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The Loss of HMS Neptune

ORBAT Force K:

HMS Neptune ­– Leander-class cruiser [Mined 19/12/1941]
HMS Aurora ­- cruiser [Paid off 1948]
HMS Penelope – cruiser [Sunk 18/2/1944]
­HMS Kandahar – K-class destroyer [Sunk by torpedo from HMS Jaguar 20/12/1941]
HMS Lance – L-class destroyer [Sunk 9/4/1942]
HMS Lively – L-class destroyer [Sunk 11/5/1942]
HMS Havock – H-class destroyer [Wrecked 6/4/1942]

Force K [sometimes known as Force B] originally consisted of the two light cruisers HMS Aurora [Senior Officer], HMS Penelope and the two destroyers HMS Lance & Lively. This formation was successfully interdicting the Axis convoys supply the Afrika Corps. K Force was enhanced by the cruisers HMS Ajax [sister ship to Neptune], Neptune a Leander-class Light Cruiser [sister ship to Ajax, Achilles, Leander] and the destroyers HMS Kandahar & Havock. The combined force was under the command of Rear Admiral Rawlings, an experienced commander in the Mediterranean. ‘Search for Neptune Continues’, Navy News, December 2012, p. 18. On the afternoon of 18 December, the Commanding Officer of Neptune Captain Rory O’Conor was brief by Admiral Rawlings that he was to incept a large Axis convoy en route to Tripoli taking a large sweep to the east to avoid Force K. Neptune would be the flagship as Ajax [Rawlings’s normal flagship] was in dock with engineering problems. ‘Search for Neptune Continues’, Navy News, December 2012, p. 18.

On the evening of 18 December 1941 Neptune led the expanded Force K consisting of Aurora, Penelope, Khandahar, Havoc, Lively, and Lance Of these ships only Aurora survived the war. at almost maximum speed southwards in heavy westerly weather. At times the escort destroyers found it hard to maintain speed. With no stars or land the Force relied upon blind dead reckoning. At about 0100 on the morning of 19 December 1941 the force was about twenty miles from Tripoli sailing in single line ahead at 24 knots on a course of approximately south by west when just prior to an outstanding signal to turn to the east to sweep along the coast, Neptune which was leading struck a mine on her port side forward at 0106. Going astern she appeared to drag in two more mines aft which detonated wrecking her propellers and steering gear. She was then stopped, disabled, and down by the stern. The Italian minefield was identified to be within the 80 fathom line it had been re-laid in April 1941 by the Italians with German deep sea mines extending the minefield to the 100 fathom line which is why Force K unexpectedly ran into it. ‘Search for Neptune Continues’, Navy News, December 2012, p. 18.

Both Aurora & Penelope were damaged and Aurora began to return to Malta together at 10 knots escorted by Lance & Havock. Penelope [with minor damage] was manoeuvring outside the expected mine area about 2.5nm [5km] from the stricken Neptune. Khandahar as senior destroyer with Lively in support attempted a rescue of Neptune’s ship’s company and to tow the cruiser clear of the minefield. At 0318 she struck a mine blowing off her stern killing 71 officers and ratings and making her unmanoeuvrable. Lively, who had closed to Khandahar was ordered to clear the area and did so. ‘Search for Neptune Continues’, Navy News, December 2012, p. 18.

Captain Nicholl of the Penelope still hoped it might be possible to rescue the crews from the Neptune and Kandahar, but at 0404 the Neptune drifted into and detonated a fourth mine, then quickly rolled over and sank stern first R.J. McDougall, New Zealand Naval Vessels, Christchurch: GP Books, 1989. See also ‘Search for Neptune Continues’, Navy News, December 2012, p. 18. he decided that no further risks must be taken by the Penelope and Lively. Nicholl was faced by 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. To compound his problems, sunrise was fast approaching and he was very near the enemy coast. Khandahar remained afloat and drifted clear of the minefield and 24 hours later the remaining ship’s company was rescued by the destroyer HMS Jaguar sent from Malta. She then sank the hulk.

Aboard Neptune, when the ship hit the fourth mine the order was given to abandon ship. A heavy sea was running and the men had to go overboard. Death came quickly to many of her company and many perished as they tried to swim to the Kandahar. Only sixteen men survived the sinking and were left afloat on a raft when daylight came including 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. However, all but one succumbed to thirst and exhaustion during the next six days until the sole survivor, an English rating, Leading Seaman Norman Walton, was rescued by an Italian ship and when landed was interned as a prisoner of war in Italy until his release in 1943. The destruction of Force K enabled the convoy carrying 45 tanks for the Afrika Corps to get through followed by further unmolested convoys carrying tanks enabled Rommel to resume the offensive and reverse the gains made by the British Army in 1941 and led to the second seige of Tobruk. Adrian St. Clair, Mediterranean Minefield: Disaster of HMS Neptune, 2nd ed., Portsmouth: Neptune Association, 2010, p. 13.

764 men including 150 Total from RNZN Museum database on deaths of New Zealanders in naval service in the Second World War. There were two sets of brothers aboard the ship. One hundred and fifty New Zealanders died in Neptune. 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. Neptune was not a New Zealand ship as were her sister ships HMS Achilles & Leander, but her loss brought grief to many homes in every city and major town in the Dominion as well as in country villages from Auckland to Southland S.D. Waters S.D., The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, pp. 191-194. Those men who were lost aboard Neptune names are recorded on the Memorial Wall within the Devonport Naval Base.

As at 2015, there is no positive identification of any known wreck on the seabed as HMS Neptune. The Royal Navy’s Naval Historical Branch has a location of 33 13.45’N 013 23.00’E as the position. The document does not cite a source so in discussion with the staff there it appears to be dead reckoning position and probably either the last good dead reckoning position for the force before the mining incidents started, or the last sighting by a ship in company before detaching following the mining (but before the sinking), or the estimated position of sinking based on (now lost) post event analysis. The position is therefore highly dubious and is almost certainly not where the wreck lies on the sea bed, even if the position on sinking is accurate, as depending on the depth of water, angle and speed of decent, tidal stream etc, The wreck may have planned away/moved some distance after leaving the surface but before it hit the sea bed. Email communication from Duncan Redford, RN Museum May 2015.

Twins Bruce and William Anderson from Auckland were amongst the 150 New Zealanders who perished in HMS Neptune.

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