Launched from the yard of Swan Hunter Wigham Richardson of Newcastle on 23rd April 1940 the Steel motor vessel Port Napier measured 503.3′ x 68.2′ x 29.8′ and weighed 9847 gross tons, 5906 net tons. Her twin 5 cylinder diesel engines were provided by William Doxford of Sunderland. She had been ordered by the Port Line of London but never sailed in the service of the company. She was requisitioned before fitting out had been completed and converted for service as a minelayer. The conversion included an almost complete re-layout of her deck structures, the fitting of 2 @ 4 inch guns, 2 @ 1.6 inch 2-pounder guns, 4 @ 20 mm guns and, most importantly, four minelaying doors were cut in her stern and narrow gauge rail lines installed in her holds to transport the mines to the doors. The sturdy ships of the Port Line made them ideal vessels for war service and, within a few months of the start of the war, most of them had been requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport.
Her career, for the 1st Minelaying Squadron, was to be a short one. The squadron’s duties involved protection of the critical Western Approaches, the main lifeline from the United States for beleaguered Britain. The latter part of 1940 was a terrible time for the requisitioned ships of the Port Line – during September and October four ships were lost to enemy action. The Port Napier was destined to become the fifth and another would be lost only weeks later.
The village of Kyle of Lochalsh, the gateway to the picturesque Isle of Skye, may seem an unusual choice as wartime naval base but its deep water dock and the remote railhead made it ideal for the purpose. On the night of 27th November, 1940 the Port Napier lay alongside, now sitting low in the water as loading was nearly complete. For days she had been the centre of intense activity as teams of workers transferred her cargo of 550 mines, that had been unloaded from a series of ammunition trains, into the dark holds of the ship. Then disaster struck. A shout from the ship alerted the crew and the men ashore that a fire had broken out aboard. Fire crews rushed to the scene but the increasingly frantic attempts to extinguish the flames were to no avail. As crowds assembled on the dockside to watch the spectacle a difficult choice had to be made. It might be possible to put the fire out and save the ship but the consequences of failure would be disastrous. Not only would the crowd ashore be killed but most of the village would probably be flattened. It was decided to abandon the ship. Tow lines were quickly rigged and the doomed ship slowly pulled away from the dockside. As an added precaution the villagers in Kyleakin, the arrival point of the Isle of Skye opposite Kyle of Lochalsh, were evacuated as the ship had to pass close by as it was towed to a safe place.
The Port Napier was finally abandoned to its fate in Loch Na Bieste, a sheltered bay one mile east of Kyleakin on the Skye shore. The crowds in Kyle of Lochalsh could still see the glow of the flames lighting up the hillside on the shores of Skye as they waited tensely for the inevitable demise of the ship. Eventually the dark night lit up with a huge flash followed shortly after by a deep rumble as the ship was torn apart by a massive explosion. Large pieces of wreckage were blasted high into the air, some landing back in the water with a huge splash while others rained down on the shores and hillsides of Skye.
The crippled Port Napier gradually began to heel over to starboard and eventually rolled over onto her side and sank in a hissing cloud of smoke and steam. She sank only a few hundred yards from the shore with her stern pointing to the beach and her bow roughly in the direction of Kyle of Lochalsh. The following morning the curved edge of her port side could be seen above the surface. Almost immediately the inevitable rumours of sabotage began to circulate. The actual cause of the outbreak of fire was never established for certain.
Wartime reporting restrictions kept the loss secret until peacetime and she lay undisturbed, with most of her deadly cargo still in place, until 1950 when the Navy decided that the wreck should be made safe. It took some time for the necessary arrangements to be made but in 1955 work began. The salvage team, from HMS Barglow, developed an ingenious plan which first involved the removal of much of the plating on the ship’s port side. This provided easy access to the holds beneath. A lift system was then rigged and then, with the help of teams of divers, the removal process began. It took well into 1956 to complete the work but then the ship was again abandoned to the sea.
The wreck of the Port Napier, which lies in position 57°15.951’N, 005°41.251’W (WGS84), is now one of the most popular destinations in Scotland for visiting sub aqua divers. The huge ship, lying on its starboard side in 20 metres, is intact except for the original explosion damage and the removed port side plates. It is easy to explore and teaming with fish and wildlife at most times. The seabed along the length of the ship is covered in flottsam and jettsom that has fallen from the ship. The huge masts lean gently on the muddy seabed, the only inhabitants of the now empty crow’s nest are the pollock and wrasse that shoal around the wreck. The ship’s guns are still clearly visible and make an interesting stop in any exploration.