Eric Colbourne

 

 

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 stands 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.

 

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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.