The steel steamship Highcliffe was launched from the South Shields yard of John Redhead and Sons Ltd (Yard No 486) on 10th September 1927. She measured 363.9′ x 50.5′ x 23.7′ and her tonnage was 3847 gross tons 2323 net tons. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by Redhead delivering 371 net horse power. Built for the Cliffe Steamship Co Ltd., South Shields she operated from this port until the outbreak of World War Two.
On 31st January 1940 the Highcliffe left Narvik for Immingham with a cargo of iron ore. She had previously travelled in a number of escorted convoys operating out of Barry in Wales to France and back but on this occasion was travelling independently for her owners. She was under the command of Captain Henderson, her regular skipper who had a crew of 37 men in his crew. Their intended route, across the North Sea and south past the west side of Shetland, was planned to avoid the lurking German U-boats patrolling the dangerous waters to the east of Orkney and Shetland. On 6th February, as they approached the islands Henderson, whose ship had no radar, plotted a course close to land but slowed the ship knowing that this route avoiding the U-boats provided a different danger, the jagged rocks and cliffs of western Shetland. Henderson was originally from Reawick and was familiar with the seas in the area but attempting the course he planned was a high risk venture. The danger was further increased as the weather deteriorated and visibility reduced. A headland was spotted ahead of them and which Henderson confidently identified as the Neep of Norby, Sandness. However it was actually Fitful Head. It was a mistake that was to cost Henderson his ship. Not long after this, without warning, the seabed in front of the ship suddenly shelved from the safety of over 100 feet to less than 20 feet and minutes later the ship ran aground. They had stranded on a rocky outcrop off Forewick Ness, Papa Stour. Ironically this was only fifteen miles from his childhood home.
Henderson ordered his crew to ready the lifeboats while an SOS was sent out and picked up by Wick Radio Station. Around 8am the following morning the crew of the Highcliffe fired rockets and sounded the ship’s horn to alert the local population to their plight. Soon after the Aith lifeboat arrived at the scene and stood by near the ship. Henderson was still not ready to abandon his ship but two hours later, with the ship grinding dangerously, he ordered his men to abandon ship. They were all taken off safely by the lifeboat. As daylight dawned a crowd appeared on shore watching anxiously as the ship, with pumps still running and smoke still billowing from her funnel, rocked back and forth in the swell. Her hull was badly damaged in the area of No 1 hold. She was upright on an even keel at this stage but. with a rising tide. she swivelled side on to the shore and the swell. In this exposed position the ship was doomed. She broke in two pieces with the forward section rolling to the side and the stern section remaining level and stuck fast on the rocks. Gradually over the years the wreck broke apart until, in 1946, it was reported that she had vanished beneath the surface.
The wreckage today , which lies in the position 60° 19.100’N, 001° 39.697’W, is broken and spread over a wide area but recognisable features still remain including the ship’s boiler and her gun, fitted for protection during her wartime voyages. She lies on a sloping seabed in depths up to 26 metres with shallowest area at 6 metres.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.