The sinking of HMS ‘Neptune’

The seas were heavy with the wind blowing from the south west in the early hours of Friday the 19th of December 1941 as the ships of Force K steamed towards Tripoli.

They were now 20 miles from the North African coastline, travelling at 24 knots and hunting for their prey. An Italian convoy was reportedly in the area: attempting to resupply Axis troops on shore.

In the lead was HMS Neptune, a Leander Class Cruiser under the command of Captain Rory O?Connor.

Commissioned on the 12th of September 1934 with the pennant number ?20?, Neptune had a complement of 758 officers and ratings, 150 of these men hailed from the far distant shores of New Zealand.

The ship’s motto was: Regnare est servire – to reign is to serve.

She had seen action during the Battle of the River Platte as part of the first incarnation of Force K.

Early in 1941, the British Admiralty had sent out a request to the colonies for more sailors to man the Royal Fleet due to the increasing amount of vessels being brought into service. The Neptune had been issued instructions to sail for New Zealand in May of the same year in order to take on a full complement of crew there.

However, events in Europe necessitated a change of plan and the Neptune was instead attached to the Seventh Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean, which had suffered significant losses during the Crete Campaign.

It was the Neptune who had spotted the Italians during the Battle of Calabria on the 9th of July 1940, sending for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars the signal to the Mediterranean fleet: ?Enemy battle fleet in sight?.

Since then she had taken part in numerous actions against the Italian Navy and the convoys attempting to make safe passage.

Now she found herself leading Force K into one more battle.

With no stars or landmarks to navigate by, the ships were having difficulty keeping their bearings and were needing to rely on blind reckoning.

At about 1:06am, just prior to an outstanding signal to turn on to an eastward heading in order to sweep along the coast, an explosion was felt aboard the Neptune, buffeting the stern of the ship and placing the crew on high alert.

A mine had been triggered by one of Neptune?s paravanes. Behind her, HMS Aurora also triggered a mine.

Captain O?Connor immediately made the order to go ?full astern?, however, two more mines were triggered, one of which blew the screws away and most of the stern.

Another mine exploded amidships and the Neptune suddenly found herself ?dead in the water? and drifting eastwards.

 

 

An attempt was made by HMS Khandahar and HMS Lively to get to Neptune?s position, in order to tow her out of the mine field, however, the Khandahar triggered off a mine at 3:18am causing the loss of 71 of her crew.

It was at this moment that Captain O?Connor ordered his signalman to issue the following message; to the crews of the ships who were so valiantly attempting to rescue the stricken Neptune:

 

?Keep away ? Keep away ? Keep away?

 

The Neptune would drift for a further 46 minutes before the inevitable occurred, when she struck a forth mine amidships.

This final explosion was too much for her battered hull and, turning over onto her side, she sunk within minutes.

Only sixteen men survived this ordeal and were able to make their way to a raft.

During the next five days, one by one, these men would all perish but one.

The Following is a quote from Able Seaman Norman Walton:

?We saw the ship capsize and sink and gave her a cheer as she went down. We picked up Captain O’Connor who was clinging to what looked like an anchor buoy and he and three other officers finished up on a cork raft attached to ours. The sea was thick with oil and most of us had swallowed a lot of it. A few died around us that night and at daylight there were 16 of us left. The weather was pretty rough and two officers tried to swim towards the Kandahar but they never made it.

“Three more ratings died and we picked up an oar and I tried to steer the raft but could make no headway. By the fourth day there were only four of us left including the Captain who died that night. I was in the water for three days before being able to find room aboard the raft. Most of the lads just gave up the ghost but I was very fit because of playing so much sport and this is probably why I survived. I had a smashed leg and by Christmas Eve on the 5th day, there was only Price and myself left. I saw an aircraft; waved to it and an hour later an Italian torpedo boat came alongside and threw me a line. I collapsed when I got on board and woke up on Christmas Day in a Tripoli hospital. They told me Price was dead.

“I was totally blind throughout Christmas because of the oil and was praying it was only temporary. On Boxing Day I got my sight back and looked in a mirror. My tongue was swollen to twice its size and my nose spread across my face, which was black from the oil and from exposure. Still, apart from my broken leg I was almost back to normal by New Year’s Day, when I was put on a ship bound for Italy and full of German and Italian troops going on leave.

“I spent 15 months in various prisoner-of-war camps until told I was going to be repatriated and arrived home in June 1943. The Italians had told me I was the only Neptune survivor, but I could never believe that until the Navy confirmed it for me in 1943. Sometimes even now it is hard to take in.”

In 1991 Mr Walton travelled to Nelson, where he helped to unveil a memorial for the 150 New Zealand seaman who had?lost their lives in the sinking of the Neptune.

This would prove to be the worst loss of life in the war records of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

On the same day, Adolf Hitler would issue an edict to the German forces: He was now their sole commander.

The fate of the Neptune was sidelined to a few pages further on; past the leading headline of the day.

But for a number of families near the ends of the earth, in a far distant colony of the British Commonwealth, their sons’ would not be coming home.

 

Sources:

The Neptune Association

National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

 

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