Over the Ord 5
Poignant remembrance for men of the sunken wartime Isleford
IT'S gratifying to see that the men of the merchant ship, Isleford, are to be officially remembered although it’s nearly 70 years since they perished, ironically, not victims of a wartime action but of the cruel, uncompromising, weather conditions that have claimed so many lives in the North Sea.
A service is to be held at the Kirkhill garden in Wick, tomorrow, to the 15 crew members who drowned after their vessel developed engine trouble and was swept onto the North Head, and a plaque will be unveiled in their memory.
Weather conditions were so severe that the local lifeboat couldn’t be launched and attempts to get lines on board the Isleford , failed. While, her brave crew are now to be recognised, officially, the tragedy and sacrifice, was occasionally spotlighted in my previous column in the Groat, Wicker’s World.
I recall doing a feature about the Isleford, many years ago, prompted by occasional visits by the navy to recover ammunition which had been uncovered, on the seabed, by the effects of wind and tide. Information about the vessel wasn’t easy to come by as she was requisitioned by the navy for freight movements. And I don’t think there was much, if anything, reported in the Groat of the day, due to reporting restrictions.
It was on one of her vital wartime missions that the Isleford came to grief. Some doubt exists as to the direction the ship was heading, but I seem to recall that one of the barrels of a warship in her hold needed attention, which might indicate she was heading south to Rosyth. There again, you would think that, given her cargo of shells and mines, the Isleford would be more likely to have been making north to Scapa Flow.
I was fortunate enough to get a valuable piece of the post-tragedy history from Alfie Mackay, sadly no longer with us. He was charged with the risky task of dealing with the shells and mines which came ashore and, on one occasion, had to shout a warning to an unsuspecting local making his way down the steps at the north bath.
He told me about one particular mine which was tracked by shore watchers as it bobbed in the water. Suddenly it erupted... shattering all the windows in Smith Terrace. The story goes that the impact of the blast lifted burning coals from a grate in a building (the now derelict Co-op in Smith terrace) and set it alight, causing total destruction.
Another piece in the tragedy was provided some years later, by a Wick woman who witnessed the harrowing scene from the clifftop above Proudfoot. She described to me the eerie, agonising, silence she experienced, in her then young years, as she watched with a crowd, helpless to do anything to assist the stricken crew in conditions so ferocious, that lifesaving efforts were rendered impossible. The seas pounding the Isleford were so huge, that at one point a crew member was picked out by a searchlight clinging to a mast. The next sea swept him away.
At tomorrow’s ceremony, the names of the 15 crew members will be read out before a memorial plaque is unveiled by the county’s Lord Lieutenant, Anne Dunnett, close to the plaque previously erected to the nine, valliant, Caithness victims of another wartime tragedy, the loss of the Jervis Bay, which took on a German battleship, in order to give the convoy it was escorting, a chance to escape. The Isleford plaque will be dedicated by Scrabster Mission Superintendent, Colin Mackay, before wreaths are laid and a two-minutes silence, observed, by veterans and townspeople.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend, due to a pre-arranged commitment but I will read with interest the reports of the final chapter in the story of the Isleford.
ANOTHER crew will be remembered today, in a service on board Wick lifeboat, above the wreck of the Peterhead fishing boat, Trident.
Following the service, a lamp from the vessel, which sank with the loss of all seven of her crew, in October 1974, will be lowered to the sea bed. It was wrongly removed from the wreck, during a survey, and was to have been restored and put on display in a museum. However, the Department of Transport was forced to think again after opposition from some of the crewmen’s relatives who accused them of plundering a family tomb. Attending today’s survey will be Jeannie Ritchie who lost her husband and father in the tragedy. She was due to travel north with another relative to right a wrong by witnessing the returning of the lamp to its rightful place.
The inquiry into the loss of the Trident was re-opened after divers searching for another wreck, that of HMS Exmouth ,which was sunk by a U-boat, during the Second World War, stumbled on the fishing boat.
The inquiry ruled no-one was to blame for the loss of the Trident but many of the crew’s families still believe the vessel was unstable.
Last edited by Nwicker60; 03-Sep-11 at 14:07.