HMS NEPTUNE - Leander Class Cruiser

Royal Navy battleship HMS Neptune



Leander class light cruiser similar to HMS Neptune




The 19th December 1941 was a black day for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Following so soon after the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in the Far East, it was not surprising that the British worked hard to conceal the scale of the calamity at the time. Details of the losses of HMS Neptune would not be released for six months.

Force K, the Malta based striking squadron which had so successfully taken the fight to the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean, struck calamity when it entered an unmarked minefield. HMS Neptune, leading the small task force hit the first mine and the other Light cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope were hit as well. The destroyer HMS Kandahar went to assist HMS Neptune but struck a mine herself. The remaining destroyer HMS Lively was ordered not to approach HMS Neptune. Soon HMS Neptune had hit a total of four mines and was sinking, only around 30 men from the complement of 762 got off the ship. Only one of them survived.

Able Seaman Norman Walton was the sole survivor from the Light Cruiser HMS Neptune. He was not able to provide an account of events until 1943.




" We had been at action stations since 8 p.m., when just after midnight there was an explosion off our starboard bow. The captain stopped engines and went astern but we hit another mine, blowing the screws and most of the stern away. Then we were hit abaft the funnel. We were ordered up top and had a bad list to port and were down in the stern. Aurora had also been mined and badly damaged and Kandahar came up to take us in tow.

With seven others, I was asked to go forward to help with the tow, but Kandahar then hit a mine and slewed off. Then we hit a fourth mine and we were lifted up and dropped back again. I got the Petty Officer of the forecastle from beneath the anchor chain but he had broken his back. Four of us Price, Middleton, Quinn and me, climbed down the anchor. They jumped in but I wanted somewhere to swim to, and not to just float around, and when I saw a Carley raft I jumped in and swam to it.

I took the tow rope back to Middleton, who had no lifejacket and when we got back to the raft it was crowded – about 30 people on and around it. We saw the ship capsize and sink and gave her a cheer as she went down. We picked up Captain O’Conor who was clinging to what looked like an anchor buoy and he and three other officers finished up on a cork raft attached to ours. The sea was thick with oil and most of us had swallowed a lot of it. A few died around us that night and at daylight there were 16 of us left. The weather was pretty rough and two officers tried to swim towards the Kandahar but they never made it.

Three more ratings died and we picked up an oar and I tried to steer the raft but could make no headway. By the fourth day there were only four of us left including the Captain who died that night. I was in the water for three days before being able to find room aboard the raft. Most of the lads just gave up the ghost but I was very fit because of playing so much sport and this is probably why I survived. I had a smashed leg and by Christmas Eve on the 5th day, there was only Price and myself left. I saw an aircraft; waved to it and an hour later an Italian torpedo boat came alongside and threw me a line. I collapsed when I got on board and woke up on Christmas Day in a Tripoli hospital. They told me Price was dead.

I was totally blind throughout Christmas because of the oil and was praying it was only temporary. On Boxing Day I got my sight back and looked in a mirror. My tongue was swollen to twice its size and my nose spread across my face, which was black from the oil and from exposure. Still, apart from my broken leg I was almost back to normal by New Year’s Day, when I was put on a ship bound for Italy and full of German and Italian troops going on leave.

I spent 15 months in various prisoner-of-war camps until told I was going to be repatriated and arrived home in June 1943. The Italians had told me I was the only Neptune survivor, but I could never believe that until the Navy confirmed it for me in 1943. Sometimes even now it is hard to take in."




HMS Neptune was a Leander-class light cruiser which served with the Royal Navy during World War II.

Neptune was the fourth ship of its class and was the ninth Royal Navy vessel to carry the name. Built by Portsmouth Dockyard, the vessel was laid down on 24 September 1931, launched on 31 January 1933, and commissioned into the Royal Navy on 12 February 1934 with the pennant number "20".





During World War II, Neptune operated with a crew drawn predominantly from the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.

In December 1939, several months after war was declared, Neptune was patrolling in the South Atlantic in pursuit of German surface raider pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee. Neptune, with other patrolling Royal Navy heavy units, was sent to Uruguay in the aftermath of the Battle of the River Plate. However, she was still in transit when the Germans scuttled Graf Spee on 17 December.

Neptune was the first British ship to spot the Italian Fleet in the battle of Calabria, on 9 July 1940, marking also the first time since the Napoleonic wars that the Mediterranean Fleet received the signal 'Enemy Battle Fleet in Sight'. During the subsequent engagement, she was hit by the Italian light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi. The 6-inch shell splinters damaged her floatplane beyond repair, its wreckage being thrown into the sea. Minutes later her main guns struck the heavy cruiser Bolzano three times, inflicting some damage on her torpedo room, below the water line and the "B" turret. During 1941, she led Force K, a raiding squadron of cruisers. Their task was to intercept and destroy German and Italian convoys en route to Libya. The convoys were supplying Rommel's Afrika Korps in North Africa with troops and equipment.



HMS Neptune under steam




Force K was sent out on 18 December 1941, to intercept a convoy bound for Tripoli, right after the brief fleet engagement known as First Battle of Sirte.

On the night of 19 – 20 December, Neptune, leading the line, struck two mines, part of a newly laid Italian minefield. The other cruisers present, Aurora and Penelope, also struck mines.

While reversing out of the minefield, Neptune struck a third mine, which took off her propellers and left her dead in the water. Aurora was unable to render assistance as she was already down to 10 knots (19 km/h) and needed to turn back to Malta. Penelope was also unable to assist.

The destroyers Kandahar and Lively were sent into the minefield to attempt a tow. The former struck a mine and began drifting. Neptune then signalled for Lively to keep clear. (Kandahar was later evacuated and torpedoed by the destroyer Jaguar, to prevent her capture.)

Neptune hit a fourth mine and quickly capsized. Only 30 seamen, out of her complement of 767, initially survived the sinking, and only one was still alive when their lifeboat was picked up five days later by the Italian torpedo boat Achille Papa.




The Leander class was influenced by the York-class heavy cruiser, and was an attempt to better provide for the role of commerce protection. The 7,000-7,200 ton Leanders were armed with eight BL 6 inch Mk XXIII naval guns in twin turrets, two forward and two aft. Their secondary armament consisted of four QF 4 inch Mk V naval guns, which were later replaced by twin mountings for eight guns (the later QF 4 inch Mk XVI naval gun). Their anti-aircraft weaponry consisted of twelve 0.5-inch (13 mm) Vickers machine guns in three quadruple mounts. They also shipped a bank of four 21-inch (530 mm) torpedo tubes on each beam and provision was made in the design for carriage of two catapult-launched Fairey Seafox aircraft.

Speed was 32 knots (59 km/h), and 845 tons of armour was provided. The first five vessels did not contain dispersed machinery; the boiler rooms were arranged together and exhausted into a single funnel, a unique feature amongst British cruisers. This meant that damage amidships was more liable to disable all the boiler rooms.




During the war, significant modifications were made to the vessels. Various additional anti-aircraft armaments were added, and the two New Zealand vessels removed a turret to carry heavier 20 mm and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns in its place. Changes to the aircraft launching capability were reported, although use is unclear. Both Fairey Swordfish and Supermarine Walrus aircraft are reported to have been used by the class.








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