• February 1, 2023

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the loss of the Irish Sea ferry Princess Victoria in the North Channel with the loss of 133 men, women and children. Through the valiant effiorts of the Royal Nabvy, several Merchant Navy vessels and a number of RNLI lifeboats 44 survivors were rescued.

It was a day of great confusion, great heroism and great loss. Precious hours were lost when the duty destroyer at Lough Foyle (HMS Tenacious) which had released to many men on shore leave could not go to sea. In other twists tugs that could have assisted had left Cairnryan 24 hours earlier were sheltering at Douglas in the Isle of Man to far away to be of assistance. An RAF Hastings Search and Rescue aircraft, which could have pinpointed the ships position earlier was engaged further north in an unsuccessful rescue attempt to save the 13 crewmen of the Fleetwood trawler Michael Griffith.

The Princess Victoria started to capsize after taking in water on the car deck but drifted for several hours. The ship’s officers, all of whom were lost, were courageous to the end, not least the wireless operator David Broadfoot who was drowned while still sending distress calls as the ship sank.

Because of confusion over its position rescuers first looked of the Scottish coast but in fact when the vessel finally foundered it was off the Copeland Islands near the Co Down coast. Four small merchant vessels including the coastal tanker Pass of Drumochter sheltering in Belfast Lough put to sea despite the horrendous weather but could only shield the ships lifeboats from the worst of the storm until most were rescued due to the heroic efforts of the Donaghadee Lifeboat and her crew. Two of the crew members of the Destroyer HMS Contest dived into the water despite the seas to rescue survivors but still there was great loss of life. The Portpatrick lifeboat, which had by then been at sea for many hours since the rescue was first initiated, had endured conditions impossible to imagine, had searched fruitlessly off the Scottish coast was one of the last rescue ships to reach the final position and rescued two survivors.

The captains of the merchant ships: James Alexander Bell of the Lairdsmoor, David Brewster of the Eastcotes, James Kelly of the Pass of Drumochter and Hugh Angus of Orchy each became Members of the Order of the British Empire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley Lawrence McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren of HMS Contest were both awarded the George Medal for diving into the water to help survivors.

The coxswains of the Donaghadee and Portpatrick lifeboats received BEMs and several RNLI awards.

The ship’s radio officer, David Broadfoot, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for staying at his post to the very end, allowing passengers and crew to escape, even though by doing so he was preventing his own escape. His medal is on permanent display in Stranraer Museum.

There were 44 survivors (133 died including all the women and children). All the ship’s officers perished.

Main Image: ‘The Princess Victoria’ Inset; The coastal tanker ‘Pass of Dromochter’ sheltering survivors so they could be rescued by the Donaghadee lifeboat. The tanker was one of four vessels that left shelter in Belfast Lough to brave the Force 10 winds and aid the rescue.

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Bernard Moffatt
AGS Celtic League (31 January 2023)

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