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Our sub left 133 to perish in ferry hell; Skipper ignored SOS from doomed vessel.


ALMOST 50 years ago, the car ferry Princess Victoria sank on a voyage from Stranraer to Larne with the loss of 133 lives.

Now a retired submariner has revealed that his vessel was just one hour away as the stricken boat sent her first mayday in mountainous seas.

But instead of heading for the floundering ferry, the sub's captain decided to ignore it - because he felt local boats would rescue the 127 passengers and 49 crew.

As the sub silently slipped into the Atlantic, the Clyde-built, six-year- old ferry perished in what was called a "19th-century shipping disaster in the 20th century".

Ex-rating Ken Goble, 74, realised the truth only weeks ago when he came across a book on the tragedy. Yesterday, a distraught Ken said: "It was a disaster that should never have happened."

At the time, Ken, of Morecambe, was a 24-year-old yeoman of signals serving on the A Class submarine HMS Andrew.

He revealed how his sub, on a journey from Rothesay to Bermuda, picked up the SOS sent out by Princess Victoria radio signaller David Broadfoot at 10.32 on the morning of January 31, 1953.

The stern cargo doors of the ferry, which had left Stranraer at 8.06am, had been smashed open by huge seas, whipped up by raging, 110mph winds.

Ken said: "Our captain was advised and told we were the nearest vessel and asked if we should reply to it.

"He said we were not to reply, but to let him know if anyone else did.

"The captain may have had his reasons. A ship that does reply to an SOS must then accept responsibility and go to the vessel.

"Also, a submarine is not the ideal vessel to take part in a rescue operation."

But there was one crucial way HMS Andrew was ideally equipped to provide vital life-saving assistance.

She was equipped with the latest in radio, radar and communication equipment and could easily have acted as a command centre for the search. Instead, this was left to a lifeboat from Donaghadee and the destroyer Contest, which sailed from Rothesay - both with poor, ship- to-shore radios.

It was a disastrous decision. Both rescue vessels believed the Princess Victoria was off Galloway. But she was drifting off course, within sight of Northern Ireland.

The ship sank at around 2pm - three and half hours after the SOS - with Captain James Ferguson, 55, still on his bridge. She took with her three quarters of her crew and passengers.

But it was nearly another two hours before the Donaghadee lifeboat arrived at the scene and picked up 40 survivors.The cargo vessel Orchy also rescued some.

Ken said: "What a different story it would have been if HMS Andrew had closed to Princess Victoria's position. She had state-of-the-art radar.She could make 17 knots.

"We could have co-ordinated the rescue operation and guided all vessels to the Princess Victoria. The lifeboat would certainly have got to her in time."

HMS Andrew, however, sailed on to Bermuda with her crew oblivious to the tragedy she was leaving in her wake. She did not return to the UK until June, 1953.

Ken said: "It was only when I was in Galloway the other week on holiday with my wife, Jean, that I picked up a book on the Princess Victoria in Stranraer.

"That was when I realised that, when we received the SOS, we were just an hour away from the ferry and, if we had turned back, all these lives would have been saved.

"Not one woman or child survived. The whole thing is diabolical.

"When the Andrew got back to Britain, we had a heroes' welcome because we had just made the first underwater crossing of the Atlantic.

"But what I have found out was a complete shock. I felt anything but a hero. I was disgusted. The difference we would have made would have been crucial."

The scar left by the sinking of the Princess Victoria is still raw in the communities of Stranraer and Larne. Jack Hunter, author of The Loss of the Princess Victoria, the book read by Ken, said: "The wound has not yet healed."

Billy McMillan, 66, of Stranraer, lost his brother David and the memory still causes him to weep. He said: "David was a pantry man on the ship. He was only 21. He gave his coat to a fellow called Willie McAllister, from Larne, who was on a lifeboat.

"He told us David insisted on going back to try to rescue a woman with a baby in her arms. David was eventually picked up by a lifeboat, but died of exposure. For that sube to ignore an SOS is just terrible."

The fact that the ferry - capable of taking 1500 passengers - had just 127 on board is a measure of the severity of the weather. There is a suspicion that the only reason she sailed at all was because some high- ranking politicians wanted to get home.

The passenger list included the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Major, J. M. Sinclair, and the MP for North Down, Lt Col Sir Walter Smiles.

Jack Hunter said he did not want to criticise the commander of the Andrew.

He said: "A submarine could not take on survivors and he would have presumed that other vessels would be on the scene quickly. Sadly, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that didn't happen and the presence of the sub would have been significant."
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 13, 2002
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