H.M.S. Port Napier

Crockery recovered from the HMS Port Napier

Talk given by Bill Ramsay on 27th October 2010

I believe that it will be worthwhile to consider some events that took place in 1939, before World War II broke out. The Admiralty had thought to close off access to the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans by laying a barrage of mines across from Orkney to the Norwegian coast, but later in July 1939 a new scheme was planned. They decided to lay minefields from Greenland, across the Denmark Strait to Iceland and from there to the Faeroe Islands, and thence to Orkney. Other fields would be laid from there along the route by Cape Wrath and the north west of Scotland, thereby closing the passage through the Minch. A minefield was established at the south end of the Irish Sea, with another on the east coast of Scotland and England. There were to be gaps to permit our own ships to pass through. The distance from Greenland was some 540 nautical miles and weather conditions in the northern waters were far from ideal. Protection for the minelayers would be difficult enough without stormy seas.

To launch a minelaying campaign, four essential requirements must be met: a base for the control, planning and loading facilities; minelaying vessels and crew; protection vessels for these ships; and regular manufacture and supply of mines.

Lochalsh was an ideal situation as it had a good harbour, and there was a rail link to the main network. The terrain was not too difficult to defend and it was almost out of range of the Luftwaffe bombers. Kyle of Lochalsh was to be re-named Port ZA and the base itself was given the title H.M.S. Trelawney. Stationed there were minesweeper drifters, net-laying drifters and barrage balloon drifters, in addition to two harbour defence vessels, the Convallaria and the Favour. There was also a system of controlled mines for the protection of the port and harbour.

In July 1940, the First Minelaying Squadron was formed, with fast merchant ships of the Blue Funnellers Line, Prince Line and Port Line, the Southern Prince (10,917 tons gross), the Port Napier (9847 tons gross), the Port Quebec (8490 tons gross), the Agamemnon (7592 tons gross) and the Menestheus (7494 tons gross). They carried mines to the total of 560, 550, 548, 530 and 410 respectively. These vessels were all converted to minelayers in British shipyards. The mines were mounted on small trolleys that ran on small gauge rail tracks between decks leading to launching ports in the stern.

The 17th Destroyer Division provided protection with old destroyers from the U.S.A. They were given in exchange for bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland. These warships had to be completely refitted in the U.K. as they were unfit for service before major overhaul. Four of these escorts were the St. Margaret's, the Bath, the Hopewell and the Charleston. At times, other British warships supplemented cover. Sea trips from the base lasted from two to eight days depending on the area being covered and the prevailing weather.

The mines were manufactured in Dagenham, Oxford and Birmingham before loading of explosives in Bandeath near Stirling. Many a consignment of mines I saw passing whilst I was at home in Kingussie . They were left on sidings in Duirinish and on ships' lighters until needed. A total of 110,000 mines were laid before the minelaying squadron was paid off in late autumn (November) 1943. The Agamemnon remained on a care and maintenance routine for a further year, in case more deep minefields were needed at short notice.

The Port Napier was at anchor one evening before setting off and a fierce gale caused her to drag her two anchors. She was almost uncontrollable without 'tugs' in a howling gale at night in confined conditions. Every effort was made to get underway and re-anchor in safety, when the ship was blown across the bows of an anchored collier and her screws fouled the collier's anchor cables. Immediately, both of Port Napier's main engines were put out of action. The two ships continued to scrape anchors across the deep centre of the loch towards the southern shore of Skye until their combined anchors found bottom, and good holding ground again, and finally settled in the entrance to a shallow bay (near Sron an tairbh) close under the slope of Beinn Na Cailliche.

Click for an article in the Express about the HMS Port Napier

The fleet were making ready to sail out on a minelaying mission at this time in early November 1940, but Port Napier was left behind to disentangle herself, access the damage and await further orders. The following morning work began clearing her screws of the anchor cables from the collier's, and the opportunity was taken to complete fuelling with diesel oil. During this operation, a fire broke out in the engine-room, which at once became impossible to control. Within moments the engine-room was a raging furnace. The two mine decks, fully loaded, were above the engine-room and the mines had been prepared for launching with detonators and bungs in place, as was the habit at that time.

A mining party courageously worked to remove the detonators which had been inserted earlier, whilst the rest of the ship's company abandoned ship aboard the numerous small craft that were standing by . Within twenty minutes of the outbreak of fire the lower mine deck was white-hot and the danger acute. The last men were ordered to leave the ship.

At the subsequent board of enquiry, the mining party who had remained behind to the last minute declared they believed that all detonators had been taken out from the casings but they could not be sure.

After the ship had been abandoned, the Kyle residents were told to leave their homes and go to the hills for safety. Trains were sent away and all shipping was cleared from the port. The Port Napier was left to burn. There would have been multiple casualties and widespread damage to Kyle if the mines on board blew up.

Strange to say, I have not heard of any evacuation of property in Kyleakin at this time but this might have been on account of the situation of the village.

A mine loaded with explosives, but with primer and detonator removed, will not explode but it will burn fiercely. With primer inserted but no detonator in place, it is unlikely to explode but may do under certain conditions.

After the ship had been abandoned, the fire seemed to have died down and to burn less fiercely, although smoke still appeared, pouring up from around the engine-room.

A party volunteered to return to the ship to see if anything could be done. On board they discovered the fire was raging furiously and the mine decks were white-hot and buckling above the engine-room. They began to discharge some of the mines from the stern chutes but the heat and smoke forced them to abandon the vessel once more. They had scarcely cleared the Port Napier when two distinct explosions occurred which blew debris into the air. A moment or two later, there was another explosion and a hugh column of smoke and flame shot skywards and mushroomed out, and spectators saw the vessel roll over to starboard and sink, until her starboard side rested on the bottom of the loch in seventy feet of water. She lay on a firm base of sand, her port side, or what was left of it, above water at low tide and the whole wreck, except for a few twisted frames, was submerges at high water.

Divers examined the wreck later and found that about one hundred and fifty feet of the fore part and two hundred feet of the aft part of the wreck's hull plating was reasonably intact, but the centre portion on the port side and decks above the engine-room was completely blown out for a distance of over one hundred feet and that the ship's back was broken. Salvage of the ship was impossible and the wreck was abandoned as a total loss. A beacon was erected on the site to mark her position, as she lay in a good anchorage not far from the main traffic route through Lochalsh.

Steel was in short supply, particularly later in the war years, and a firm of shipbreakers was given a contract to cut away and lift as much of the upper (port-side) armour and plating as could be economically reached at low water. The firm decided to remove the phosphor-bronze propellers which were of great value. The propellers were still fouled up with the cables of the collier and the diver working on the job made a decision to cut these cables using a small charge of explosive placed around them. He had reported that there was a mine lying on the bottom nearby but as it had been flooded, with the watertight cover removed, it was considered that it presented no danger.

Some precautions were taken and men and craft who were involved in the venture were removed to a distance from the wreck, thought to be safe as the charge was a small one. When the explosive charge was around the cables, it was fired up, but then there was a tremendous explosion which sank the diving-boat and damaged the salvage ship nearby. The mine had gone up and it was fortunate that others in the vicinity had not, otherwise a serious loss of life would have occurred. The salvage party refused to continue working on the wreck and the Port Napier was again abandoned.

In 1953, some adventurers aboard an ancient trawler decided to attempt removing the two propellers without blowing themselves to bits. They removed the screws without any casualties, but were unable to lift the propellers which each weighed around ten tons.

They were arrested on the job and duly prosecuted.

The wreck of the Port Napier today.

The wreck of the Port Napier today.