Ocean Liner "Dara" sinks, Dubai April 1961

British India Steamship Navigation Company first established in Glasgow in 1856 then taken over by UK's P&O Shipping Co. UK in 1914 but its Gulf Ports service continued to be managed from Calcultta until 1957. BI's Gulf Service carried passengers and cargoes passenger/cargo ships between Indian and Pakistan Ports and Gulf Ports. At Dubai, ships anchored offshore to disembark/embark passengers and discharge their cargoes into barges for transport to Dubai Creek. These ships provided a vital link in Dubai's International and Regional business and trade for over 30 years. Then, in the early hours of 8th April 1961, disaster struck.

mv Dara's Story

British India Navigation Company's ship , mv DARA anchored offshore from Dubai to unload cargoes and some of its 650+ passengers on 7th April 1961. mv DARA's next Port of Call was Muscat in Oman. Later that day a severe storm developed, causing all operations to stop. A nearby ship dragged its anchor in the high winds and collided with the Dara's bow. Capt Charles Elson, Dara's Master, decided to take his ship out to sea and ride out the storm. In addition to the passengers and crew, over 70 people had come aboard in Dubai (ship's agents, cargo handlers, tradesmen, officials etc) so the total number of people on board had swelled to 800+. When the storm abated, Capt Elson sailed the Dara back towards Dubai. Around 4:40 am on 8th April there was a massive explosion on board. Location was 'tween deck next to the galley. The blast burst through an engineroom bulkhead and into two upper decks. All electrical, water, fire and steering systems were knocked out. Crew had no means to fight the fire or control the ship. Captain Enson gave the order to abandon ship.

I was in fact Chief Officer on board that terrible night, so am fully aware of the sequence of events. The explosion occurred outside the vishiwala galley which went through to the engine room bulkhead and up through 2 decks, which were the passenger and main lounge. Having checked, as best as possible, there was no way of containing the fire due to the fact that the bomb had disrupted all electrical, fire water and steering module, so we had no choice but to abandon ship.

Extract from an account by Peter Jordan, ex Chief Officer at the time on the Dara.

Panicked passengers and crew leapt overboard or into already overcrowded lifeboats; several of which capsized. One lifeboat, damaged in the earlier collision, began to sink. A Norwegian Tanker sailed in to the rescue despite not being "gas free" and at risk of explosion from the Dara's flames. British Navy Supply Ship Empire Guillemot was nearby but did not attempt rescues. Later this ship was accused of not helping. But its Captain may have decided to stay put since his ship was loaded with bombs and explosives. Nearby German and Japanese ships were able to carry out rescues.

Three British Navy Frigates and a U.S. Destroyer managed to get fire fighting parties on board to bring the fires under control. Glasgow registered Salvage Vessel OCEAN SALVOR took the badly damaged Dara in tow but 9.20 a.m. on April 10th, the Dara capsized and sank off Umm Al Qwain. 238 passengers and crew had tragically died in the disaster. Many survivors suffered severe burns and injuries and taken to Bahrain, Dara's Capt. Elson being one of them.

Eyewitness Account: Aftermath of Dara's explosion and sinking

I was on standby in Muharraq on Saturday April 8th 1961 when they called me out to fly a BBC camera crew to film a ship on fire off Dubai. The BBC team were making a documentary about Bahrain and having failed to charter an aircraft from Gulf Aviation they contacted HQRAFPG, who agreed to provide a Pembroke. I took off shortly before midday with a signaler in the right hand seat of WV743. The navigator was in the cabin seat next to the port side of the front bulkhead, looking after my camera.
We homed in on smoke from the burning ship and arrived at the scene of the disaster about 30 miles north of Dubai. A small tanker was standing by a hundred yards away, but we had no way of contacting it. For the next 30 minutes I made a series of orbits and low passes over and along the sides of the ship in order to give the film crew value for their money. During this time all three crew members were able to use my trusty Yashicamat, hence the different perspectives in the photos.
We saw several bodies floating in the sea around the ship and a few large sharks cruising amongst them. At that time we were didn’t know 238 lives had already been lost. We had been airborne for four and a half hours when we landed back in Bahrain. I said farewell to the BBC crew and went to my room and developed the negatives. (2 X 120 size B & W Ilford film)
I produced postcard sized prints of the six best negatives and walked over to the Officers Mess, only to be confronted by two scruffy characters in civilian clothes. The older man introduced himself as Harry Gibbons, Daily Express Middle East Correspondent based in Beirut. He was looking for the pilot who had flown the BBC camera crew to the Dara! I admitted it was me, assuming he had overheard the BBC crew talking about their flight in the Speedbiird Hotel. He was very enthusiastic about my pictures, but said he needed 10” x !2” sized prints to transmit them to London ASAP. After a high speed taxi ride to Manama we managed to get Ashraf to open up and bought a large box of 10” x 12” photographic paper, then a mad dash back and a super fast printing session completed the exercise. As soon as the prints were dry enough to handle, Harry and his side-kick left for the cable and wireless building in Manama, but not before he promised the copyright would always remain mine. I received a handsome sum for two photos published in the Daily Express and during the next six months several cheques in the region of £50 arrived from various Maritime Insurance Companies who had used them as evidence during an enquiry in Hamburg.

  • (No. 8024)
  • m.v. "Dara" O.N. 181938

In the matter of a Formal Investigation held at the Chartered Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Institute, 29 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, on the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th days of March, and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th and 10th days of April, 1962 before Mr. J. V. Naisby, Q.C., assisted by Captain H. S. Hewson, Captain K. A. H. Cummins and Mr. R. H. Wetherall, M.R.I.N.A., M.I. Mar. E., M.N.E. Coast. I.E.S., into the circumstances attending the loss of the m.v. "Dara" in the month of April, 1961, off Dubai in the Persian Gulf.
The Court having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds for the reasons stated in the Annex hereto:

  1. That on the 8th April, 1961 an explosion of a high explosive order took place in the vessel.
  2. That this explosive was, practically certainly, deliberately placed in the vessel by a person or persons unknown.
  3. That this explosion caused an instantaneous fire which spread with extreme rapidity.
  4. That the loss of the "Dara" was due to the cumulative effect of the fire and the efforts to overcome it.
  5. That the loss of life resulted partly from the explosion itself and partly from the extremely rapid spread of the fire which asphyxiated an unknown number of persons and prevented the launching of the majority of the lifeboats.

Dated this 19th day of April, 1962.

J. V. NAISBY, Judge.

It was a frightening and terrible experience for my Grandparents. They narrate their experience to each and everyone they meet and tell them how God saved their lives. They tell their testimony anywhere they get a chance