Originally launched by the Ardrossan Drydockyard & Shipbuilding Co.Ltd on 8th December 1912 as a motor vessel with a 4 cylinder 95 nhp diesel engine by J and CG Bolinders of Stockholm for Messrs Mann and McNeil, Glasgow. The ship was 149.8′ x 25.6′ x 10.0′ and 414 gross tons (205 net tons).
The Isleford was purchased by the Admiralty for service as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary only months later on 26th March 1913. She served throughout World War One based at the Royal Navy Dockyard in Portsmouth and continued to operate on the south coast until she was re-engined by Ferguson and Co in 1929 who fitted a 91 nhp triple expansion steam engine.
At the outbreak of World War Two she was transferred north to service the Fleet in its Scottish bases at Scapa Flow at Cromarty Firth. In the early days of 1942 she was employed carrying munitions between Lyness and Invergordon under the command of Captain David Andrew Foalle with a crew of fourteen when she ran aground under North Head near Wick in a severe snowstorm in sight of the safety of Wick harbour.
The fate of the ship was spotted in a searchlight beam from the Wick Coastguard and the rocket crew dispatched to a position on the shore near where she was expected to come ashore. As soon as she hit efforts began to get a line to the wreck but in the atrocious conditions this proved extremely difficult. The rescuers could only watch in horror as the men aboard were swept one by one into the boiling sea and lost. All fifteen crewmen died. The next day the ship was gone leaving wreckage, including a number of 400lb mines, strewn along the beach and in the shallow water near the shoreline.
After some initial simple salvage of munitions and mines which had washed ashore, the wreck lay fairly undisturbed for almost 50 years although some of the cargo was removed in the 1950s. In the early 90s she was surveyed again to determine if the unrecovered munitions represented a danger. It was determined that the area did indeed require to be made safe and as such clearance diving operations were carried out in June and July of 1992 which resulted in the removal of substantial quantities of ammunition. A 1000lb bomb is reported to have been left undisturbed.
The Wreck Today
The wreckage of the Isleford lies in position 58°26.419’N, 03°03.994’W, in less than 20 metres and is scattered among rocks on a fairly flat seabed with the huge boiler as the most recognisable feature. Despite the removal of some of the munitions in 1992 substantial quantities of ammunitions and shells still remain on the site which was designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act in 2012.