Memorial services in Dunedin and Bluff on Sunday 11 December will observe the 70th anniversary of New Zealand’s worst naval loss, when 150 New Zealanders on board the cruiser HMS NEPTUNE were killed as their ship was mined and sunk off the Libyan coast in 1941.
HMS NEPTUNE was intended to become New Zealand’s third cruiser during WWII. Instead, the ship was mined and sunk in the Mediterranean on 19 December 1941. Only one of the ship's 750-strong company survived the disaster.
During WWII the Royal Navy operated as ‘the Empire’s Navy’, taking operational control of the Dominions’ ships. New Zealanders, Australians others from across the British Empire were also inducted into service on the Royal Navy’s warships. In line with this policy, it was proposed in mid-1941 that New Zealanders in the Royal Navy help man a third cruiser, HMS NEPTUNE. The plan was that the cruiser would be deployed to the Pacific and gradually be crewed entirely by New Zealanders.
Re-commissioned at the time the BISMARCK was threatening British convoy routes, NEPTUNE patrolled down the Atlantic to South Africa. But instead of heading to New Zealand, NEPTUNE was sent to the Mediterranean, where the need for fighting ships was urgent. Once NEPTUNE reached Alexandria in Egypt, more Kiwis from throughout the Mediterranean Fleet volunteered to join the cruiser, confident that sooner or later the ship would be heading out to the Pacific. By late 1941 a total of 150 New Zealanders, two officers and 148 sailors had joined NEPTUNE.
Instead, NEPTUNE had five busy months in action in the Eastern Mediterranean, until December 1941. The great challenge was to stop the flow of reinforcements to Germany’s General Rommel and the Afrika Korps in Libya. The Royal Navy’s striking forces operating from Malta were, overall, very successful and NEPTUNE joined a crack team. Our cruiser became the leader of ‘Force K’, which sailed on the evening of 18 December to intercept an enemy convoy heading to Tripoli.
But no interception took place; instead Force K sailed into a minefield off Tripoli. NEPTUNE and HMS KHANDAHAR (a destroyer) were sunk, and another ship damaged. Between NEPTUNE and the KHANDAHAR over 800 men lost their lives that night. It was one of the worst naval disasters of the war for the Royal Navy.
The loss of the NEPTUNE had international impact; along with the 150 telegrams to New Zealand families, some 600 more telegrams had to be sent that Christmas to relatives of NEPTUNE’s sailors in Britain, South Africa, Australia, Malta, Canada, and Rhodesia.
One man did survive from NEPTUNE: AB Norman Walton, who was taken prisoner. Much later, in the 1990s, he visited New Zealand, bringing memories and some comfort to those who still grieved for their lost sons or brothers.
Today, NEPTUNE’s name continues in the Royal Navy as the name of the submarine base at Faslane, Scotland.
This year NEPTUNE, and all those from the RNZN lost at sea in WWII, will be commemorated with memorial services. Ex-naval men and women and the general public are invited to take part in those services.
Dunedin: Dunedin lost 30 sailors with NEPTUNE. The RNZNVR Association (Otago) hosts a NEPTUNE Church Service at 1100 at HMNZS TOROA (211 St Andrew Street, Dunedin) on Sunday 11 December. The Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Tony Parr will be attending the service.
Enquiries to the President of the RNZNVR Association (Otago) Mr Les Gillespie, phone (03) 489 6013.
Invercargill and Bluff: A service to be held at the Bluff Maritime Museum at 1100 on Sunday 11 December. It is believed four Southlanders were serving in NEPTUNE at the time of her loss. HMNZS OTAGO is expected to be in Bluff and some of the ship's company will attend.
Enquiries to: LTCDR Nigel Finnerty RNZN (Rtd) phone 027 223 9685.