ship broadcast. Receiving stations would have included HMS Sea Eagle, the shore base at Londonderry and HMS Gannet, the Royal Navy Air Station at Eglinton in Northern Ireland as well as the Senior Naval Officer at Rothesay.
The judge, (who sat with three technical assessors), asked probing questions about the construction of the 'Princess Victoria' and her suitability for deployment on the Stranraer to Larne journey in Winter. The Court noted that the British Transport Commission had rejected this vessel for the regular Fishguard to Rosslare crossings, as it was not considered robust enough.
The judge identified two deficiencies, which were attributed to the owners:-
1. Weak and badly designed stern doors.
2. Scuppers, which were inadequate for the run-off of large quantities of water on the car deck.
The owners were held to be principally at fault in causing the disaster.
An Appeal under Lord MacDermott, iv the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, against the main findings of the lower court, confirmed that the owners could not avoid their responsibilities. Lord MacDermott concluded:
The loss of the M V 'Princess Victoria' was caused or contributed to by the default of the owners and the manager in that they were negligent before the disaster:
a) In failing to appreciate that the vessel was unfit to encounter the full range of foreseeable weather conditions on the Larne and Stranraer route by reason of the inabilit6y of the stern doors to withstand heavy seas.
b) In not taking appropriate steps to provide adequate freeing arrangements on the car deck or else to make the stern doors sufficiently strong and adequate to prevent heavy seas from flooding that deck.
No whitewash here! Both courts were clear in their condemnation of the owners, but the writer would question whether others, not identified at the Inquiry, were also negligent and why neither the Inquiry nor the Appeal asked the Admiralty to explain why a ship was not sent from Londonderry.
Apart from the 'Contest' based at Rothesay, the Royal Navy had a number of ships, which might have helped in the disaster. The 3rd Training Squadron at Londonderry consisting of half a dozen operational anti-submarine frigates and destroyers were all on station that Saturday morning. Given its proximity to the disaster, should the duty destroyer at Londonderry, HMS 'Tenacious', not have been involved in the rescue?
According to her log, v about the time that 'Contest' received orders to assist the stricken vessel, 'Tenacious' was preparing for captain's rounds, a routine weekly inspection of mess deck accommodation, by Commander C K S Aylwin.
At 1450, when 'Contest' was reporting her position in the Irish Sea, 'Tenacious' still had not left her berth in Londonderry and had let so many seamen and specialist ratings go ashore that she did not have enough hands to take the ship to sea. During the afternoon, naval and civil police were employed throughout the city of Londonderry to recover essential ratings. Volunteers were sought from those on other ships who had not gone on weekend leave to help man the emergency destroyer. Eventually, 'Tenacious' was able to head down river at 1710 and reached the sea at Magilligan's Point at 1900. By this time, it had long since been dark. No traces of the 'Princess Victoria' or her passengers or crew were sighted by 'Tenacious'.
Next day, it was the turn of HMS 'Crispin' under the command of Lieutenant Commander F G Lachlan, MBE, to be the Londonderry duty destroyer and she searched the area off Mew Island. Despite a diligent and wide-ranging search, all 'Crispin' found was a single lifebelt from the 'Princess Victoria'.
On its own the heavy weather would have made only for an uncomfortable crossing. The failings identified by the Inquiry, however, suggest that the 'Princess Victoria' was not seaworthy in such conditions. Still, the tragic loss of life might have been spared if the situation had been better managed by the Admiralty. Within a few days after the disaster, the Londonderry duty destroyer did not proceed up river on completion of sea exercises, but was stationed at the mouth of Loch Foyle at Magilligan's Point and remained at one hour's notice for steam. This arrangement continued for the rest of the time that the 3rd Training Squadron was based at Londonderry.
Despite these serious failings on the part of the owners and the Admiralty, the records reveal instances of great personal bravery.
George Medals were awarded to Lieutenant Stanley McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren Owen of the 'Contest'. Both entered the water in mountainous seas to rescue a survivor who had reached the limit of his endurance and could no longer cling to a life raft. The personal bravery of McArdle and Owen was in the best traditions of the Royal Navy. See an Obituary for Rear Admiral McArdle by Peter Hore (reprinted with his permission).
OBEs were awarded to the Masters of four small vessels, which put to sea, despite being in ballast, and managed to locate some survivors. The coxswains of the Donaghadee and Portpatrick lifeboats received BEMs and several RNLI awards.
Judge Campbell's Inquiry was unanimous in placing on record the outstanding and selfless conduct of David Broadfoot, the wireless operator of the ferry, who remained at his post to the last, transmitting messages in circumstances of the utmost difficulty and danger.
The highest award for bravery, which can be made to a civilian, is the George Cross. The following announcement appeared in the London Gazette dated 6th October, 1953:
"David Broadfoot, (deceased), Radio Officer.
'Princess Victoria' left Stranraer on the morning of 31st January, 1953, carrying 127 passengers for Larne. After leaving Loch Ryan she encountered north-westerly gales and squalls of sleet and snow.
A heavy sea struck the ship and burst open the stern doors and sea water flooded the space on the car deck causing a list to starboard of about 10 degrees. Attempts were made to secure the stern doors but without success. The Master tried to turn his ship back to Loch Ryan but the conditions were of such severity that the maneouver failed. Some of the ship's cargo shifted from the port to the starboard side and this increased the list as the cripple vessel endeavoured to make her way across the Irish Sea.
From the moment when 'Princess Victoria' first got into difficulties, Radio Officer Broadfoot constantly sent out wireless messages giving the ship's position and asking for assistance. The severe list which the vessel had taken and which was gradually increasing, redered his task even more difficult.
Despite the difficulties and danger, he steadfastly continued his work at the transmitting set, repeatedly sending signals to the coast radio station to enable them to ascertain the ship's exact position."
David Broadfoot was born in 1900 and started work as a GPO messenger before going to a Marconi College where he trained to be a wireless operator. He had served on several other ships before joining the 'Princess Victoria' on 2nd October 1950. On 20th October 1953, Mrs Muriel Broadfoot, of Royal Avenue, Stranraer, accompanied by her 13-year-old son William, attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive the George Cross from HM the Queen, which had been awarded posthumously to her husband.
Judge Campbell's report concluded saying that if the 'Princess Victoria' had been as staunch as the men who manned her, then disaster would have been averted.
A 19th century tragedy indeed on 31st January 1953.
The loss of the Stranraer-Larne ferry Princess Victoria in a severe storm in the North Channel on 31st January, 1953, with the loss of 133 lives, was a great tragedy for the towns of Stranraer and Larne and their surrounding areas, where most of the victims lived, but it was also an event of national importance as the worst ferry disaster ever to occur in British coastal waters. However, it has arguably an even wider significance as possibly the world's first sinking of a roll-on, roll-off ferry and as such it occupies first place in a list which was later to include Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia. It is possible further to argue that had the lessons of the Victoria sinking been learned (or perhaps, applied) then the later tragedies might have been avoided. For all those reasons the story of the loss of the Princess Victoria deserves a comprehensive narration from a late 1990's perspective and in a publication priced to ensure the widest possible readership.
THE SHIP, THE CREW, AND THE PASSENGERS
At the time of her loss the Princess Victoria was six years old. The fourth vessel of that name to sail the route, she was built on the Clyde by Wm Denny & Bros, Dumbarton, and launched in August, 1946, going into service in March of the following year. A purpose-built car ferry, she also could carry 1,500 passengers and cargo, as well as providing sleeping accommodation for 54. Externally she was virtually identical to her predecessor, the third ship of that name, which came into service in June, 1939, and was sunk in the Humber estuary in 1940 by an enemy mine, ironically while operating as a minelayer.
The 1939 Victoria had been the first purpose-built car ferry to operate in British coastal waters. In both ships the car deck was on the main deck with access by two 5½ feet high steel doors in the stern. When closed, the doors were secured by bolts and stays. Cargo was also carried on the car deck. On the 1946 Victoria a spray door, rather like a guillotine, was later fitted above the stern doors but raising and lowering it took so long that it was rarely used.
When the fourth Princess Victoria set out on her last voyage on that wild January morning in 1953, she carried a crew of 49. As the ship berthed overnight in Stranraer, most of them came from that town with a substantial minority from Belfast and Larne. 55-year-old Captain James Ferguson lived overlooking the harbour in the house at the corner of Stair Drive and Royal Crescent, which is now the Craignelder Hotel. Chief Officer Shirley Duckels lived in nearby Bowling Green Road while Radio Officer David Broadfoot resided round the corner from his captain in Royal Crescent. Like all the officers and all those on duty on the bridge that day, none of those men survived the sinking.
Perhaps because of the unpleasant weather conditions that morning and the bad forecast, the Victoria carried only 127 passengers. They were mainly from the Stranraer, Larne, and Belfast areas but included some from as far away as Derby and London. Prominent personalities were the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Major J. M. Sinclair, and the MP for North Down, Lt. Col. Sir Walter Smiles. Also travelling were a number of service personnel on or off leave or going to new postings. 23 employees of Short Brothers and Harland at Wig Bay were taking advantage of the firm's two-monthly free travel facilities to have a weekend home in Ireland while another fourteen had fortunately decided to watch Rangers play East Fife at Ibrox instead. Among the passengers were a tragically large number of mothers and young children: a Stranraer businessman meeting the early morning boat train from London remembers with painful clarity watching a mother with a young child in her arms struggling up the gangway against the strong wind.
THE FATAL VOYAGE
The bad weather in the North Channel on the 31st of January, 1953, was no local phenomenon: a large swathe of Western Europe from beyond the North of Scotland to the Netherlands was in the grip of severe gales. Warnings of those had been issued throughout the previous day and overnight and by Saturday morning the Portpatrick coastguard reported the wind speed as 75 mph and increasing; later in the day the same source recorded speeds of over 80 mph during the frequent squalls. It was also a day of weather contrasts for at times sleet and snow showers reduced visibility to a few hundred yards while at others the sun shone incongruously from a blue sky. A Stranraer executive working that morning in his office overlooking the harbour noticed particularly the intervals of bright sunshine and was astonished on going home at lunchtime to hear on the news that the Princess Victoria was in grave trouble. On the other hand another Stranraer resident meeting the early morning boat train from London at the Harbour Station remembers that even moored alongside the pier in the shelter of the loch and harbour the Victoria was rising and falling at least six feet in the rough seas. He was consequently unsurprised to be assured by the British Railways dockers that the ship would not be sailing that morning.
The prediction was wrong. The Victoria did sail but 45 minutes late at 7.45 a.m., the delay having been caused by the need to load the 45 tons of cargo by hand as the high wind made it impossible to use the crane. Weather conditions also prevented any vehicles being loaded. The same severe gale dictated an alteration in the ship's course. Then and now when ferries reach the mouth of the loch and round Milleur Point at its north-west corner to head for Ireland they stay close inshore to reduce the distance to travel. But in a northerly or north-westerly gale they continue northwards for some distance before turning west partly to leave ample room between them and the jagged coast of the North Rhins and thus minimise the danger of being blown down onto it and also to keep clear of the shallow water where the sea is more steep and dangerous. It can be assumed the Victoria followed this procedure although on this point like so many others on that last voyage it is impossible to be certain for no one on duty on the bridge survived.
We know from the evidence of survivors that the ship made slow progress up Loch Ryan against the north-westerly gale and took three-quarters of an hour to reach the mouth of the loch. It was during the next hour, three or four miles beyond that point, that the sequence of events unfolded which was to seal the ferry's fate. It is possible to conjecture four stages to the process.
Firstly, soon after leaving the loch, either on clearing Milleur Point and losing the partial shelter of the North Rhins peninsula or on changing course to head for Ireland, Captain Ferguson seems to have decided that the weather was too extreme and to return to Loch Ryan. Secondly, after he had turned round and was running before the gale for shelter a large wave or waves burst open the rear doors and water started to flood the car deck. A party of four crewmen under the Second Officer was sent to close them but the doors had been buckled and although the sailors managed to close them they would not stay shut. Further attempts to do so were clearly exposing the men to the risk of being washed overboard and thus the party had to abandon the project.
Thirdly, unable to return to Loch Ryan in the conventional manner as this would have exposed the breached stern doors to the following seas, Captain Ferguson opted for the difficult manoeuvre of reversing in, using for the purpose the ship's bow rudder. He therefore turned the ship round to head into the wind and sent three men up to the fo'c'slehead to remove the securing pin of the rudder and free it for use. However, heavy seas were breaking over the fo'c'slehead, the rudder pin proved difficult to move, and the attempt had to be abandoned because of the danger to the men involved. Fourthly, the captain seems to have decided he had no option but to resume his original course and head out into the storm for Ireland.
Some support for this theory of what happened off the mouth of the loch comes from the account of the last person to see the Princess Victoria from the shore, a fisherman at Barnhills Bay, who was attracted by the unusual behaviour of the ship and said,
"It seemed to be cutting backwards and forwards."
It must have been around this time that the vessel transmitted its first request for help, at 0946:
"Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tug required."
The message was prefixed by the letters XXX, which signify that the vessel is in trouble but not in immediate danger of sinking. Sadly no tugs were available and by the time the Victoria's next message was received, at 1032, the situation had clearly deteriorated for this was an SOS, signifying the ship was in immediate danger:
"Princess Victoria four miles north-west of Corsewall. Car deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command."
What had caused the ship's plight to worsen?
The answer seems to lie with the list to starboard, which had been caused by the water on the car deck. Estimated initially at ten degrees, this would probably not have been enough to sink the ship. However, indications are that after the XXX signal was sent, two developments substantially aggravated the list. Firstly, the increasing angle of the car deck caused the cargo secured on the higher, port side to break free and slide down to the lower, starboard side, thus increasing the degree of list. It has also been suggested that the sodden cardboard packaging of some of the cargo became detached and was washed into the scuppers, blocking some of them and preventing water being drained away. The second development related to the layout of the ferry's main deck. The car deck occupied only part of the length of this with passenger accommodation forward of it, the two areas separated by a bulkhead with a fireproof door. The flooding was therefore confined at first to the car deck; it was 1030 before water began to find its way through the fireproof door and then only gradually. However this extension of the flooded area clearly would eventually fatally increase the starboard list. Hence the full-scale SOS.
This was responded to initially by two vessels, the Portpatrick lifeboat, "Jeanie Spiers", and the destroyer "Contest" from Rothesay, with other vessels joining in at a much later stage from the Irish side. However, since none of those ships reached the stricken ferry before she sank, this chapter will concern itself solely with what happened to the Victoria, leaving the rescue operation for a separate chapter.
The passengers seem to have been unaware of the various changes of direction off Loch Ryan. Some of them realised something untoward was happening when they felt, as they described it, the ship "punched" forward by the force of a large wave hitting the stern. All soon became conscious of the list to starboard and fears were confirmed when Captain Ferguson informed them over the tannoy that the ship was going through a crisis and that the crew would assist passengers to put on lifejackets. They were assembled in one of the lounges, crew members having great difficulty getting some passengers up from their cabins. Movement around the sloping decks was becoming increasingly difficult, with sliding and breaking furnishings an additional hazard. Cold, violent seasickness among many passengers, and eventually the loss of all but emergency lighting contributed to the suffering.
But it was the increasing list that must have dominated Captain Ferguson's thoughts as he nursed his stricken ship at an estimated five knots towards the coast of Ireland. Just before midday it had increased to 35 degrees with two hundred tons of water and cargo in the car deck. In preparation for a possible order to abandon ship, passengers were transferred from the lounge to the higher, port side of the main passenger deck. Lines were rigged to help them make the arduous climb. A survivor has told how some passengers broke a lounge window and clambered out on to the deck that way. But others were too elderly, infirm, or seasick to make the climb and chose to stay in the relative shelter of the lounge. These passengers who did make it onto the deck were put in the shelter of the superstructure or clung to the guardrail to await the inevitable. Meanwhile on the boat deck above the crew worked to prepare the lifeboats for launching, although the chances of successfully doing so with the ship listing badly were clearly not good.
The signals transmitted in almost faultless Morse (a remarkable achievement in the appalling conditions) by David Broadfoot graphically tell the story of the Princess Victoria's final hour. At 1252 he reported that the starboard engine-room was flooded and the ship's position critical. At 1308 he signalled that the vessel was stopped and on her beam end; seven minutes later he tapped out,
"We are preparing to abandon ship."
The news that the vessel had stopped astounded the observers on shore, who had believed that she had been drifting without engine power since her first distress signal. Even more astonishing news followed at 1335 when the Victoria reported she could see the Irish coast, adding twelve minutes later that the lighthouse on the Copeland Islands was in sight. While the search was concentrated on the Wigtownshire coast, Captain Ferguson had almost incredibly inched and crabbed his stricken vessel across twenty miles of storm-tossed water to within sight of safety, in tbe second part of the voyage following very closely the route taken by today's Seacat and Stena ferries. But although he was within five miles of safety, with the engines stopped the gap was unbridgeable. With the ship on her beam end and close to turning turtle, Ferguson had to give the order to abandon ship.
By this time some passengers had been helped to the boat deck and into lifeboats. Only these on the higher, port side could be used and because of the list could not be launched. They were freed from their lowering tackle in the hope they would float free when the ship went. She went over slowly with many people jumping onto rafts, into lifeboats, or into the water. Some brave souls clambered over the port guardrail as the ship rolled over, ran up the hull, and then as she turned turtle made their way along the barnacle-covered keel before jumping for safety. But Captain Ferguson and Wireless Operator Broadfoot were not among any of those. Neither attempted to save himself. Captain Ferguson was seen on the bridge at the salute as the ship rolled over while David Broadfoot made no attempt to leave his wireless cabin behind the bridge, transmitting the ship's estimated position until his equipment failed him. We can be certain that the time of his last message, 1358, was almost exactly when the ship keeled over. She lingered for a few moments, long enough for one of the three lifeboats launched to be smashed by a wave against her and the occupants thrown out, and then sank, leaving the sea covered by lifeboats, rafts, and swimmers. And help was still an interminable 50 minutes away...
THE RESCUE OPERATION
One of the survivors of the sinking of the Princess Victoria was Mr Billy Baird, a Belfast businessman, who travelled regularly on the short sea route. On a TV programme in 1993 on the 40th anniversary of the disaster he remarked,
"Larne to Stranraer's not far. I never thought you wouldn't have help coming to you if anything did happen."
Mr Baird's comment highlights one of the major features of the sinking, the very limited success of the rescue operation. A few facts put this into focus. The North Channel is almost land-locked; the distance between the Wigtownshire and Ulster coasts twenty miles. The Princess Victoria was never more than ten miles from land. She ran into difficulties four miles off the Scottish coast and sank approximately the same distance from Ireland: in an interval between squalls just before the ship sank passenger Baird was astonished to see familiar sights, the entrance to Belfast Lough, and ahead the Copeland Islands.
The fates of the ships involved in the rescue attempt also make clear its modest success. The first ship to join the search, the Portpatrick lifeboat, was the last to arrive at the scene of the sinking. The first ship to reach that spot and find survivors was the Orchy, one of four ships sheltering off Black Head at the mouth of Belfast Lough which joined the search on their own initiative. They did so after hearing on ship's radio the re-broadcast by Portpatrick radio station of Victoria's message at 1335 stating that she could see the Irish coast. About the rescue operation in general, one could almost quote the old cliché: if it could go wrong that sad day, it did go wrong.
However, there was one factor above all which fundamentally impeded the rescue attempt: total misunderstanding about the status of the Victoria's engines. In Captain Ferguson's original "urgency" signal he stated,
"Vessel not under command",
a statement repeated in the first SOS at 1032. The coastguard officers organising the search assumed from that statement that the Victoria had lost all engine power and was drifting before the north-westerly gale down onto the Wigtownshire coast between Corsewall Point and Portpatrick. Consequently the two rescue ships involved were directed to the ship's last stated position off Corsewall Point, the lighthouse keepers at Corsewall and Killantringan were asked to look out for her, and preparations were made to receive survivors on shore. In fact the ship was heading at approximately five knots for the Irish coast, every turn of her screws taking her away from the area where the rescuers were converging, towards a coast where ships and lifeboats were available or, indeed, at sea but no one was expecting her.
The misunderstanding was aggravated by problems with the technology available for establishing the ship's position. She carried radar but the severe list meant it could not be used. For the same reason the gyro compass was not working. She was also equipped with wireless telegraphy (WT) and every reader of spy stories knows that the exact position of an operating transmitter can be established by two correctly positioned receivers and direction-finding apparatus. In fact three wireless stations were using the ship's signal to establish her position: Portpatrick, Malin Head in the Irish Republic, and Seaforth on the Mersey. Just after midday their estimate of the Victoria's position put her seven miles south-west of the a position given by the ship, a substantial difference in a twenty-mile-wide stretch of sea. However, two of the stations were receiving the signals partly over land and this can distort the radio waves. Understandably it was decided to rely on the position the Victoria gave; understandably but regrettably, for subsequent calculations showed that the wireless stations' estimates of the vessel's position were almost certainly accurate.
Meanwhile the Portpatrick lifeboat fought her way north to the position off Corsewall Point given by the Victoria but found no sign of her and began to search downwind to the south. Yet another problem on that day of misfortunes was that the Jeanie Spiers, equipped with radio telephone (RT), was unable to communicate directly with the Victoria, equipped with wireless telegraphy (morse or WT), messages between the two having to be passed by way of Portpatrick wireless station and the coastguard.
Just after one o'clock the whole situation changed dramatically. In view of the ferry's desperate position (she was now on her beam end), the lifeboat's failure to find her off the Wigtownshire coast, and the consistent difference between the position she gave and that calculated by the radio stations, the decision was taken to switch the search to the Irish side of the Channel. At 1321 the Donaghadee lifeboat, stationed south of the Copeland Islands, was called out and the Jeanie Spiers and the destroyer Contest redirected to the cost of Ulster. Within minutes the correctness of the decision was proved when the Victoria signalled that she could see the Irish coast.
The Donaghadee lifeboat headed north-east towards the Stranraer-Larne shipping lane and had she continued would probably have been close to the doomed ferry when she sank. But fate had more cruel tricks to play on that bitter day for then the Irish lifeboat heard over her radio telephone that the Victoria had given her position as five miles east of the Copelands and so she turned east - towards an incorrect position, towards which the Jeanie Spiers and the Contest also headed. In fact the ferry was five miles north-north-east of the Copelands and about to die alone.
Since her true position was just outside Belfast Lough, the first vessels on the scene were not official rescue ships but the four small merchant vessels that had been sheltering at the mouth of the Lough and joined the search on hearing on ship's radio at 1335 that the ferry was off the Irish coast. They were the cargo steamer Orchy, the cattle steamer Lairdsmoor, the coastal tanker Pass of Drumochter, and the trawler Eastcotes. They formed a line to sweep east and then south for the missing vessel and at 1449 the Orchy came upon wreckage and survivors in lifeboats and liferafts. The Princess Victoria had been found.
But the ordeal of the survivors and the frustrations of the rescuers were not yet over. Captain Matheson of the Orchy was in among the survivors but soon discovered there was nothing he could immediately do for them. The mountainous seas, still running up to fifty feet high, made it impossible to launch the Orchy's lifeboats and the lightly loaded ship was riding too high in the water for it to be possible to reach the survivors with lifebelts attached to ropes although the crew made repeated attempts to do so. All Matheson could do was radio his exact position to the other rescue ships and then watch helplessly while white-jacketed figures in the water were swept past and other figures were washed from rafts. His radio signals testify to his mental agony:
"There are a lot of people here but they cannot get hold of the line"; "Position hopeless. Cannot lower lifeboats but doing our best"; "The position is hopeless. The ship will not do anything for us."
Captain Matheson, according to a colleague, never recovered from this traumatic experience. He died two years later at the age of 55, perhaps the last victim of the Princess Victoria disaster.
When his colleagues from Belfast Lough arrived on the scene shortly afterwards, they fared no better. An attempt by the Pass of Drumochter to close with a lifeboat and take on board her occupants almost ended in disaster in the heavy seas when the tanker threatened to crush the small boat against its "terrible wall of steel" as one survivor described it. The Pass of Drumochter then released oil to calm the seas and took the lifeboat in tow until specialist rescue ships would arrive. Only the trawler Eastcotes, riding lower in the water, was able to rescue seven people from the sea with boathooks - to discover that just one of them was alive.
The arrival of the Donaghadee lifeboat, Sir Samuel Kelly, at 1551 signalled the beginning of the end of the agony of the Victoria's survivors; in the words of one "the greatest sight... I have ever seen." Displaying superb skill in the atrocious conditions, her coxswain, Hugh Nelson, picked up people from two lifeboats and a raft, a feat described by a Victoria sailor as the finest seamanship he had ever witnessed. Altogether the Sir Samuel Kelly picked up 34 people. The destroyer Contest arrived soon after her and picked up seven survivors; to rescue two of them Petty Officer Warren dived into the sea with a rope round his waist and had to remain in the water for thirty minutes. Last to arrive just before four o'clock was the Portpatrick lifeboat, which had by then been at sea for almost five hours in conditions impossible to imagine. Rescuing two survivors was scant compensation for what her crew had endured during that endless time.
At 1531 a Coastal Command air-sea rescue Hastings aircraft had arrived on the scene, dropping equipment to survivors and guiding the Contest to them. By one of the harsh ironies of that day she was based at Aldergrove airfield outside nearby Belfast but had gone just after ten o'clock that morning to assist vessels in distress off Lewis and Barra. Now she returned at the end of the drama to demonstrate what she might have done had the assistance of aircraft been requested for the Victoria. Her experience was similar to that of the salvage tug Salveda, which at the start of the day had been moored off Whiting Bay in Arran but which had gone to the aid of the vessel in distress off Barra because the latter had transmitted an SOS while the Victoria's first signal had been the lower priority "urgency" call. By the time the ferry sent out her first SOS at 1032, the tug was too far committed on her northward course for a turnaround to seem worthwhile. By another savage irony two tugs had been lying at Cairnryan port until the previous day but had then sailed to Douglas in the Isle of Man, too far south to be of use in answering the ferry's initial request for vessels of that type. If only, if only. ..
The harsh reality of the situation off Belfast Lough was that when the search was called off just before six o'clock that wild, winter evening between 41 and 44 (accounts vary) survivors had been recovered from the ship's complement of 176. No women or children survived: it seems that most of those who got away from the ship were in the lifeboat which was smashed against the Victoria's upturned hull just before she sank. One of the rescue ships radioed in the latter stages of the rescue,
"It is funny that there were no women among the survivors."
He certainly did not mean "funny" in the conventional sense of the word: someone who had been involved in the attempt to find and recover survivors would know the full tragedy of the fact that so disturbed him. But the long day was at last over.
THE FORTUNATE AND THE UNFORTUNATE
In the hours and days that followed the landing of the survivors at Donaghadee stories of individual good fortune and bad fortune began to emerge. In some cases the good fortune had at first seemed the exact opposite. Such was the case with the Large family of Sheuchan Street in Stranraer, who had planned to move house to Newtownards on that fateful Saturday. To their dismay on the Friday evening three-year-old Victor had experienced stomach pains, which were diagnosed by the doctor as appendicitis. The travel plans were cancelled and so the family, including five children, all under nine, escaped the lot that befell so many on the Victoria. Illness, in his case toothache, also stopped seventeen-year-old William Marshall from sailing that day while a major operation to his brother-in-law on the Friday prevented Second Steward John McFetridge of Larne from taking up his duties on the ferry. Fortunate too was Second Officer Leslie Unsworth, transferred to another Irish Sea ferry route on the Friday because of staff shortage. From a well known photograph of the Victoria's deck officers he was the only survivor, later becoming shipping and port manager at Stranraer. Less rational was the reason for the escape of Robert Nelson of Agnew Crescent, Stranraer, who changed his plans to travel on the Victoria because of his wife's premonition of disaster.
But the good fortune of some was balanced by the misfortune of others. Stranraer scoutmaster W. F. Borland had no choice but to travel in order to attend a funeral in Ireland. Ian Macdonald, a railway clerk at Stranraer harbour, changed his day off to the 31st of January in order to visit his wife and young son in Ulster. By a tragic error his name was at first included among the list of survivors. A similar reversal of fortune was experienced by the family of Second Steward J. Wallace of Agnew Crescent, initially reported as safe after confusion between his name and that of a passenger survivor. However, perhaps the most bizarre change of fortune was witnessed by a reporter for the then Glasgow Herald, dispatched to Stranraer on the Saturday evening to cover the story. He went out to Cairnryan to interview the family of a crew member listed as lost but instead of finding a silent, darkened house encountered one ablaze with light and loud with noise. On knocking tentatively, he was astonished to be invited in to join the impromptu party in full swing: the news had just arrived that the crewman was in fact safe and celebrations were the order of the day. Relief and happiness, though, were rare commodities on that dark January Saturday.
AN UNSEAWORTHY SHIP?
The official court of enquiry into the sinking was held in Belfast in March with the court's findings issued in June. Among the three assessors was Professor A. M. McRobb of the Department of Naval Architecture at Glasgow University. The loss of the Princess Victoria was held to be due to her unseaworthy condition arising from the inadequate strength of her stern doors and the lack of sufficient scuppers on the car deck to clear the water which accumulated there. The ship's owners, The British Transport Commission, and her London-based manager were held to be responsible for the loss by permitting those defects in her design and by failing to respond to incidents in October and November 1951, which had clearly revealed those defects.
It is as easy as it is unfair to criticise with the benefit of hindsight but perhaps in the interests of justice (even to an inanimate object) it is desirable to look again at the "unseaworthy" verdict on the Victoria and suggest that a reasonable case can be made in her defence.
It is indisputable that she suffered from the two design faults identified in the report but in extenuation her history must be taken into account. Externally she was an exact replica of her 1939 predecessor, a revolutionary ship in being the first purpose-built roll-on/roll-off car ferry to operate in British waters. It would be unsurprising for such a ship to have design faults: the history of modern transport technology offers several examples from the de Havilland Comet airliner to the tilting train. However, the 1939 Victoria operated for only two months before being requisitioned by the Admiralty and then sunk so that virtually no opportunity existed for design flaws, almost inevitable in a totally new design, to show themselves. (Admittedly lessons could have been learned from the train ferries that operated successfully from the early 1930's.) By the time of her sinking the post-war Victoria had been in service for almost six years and her two design flaws had indeed shown up in minor incidents in 1951. Had the necessary remedial action been taken after those incidents, these flaws could have been remedied and the 1953 disaster would not have occurred. The fact that they were not remedied after becoming noticeable is human error.
However, a stronger case can be made in the ship's defence, a case which becomes clear in examining the timetable of events on 31st January. The ferry first asked for assistance at 0946 and did not sink until approximately 1400, just over four hours later. It can be argued that a ship which, in spite of serious damage, can stay afloat in coastal waters for four hours is giving ample opportunity for assistance to reach her and that her loss is due less to unseaworthiness than to an unsuccessful rescue operation. A comparison with more recent ro-ro ferry disasters is instructive. Both the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia sank less than thirty minutes after large quantities of water invaded the car deck; had these ships stayed afloat for four hours, in neither case would disaster have occurred.
The advantage the Princess Victoria enjoyed over her companions in misfortune lay in a design strength, the fact that her car deck did not extend the full length of the ship but was separated by a bulkhead and fireproof door from passenger accommodation forward. For a considerable time this limited the area of flooding and so prevented the list from becoming critical and the ship turning over. Can a ship which stays afloat for four hours with a flooded car deck in a vicious gale and hauls herself by her own unaided efforts to within sight of safety be fairly written off as "unseaworthy"?
THE DISASTER'S SIGNIFICANCE TODAY
In the communities on both sides of the North Channel the first reaction to the sinking was one of disbelief that a modern ship could be lost, and with such heavy loss of life, on a route where on good days she was never out of sight of land. That disbelief speedily changed to a deep sorrow. The Glasgow Herald reporter already mentioned still recalls after over forty years how the Wigtownshire Free Press appeared the following week with black edging round each page, a circumstance unique in his wide experience. That sorrow has been as abiding as it is deep: the wound has not yet healed. Evidence of how large the disaster bulks in local memory in Stranraer was given in the recent controversy over the resiting of the Victoria memorial in Agnew Park.
But, as stated in the Introduction, the disaster also is a crucial event nationally and internationally in the history of roll-on/roll-off ferries, now one of the most important forms of marine transport. The lesson to be learned from the Victoria's design weakness, that car deck doors must be of adequate strength, was supposedly acted on in later designs although the Estonia disaster in the Baltic raises the question of whether the lesson was fully learned. The lesson to be learned from the Victoria's design merit, that car decks should not run uninterrupted for the length of the ship, was sadly ignored. It is only in the last few years, after the Zeebrugge and Baltic events, that discussion has focused on the need for transverse bulkheads on car decks to prevent catastrophic flooding and sinking. Had this other lesson been learned in the 1950's from the fate of the Princess Victoria then the disasters that have blotted the history of modern car ferries need never have happened. And so the sinking of the Stranraer-Larne ferry that January day in 1953 has implications and an importance far beyond the purely local or even national.
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