The December Disaster of HMS Neptune

HMS Neptune, lead cruiser of the Royal Navy's Force K, stationed at Malta in 1941

(Revised from a story posted in 2017)  

If you have never heard of the terrible disaster involving the cruiser, HMS Neptune, in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 19, 1941, you are not alone. The casualty Reporting Office of the Royal Navy in Devenport, England, sent the usual cryptic messages to next of kin over the Christmas holiday of that year. We regret to inform you... Then, the British Admiralty slapped a top-secret order on the incident. The inquiry report remained unseen and unopened in military archives for 33 years. Even next-of-kin were prevented from finding out what had happened to their loved ones.

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

The two brothers, Bertie and Chesley, enlisted together in 1940, part of the tenth contingent of young men who answered the call from Newfoundland Governor, Sir Humphrey Walwyn, for volunteers to join 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.

When Force K departed Malta on the evening of Friday, December 18, 1941, it included three cruisers, Neptune, Aurora, and Penelope, along with 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.

The squadron was 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 General Rommel's Afrika Korps. Further Italian messages indicated an abundance of enemy naval activity along the Libyan coast. Altogether, the large number and the importance of enemy targets could not be ignored.

On short notice, and without adequate briefing, Vice-Admiral at Malta, Sir Wilbraham Ford, ordered Force K to sea at 6 pm, December 18, on a course 195 degrees directly towards Tripoli. Vice-Admiral Ford deemed the situation so critical that Rear-Admiral Rawlings who should have sailed with Force K as the overall commander was left behind on the golf course. Ford replaced him with Captain Rory O'Conor. 

Rawlings' absence would prove disastrous.

After clearing Malta harbor, Captain O'Conor increased speed to 30 knots. A storm was brewing and by early evening, it was pitch black. 

At 1 am, Saturday, December 19, Captain O'Conor gave the order to reduce speed. Force K had now closed to within 20 miles of Tripoli and was just five miles from known minefields laid by the French and the Italians at the beginning of the war. At this position, there should have been no danger to his warships but a few minutes later, the darkness lit up with the flash of an explosion off Neptune's bow. Aurora and Penelope had immediately altered course to starboard when they too were buffeted by large explosions.

Force K had blundered into an uncharted minefield. The crippled Aurora and the slightly damaged Penelope manoeuvered out of the danger zone. Neptune was less fortunate. In quick succession, two more powerful explosions rocked Captain O'Conor's ship as he tried to pull away to safety. The cruiser now lay helpless in enemy waters without steering and power. Dawn approached with the ever-present danger of an air attack.

Khandahar, as the lead destroyer, tried to reach Neptune to attempt a tow, or at the very least to save the crew. It was not to be. Khandahar's luck ran out too. The aft end of the destroyer was torn away by an explosion and it lay dead in the water. None of the other ships attempted to lend assistance. To do so would have been suicide.

At 4 am, as the two ships drifted on the strong current, Neptune took another powerful explosion amidships, smashing its hull. It drifted for another 36 minutes before it turned over and sank. At dawn, those left on the Khandahar 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 floating bodies, and of greatest concern, no survivors were visible. Most would have gone down with the ship.

For all of Saturday, December 19, Khandahar drifted ESE for 50 miles. When darkness came, Jaguar, operating in heavy seas, located the stricken destroyer and attempted the tricky rescue of the crew. One hundred seventy-eight 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 the next of kin, there was no public acknowledgment of the scale of the disaster. A court of inquiry convened at Malta on January 8, 1942. The board's report arrived at the Admiralty in London two months later on March 3.

And there it sat, safely locked away until 1974. Not even Prime Minister Churchill knew of its existence.

For those who reviewed the report 33 years later, the conclusions revealed a litany of disastrous errors coupled with petty squabbles between senior officers. Captain O'Conor had indeed steered his ship into a minefield laid by the enemy six months previously in May and June 1941. That much was clear. Surprisingly, 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. Rear-Admiral Rawlings also knew the precise location of this new minefield and had he sailed with Force K, the disaster would have been avoided.

The hurried dispatch of Force K from Malta, without Admiral Rawlings, appeared to have been a deliberate act by Admiral Ford. Tensions and bad feelings between the two were well known on the base.

Bertie Winsor, back row, far left, and his shipmates on Neptune. 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 eight years old at the time of the tragedy.

Six named Neptune casualties are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Tripoli. Twenty other graves are marked Known unto God.

Able-seaman, Norman Walton, was the lone survivor of the Neptune disaster. He was picked up by the Italian torpedo boat, Calliope, on Christmas Eve after drifting some 75 miles on a Carley raft for five days. Walton's shipmate, Albert Price, was also alive and clinging to the raft. In the rough seas, while Calliope manoeuvered alongside, the raft caught a large wave and went under the stern. Alfred Price was killed by the propellor.

Norman Walton remained a prisoner of war until 1943. He died in 2005.

Bertie's 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, seven months before the Neptune's sinking. When the call came to abandon ship, Chesley jumped into the water and swam towards a raft filled with men. With another enemy dive bomber approaching and firing on the raft, he dove underwater. When he surfaced, everyone in the raft had been killed. Several days later, he was rescued by another destroyer, HMS Kandahar.

Bertie's memorial in Triton, Newfoundland, indicates that the action took place on December 25, 1941. Given the secrecy surrounding the sinking of the cruiser, this date was used on many memorials in the UK and in New Zealand where most of the seamen originated.

NB: The Neptune wreck was discovered off the Libyan coast in 2016 by HMS Enterprise, a hydrographic ship of the Royal Navy. She lies in quite deep water--over 150 meters. Her exact location remains a secret in order to deter wreck hunters. 

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, Royal Navy, 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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