The Sinking of the MV Port Victor – 1943

There’s a lot in the news right now about the tragic loss of a rather large ocean liner that took place about 100 years ago.  Sixty-nine years ago a rather smaller ship than the Titanic went down in the Atlantic Ocean, the victim of a German U-Boat.  What makes the latter incident much more immediate to me is that the Master of that ship was my Grandfather, Captain William Gordon Higgs. The MV Port Victor set sail on her final voyage on April 11th, 1943 and in today’s blog you’ll hear a report of that sinking in great detail.

I’ve mentioned my maternal Grandfather before now in these pages, but just recently his own type-written report of the incident turned up in a university library in Australia after an internet search.  It runs to eight pages and I thought I would like to share it with a wider audience – I found it so extraordinary to read and I present it here in it’s entirety (about 25 minutes).  I hope you find the time to listen through as it gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it must have been like to risk life and limb on the high seas during the height of World War II.

The ‘MV’ of MV Port Victor stands for ‘Motor Vessel’.  She had only been completed the year before, having been built in 1942 in the Wallsend shipyards of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson. She was 12,441 tons in weight and, as far as I can make out from internet records, of the 200+ merchant vessels sunk by the Germans in 1943 there were only four heavier. If you are interested click on the following link to find more details and the map location of the sinking at the bottom of the page: http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?37354

Some years ago I remember my mother showing me the photograph my Grandfather mentions, taken by the Liberator’s crew, of their lifeboats roped together, in a frame alongside the handwritten note scribbled in pencil by the American crew of that plane and sent down with the supplies.  It exists somewhere in our family’s collection of memorabilia, but quite where at this moment we are not sure – it is being looked for…

A couple of weeks after reaching dry land my Grandfather wrote to the parents of a couple of young female Dutch passengers – I present that letter below.  I love his turn of phrase: ‘To the feminine virtues of beauty and grace they added intelligence and “savoir faire” to a remarkable degree in girls so young’.

I am adding this paragraph after the initial publication of this blog as my brother has succeeded in finding more material relevant to our Grandfather’s career – below is a newspaper report (from the Tasmanian Examiner, of all papers!) on the visit of King George VI and the Queen to the newly launched Port Brisbane in 1949 – Commodore WG Higgs commanding:

To say I am proud to be a part of a family that contains such a wonderful man as my Grandfather is understating it. My only regret, and I have said this before, is that he died when I was only 9 months old.  Here’s a picture of my Grandfather with my Grandmother and her sister taken in 1948 – 5 years after the events mentioned here.  WGH with wife and siter-in-lawIt’s said my Grandmother’s hair turned white overnight on hearing that her husband’s ship had gone down.

My thanks go to Elizabeth Drew in Australia for bringing these documents to our attention, my brother who emailed them to me from the UK (and found the cutting used above in the National Library of Australia) and my cousin Graham (also in Australia) for the 1948 photo. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing!

Take Care
Simon

About Simon

Simon is an actor who found his way into audiobook narrating as a side-gig and seems to have made a success of it.
With some training as an actor as a child (just a couple of hours a week, but it stuck) and 15 years working inside the BBC (ending up as one of the presenters/newsreaders on BBC Radio 4 in London) he found the ideal combination for an audiobook narrator.
Found his way to California two decades ago and never left.

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27 Responses to The Sinking of the MV Port Victor – 1943

  1. David Arnot-Johnston May 3, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

    Greetings. My grandfather, Archibald Arnot, was a crewmember on the final voyage of the Port Victor. I remember my grandad well. My mother (daughter of Archibald Arnot) had told me granddad had learned to swim when he was a teenager – something not all Scots of his generation bothered to do – but this obviously helped him the day the Port Victor was torpedoed (by U-boat 107 – see uboat.net). According to my mother, my grandfather was flung into the sea and had to swim for some time before being picked up in a lifeboat. The cold Atlantic waters almost killed him, and he suffered from poor lungs for the rest of his life. (This is, again, related to me by my mother.). Now for some more interesting information: This same grandfather was a direct descendant of Archibald Arnot(t), the last physician of Napoleon on St. Helena! But that’s another story, that is still being researched by my Scottish cousins.

    • Simon January 9, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

      Fascinating – and I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to acknowledge your writing to tell me this. I’ve just finished narrating The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat which really brings home the perils faced by those sailing the Atlantic in WW2. Thanks for sending this. – S.

      • Janis Justus April 20, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

        Thank you for this wonderful post. I am going to show it to my students in the fall term when I teach a course on the Era of the World Wars.” Also, my daughter and I enjoyed your reading of ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Blessings, Janis

        • Simon May 2, 2016 at 11:35 am #

          Thank you, Janis!

  2. Louis Giboin March 24, 2015 at 6:27 am #

    do you have a copy of the photo taken by the search and rescue plane showing the life rafts and of the letter by the picture of the boat ?? ??

    • Simon January 9, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

      I’m afraid that, while the photo exists and I have seen it in the past, my mother seems unable to find it now. We’ll keep looking and hope it turns up in some dusty corner of the attic. Fingers crossed! – S.

  3. Louis Giboin March 24, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Hi Simon
    My Grandfather was a Greaser on this ship at the time . I knew of him being sunk and at sea for 3 days and them shouting at the |U-Boat commander when he surfaced . The story at our end goes on to say my Grandfather arrived home still covered in oli etc , as he was in the engine room , and could not find my Grandmother . He was told she was at the cinema with my father and auntie. He went to the cinema and they flashed a sign up on the screen ” Mrs Giboin come to the foyer” She took my father and aunty out to the foyer and there met , as my dad describes, this oil covered man . She said look at the state of you , and could you not have waited until the end of the film……no hero’s welcome.
    He then joined another ship which 2 trop ships were sunk and his eventually hit by a bomb. He survived that as well .

    • Simon January 9, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

      This is fascinating! I’m sorry I’ve been so slow in acknowledging this. I do appreciate you telling this story – I’ve just finished narrating The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat which presents a pretty stark portrait of the perils faced by those sailing the North Atlantic during WW2! All the best
      – S.

  4. Chris November 13, 2014 at 2:10 am #

    I have an original photo of the MV Port Victor – taken at Cape Town by J Karel de Vries

    It’s going on eBay tonight, but I’m happy to scan it for you if you wish

    • Simon November 26, 2014 at 10:54 am #

      Probably missed the boat on this one(!) but if it’s the MV Port Victor from 1942/3 (there were about three or four over the years) I would be interested in seeing a photo. Thanks for offering, even if I have been too late.

  5. Fred February 28, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Hi Simon, in case you haven’t got, thought it would be of interest. Fred.

    http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/2897.html

  6. Fred February 28, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    Hi Simon, the photo of the Port Victor that you have on here isn’t the one that
    was sunk, the one you are showing didn’t do it’s maiden voyage until 1949, I did
    2 trips on it in 1950, march 1950 until march 1951, it was scrapped in 1971.

    The one you have showing started out as HMS Nairana an escort aircraft carrier,
    after the war it went to the Dutch Navy as the ‘Karel Doorman’, then in 1948 went to
    ‘Port line’ to be converted back.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Nairana_(D05)

    Regards Fred.

    • Simon February 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

      This is fascinating. Thanks for expanding on the story here. I found the picture, wrongly (as you point out), attributed to the ship that my grandfather captained and which was sunk in 1943 (you can find it attached to the map of the sinking from the link in the third paragraph). There is another photo there, but if I compare it to this one it looks like the same ship (again, the wrong one). Frustrating… I shall amend or remove the photo and see if there is anything I can find that would better serve.

  7. Brandon Kruse June 27, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Well written and moving! I welled up a little! Thank you for sharing.

  8. Tracey May 1, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    Hi Simon

    I cannot believe that I have not stumbled across your blog before!

    I found your Grandfather’s manuscript by chance a couple of years ago when I was doing an internet search to try to claim my father’s war medals. The University very kindly allowed my daughter and I to see the manuscript and it brought us both to tears to see my father’s name mentioned twice. We have heard the stories all our lives but to actually see it in print from so long ago was very poignant! I now have a .pdf copy of the manuscript which looks almost exactly like the original!

    I tried to do some extra research to see if I could try to find out what happened to Captain Higgs because I would so love for my father to be able to see the other memorabilia that your grandfather says he has from the Port Victor. As Steve (my brother) mentioned, my father will be turning 90 this year and I could only imagine what a special treat it would be if he could see this memorabilia. If you ever do find it, would there be any way that you could take photographs and send them to me so that I can show them to my Dad who still lives in the UK?

    Do you have any idea how the manuscript came to be in the University of Queensland’s library in the first place as the University have no record of how it got there and apparently I was the first person to ever request to see it! It seems very providential that the account of a British Merchant Navy Vessel that shaped my father’s life was housed in a library only an hour away from where I now live!

    • Simon May 1, 2013 at 7:48 am #

      I shall let my family in the UK know of your interest! The world gets smaller every day. 🙂

  9. Steve Pinkney April 30, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Hi Simon

    Just thought you might be interested to know my Father was on board this ship when she was torpedoed. He was mentioned a couple of times in the letter your uncle wrote and you have transcribed so well! He was “steward Pinkney” He is still alive today, I have no doubt due to your Uncles good seamanship!! About to turn 90 in December!

    Regards
    Steve Pinkney

    • Simon April 30, 2013 at 9:28 am #

      How wonderful to hear from you.

      Your Father must have been a very young chap on board that ship (20 or so). What an extraordinary experience that must have been.

      I hope the rest of his nautical career was a little less fraught.

      By the way, it was my Grandfather who wrote the report (not my uncle). His daughter (my mother) is still alive and I shall let her know that Steward Pinkney is alive and (I hope) well in, judging from your email address, South Africa. Thanks for getting in touch.

      – S.

  10. Annette Lyttle March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Simon, I’ve just been listening to Bring Up the Bodies and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Your narration is topnotch, so I thought I’d google you. I was enchanted with this blog entry on your grandfather. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. Tony Iles December 12, 2012 at 2:36 am #

    I have just been passed your research by a family archivist, how interestesting. I remember meeting ‘uncle Gordon’ at a family reunion at Pegs Hill Farm, Nr Coventry when I was very young. His wife was sister to Daisy ( Field ) , who was my fathers mother, My father was Harold Iles.
    On opening your article the ‘photo of ‘Uncle Gordon’ jumped out of my memory, he had a distinctive & kind face.
    I also recall the shipping connections, but have only just been made aware of the details by my cousin, Venna Lovegrove, ( the archivist ). Did he and his family live near Melbourne and are there any family out there??

    • Simon December 13, 2012 at 5:07 am #

      Hi Tony! This is fascinating and just shows the power of the internet! Can you go over to the contact page and send me an email? – I tried sending you some info but the email address attached here failed.

  12. Dennis Canfield October 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Simon,

    A man who could perform so well as your grandfather did under the circumstances with which he was faced, and then write such a moving and fascinating account of the ordeal, was clearly an extraordinary man. I can certainly understand why you are so proud to be his grandson. Thank you for sharing this – I loved listening to it.

    • Simon October 21, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

      Thanks, Dennis. My one regret is that I was only 9 months old when he died.
      – S.

  13. Hope Arnold June 6, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Congratulations on your recent Audie wins! The second they announced them I instantly scanned the list to see if you were selected. You are such a gifted actor and storyteller, it’s so neat that you’re being properly recognized for your work.

    Again, congratulations! I can’t wait to hear them.

  14. Lisa April 18, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    very cool…

  15. Literate Housewife April 12, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Such a rich personal history! I’ll be back tonight to listen to the account and read the letter he wrote. Such nice things he said about those Dutch young women. Thanks for sharing this.

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