In the early 1950s the roll on roll off ferry was a new and exciting innovation. The M.V. Princess Victoria, a British Railways car ferry steamer, which travelled on a daily basis between Larne in Co.Antrim and Stranraer in Scotland was one of the earliest examples of this new breed of passenger ship. Built in Dumbarton in 1946 it was capable of accommodating up to 1,500 passengers and 40 cars. The ferry was the fourth ship to bear the name Princess Victoria. Ominously as it turned out, the previous version had been sunk in 1939 by a German mine.
On the morning of 31 January 1953 gale force winds battered Western Europe. Even on dry land the storms claimed over 500 lives. At 7.45 that morning the Princess Victoria, under the command of 55 year old Captain James Ferguson, set sail for Larne from Stranraer. The initial part of the voyage, in the shelter of Loch Ryan, may have lulled the captain and crew into believing that the trip would not be too hazardous to complete. However, when the Princess Victoria left the shelter of the Loch, with its 127 passengers and 49 crew, and encountered the ferocious open sea its problems began.
Ferguson decided to head back to the safety of Stranraer shortly before 9.00 am. His luck ran out, however, when a huge wave stove in the stern doors and the ferry began to ship water at an alarming rate. Ferguson changed course again, deciding that sailing to Larne was now the better option.
Two hours into the voyage The Princess Victoria sent its first request for help. There was no radio telephone on board the ship so this was sent via morse code by the undoubted hero of the tragedy about to unfold, radio officer David Broadfoot. He wasn’t even supposed to be on duty that day but had swapped shifts with another crew member.
By 10.30 the car deck was flooded and the ferry was listing dangerously. By 1.00 pm the starboard engine room was completely inundated and fifteen minutes later Broadfoot signalled that the order had been given to abandon ship. The only way that rescuers could get a fix on the stricken vessel was to take a bearing off the morse code signal. Knowing this Broadfoot stayed at his post and continued sending messages, even apologizing as he did so for the deteriorating quality of his signalling. Broadfoot was awarded the George Cross for his bravery, sadly the award was posthumous. Like Captain Ferguson he went down with the ship.
Some of the other heroes that day were on board the Donaghadee lifeboat, whose crew, under coxswain Sam Kelly, faced raging seas but still managed to rescue many of the 43 survivors. None of the women or children on board the ferry was saved. Many made it into one of the lifeboats but a huge wave dashed the craft against the sinking ferry and all on board were lost.
Among the passengers who drowned that day were the Northern Ireland Deputy Prime Minister Major J. M. Sinclair, and Sir Walter Smiles, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down. Another unsung hero, Nansy Bryson, also perished, as she tried unsuccessfully to rescue a young child.
The tragedy was, at the time, the worst maritime disaster in UK waters since World War II.
The Princess Victoria sank, claiming the lives of 133 passengers and crew, sixty one years ago, on this day.