- Rodwell, E
- History - WW2
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
He was therefore an experienced officer, and as he stood on his bridge that night was fully assured that Intelligence had given him all available information on known and possible minefields in the Tripoli area, and also all enemy naval and air activity in the same proximity. But the Allies knew nothing of the fields laid on 3rd June. They were of a new German contact design, laid deep, and undetected since the lay. The Force ran on southwards to its destiny.
At 0055 on the 19th December the Force estimated its position as 014 degrees 16 miles from Tripoli, but this was probably farther south than the true position, and more likely 20 miles off. Captain A. D. Nicholl of Penelope was suspicious and took no chances, and he gave orders for the echo sounder to be started to give warning of a possible field. At the same time, for some strange reason, Penelope was the only ship to restream paravanes after leaving Malta. It was a hunch that was to pay off. They pushed on over the 100 fathom line, O’Conor still believing it safe to do so, and at 0100 ordered speed to be reduced to 28 knots and then 24. He was about to commence a turn to take him in a sweep along the coast. The reduction in speed did not save him.
Between 0106 and 0111 Neptune was silhouetted against a dull orange explosion. This incident brought the most confusing reports in the following ships. Aurora reported the explosion at 0111 on Neptune’s starboard side, but Penelope reported it as occurring at 0106 on the cruiser’s port side. Havock reported the same but was not sure what had caused it. Other ships in the line realised something had happened, while those at the rear saw and heard nothing. Actually, Neptune had set off two mines aft on her port side which wrecked her rudder, steering machinery and screws. She was now disabled and drifting in the most perilous position a ship can find herself. On seeing the explosion in Neptune, Aurora hauled out of line to starboard but a minute later, with reference to her report, set off a mine on her port side abreast ‘B’ position. This caused immediate flooding of oil tanks and storerooms and controlled flooding of the platform deck. She took on a list of 11 degrees to port, which was corrected by counter flooding. ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets were both out of action and buckling of the hull was severe.
Captain Nicholl in Penelope, seeing the carnage ahead of him thought both cruisers had been torpedoed and hauled away to starboard to avoid the suspected U-boat attack, but at 0110 there was an explosion in her port paravane which caused slight structural damage. He then realised they were in a minefield and that his ‘hunch’ had really paid off. The leading destroyer, Kandahar, seeing what had occurred ahead, led the remaining ships round to port but on receipt of a ‘Blue 180’ from Neptune, led round again to the south.
The drama and confusion of those few minutes was now over leaving one cruiser mortally damaged, another seriously and one less slightly, and the destroyers undamaged and slightly bewildered by the events. That’s how quick it is with mines, for they cannot think. Then Aurora made to the leader ‘Neptune has been badly damaged. Have detailed one destroyer to go alongside‘ and from Neptune came ‘Have lost all power and unable to steer‘. Normality had returned.
O’Conor now faced the most vital decisions of his career. The Force was his responsibility, so was Neptune, his own command, and most important, from the humanitarian point of view, his ship’s company. About 25 of them had lost their lives when she was struck, and others wounded, but this left over 700 to tend to her. The two other cruisers were only slightly better off than himself, he could not risk the destroyers which were unharmed, but at the same time, everything had to be done to extricate them all from this dilemma.
Lance was closest ship to Neptune and sighted her stopped but apparently on an even keel. She closed in on the stricken cruiser and as she came abreast of her, Neptune exploded a third mine under her port quarter. Neptune was now in a hopeless position with her underwater area a shambles and it was now that Kandahar decided to go alongside and take off her company while, at the same time, informing Lance to take command of the remaining destroyers and to close Aurora. But poor old ‘tail end Charlie’, Lively, was still in the dark as to what had happened, having seen the initial explosion, which she had taken to be the cruiser opening fire with her after mounts. It was now that Kandahar put her in the picture and stated her intentions. Meanwhile, Penelope had joined Aurora and both ships altered to 080 degrees to clear the field.
Captain Agnew of Aurora, who had now assumed command of the Force, decided that the only action left was to attempt to tow Neptune out of her predicament or send a destroyer in to take off her company. His decision was that one destroyer was to take off Neptune’s survivors, the other three were to escort him to Malta, and Penelope was to take charge and assist Neptune as far as was possible. Kandahar had already taken on the task of the first part of the order. At the same time, the heavily damaged Aurora made for Malta escorted by Lance and Havock, intent on clearing the enemy coast before daylight. All three were alongside without any further incident at 1230 on the 19th.
Penelope meanwhile had ordered Lively to approach the sinking cruiser and ascertain the true situation. He himself stood off outside the suspected perimeter of the field and sending Lively in was considered a justifiable risk. Lively reported that Neptune was preparing herself to be towed once she had drifted clear of the field and Penelope recovered her paravanes and prepared to tow aft.
It was at this time that Kandahar had her stern blown off when she touched off a mine. It was 0304 on the morning of 19th. Things happened quickly. Penelope turned away and at the same time Neptune made the signal ‘Keep Away’ and ordering Lively to remain stopped. A few minutes later the damaged Kandahar made to Lively ‘Get out of it’. The destroyer withdrew and reported the situation to Penelope, ending very indignantly ‘>Kandahar has been mined and has ordered me out of the field‘. Neptune by now was down by the stern and listing about seven degrees to port. The end came quickly. At about 0400 on the 19th she struck a fourth mine and in six minutes rolled slowly over and foundered in 80 fathoms. At dawn the sea was bare of any survivors of her.
During her four hour ordeal Neptune’s damage control parties had battled to save her and her seamen had prepared her for tow, but when the time came to abandon ship, it was found to have been to no avail, those who attempted to swim or paddle to the damaged but still floating Kandahar, succumbed to the mounting seas. Owing to her damage only two Carley floats were available to the survivors.
The morning of the 19th found one of these rafts with only sixteen occupants in or clinging to it, Captain O’Conor and 15 ratings. Over the next four days they died, Captain O’Conor on the 23rd, and by daylight on the 24th, only Able Seaman J. N. Walton and A/Leading Seaman A. W. F. Price remained although, by now, Price was unconscious. At 1600 on that Christmas Eve of 1941, the Italian torpedo boat Calliope took the two men from the raft but Price died without regaining consciousness, leaving Walton the only survivor of Neptune, and a prisoner-of-war to boot. Forty-seven officers and 716 ratings had perished with her.
If ever a ship had died manned by Empire, it was Neptune. In addition to her RN crew and the 150 New Zealanders, there were two Australians, Ordinary Seamen K. Campbell and S. Kemp, two Maltese ratings, and one officer and 17 ratings of the South African Navy also lost their lives.