The Soldier Who Died Twice





Of the many tragic stories to emerge from the great war, none is stranger than that of Pte. Adolphus Locke. Adolphus was born at Pilley's Island, Newfoundland on June 25, 1896, to Phillip Locke and Georgina Dean. Georgina died on October 2, 1909, when Adolphus was 13 years old. Shortly thereafter, Emanuel and Martha White adopted him. Whether this was a formal or informal adoption is unclear from the records.

Adolphus volunteered for the First Newfoundland Regiment in December 1916 and after training in Scotland he joined his regiment in the field in June 1917. In the fall of 1917, the Newfoundlanders were engaged in some of the nastiest fighting of the war at the third battle of Ypres in Belgium.

At 5 am on October 9, 1917, the First Newfoundland Regiment advanced on German lines along the Broembeek River. Struggling through a sea of mud, the young soldiers met fierce resistance from the entrenched enemy.

At the end of the day, after little gain, the Newfoundland Regiment had suffered 194 casualties. Sixty-seven of those died. Adolphus Locke was severely wounded in the left leg by enemy machine-gun fire.

Adolphus spent the next ten months at Footing Military Hospital in England before being medically discharged and repatriated to Newfoundland where he arrived on or about October 12, 1918, via Montreal. 

On his arrival in St. John's, he had been admitted to the General Hospital for further treatment before he was to be sent home to Pilley's Island. Records indicate that he signed the papers for his formal discharge from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on October 15. At this point, his story takes a strange twist.

Records of the regiment clearly state that Adolphus died at the General Hospital on the second of November after he contracted Spanish Influenza, a deadly pandemic then sweeping the globe.  His burial site is listed as Mount Pleasant Cemetery where a grave marker indicates his final resting place.

Other records raise questions about this scenario. A letter from Emanuel White, the adoptive father, indicates that Adolphus arrived home at Pilley's Island on October 23, 1918. He was already suffering from Spanish influenza and despite the best efforts of Dr. Gillam, Adolphus passed away on the third of November at the White home.

Adolphus Locke was buried beside the small Methodist church (now a heritage site) in Pilley's Island. His resting place is marked by two headstones. One donated by the regiment and erected by his father, Phillip, indicates the sacrifice of the young soldier. Adjacent is another headstone dedicated to Adolphus White, adopted son of Manuel and Martha White who died on November 3, 1918. Adolphus White and Adolphus Locke are one and the same person.

To add further confusion to a tangled story, a letter written in 1919 by Reverend Mouland, Methodist Minister, Pilley's Island, indicated that Adolphus is buried in the old cemetery at Head's Harbour--several kilometers from Pilley's Island.

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918.

Postscript: As one of 'Coaker's Recruits,' Adolphus Locke's name is engraved in stained glass in a window of Holy Martyr's Church in Port Union, Newfoundland.



The Tragedy of HMS Neptune


Something terrible had happened on that dark December night, 76 years ago. That much was obvious to hundreds of families in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries, who began receiving the dreaded telegrams from the Casualty Reporting Office in Devonport, UK, on Christmas Eve. "We regret to inform you..." were the words that always preceded the bad news that would plunge a family into grief and often into the forlorn, endless hope that maybe the worst had not happened, that there was still a chance their loved one was alive.

Memorial to Bertram Pierce Winsor in Triton, NL. Behind the simple inscription lies a tragic story of one of the worst disasters suffered by the Royal Navy in WW2.

For Alan and Fanny Winsor living in Triton East, NL, the grim news that their son Bertie was missing, believed killed came via telegram on Boxing Day, 1941. Bertie's brother, Chesley, home on leave, delivered the devastating news to his mother and father.


Able Seaman Bertram Winsor, 1940

The two brothers, Bertie and Chesley Winsor from Triton, Notre Dame Bay, enlisted together in 1940, part of the 10th contingent of young men who answered the call sent out by Newfoundland governor, Sir Humphrey Walwyn for volunteers in the Royal Navy. The two brothers trained at Portsmouth on the southwest coast of England.


After their training, Chesley was posted to the G class destroyer, Greyhound, operating in the eastern Mediterranean, while Bertie was assigned to the much larger and more powerful cruiser, HMS Neptune, the lead warship in Force K, a raiding squadron, operating out of Malta.


Force K was made up of three cruisers, Neptune, Aurora, and Penelope and four escort destroyers, Kandahar, Lance, Lively, and Havock. A fourth cruiser, Ajax, the flagship of Rear Admiral Rawlings, could not sail because of mechanical problems. They were tasked with destroying enemy ships and their escorts ferrying supplies to German forces in North Africa. Winston Churchill himself stressed the importance of their mission in a message to the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean Station, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, "If any supplies get through, you have failed in your duty.




Special intelligence signals intercepted by the British on December 18, indicated that a large convoy of German and Italian ships had left Italy bound for Tripoli and Benghazi with reinforcements, heavy tanks, artillery, and other supplies for Rommel's Afrika Korps. Further Italian messages also indicated an abundance of enemy naval activity along the Libyan coast. Altogether, the large number and the importance of the enemy targets could not be ignored.


On short notice and without adequate briefing, Vice-Admiral at Malta (VA Malta), Sir Wilbraham Ford, ordered Force K to sea at 6 pm on the evening of December 18, on a course 195 degrees directly towards Tripoli. Vice Admiral Ford deemed the situation so urgent that Rear Admiral Rawlings who should have sailed with Force K as commander was left behind on the golf course. Rawlings' absence would prove disastrous.


Captain Rory O'Conor was now designated commander in his place. After clearing Malta Harbour, Captain O'Conor increased speed to 30 knots. A storm was brewing and by early evening it was pitch black. The destroyers struggled to keep pace with the faster cruisers.


 HMS Neptune, a formidable battlecruiser, with distinct tripod masts


By 1 am on December 19, Captain O'Conor had given the order to reduce speed as the squadron closed to within 20 miles of Tripoli and only 5 miles from known minefields laid by the French and the Italians earlier in the war. There should have been no danger from underwater mines at that position but a few minutes later the darkness lit up with the flash of an explosion just off Neptune's bow. Aurora and Penelope altered course to starboard when they too were buffeted by large explosions.


Force K's course and the location of the uncharted minefield


The cruisers had blundered into an uncharted minefield. A badly damaged Aurora and a slightly damaged Penelope manoeuvered out of the danger zone but in quick succession two more powerful explosions rocked Neptune as it tried to pull astern to safety. The cruiser now lay helpless in enemy waters without steering and without power. Dawn was approaching and the ever-present danger of air attack.


Kandahar, as the lead destroyer, attempted to reach Neptune to initiate a tow or at the very least to save the crew. It was not to be. Kandahar's luck ran out, too. An explosion tore away the aft end of the destroyer and it lay dead in the water. No others attempted to lend assistance to the two stricken warships. To do so would have been suicide.


As the two ships drifted on the strong current, Neptune took another powerful explosion amidship at 4 am. With its hull smashed, it turned over and sank. At dawn, those left on Kandahar looked out over the disaster zone where Neptune had been located. The ship and its crew of 766 had vanished without a trace. No debris field, no oil slick, no bodies, and of greater concern, no survivors were visible.


For all of next day, Kandahar drifted helplessly. Under cover of darkness, the destroyer, Jaguar, in heavy seas, attempted the tricky rescue of the crew. 178 men were taken off. Another 73 were casualties. Jaguar fired a torpedo into the abandoned destroyer and sent it to the bottom.


Aside from the official telegrams to next of kin, there was no public acknowledgment of the scale of the disaster. A Court of Inquiry was convened at Malta on January 8, 1942. The board's report was forwarded to the Admiralty in London two months later on March 3.


The report indicated that: Captain O'Conor of Neptune had unknowingly steered his ship into a minefield laid by the enemy 6 months previously in May and June 1941; Rear Admiral Rawlings knew of the existence of this new minefield and had he sailed with Force K, the disaster would have been avoided; Tensions between Vice Admiral Ford and Rear Admiral Rawlings at Base Malta led to the hurried dispatch of the squadron while the former was on the golf course; the minefield location was known to the submarine service and even by some officers of Force K. This information had not been passed on to the captain of Neptune.


The Board of Inquiry Report and the extent of the disaster remained a secret for 33 years. The report was released in 1974.


By that time many of the grieving relatives had passed on, without knowing what had transpired on that December night in 1941.



A photo of Bertie, back row, far left, and his shipmates. the picture had been stored in the attic of a New Zealand home for 75 years. Bertie's sister, Bride, identified her brother, She was 8 years old at the time of the tragedy.


Bertie's father, Alan, died in in 1945, aged 51 years. His mother, Fanny, died in 1980, at the age of 84.  She held to the belief that her son would one day return.



The wreck of the Neptune was identified by HMS Enterprise in February 2016 off the coast of Libya. Its precise location remains confidential. 


Six Neptune casualties are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Tripoli. Twenty other graves are marked, "Soldier known unto God."

Able Seaman Norman Walton was the lone survivor of the Neptune Disaster. He was picked up by an Italian torpedo boat on December 24, 1941, and remained a prisoner of war until 1943. Norman Walton died in 2005.




 Brother, Chesley, survived the war. He narrowly escaped death when Greyhound was attacked and sunk by German dive bombers in the eastern Mediterranean on May 22, 1941. When the call came to abandon ship, Chesley jumped into the water and swam towards a raft filled with men. With another dive bomber approaching and firing on the raft, Chesley dove under water. When he surfaced, everyone in the raft had been killed. Eventually, he was picked up by another destroyer, HMS Kandahar.

It took ten years for all the pieces of Bertie's story to fall into place. Special thanks for some of the details, go to Bertie's sister, Bride, in Triton; to his nephew, Chesley Jr., and to Commander John McGregor, R.N. retired, and chair of the Neptune Association. Shortly after we began our correspondence, Commander McGregor sent me a copy of the New Zealand photo.


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Dancing on Air: New Edition: New Publisher

Dancing on Air

The revised edition of Dancing on Air(Boulder Publications) is now available from Boulder -- also from Chapters/Indigo and Coles bookstores across Canada as well as at

Advance Reviews:

     "What a fascinating read this is. It has all the suspense of a true crime novel ...Newfoundland itself emerges as a colorful character..." -- editor, Friesen Press

     "In Dancing on Air, Eric Colbourne exposes the raw politics and behind the scenes intrigue of critical events in Newfoundland and Labrador history. In the process, he has skilfully unveiled the human faces of tragedies which have remained with us for well over half a century."   --Mervin Wiseman, Political Activist, NL.

     "This is a great way to present history. It's emotionally engaging, highly instructive, and jam-packed with fascinating details."  --Editor, Friesen Press.

     Dancing on Air: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland is a story of justice and injustice amidst war and political upheaval.

     On St. Patrick's Day, 1942 Herb Spratt, the youngest son of a prominent St. John's city councilor, murdered his girlfriend, Josephine O'Brien. A weak defense at a two day trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland resulted in a guilty verdict coupled with a strong recommendation for mercy. The chief justice pronounced a sentence of death on April 28, 1942, but that was not the end of the story.

     Six years later, on October 23, 1948, during a night of terror in the town of Norris Arm on the central north coast of the island, Alfred Beaton stabbed his girlfriend and shot to death another young woman. At least 10 other individuals narrowly escaped death as Beaton rampaged through the community with a high powered rifle.

     Beaton went to trial in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland on January 31, 1949. The jury returned a guilty verdict without a recommendation for mercy. The chief justice again imposed the death penalty.

Alfred Beaton (center) after the death sentence

The incidents come together as a gripping account of a flawed justice system and of the impact of public opinion. With its cast of powerful characters, the story reads like fiction but what happened was only too real.  

The Dancing on Air Mystery: Who was Portia?



On Monday, February 7, 1949, two days after Judge Emerson handed down the death penalty in the murder trial of Alfred Beaton, a mysterious letter appeared in the St. John's Evening Telegram. It contained an emotional plea for mercy and a call to action against capital punishment in Newfoundland. 

The eloquent letter writer persuaded thousands of citizens in the city and across Newfoundland and Labrador to demand an end to a barbaric practice. The final outcome was a surprise. Who was the mystery lady, Portia? For the first time in over 60 years, it is now possible to identify her--but the reader has to pick up the clues in the text.







Eric Colbourne grew up in the small community of Lush's Bight-Beaumont on the northeast coast of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. His earliest memories are of the tales spun by village elders under the flickering light of oil lamps in the kitchen of the family home on the isolated island. This tradition of story-telling is captured in his first book Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland which has enjoyed international success.


His latest work, Dancing on AIR: A Tale of Vengeance, Mercy, and the End of the Death Penalty in Newfoundland, published in October 2016 by Boulder Publications, represents an enduring fascination with the issue of capital punishment which he has researched extensively over many years in this country and around the world.


Colbourne was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland, The University of Reading in the UK, and at McGill University in Montreal. He has enjoyed a varied career in education, community development, tourism and senior management in the public service of Nunavut and the NWT. He currently devotes his time to writing and historical research.

Back Cover:Dancing on Air

Public Executions: Dancing on Air

At 5.32 a.m. on August 14, 1937 a young black man, Rainey Bethea was executed at Owensboro, Kentucky after his conviction for the rape of a white woman. A crowd, estimated at 20,000, gathered in Owensboro the day before and held 'hanging' parties throughout the night. One reporter likened the scene at the scaffold next morning to a sporting event. The hangman was intoxicated and barely managed to trip the lever. It was the last public hanging in the US.

The practice of public executions was abandoned in Canada in 1869 and in the UK in 1870. Many countries, notably Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran continue the practice to this day for crimes such as drug trafficking, witchcraft, disloyalty to the government. and homosexuality.


If you have comments on this site or reviews of Dancing on Air, please e-mail me at

Advice for Writers

Elmore Leonard, a well known mystery writer who died last year offered a number of rules for good writing. A few of them:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Keep your exclamations points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

3.Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

4.Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

From the Ballad of Reading Gaol

 It is sweet to dance to violins

  When love and life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

  is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

  To dance upon the air!


                       ...Oscar Wilde

Historic Vote

In 1948, residents of Newfoundland and Labrador decided their future in two referenda. In the first vote, held on June 3, Commission of Government was eliminated but neither Confederation with Canada nor Responsible Government received a majority, making a second referendum necessary. Voting was heavy, nearly 89% on June 3rd and 85% on July 22nd. 52.34% of voters chose Confederation on the second ballot.

Where to Buy Disappeared

     Disappeared:Stories From the Coast of Newfoundland is available in print and e-book from and in e-book format from Kobo, Chapters etc. To locate it on Amazon, type 'Disappeared Colbourne' into their 'find' bar. Delivery is about one week.

     Author copies are also available directly from Click on the facebook link and send the author a message. Price is $15 plus postage.

     Due to the short print run the book will not be available in most bookstores.

New Edition: Dancing on Air

More Questions About an Execution

The case of Wilbert Coffin who was convicted of murder and hanged in Quebec more than 60 years ago raises many new questions. For the full story see:

Excerpt from Dancing on Air

(A Hanging in Quebec, 1902)



...Until the mid-1800s some 200 offences were regarded as capital crimes that carried the death penalty. In a modern age most of those offences now seem absurd.


John Dean, variously described in the records as a child of eight or nine, may have been the youngest to suffer death by hanging. On February 23, 1629 he was convicted of arson at Abington, England for setting fire to two barns in the town of Winsor. The judge saw evidence of wickedness in the boy's actions, an attitude which led directly to his death sentence.


In early August, 1814, an unfortunate William Potter received the death penalty at the high court in Chelmsford, England, for damaging an orchard. He had chopped down an old apple tree for firewood. To no avail at his trial, William pleaded ignorance of the law. The judge had second thoughts several days after sentencing, but with the wheels of justice already in motion, William was hanged about a week later on August 12.

From our Readers: Dancing on Air

I finished the book this morning and my only regret is that I couldn't read more....The exacting research gives real context in shaping the period, but it's Colbourne's ability as a writer that allows the reader to feel the crisp bite of the wind, smell the damp night air, and experience the pain and anguish of the characters. Colbourne's deft footwork in handling the historical record while giving life to the characters is to be applauded, and it separates this work from the pack.  (Glen Tilley)


An absolutely lovely read...The book reads like a richly textured novel but the story is flawlessly woven into the historical account (or borne out of it). It is clear that the book is meticulously researched...An excellent read on all fronts. Difficult to put down! (Monty Henstridge)


Excerpt from the story 'The Black Arts Book' in Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland.


...Old Meriam was indeed dead but no one seemed to know how she had died or where she was buried, all of which added to the mystery of her life  and the power of her witchcraft.


After her death, the old house seemed lonely more than anything else, sitting way out on the point by the landwash, facing the September storms and enduring the sad soundings of the ocean swells.


With each passing season it added a deeper tone of grey as the harsh weather of late fall and winter took its toll. Nobody in the village could understand how the old house could withstand so much punishment.


Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland  has been named a top seller on KOBO, one of the largest e-book distributors in the world. It continues to receive positive reviews in Canada and fifteen other countries. Disappeared is also available from and in kindle and print format.