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Loss of HMS Neptune
19 December 1941
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On the night of 19 December 1941, Force K, consisting of Neptune, Aurora, Penelope were steaming in line ahead in that order with the destroyers Kandahar, Lance, Lively and Havock acting as a screen, on a southerly course at 28 knots, some 20 miles north of Tripoli. They were expecting to intercept a convoy of which details had been received from intelligence sources. Instead, they ran into a minefield at 0106. Neptune in the lead was at once disabled by the first contact. Immediately afterwards both Aurora and Penelope were almost lifted out of the water by mines exploded by their paravanes. Both ships managed to get clear although Aurora was holed and her speed reduced initially to 10 knots. Penelope suffered only minor damage. The surprise achieved by this minefield laid so far from the coast and in a depth of water hitherto considered too deep for mining was complete and devastating.
the last known photo of Neptune, taken from Queen Elizabeth as she sails for Malta Rate this photo
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0106 Explosion Neptune
0108 Explosion Aurora
0110 Explosion Penelope
0110 From Neptune by W/T
Turn together to 180 degrees. [This was assumed to be in error for, 'Turn 180 degrees to starboard together'.]
0113 From Aurora
My course and speed--030 degrees, 10 knots.
0116 Two more explosions Neptune
0123 From Aurora to destroyer
Send a destroyer alongside Neptune. 0126 From Aurora to Penelope
0136 From Aurora to Penelope
Neptune has been badly damaged. Have
detailed one destroyer to go alongside. 0141 From Neptune to Penelope
Lost all power and unable to steer.
0143 From Aurora to Penelope
Neptune seriously damaged. Am detailing one destroyer to go alongside her. Stand by her. Am damaged myself. Am taking three destroyers and steaming for Malta.
0149 From Penelope to Aurora
My 6-inch control out of action due to explosion, am otherwise all right. Can I help Neptune?
0152 From Aurora to Penelope
Do what you can for Neptune. Keep clear of minefield. Give me two destroyers.
0153 From Penelope to Lance
Pass me. I am going back to Neptune.
0154 From Penelope to Lively
0207 From Penelope to Lively
I must keep clear of minefield. Close Neptune and let me know what I can do. Go on: good luck.
0218 From Neptune to Aurora (made to Penelope)
Have told Kandahar to lay off fill I have drifted clear of the minefield. Am pre-paring to be taken in tow then.
0222 From Penelope to Lively
I will circle round here. I will come in if there is any chance of towing Neptune.
0227 From Penelope to Kandahar
Have told Lively to close Neptune. I will close and take Neptune in tow when signalled.
0254 From Lively to Penelope
Neptune mined, cannot steam. Ordered
to tow. Am going back to her now.
0308 From Penelope to Neptune
(Exchanged identifies.) Am ready to tow you. Shall I come now ?
0309 From Neptune to Penelope
Close on my port side.
0318 Explosion Kandahar
0320 From Neptune to Penelope
0325 From Penelope to Lively
Ferry survivors to me if necessary.
0326 From Lively to Penelope
Neptune calling Aurora
0327 From Penelope to Neptune
Aurora not in company, has gone to Malta damaged.
0334 From Kandahar to Penelope
After Engine Room bulkhead is holding and ship can be towed. But realise this is impossible.
0335 From Penelope to Kandahar
Regret I must keep clear.
0400 From Lively to Penelope
Kandahar mined. She has ordered me out of the field.
0405 From Kandahar to Penelope
Neptune has touched off another mine.
0407 From Penelope to Kandahar
I cannot help. God be with you.
0411 From Kandahar to Penelope
Suggest you should go. Consider send-
ing a submarine to pick up survivors.
0415 From Penelope to Lively
Course 010 degrees. Speed 15.
0416 From Lively to Penelope
Suggest I go for Neptune's survivors.
0417 From Penelope to Lively
Regret not approved.
0424 From Lively to Penelope
Suggest a submarine could be asked for. 0426 From Penelope to Lively
I am going to do that. I hate to leave them, but am afraid we must.
Signal log of HMS Penelope during the night of 18 / 19 December 1941
Neptune, immobilised and severely damaged, made preparations to be taken in tow and the destroyer leader, Kandahar (Commander W. G. A. Robson), edged in towards the stricken ship, only to be mined at 0318. The mine detonated her after magazine and she lost about 100ft of her stern and 60 men died.
Neptune now ordered the other destroyers to stay clear and some time later in the freshening wind drifted helplessly onto a second mine and then a third. In the meantime Commodore W. G. Agnew in Aurora had decided that, with his speed impaired, he must return to Malta without delay and so departed with Havock and Lance as escorts, leaving Penelope (Captain A. D. Nicholl) to stand by.
At 0334 Kandahar sent a damage report that her bulkhead was holding and she could be towed, but realised it was impossible because of the risks of further mines, and ordered Lively to return to Penelope. By 0404 Neptune drifted onto the fourth mine and the list to port began to increase gradually. With the light of dawn already showing in the Eastern sky Captain Nicholl departed with the remaining destroyer and a heavy heart. To abandon friends and colleagues in such circumstances is the hardest decision a Commanding Officer is ever called upon to make, but in this case no other course of action could have been justified. The message from Penelope to Kandahar at 0407 "I clearly cannot help. God be with you" and in reply from Kandahar at 0411 "Suggest you should go - consider sending a submarine for survivors" is very moving.
Nicholl had to abandon surviving men from doomed ships - he could not enter the minefield, dawn was approaching and he was only a few miles from the enemy coast and the danger of air strikes. Lively was reluctant to go and requested permission to go back at 0416 - which Penelope refused.
Neptune shortly rolled over and sank. Kandahar, after many anxious hours, drifted clear and 24 hours later HMS Jaguar (Lieutenant Commander L. R. R. Tyrwhitt) rescued 8 officers and 157 ratings and torpedoed the wreck of Kandahar. Of HMS Neptune and her company there was no sign. It later transpired that several, including the Captain, had survived the sinking on a raft. The raft was found 4 days later by 2 Italian torpedo boats with 16 men aboard including the Captain but with only one man alive. Leading Seaman Walton was the only survivor from Neptune's 765 officers and men.
Kandahar Rate this photo
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Neptune in 1941 Rate this photo
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Following is the report from Captain Agnew, the senior officer on Aurora, describing the incident.
H.M.S. "AURORA". No. B8/18. 25th December 1941.
LETTER OF PROCEEDINGS FOR THE PERIOD 18th to 19th DECEMBER 1941, INCLUDING THE LOSS of H.M. SHIPS "NEPTUNE" AND "KANDAHAR”
I have the honour to submit the following letter of proceedings and to forward the reports of the Commanding Officers of H.M. Ships "PENELOPE", "LANCE", "LIVELY" and 'HAVOC".
2 H.M. Ships "NEPTUNE", "AURORA", "PENELOPE", "KANDAHAR", "LANCE", "LIVELY" and "HAVOC" left Malta at 1800 on the 18th December with the object of intercepting an enemy convoy due to arrive at Tripoli about 0200 on the 19th December.
3. When in position 35° 40' N. 14° 18' E. course was altered to 196° speed 30 knots.
4. At 0100 speed was reduced to 28 knots and at 0104 to 24 knots.
5. At 0111 an explosion occurred on "NEPTUNE'S" starboard side amidships.
6. "AURORA" hauled out to starboard, but at 0112 a heavy explosion was felt on the Port side. The ship immediately took a list to Port and went down by the bows.
7. I then realised we were in a minefield, so altered course to 020°. I also reduced to 10 knots.
8. Between 0112 and 0125 "NEPTUNE" hit two more mines.
9. Meanwhile "AURORA", with "PENELOPE" in company, had altered to 080° to stand by clear of the minefield. "NEPTUNE" then signalled twice "Close" and four times "Come alongside". These signals were probably intended for a Destroyer. She also signalled that she was badly damaged and had lost all steam and power.
10. At this time I appreciated the situation as follows:-
(i) The only hope of saving "NEPTUNE" was to tow her out of the minefield before she drifted onto more mines.
(ii) It was not a Justifiable risk to send a cruiser or destroyer in to tow her out.
(iii) To save life, a destroyer must go alongside "NEPTUNE" to take off her ship's company.
(iv) "AURORA" was damaged and would probably not be able to steam much more than 10 knots. We were within 20 miles of Tripoli and liable to severe air attack if the Force remained there after daylight.
11. I therefore took the following action;-
(i) Told "KANDAHAR" that one Destroyer was to go alongside "NEPTUNE" and the other three to join me.
(ii) Told "PENELOPE" to stand by "NEPTUNE", but to keep clear of the Minefield, and to send me two Destroyers as escort,
12. My hope was that one Destroyer would take off "NEPTUNE'S" ship's company whilst I made as much progress as possible away from the enemy coast before daylight.
13. "AURORA", "LANCE" and "HAVOC" then set course 015° for Malta.
14. The subsequent proceedings in the vicinity of "NEPTUNE" are reported by the Commanding Officer of H.M.S. "PENELOPE".
15 When the damage to "AURORA" had been ascertained, she was worked up by stages to 18 knots which I considered was the maximum safe speed in the prevailing swell and sea,
16 When clear of the area I made the following cypher to the Vice Admiral, Malta:
(Begins) Immediate. To V.A.Malta from "AURORA."
"NEPTUNE" mined three times, "AURORA" once in estimated position 35° 10'N. 13° 12'E. "NEPTUNE" lost all steam and power. "PENELOPE" "KANDAHAR" and "LIVELY" standing by. My course and speed 015° 16 knots, "HAVOC" and "LANCE" in company.
Time of Origin 01453/19.
17. "AURORA", "LANCE" and "HAVOC" arrived at Malta without further incident at 1230 on the 19th December.
I have the honour to be
Sir, Your Obedient Servant,
W.G. Agnew CAPTAIN. Senior Officer, Force "K",
To learn more about HMS Neptune and to contribute to her story, visit the Association website and forum.