Disaster at Arbroath
On 27 October 1953, six brave Arbroath lifeboat crew members lost their lives after their lifeboat capsized
Launching into a violent storm after reports of flares in the night sky, seven brave lifeboat volunteers from Arbroath spent hours at sea, searching for the source of the distress signals. What happened next would have a huge impact on the local community and the RNLI as a whole.
Watch the video below to see how the tragedy unfolded. Then, you can read the original report of the rescue as featured in the March 1954 edition of the Life-boat Journal.
The Life-boat Journal, March 1954
On the night of the 26th of October, 1953, the Arbroath life-boat Robert Lindsay and the Anstruther life-boat James and Ruby Jackson were both launched in answer to distress rockets which had been seen three miles east of Fifeness.
There is now no doubt that the rockets were fired by the sand dredger Islandmagee, of Dundee, which was on passage from the Firth of Tay to the Firth of Forth. The Islandmagee sank with all hands.
The Anstruther life-boat was launch-ed first. This was at 10.43 on the 26th. As it seemed likely that the prevailing weather conditions might drive the ship which was in distress northwards, it was later decided to launch the Arbroath life-boat to help in the search.
Two Life-boats Search
The Arbroath life-boat was launched at 12.50 early on the 27th. There was a full gale blowing from the south-south-east, a very rough sea and a heavy swell. Both life-boats carried out a thorough and extensive search of the whole area from which the distress rockets were believed to have come, maintaining contact with one another by radio telephony. The search was unsuccessful, and the Anstruther life-boat arrived back at 5.45 on the 27th.
At 4.20 the Arbroath life-boat sent a radio message suggesting that she should return to harbour. The honorary secretary at Arbroath, Mr. David Chapel, answered by radio agreeing, but suggesting that the life-boat should make for Anstruther harbour.
The coxswain answered that he would wait for daylight and then see what the conditions at the bar of Arbroath harbour were. At five o'clock he sent a further message saying that the life-boat could expect to reach the harbour in twenty minutes and would try to enter.
The Arbroath coastguard, acting on standing orders, immediately went to the east pier with three men and the rocket pistol apparatus. The bar is a rock bar some 300 yards to the eastward of the harbour piers. The full on-shore gale blowing against the tide, which was then ebbing, and the backwash off the piers caused confused cross seas and cross tides near the bar. A number of people on the harbour pier watched the life-boat as she tried to enter the harbour.
Suddenly at 5.47 her lights disappeared. What had happened was that a huge and very steep cross sea from the southward had struck the boat abaft the beam on the port side, and it instantly capsized her.
Cries for help were heard and the coastguard fired rocket lines at random. By an extraordinary chance one of them fell across the second coxswain, Archibald Smith. He grabbed it and was hauled ashore.
Six men lost
The other six members of the crew all lost their lives. They were: David Bruce—Coxswain Harry Swankie—Mechanic Thomas Adams—Bowman William Swankie, Jnr.—Assistant Mechanic Charles Cargill—Life-boatman David Cargill—Life-boatman Coxswain Bruce, who was aged 48, had been coxswain since 1952 and first joined the crew in 1922, having been appointed second coxswain in 1935. The oldest member of the crew was Harry Swankie, who had been mechanic since 1932 and was aged 63.
William Swankie, who was aged 30, was his nephew and had been appointed assistant mechanic in 1953. Thomas Adams, who was appointed bowman also in 1953, was aged 33. Charles and David Cargill were brothers aged 28 and 29.
The news of the disaster reached the Chief Inspector of Life-boats, Commander T. G. Michelmore, at 6.20 on the morning of the 27th of October.
The District Inspector (General), Commander E. W. Middleton, was sent from London to carry out an inquiry, and Mr. H. C. Marfleet of the Operations Department left at once with money to supply the immediate needs of the families. Mr. R. A. Oakley, Surveyor of Life-boats, happened to be in Aberdeen at the time, and he, the Northern District Inspector, Lieutenant E. D. Stogdon, and the District Engineer, Mr. S. A. Redrup, reached the scene within a few hours.
The funeral of the men who had lost their lives was held on the 31st of October in the old parish church at Arbroath. It was attended by the Deputy Chairman of the Institution, Lord Howe, by Lord Saltoun and Sir Archibald Cochrane, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Life- boat Council, by Colonel A. D. Burnett Brown, and by the officers of the Institution who were carrying out their duties on the spot. One minute's silence was observed, and the hymns "O God our Help in Ages Past" and "Eternal Father Strong to Save" were sung. Shops throughout Arbroath closed that afternoon.
On the 8th of December, 1953, a public enquiry into the disaster was conducted by the Procurator Fiscal at Dundee. The jury returned a formal verdict of "accidental death by drowning with no blame or default attached to anyone." The life-boat which capsized was a 35-feet 6-inches Liverpool type, with twin engines. She was completed in 1950 and is one of a class of 31 such boats built since the war. This is the first time since before the war that any Liverpool type of boat has capsized.
The Robert Lindsay has been replaced by the Howard D, a life-boat from the reserve fleet. A new crew has been formed with Henry Smith as coxswain. The only survivor of the disaster, Second Coxswain Archibald Smith, immediately after the disaster expressed his readiness to serve in the life-boat again.
The tragedy at Arbroath is one of many stories that show the courage, selflessness and dedication of RNLI volunteers. The lifeboats we have today are safer than ever, thanks to support from people like you. Find out more about our state-of-the-art lifeboats over at our fleet pages, and read more stories from our lifesaving history in our heritage section.