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The Royal New Zealand Navy

CHAPTER 13 — The Loss of HMS Neptune

page 188

The Loss of HMS Neptune

ON 15 January 1941 the Prime Minister was informed by the Admiralty through the High Commissioner in London that the steadily increasing requirements of naval ratings arising from the building of new ships, in addition to heavy unforeseen commitments all involving a severe strain on the resources of trained ratings, were causing some concern. The Admiralty ‘would, therefore, be grateful if some further assistance, in addition to the considerable help which has been and is to be given by New Zealand could be undertaken.’

The manning of an additional cruiser of the Leander class was envisaged, but it was fully realised that the provision of the necessary personnel would require a strenuous and sustained effort over a considerable period and that it could not, therefore, be done in the near future. The Admiralty suggested, however, that by means of dilution of existing New Zealand units to an extent approximating that already found essential in the Royal Navy, expansion of the New Zealand Division might be attained by, say, the end of 1941 for the manning of a third cruiser. Such dilution would follow the procedure already in operation in the Royal Navy, in which a heavy dilution of skilled ratings by men less qualified was being applied in order to release a proportion of experienced men to man new ships.

The Prime Minister replied that, in order to meet the requirements of Admiralty for more trained ratings, a new naval training establishment was being started and would commission as HMS Tamaki on 20 January 1941. When in full operation Tamaki would turn out at least 100 seamen, 40 signalmen and telegraphists, 20 stokers, and 36 supply ratings, trained for ‘hostilities only’, three times a year, in addition to the numbers entered for continuous service. The ‘hostilities only’ ratings entered under this scheme would be lent for service in the Royal Navy. The entry of continuous service ratings would be maintained at the peacetime numbers, which aimed at providing 100 per cent New Zealand personnel for the ships at present manned.

The Admiralty expressed appreciation of the Government's action in starting the new training establishment and informed the Prime Minister that it proposed gradually to form a New Zealand crew page 189 for an additional cruiser of the Leander class and that the selection of HMS Neptune had been approved.1 The Admiralty suggested that, as soon as requirements for this ship in any particular branch had been met, New Zealand-trained ratings becoming available should be used in the East or Near East.

The Neptune was expected to leave the United Kingdom for New Zealand in late May or early June 1941. The New Zealand Government was prepared to accept responsibility for her maintenance on the same basis as for the Leander and Achilles and the Admiralty was so informed. Already a considerable number of New Zealanders–approximately one-fifth of her complement of ratings–had been drafted to the Neptune.

But, owing to heavy losses of cruisers during the Crete campaign and the critical position in the Mediterranean, the Neptune was not destined to see service on the New Zealand Station. She sailed from the United Kingdom about the end of May 1941 as one of a naval force escorting an important convoy for the Middle East. At that time a number of German ships were cruising in the Atlantic acting as supply vessels for U-boats and armed merchant raiders. One of them, the Gonzenheim, was sighted on 4 June by HMS Esperance Bay2 which was not fast enough to catch her, but the German was located by an aircraft from the Victorious. The battleship Nelson intercepted the Gonzenheim and ordered the Neptune to board her; but her crew took scuttling action before this could be done and the cruiser sank her in a position about 750 miles west from Cape Finisterre.

When the Neptune arrived in the Mediterranean in July she rejoined the Seventh Cruiser Squadron, in which she had served during the previous year, and, in company with the Leander, HMAS Hobart, and other ships, took part in the transport of troops to Cyprus (Operation guillotine).3 During the last week of October 1941 the Neptune took part in three bombardments of enemy positions in and about Bardia, on the coast of Libya. These were carried out as a preliminary to the offensive in the Western Desert by the British Eighth Army in November, in which the New Zealand Division played a notable part.

Submarines and aircraft based at Malta had been doing great work on the enemy's supply lines across the Mediterranean. In the period from 1 May to 20 August one-third of the ships sailing from Italy to North Africa were sunk. On 21 October Force ‘K’, consisting

1 See ante, pp. 105. HMS Neptune, 7175 tons displacement; speed 32 ½ knots; eight 6-inch, eight 4-inch, and anti-aircraft guns; eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes; completed February 1934.

2 HMS Esperance Bay, armed merchant cruiser; 14,200 tons; eight 6-inch guns; speed 15 knots. Owned by Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line (Shaw Savill and Albion Co.).

3 See ante, p. 115.

page 190 of the cruisers Aurora and Penelope and the destroyers Lance and Lively, arrived at Malta from England. Working in co-operation with the submarines and aircraft, Force ‘K’ played havoc with the enemy's convoys and completely disorganised the traffic to Tripoli. During October 1941 nearly 63 per cent of the shipping sailing from Italy to Tripoli was sunk in transit. In November 77 per cent was sunk or badly damaged and only 8400 tons reached its destination, the lowest monthly delivery during the war. The enemy retaliated with heavy air attacks on Malta, which was ‘really the linchpin of the campaign in the Mediterranean.’1

In the early hours of 24 November two enemy convoys were reported to be making for Benghazi and a force of five cruisers, including the Neptune, and four destroyers sailed from Alexandria to try to intercept them. Admiral Cunningham took his three battleships and eight destroyers to sea from Alexandria in support of the cruisers. He suffered a severe blow next day when the battleship Barham was torpedoed and sunk with a loss of 862 lives.

The successes of Force ‘K’ had compelled the enemy to provide cruiser escorts and battleship support for his convoys. On 27 November the Ajax (flag of Rear-Admiral H. B. Rawlings) and Neptune, with the destroyers Kimberley and Kingston, sailed from Alexandria to reinforce Force ‘K’ which, on 1 December, sank an ammunition ship, a tanker, and a destroyer. In the early hours of 13 December the destroyers Sikh, Maori, and Legion, with the Netherlands destroyer Isaac Sweers, on passage from Gibraltar to Malta, made a surprise attack on two Italian 6-inch-gun cruisers and a torpedoboat off Cape Bon, all three being sunk. On the following night the Galatea, one of Rear-Admiral Vian's cruisers, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat near Alexandria.

The operations of Force ‘K’ from Malta necessitated extreme measures to maintain the supply of fuel-oil in the island, and HMS Breconshire, a converted merchant ship which could carry 5000 tons of oil, was generally used for that purpose. On 15 December 1941 Rear-Admiral Vian's cruisers and destroyers sailed from Alexandria to escort the Breconshire to Malta. The Aurora, Penelope, and six destroyers left Malta next evening and met Vian's force at daybreak on 17 December. When Italian heavy ships were reported at sea, the Commander-in-Chief ordered Vice-Admiral, Malta, to sail every ship he had to join Rear-Admiral Vian, whose force was continually attacked during the day by enemy aircraft, luckily without damage. In the evening an Italian force which included two battleships was sighted to the westward. Vian ordered the Breconshire away at full speed to the southward and boldly closed in to attack. The Italian battleships fired a few salvoes and then retired to the northward,

1 Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey (Hutchinson), pp. 41921.

page 191 disappearing in the darkness. The Breconshire was escorted safely to Malta by Force ‘K’.

While Rear-Admiral Vian was returning at high speed to Alexandria, air reconnaissance from Malta on 18 December showed that the Italian battleship force had turned about and was cruising in an area about midway between Malta and Benghazi. This made it evident that enemy convoys had also turned and were aiming to arrive at Benghazi and Tripoli during the night. After refuelling, the Neptune, Aurora, and Penelope,1 with the destroyers Kandahar, Lance, Lively, and Havock, sailed from Malta at high speed that evening to try to intercept the convoy off Tripoli. The force was under the command of Captain Rory O'Conor, of the Neptune.

The ships streamed their paravanes as they left harbour at 6.30 p.m. and less than an hour later had worked up to 30 knots. It was blowing hard from the west-south-west, with a heavy sea. At one o'clock in the morning speed was reduced to 28 knots and four minutes later to 24 knots. The force was about 20 miles from Tripoli and steaming in single line ahead on a course approximately south by west when, at 1.6 a.m., the Neptune, which was leading, appeared for an instant dark against a bright flash of flame. She had exploded a mine on one of her paravanes. The Aurora, which was next astern, instantly put her helm hard-a-starboard and then hard-a-port, but she, too, exploded a mine barely a minute later. The Neptune was going full speed astern when she hit another mine which wrecked her propellers and steering gear and brought her to a standstill. A minute or so later she exploded a third mine and took a heavy list to port. Force ‘K’ had run into a minefield which had been laid in deep water well off shore in April 1941 after a bombardment of Tripoli by Admiral Cunningham's battle-ships and cruisers.

A quarter of an hour before the Neptune hit the first mine, the Penelope had started her echo-sounding machine. No depth less than 120 fathoms (720 feet) was recorded between that time and 1.10 a.m. The sounding machine was tested subsequently and found to be working correctly.

At first, Captain A. D. Nicholl of the Penelope thought that the Neptune and Aurora had been torpedoed and he turned to starboard; but at 1.10 a.m. there was an explosion abreast his bridge and he realised that they had run into a minefield. No serious damage seemed to have been sustained by the Penelope and her engines and steering gear were in full working order. She turned to the northward to get clear of the minefield and took station astern of the Aurora, which was then steering north-by-east at 10 knots. The Aurora was badly damaged, Tripoli and its airfields were barely

1 HMS Ajax was out of action with defects.

page 192 20 miles away, and it was imperative that the ship should get as far from the enemy coast before daybreak as her much-reduced speed would allow.

In the meantime the Neptune had signalled several times: ‘Come alongside’, and then that she was badly damaged and had lost all steam and power. Captain W. G. Agnew, in command in the Aurora, signalled to the Kandahar: ‘One destroyer is to go alongside Neptune; the other three are to join me’; and, later, to the Penelope: ‘I also am damaged and am returning to Malta. Do what you can for Neptune, but keep clear of the minefield. Give me two destroyers.’

Already, on finding that the Penelope was not seriously damaged, Captain Nicholl had asked permission to return towards the Neptune. His signal crossed that from the Aurora asking him to do so. He decided not to approach closer than two and a half miles from the Neptune until the situation became clearer, but considered it a justifiable risk to send the destroyer Lively closer in. He signalled to her: ‘Close Neptune and let me know what I can do. Go on. Good luck.’

When he received the signal from the Aurora, Commander W. G. A. Robson, DSO, DSC, of the Kandahar, decided to take his own destroyer into the minefield, but at 2.18 a.m. the Neptune informed the Penelope: ‘Have told Kandahar to lay off till I have drifted clear of the minefield. Am preparing to be taken in tow then.’ Four minutes later the Penelope, who was preparing her towing gear, signalled the Lively: ‘I will circle round here. I will come in if there is any chance of towing Neptune.’ She also informed the Kandahar: ‘Have told Lively to close Neptune: I will close and take Neptune in tow when signalled.’ The Lively's reply to the Penelope was: ‘Neptune mined and cannot steam. Ordered to tow. Am going back to her now.’

At 3.9 a.m., when two hours had elapsed since the Neptune was first mined, Captain Nicholl considered he should accept the risk and signalled to the Neptune: ‘Am ready to tow you. Shall I come now?’, to which the Neptune replied: ‘Close on my port side.’ The Penelope was cautiously edging her way in when, at 3.18 a.m., there was an explosion in the Kandahar about two miles away. She had struck a mine which blew off her stern. The Penelope was turning when Captain O'Conor, in the Neptune, flashed the warning: ‘Keep away’, and the Kandahar made a similar signal to the Lively. The Kandahar reported: ‘After engine-room bulkhead is holding and ship can be towed. But realise this is impossible’, and the Penelope made answer: ‘Regret I must keep clear.’ From the Lively came the message: ‘Kandahar mined. She has ordered me out of the field.’

Nicholl still hoped that it might be possible to rescue the crews of the Neptune and Kandahar, but when, at about four o'clock, the page 193 Neptune hit a fourth mine, he decided that no further risks must be taken by the Penelope and Lively. Five minutes later the Neptune rolled over and sank. Nicholl faced a most difficult situation. It was against the custom of the sea to leave comrades in distress, but there was every chance that more ships and lives would be lost if he went back into the minefield. Sunrise was coming, too, and he was very near the enemy's coast.

From the Kandahar came the signal: ‘Neptune has touched off another mine’, to which Captain Nicholl replied: ‘I clearly cannot help. God be with you.’ Commander Robson viewed the coming dawn from the bridge of his crippled ship and made a last signal to the Penelope: ‘Suggest you should go. Consider sending submarine to pick up survivors.’ As the cruiser steamed away she signalled to the Lively: ‘Course 10 degrees (north by east). Speed, 15 knots.’

But Lieutenant-Commander W. F. E. Hussey, DSC, of the Lively took it hard. ‘Suggest I go for Neptune's survivors’, he urged. When the Penelope replied: ‘Regret not approved’, he signalled: ‘Suggest a submarine could be asked for’, and Captain Nicholl answered: ‘I am going to do that. I hate to leave them, but I am afraid we must.’ As the two ships steamed at 25 knots for Malta, Nicholl broke wireless silence to suggest that a flying boat or a submarine be sent to pick up survivors from the mined ships.1

The Kandahar drifted all day unmolested by the enemy. Signals from her were received at Malta and she was sighted by friendly aircraft. After dark the destroyer Jaguar, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander L. R. K. Tyrwhitt, sailed from Malta to find the Kandahar by midnight and with orders to be clear of the area by daylight. Though assisted by an aircraft fitted with radar, the Jaguar did not find the Kandahar until 4 a.m. on 20 December. The sea was still so rough that the Jaguar could not go alongside without risk of serious damage, so she lay off while the Kandahar's crew swam to her, after which the wreck was sunk. The Jaguar got safely back to Malta, having saved eight officers and 166 ratings.

When the Neptune struck the fourth mine the order was given to abandon ship. A heavy sea was running and the men had to go overboard. The ship sank within a few minutes, and death came quickly to most of her company. Many perished while trying to swim to the crippled Kandahar. According to the sole survivor of the Neptune, Leading Seaman John Walton, an English rating, only sixteen men were left afloat on a raft when daylight came. They included Captain O'Conor and two other officers and one New Zealand rating, Able Seaman J. B. Quinn, of Kaiwarra, Wellington, who died on 20 December. One after another the little party

1 HMS Penelope: Report of Proceedings to Rear-Admiral, Seventh Cruiser Squadron.

page 194 succumbed to exhaustion and thirst. Captain O'Conor died on the fourth day. Finally, Walton was left all alone on the raft, from which he was rescued by an Italian destroyer on Christmas Eve. He was a prisoner of war in Italy until his release in 1943, and subsequently served as a petty officer in the minesweeper Rowena in the Mediterranean.

More than 750 men–150 of them New Zealanders–died when HMS Neptune went down in the Mediterranean on that stormy morning. The names of two officers and 148 ratings furnished by far the longest list of casualties in the war record of the Royal New Zealand Navy, then but lately come of age. The Neptune was not a New Zealand ship as were her sisters, Achilles and Leander, but her loss brought grief to many homes in every city and major town in the Dominion, as well as to country villages from Auckland to Southland. Seventeen South Africans and two Australians died with their comrades from Great Britain and New Zealand.

The Neptune was the thirteenth British cruiser and the Kandahar the fifty-ninth British destroyer lost during the first twenty-eight months of the war. Within a few hours of their being mined, the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, the two remaining battleships in the Mediterranean Fleet, were severely damaged in harbour at Alexandria by ‘human torpedoes’ and put out of action for long periods of time. These disastrous episodes followed closely after the crippling of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya. It was a time of crisis in our fortunes.