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Forgotten hero of 1953 Princess Victoria disaster died trying to save others

By Allan Preston

Published 29/01/2016

Len White as a young officer
Len White as a young officer
Len White with wife Vera
Susan and Fred Crampton
The Princess Victoria
Survivors get off lifeboats

The courageous story of a forgotten hero from the Princess Victoria disaster has been revealed more than 60 years after his death.

A total of 133 lives were lost in the tragedy, which at the time was the UK's worst peacetime disaster at sea.

It happened after a ferry crossing from Stranraer to Larne sank after being battered by monstrous waves in the North Channel.

Now it has emerged that Len White, the ship's second officer, who lived in Ballygally with his family, sacrificed his life while trying to put women and children on a lifeboat.

On the morning of January 31, 1953, the Princess Victoria set off at 7.45am despite warnings of gale force winds.

When conditions at sea grew unbearable and it became clear the ferry would sink, Mr White was placed in charge of getting women and children to safety.

As he lowered a lifeboat, he was swept to his death when a huge wave dashed the small vessel back against the Princess Victoria's hull.

Mr White, a war veteran originally from Portsmouth, settled his family in Ballygally near Larne after the war to work in the Merchant Navy.

He normally served on the HMS Margaret, but he volunteered as relief on the Princess Victoria that day because another officer was unable to sail.

His body was later recovered by the crew of the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat, which was based in Donaghadee.

Only 33 passengers and crew survived the terrible disaster. The loss of so many lives sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland.

Mr White's daughter Susan Crampton was nine years old on the day of the tragedy. "After all these years, I remember him as a quiet man and a loving father who seemed happiest when he had his family around him," she said.

"I can remember the bewilderment I felt as a nine-year-old and the impossibility of receiving satisfactory answers to my questions.

"My mother was very brave and she worked hard to restore a normal family life, but we all missed him terribly." Susan's husband Fred, who also grew up on the Ballygally coast, remembers hearing when news of the maritime disaster broke.

"I would have been 13 on the day of the tragedy, so I remember him very well," he said.

"(He was) not a very tall man, smoked a pipe, very family-orientated. He loved that area - he loved the Antrim coast.

"I looked out from the window straight at the sea. I remember going down to the shop and it was an awful job even walking home because of the terrible gales."

Fred recalled how, when the devastating news came through, the community rallied around the family. "Sue's mum and her sister had great support from everyone in the locality," he said. "But it wasn't just them, there was so many people in the locality who lost that weekend."

Hoping more people will hear about her father's story, Susan has released a family photograph album and biography of Len.

She is also supporting the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat restoration project in Donaghadee, which aims to create a lasting memorial in the seaside town to those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Belfast Telegraph

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