IT was 60 years ago today on December 8, 1959 that the Broughty Ferry lifeboat disaster occurred during a huge prolonged storm in the North Sea. All eight lifeboatmen on board were killed when their vessel the RNLB Mona capsized and ran aground after making a gallant bid to rescue the crew of the North Carr lighthouse which was adrift in the Firth of Tay.

The disaster came just two days after the loss of the Aberdeen-based George Robb trawler in the same storm, the fishing boat foundering at Duncansby Head on December 6 with the loss of 12 crew members and a coastguard who died trying to save them.

In that horrendous storm, the crew of the Leith coaster Servus was rescued by lifeboats on December 7, but the steamer Elfrida was lost on December 9 off Stavanger with the loss of 20 lives.

The Mona was launched for the final time in the early hours of the morning of December 8. Thanks to the RNLI’s thorough investigation of the disaster, we know exactly what happened.

The weather conditions were severe with a gale force seven to nine blowing from the south east across the Firth of Tay where a strong tide was flowing to the west, making any sort of sailing nearly impossible.

Imagine the fear then, of the crew of the North Carr lightship off Fife Ness which just after 2am broke from its main anchor. The lightship had no engines and could only be manoeuvred by tugs – the master, George Rosie, and his crew of five tried manfully to lower another anchor but it seemed inevitable that the lightship would drift ashore and be smashed to pieces on the rocks.

Alerted to the lightship’s plight, Fife Coastguard called for three local lifeboats to go to the rescue, but Anstruther and Arbroath lifeboats could not launch and only the Mona at Broughty Ferry could do so.

At 2.42am the acting secretary of the Broughty Ferry Lifeboat, Captain Norman Moug, was told by the coastguard – “North Carr Lightvessel broken adrift and drifting in north westerly direction. Advise launch.”

Captain Moug called out the crew of the Mona. They were Coxswain Ronald Grant, 28, father of an eight-month old daughter and a merchant seaman who had only been given charge of the Mona five weeks previously; George Smith, 53, second Coxswain and a decorated long-serving RNLI crewman; John Grieve, 56, the boat’s mechanic; his son John T Grieve, 22, an engineer engaged to local girl Kathy Stuart; former Coxswain Alexander Gall, 56; crewman James Ferrier, 43, married with two young sons; crewman David Gall Anderson, 42, a plumber with three young sons; bowman George Watson, 38, whose father and four brothers had all been crew members before him.

The Mona was a Watson-class lifeboat, a type noted for their seaworthiness, and she had been surveyed the previous year and found to be in good order some 24 years after her construction at Cowes.

On the fateful night she slid easily into the Tay at 3.03am and headed eastwards. The North Carr lightship was sending up rockets to show her position and at 4am the Mona was spotted off Buddon Ness making slow but steady progress.

She was last seen turning into St Andrews Bay at 4.45am having cleared the Tay Bar, the underwater feature which marks the entrance and exit to the Tay.

Two minutes later the lightship fired another rocket. The Fife Ness coastguard asked the Mona if it had been seen.

The radio operator replied: “Yes we saw that one. We have just cleared the bar.” It was the last communication from the doomed lifeboat.

The RNLI report stated: “It is clear from internal evidence that the lifeboat capsized. The capsize was almost certainly caused by the lifeboat being thrown off course and across the sea some time between 05.15 and 06.00 in the morning.

“The lifeboat was probably in the shallow water just to the south of the entrance to the River Tay at the time. The lifeboat then appears to have drifted bottom up in a north westerly direction until her signal mast touched bottom in the shallow water between Buddon Ness and Carnoustie. This had the effect of righting the boat.”

Meanwhile aboard the lightship the crew managed to lower a reserve anchor at 6.45am which stopped their drift allowing a helicopter rescue for all six crew members later that morning.

By then the Mona had been found at Buddon Sands. The bodies of seven of the crew were recovered, the body of Watson never being found.

The community around Broughty Ferry went into deep mourning, and the sadness was felt across the UK – a national appeal to help the bereaved families raised £77,000 in a few weeks.

In her career, the Mona had saved 118 lives. Though still seaworthy after the disaster, she ended her days by being burned on a beach in East Lothian, the RNLI feeling she could not carry on after the tragedy.

The Mona was swiftly replaced by a new lifeboat at Broughty Ferry. It might seem incredible to us some 60 years on, but no fewer than 38 people immediately volunteered to serve on her. Anyone who knows lifeboat people, however, will not be surprised. They are a breed apart.