The steel motor vessel Cape York was launched from the Lithgow’s shipyard in Port Glasgow on 5th August 1925. She measured 410.0′ x 54.0′ x 27.0′ and her tonnage was 5027 gross tons, 3117 net tons. She was powered by two 12 cylinder diesel engines by Hawthorn Leslie and Co Ltd., Newcastle delivering 568 net horse power. Delivered to her new owners, the Cape York Motor Ship Company of Glasgow a few months later she commenced operations in early 1926 travelling route worldwide for the Scottish Company.
With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 these voyages became much more dangerous but she continued to ply the same routes as before the war. Initially she was based in the Far East delivering cargoes between Singapore, Colombo and Calcutta before heading to Gibralter in March 1940. Here she joined convoy HG23 and safely made the journey to Liverpool arriving there on March 20th 1940. After this she started plying the routes back and forth across the North Atlantic predominantly independently as her huge powerful diesel engines meant that she cold outrun the German U-boats if necessary. In August 1940 she was in Bermuda having recently arrived from Cristobal, Panama loaded with a general cargo of wheat, metal and wood. In Bermuda she joined convoy BHX65 headed for Halifax Nova Scotia where the convoy merged into a larger group, convoy HX65. This huge convoy of fifty one merchant vessels and nine escort ships was bound for Liverpool before dispersing off the Scottish west coast to various British ports. Cape York’s destination was Hull via Methil.
The convoy was subject to multiple U-boat attacks en route and lost seven ships in the West Atlantic. As the remaining ships reached the dispersal point off the North Channel Cape York and a number of other ships, including SS Remuera, SS Fircrest and SS Harpalyce turned north to pass through the Pentland Firth and down the Scottish east coast. This smaller group was still not safe. On 25th August they were attacked by U-124 off the Butt of Lewis where both Fircrest and Harpalyce were sunk by torpedo. As the remaining ships approached Kinnaird Head on 26th August they were attacked again, this time by German bombers operating out of Norway and Denmark. First the Remuera, hit by a torpedo from a He115 aircraft, and then Cape York were hit by these aircraft. Remuera sank quickly but the Cape York remained afloat and was taken in tow. However it was soon clear that she was filling fast and would not make it to safety. The tow line was detached and, as the Cape York drifted, she gradually settled down in the water and sank. The thirty one crewmen aboard were able to launch the ship’s boats and disembark safely to be picked up soon after.
The wreck of the Cape York has not been positively identified as yet but the wreck at 57° 41.360’N, 01° 33.423’W is almost certainly her. Lying in 93 metres with a least clearance of 79 metres the huge wreck sits upright with a heavy list to port. The survey trace suggests the wreck is in two major pieces but still substantially in tact oriented 080/260 degrees. The Hydrographic Department records have transposed the wrecks of the Cape York and the Port Dennison nearby in position 57° 42.440’N 01° 33.708’W. This second wreck has been positively identified as the Port Dennison when the bell was recovered by divers some years ago.
We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Buchan Divers – www.buchandivers.com in the preparation of this article.