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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gallipoli Crusade 

Remembering the Sacrifice of Private George Simms

 

 

Oh well I remember that terrible day

When our blood stained the sand and the water

The classic lines appear in And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a poignant song written by Australian singer-songwriter, Eric Bogle, in 1971. The young soldier in the ballad loses both legs to shellfire in the 1915 battle at Suvla Bay during the ill-fated allied campaign to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Performers often dedicate the anti-war anthem to all young soldiers who have suffered and died in distant conflicts overseas.

George Simms, whose name and epitaph appears on a monument to the war dead in Pilley's Island, Newfoundland, was one of those young men.

Killed in action in Gallipoli, December 30, 1915, reads the inscription.

Private Simms' journey to war lasted less than a year. His untimely death on Cape Helles at the entrance to the Dardanelles in faraway Turkey was just one more fatality in the brutal struggle that became known to history as the Gallipoli campaign.

When Private Simms joined up in 1915, neither he nor anyone else in the regiment knew anything about Gallipoli. As the poet, Paul O'Neil, observed in his poem about the death of another young Newfoundlander at Suvla, he may perhaps have seen/the name Gallipoli/on some school map/of Turkey or the Dardanelles/but thought no more/than if it had been/Samarkand or Timbuktu/

And for many of us today, the name Gallipoli summons no recollection of the sacrifice and death of many young Newfoundland soldiers. One of the most misguided disasters of WW1 does not register in our collective memory. Beaumont-Hamel dominates, of course, as does Monchy-le-Preux, and Passchendaele, and the 100-day advance into Germany in 1918.

 

 

Allied landing at Suvla Bay 1915 

 

When Germany, Great Britain, and the other major powers plunged headlong into war on August 3, 1914, George Simms, a 27-year-old fisherman, lived with his parents, William and Lenora Simms, in Little Harbour just outside the once-thriving mining community of Pilley's Island, Newfoundland.

As a dominion in the British Empire, Newfoundland formally entered the conflict along with the mother country on the day that war was declared. By mid-August, the Government of Newfoundland had issued a call for volunteers to fight for king and country. George Simms decided early on that he would answer the call.

He traveled to St. John's on New year's Day 1915 and after passing the required medical examinations, joined the First Newfoundland Regiment on January 20. With just a month of initial training at Pleasantville in the city, Private Simms and his companions in 'C' Company boarded the Bowering Brothers passenger ship Stephano to Halifax and then joined the troopship Orduna for the transatlantic crossing to Liverpool in the UK.

From there they traveled to the capital city of Scotland, where they billeted in the famous Edinburgh Castle, which dated from the twelfth century. The British War Council's decision to mount a spring invasion of Turkey shortened the Newfoundlanders' stopover in the town.

A request in early January 1915 from Russia, an ally of Great Britain, triggered events leading up to the Gallipoli invasion. Russia had long held the ambition of invading Ottoman Turkey and seizing Constantinople, the birthplace of the Orthodox Christian Church. The appeal fell on the receptive ears of many in the war council, including the young Winston Churchill. It set in motion a disastrous chain of events. Like crusades of an earlier age, this campaign, too, was destined to end badly.

The regiment moved to Stobs Military Camp at Hawick in southern Scotland for basic training and then in August to Camp Aldershot in Berkshire, England, for a few weeks of intense battle-readiness exercises before embarking for active service in Gallipoli.

Private Simms, along with 1075 officers and men of the First Newfoundland Regiment, landed at Kangeroo Beach, Suvla Bay, in the early morning hours of September 20. The men barely had time to scrape shallow trenches in the rocky beachhead before the Turkish artillery spotted them at dawn. Within minutes they had suffered their first casualties. Sixteen men, caught in the open, were wounded by shrapnel when an enemy shell landed nearby--a costly lesson in the reality of war.

Over the next week, the Newfoundlanders adjusted to their surroundings and within ten days, began their rotation in the firing line. In some locations along the rocky hillsides, barely fifty yards separated their trenches from those of the Turks.

Snipers presented an ever-present danger, but in the hot October weather of Suvla, a higher risk existed in no-man's land where the corpses of Turkish and allied soldiers decomposed in the heat. The resulting plague of flies, fleas, and rats, bred diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. Lice, too, were a constant scourge.

November brought hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, flooded trenches, and then bitterly cold conditions. Frostbite, trench-foot, and pneumonia disabled over fifty percent of the battalion.

During those difficult days, Private Simms became a comforting presence for the younger soldiers in his platoon. His maturity shone in the presence of young men barely out of childhood.

In the face of mounting casualties and insurmountable difficulties in supply and reinforcement, the British War Council decided to abandon the campaign in Gallipoli. Under cover of darkness on December 19, allied soldiers, including the Newfoundlanders, began the evacuation. They withdrew to waiting troop transports which carried them to the Greek islands of Imbros and Mudros. The successful withdrawal under the very noses of the Turkish forces was a miracle in itself.

Only the British forces furthest east at Cape Helles remained on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The Newfoundland ranks had been cut in half by casualties and illness. Private George Simms remained one of the healthy.

Everyone looked forward to a well-earned rest. It lasted for barely two days. In one of those vagaries of war, the Greek laborers employed by the British forces at Cape Helles decided they had had enough of the intolerable conditions. Without notice, they took to their boats and sailed away.

The British commander, General Sir Charles Munro, ordered the Newfoundland battalion back to Cape Helles to replace the Greeks. In effect, the soldiers recently removed from the firing line at Suvla Bay, now took on the tasks of cooks, diggers, and pack-rats.

Constant Turkish shelling from across the Dardanelles and from the new enemy positions at Suvla created an even deadlier environment than the one they had left behind.

On the morning of Thursday, December 30, one of those shells hit the improvised kitchen area where Private George Simms was working. Shrapnel tore through his legs and abdomen. He died at 3 pm that day in the 57th. Field Hospital.

On January 9, the British forces at Cape Helles slipped silently away in the dead of night. The allied withdrawal from Gallipoli was complete.

Twelve days later, the Methodist Minister at Pilley's Island, Rev. John Sceviour, received a telegram from R. B. Bennett, Colonial Secretary of Newfoundland, advising him to deliver the tragic news to Private Simms' mother, Nora (Lenora), in Little Harbour.

NB: The First Newfoundland Regiment suffered 142 casualties at Gallipoli. Disease disabled more than three-times that number.

The allies (Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and India) lost 265,000. The Turkish forces, 300,000.

NB: Click the link for Liam Clancy's excellent version of And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Remembering the Casualties of the Spanish Civil War 

 

 They looked for me in the cafes, cemeteries, and churches but they did not find me...

 Federco Garcia Lorca

 

 Eric Ledrew from Lush's Bight, Newfoundland, left home in the spring of 1925 to work as a sailor on the Halifax-New York run. For the next twelve years, he stayed in contact with his family. In his last letter dated in the winter of 1937, he indicated that he was going away for a while and would not be in contact for perhaps five years. He was never heard from again.

Across Canada, many other young men and a few women were to tell loved ones a similar story before embarking on an unknown journey. They traveled a circuitous route, often under an assumed name with false identification papers. Their destination: Spain. Why they went to that country is a complex story.

Much like Eric Ledrew, Wilson Joseph Pomeroy alias Jose Palmer left Newfoundland for Halifax in 1927. After a short stint as a sailor, he drifted from Halifax to Montreal and then to Vancouver looking for work at a time when the Great Depression had taken a stranglehold on the country. Born on Fogo Island, he had worked as a miner in Newfoundland and subsequently became a member of the militant United Mine Workers of America. In 1937, now a veteran of the infamous 1930s work camps and the 'On to Ottawa Trek,' he arrived in Spain as a volunteer in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the Mac-Paps) to fight for Spanish democracy.

 

  Joseph Wilson Pomeroy--The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion 

 

In February 1936, Spain elected its first truly democratic government, a loose coalition of leftist parties dedicated to bringing extensive reform to Spanish society and breaking the centuries-old feudal grip of land-owners, the church, and the military. The moves by the new government caused widespread alarm among the ruling classes, all of whom viewed the new government as a band of socialists, communists, and Jews, intent on the destruction of western civilization.

Barely five months after the election, General Francesco Franco launched a military coup in Spanish Morocco aimed at overthrowing the fledgling government. Within a few days, the military uprising had spread to the mainland of Spain. The coup leaders expected to occupy Madrid within a few days.

The rebel units of the military were met with stiff resistance from loyalist elements and from ordinary civilians who took up arms to defend their government. The Spanish Civil War had begun.

Back in Canada, the civil war in Spain received little attention. The entire country was consumed by the Great Depression. A hundred thousand jobless young men roamed the streets of the nation's cities. Unemployment was at 30%. A monthly dole allowance of $3 barely kept starvation at bay. International trade slowed to a trickle and to compound the misery, crop failures, and drought destroyed the economic lifeblood of the Prairie Provinces.

Richard Bedford Bennett, Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, between 1930 and 1935, saw communists around every corner, distrusted the trade union movement, and believed that in time the Great Depression would go away on its own, a do-nothing attitude that did little to relieve the national misery.

Bennett's one enduring legacy was to set up a system of work camps to contain the large number of unemployed men wandering the country. The work camps emerged as nothing more than a system of enforced labour. Men were paid 15 to 20 cents a day to slave on make-work projects such as road building--a strategy to keep the unemployed from coming under the influence of communists and trade unions.

In the summer of 1935, unrest across Canada came to a head. In British Columbia, men from the camps went on strike and converged on Vancouver. After several days of violent unrest in the streets, the leaders of the movement decided on a strategy to take the protests to Ottawa and to the very doors of parliament. Hundreds took the freight trains out of Vancouver heading east. All along the route, they were joined by hundreds more intent on carrying their 'On to Ottawa Trek' all the way to R. B. Bennett's office. 

Bennett would have none of it. He ordered that the 'mob' be stopped at all costs in Regina.

The RCMP and city police in Regina attacked the 'trekkers' with bayonets, bullets, and truncheons. Hundreds were seriously injured. To diffuse the situation, Bennett finally agreed to meet with a delegation representing the workers.

Nothing constructive came from the meeting. Workers in the country were further alienated and conservatism became more entrenched in the Canadian power structure.

In 1936 and 37, the conflict in Spain became a rallying cry for the disaffected in this country. Canadian workers viewed the civil war between the democratic forces in Spain and the nationalist forces of General Franco as having many similarities to their own struggle for survival. The alarming rise of fascist organizations in cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg added to the general sense of unease.

By late 1936, a trickle of Canadian volunteers had opted to join the fight in Spain. By 1937, it had become a steady stream.

Volunteers saw themselves as champions of freedom, fighting the nationalist forces of Franco and his fascist allies, Germany and Italy.

The volunteers became known as the International Brigades with the United States and Canada at the forefront. By June 1937, the Canadian contingent was large enough to form its own battalion 'the Mac-Paps.' They fought and died at the Battles of Jarama, Brunete, and Quinto; at Zaragosa; and at the Ebro River.

They were poorly trained and poorly equipped. A motley band of miners, mill-workers, and lumberjacks; fishermen, sailors, and dock-workers; shop-owners, nurses, and teachers. They fought on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War under the hostile eye of their own government which in 1937 made it illegal for any Canadian to join the conflict.

By early fall 1938, the forces of Franco in combination with those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sensed victory. On the Ebro River, the International Brigades were overwhelmed. In September, the Spanish Government made the ill-fated decision to withdraw all foreign fighters and send them home. Perhaps the gesture would convince Franco to do the same with forces from Nazi Germany and Italy, they thought. It was not to be. In March 1939, the civil war ended with a Franco victory. Spain entered a long night of right-wing dictatorship which lasted until 1975.

Wilson Joseph Pomeroy was wounded at the Battle of the Ebro River on July 25, 1938. He subsequently made his way back to Canada after deserting from the hospital on September 10.

James Walsh, another Newfoundlander from Conception Harbour, lay wounded in the same hospital. Eventually, he too returned to Canada.

Eric Ledrew did not return.

Of the nearly 1800 Canadian volunteers, 50% died in the conflict. Many of those have not been identified. They fought under assumed names. Others, who were prisoners of war, were executed by Franco's forces and buried in mass graves.

The civilian toll was equally grim. Conservative estimates place those numbers at 600,000. Thousands more died in Franco's prisons after the conflict.

(With thanks to Library and Archives Canada and to relatives of Joseph Wilson Pomeroy)