MV Princess Victoria had an operational life of less than eleven months. She entered service as a cross-channel ferry in July 1939, was commissioned in November 1939 as HMS Princess Victoria, an auxiliary minelayer, and was sunk by a magnetic mine in May 1940. But in several respects she was a pioneer and her story deserves to be told.
On Sun 3 Sep 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany, the naval fleet of Britain and the Dominions was far superior in strength and numbers to that of the Kriegsmarine, despite Germany’s increasing violations of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. But the Royal Navy was deficient in minelayers. If we set aside the small specialized Indicator Loop Mine Layers Linnet, Redstart, and Ringdove which could carry only ten conventional mines, Plover (pennant M 26) of 1938 was the only minelayer operational on the 3rd and in fact that day laid mines off the Bass Rock near the Firth of Forth. The other minelayer, Adventure (pennant M 23), commissioned in 1926 as the Royal Navy’s first purpose-built mine layer was in reserve and waiting re-commissioning. A number of destroyers built in the 1930s had incorporated potential minelaying capability and the conversion was nearing completion at the time of the outbreak of hostilities. Whereas Adventure could carry 280 mines and Plover 100, the converted units were limited to sixty, and in the case of five 1919-built destroyers the number was forty. Six fast (40 knot) minelaying cruisers of the Abdiel class were in various stages of gestation towards commissioning dates ranging from March 1941 to March 1944. These cruisers could each carry 160 mines.
MERCHANT NAVY FILLS A GAP
The Admiralty looked to the merchant navy to fill the gap. An early requisition was the Bank’s Line Teviotbank (built 1938). She reached Britain in convoy from Halifax on 21 Oct 1939 and was requisitioned on 2 Nov 1939. Teviotbank appears to have become HMS Teviot Bank (two words). Teviot Bank was given pennant number M 04 and while she could muster only 12 knots, after conversion could carry up to 280 mines.
Two ships that caught the Admiralty’s eye as requiring minimal modification were the Southern Railway’s railway ferries Hampton Ferry and Shepperton Ferry, built in 1934 and, once the terminals were completed, placed on the Dover-Dunkirk crossing in 1937. The ferries’ boilers exhausted through funnels placed athwartships leaving completely uninterrupted main decks with four rail tracks. Apart from a low gate, the stern was open. The Admiralty assumed control of U.K. merchant shipping on 26 Aug and the next day the two ferries were requisitioned and as HMS Hampton (M 19) and HMS Shepperton (M 83) commissioned on 4 September 1939. Each now able to carry 270 mines, they joined Adventure and Plover at Dover and all four carried out a massive sixday minelaying in the Straits of Dover, commencing on 11 Sep. The Dover Barrage effectively closed the English Channel to German Unterseeboten (U-boats) heading for the Western Approaches. (The third sister, Twickenham Ferry, continued sailing under the French flag as a train ferry conveying supplies for the British Expeditionary Force.)
The factors that made the Southern Railway’s ferries attractive applied equally to the new Stranraer-Larne car ferry, to be named Princess Victoria, and she was requisitioned on 13 Sep 1939. Also, being dieseldriven there would be no need for frequent boiler cleaning.
When requisitioned, Princess Victoria was almost brand new having entered service at Stranraer as recently as 8 July 1939. The London Midland and Scottish Railway ordered the ferry in January 1938 in reaction to summer peak pressure on the railway company’s two services to Northern Ireland: Heysham – Belfast and Stranraer – Larne. At Heysham the pressure came from passengers and at Stranraer from passengers and cars. On the Friday of August Bank Holiday in 1938 a thousand passengers stranded at Heysham had to be accommodated overnight in the Morecambe Winter Gardens Ballroom. In 1938, nearly fifty per cent of the year’s passengers passing through Stranraer crossed between mid-June and mid-August. Two new mail steamers were based at Stranraer: Princess Margaret (1931) and Princess Maud (1934), but unlike Heysham there was no supporting cargo steamer and so all cargo and cars had to cross by one of the passenger steamers. This involved loading and unloading by a single crane ashore at each end of the route. On summer weekends extra sailings were scheduled, but the timetables were examples of hope winning over experience.
The LMS plan was to place a car ferry at Stranraer and so release Princess Margaret to become the fifth steamer based at Heysham. Princess Maud was to be converted from coal to oil firing and retained as the mail steamer at Stranraer leaving, year round except Sundays, the Galloway port at 0605 and Larne at 1905. Both sailings had rail connections to/from Glasgow (St Enoch), London (Euston) and Belfast (York Road). The car ferry was to be based at Larne during the summer months as had been the Margaret hitherto, giving a single round trip from Larne at 1008 (0805 on Fridays and Saturdays) and 1900 from Stranraer (1920 on Saturdays). The new ferry would also give additional sailings on Fridays and Saturdays: 1120 from Stranraer and 1450 from Larne.
“UNIQUE SHIP FOR THE LMS”
Thus read the headline in The Glasgow Herald. The new ferry was a first for the LMS in two respects. The Victoria was to be driven by two diesel engines at a time when the steam turbine reigned supreme for fast crosschannel ferries. The contract for hull and engines went to William Denny & Bros Ltd of Dumbarton which had produced top-of-the-line cross channel ferries and excursion ships for all the major coastal operators. Working with Sulzer Bros, of Winterthur, Switzerland, Denny’s had developed diesel engines which gave speeds approaching and exceeding 20 knots. The pioneer ship was Queen of the Channel of the London & Southend Continental Shipping Co Ltd, a company created by the Denny firm and the New Medway Steam Packet Company (a subsidiary of The General Steam Navigation Co Ltd from December 1936) specifically to own and operate the vessel. Propelling machinery consisted of two 8-cylinder 2-stroke diesel engines, the port engine being built by Denny’s and the starboard by Sulzer, a practice followed in Princess Victoria though the firms switched sides. During trials Queen of the Channel achieved a speed just short of 20 knots. Queen of the Channel entered service in June 1935, based at Gravesend and Tilbury, calling at Southend and Margate, before crossing to Ostend, Calais and Boulogne.
The second break through achieved by the Victoria was that cars could drive on and off the ferry’s maindeck through a door at the stern connected to the quay by a short ramp that moved up/down with the tide. The entire maindeck was given over to the motor car. Apart from the engineroom casing there was no obstruction and up to eighty cars could be accommodated with a height restriction of 12 ft 6 in (3.81 m) thus allowing commercial vehicles such as vans to be accommodated. The “pickle-fork” design at the stern of the deck above the car deck allowed tall vehicles such as removal vans to be carried on this well deck. The Victoria was sternloading and to facilitate movement on the car deck two 20 feet (6.1 m) turntables were incorporated. Two sliding doors on each side gave access for luggage and livestock. A hatch forward and the well deck aft gave emergency crane access to the car deck. Pens for livestock and crew accommodation were incorporated below the car deck, forward of the engine room for the former and aft for the latter. Access was from the car deck.
Despite the radical nature of the new ferry – her builders described her as “little more than a floating garage” - the designers maintained the traditional profile of the cross-channel ferry and the new Victoria was destined to participate fully in the carriage of passengers between Galloway and Co. Antrim. Apart from six staterooms/cabins on the boat deck accommodation for her 1,417 passengers (875 in first-class and 542 in third-class) was on the promenade deck. Working aft from the bow, we find a first class “smoke room” or bar, a “ladies’ lounge” on the port side, an entrance hall with shell doors, a purser’s bureau and a companionway to the car deck, and the first-class lounge. Aft of the engine casing each class had its own dining saloon with seating for 48 passengers. The adjoining dining saloons shared a pantry with an oil-fired range. The galley was on the boat deck immediately above the pantry and linked by a stairway and a dumb waiter. Aft of the dining saloons, was the third-class lounge and the mail room. The ferry was fitted with a bow rudder. As was the tradition, the seating accommodation provided bore no relationship to the numbers appearing on the passenger certificate. Likewise, by today’s standards the passenger certificate seems excessive, giving at capacity each passenger about eight square feet, ignoring space occupied by furniture.
William Denny & Bros Ltd. of Dumbarton received the order for the passenger and car ferry on 27 Jan 1938. Named Princess Victoria - the third at Stranraer - when launched on Fri 21 Apr 1939 with the wife of LMS director Sir Robert Creig doing the honours. Construction was finished in time for the new ship to be drydocked at Govan on 23 June. On the 26th she carried out trials when the official trial speed was noted as 19.25 knots with one run achieving 19.934 knots. Trials completed, the Victoria tied up at Gourock pier, the headquarters of The Caledonian Steam Packet Company, Ltd., the Clyde subsidiary of the LMS. On Tue 4 July, title passed to the LMS and ships articles opened on 6 July with most of her crew coming from Princess Margaret. Her inaugural celebratory sailing was on Fri 7 July when a special train left Glasgow Central at 0900 for Gourock, bringing guests for a day out. At 1000 the pioneer drive on/off ferry, under the command of Captain James M. Ferguson, left Gourock and reached Larne at 1444. She picked up the Irish contingent and left Larne at 1530, reaching her home port of Stranraer at 1743 where a train awaited the guests returning to Glasgow. Princess Victoria completed the day when “Finished With Engines” was rung at Larne Harbour at 2140. The following day, the Victoria took up her duties on the North Channel crossing. The ship and the alterations at Larne and Stranraer Harbours required an investment by the LMS of close to £200,000.
No doubt the new ramps were inspected as part of the inauguration. The ramp at Larne had been particularly challenging. Not only was the harbour area already congested, but the ramp had to be constructed so as to incorporate two sets of railway tracks crossing it at right angles. Further, each track consisted of three rails in order to accommodate the standard Irish gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and also the narrow gauge of 3 ft (0.91 m). To compensate for the lack of experience of main diesel engines among the LMS engineers the chief engineer was Mr. R.C. Youngs who appears to have been ”borrowed” from Fisher of Barrow’s Kyle Fisher a vessel incorporating a Sulzer diesel engine. A “supernumerary engineer” was carried who had previously served on General Steam Navigation Co’s Royal Daffodil which also had Sulzer engines similar to those of the Victoria. Curiously, nowhere do we find any indication of the intended off-season employment of the Victoria. Her very limited cabin accommodation ruled out her employment on the mail run and it was intended that the Margaret would return to Stranraer to cover while the Maud was off for refit. Consistent with the ferry being invariably referred to as a “car” ferry there was no attempt to develop commercial traffic which would justify her off-season employment on the route. Only Stranraer and Larne had ramps and so her employment elsewhere would be problematic. So, it would appear that the LMS were contemplating having their £200,000 investment sit idle for half the year. But events ruled otherwise.