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.
Back in Alexandria the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant had remained in port because there were insufficient destroyers to provide anti-submarine escorts. Unfortunately they were no safer here than at sea. Frank Wade was a midshipman on board the Queen Elizabeth. There was an early morning commotion:
… “Valiant” , lying ahead of us, had just signalled C–in-C that she had discovered two Italians swimming around the anti-torpedo nets of the ship. One was a Lieutenant-Commander and the other a Petty Officer. It seemed incredible that the Italians had actually penetrated the boom, despite all our precautions. Things died down and we went back to bed. At about quarter to six I woke up and decided to go on deck. As I was talking my friend, the officer of the watch, the early morning glow highlighted the buildings at Ras el Tin and the French cruisers. Then there was a low, rumbling sound like a tympani drum roll which climaxed in an explosive roar. My friend pointed to “Valiant” which was already beginning to take on a slight list. All the while C-in-C stood silently watching.
Then we blew up. Again there was the low, rumbling underwater explosion and the quarterdeck was thrown upwards about six inches, maybe more. I bent my legs and threw out my arms to keep my balance as the huge ship lurched beneath me. A blast of thick smoke and flame shot out of the funnel.The admiral remained there, as silent and imperturbable as always, steadying himself against the starboard guardrail for balance.
One of the Italian underwater “chariot” submersibles that carried out the attack on Alexandria harbour is in the Imperial War Museum in London, England, as are two 15-inch guns of the type used in “Queen Elizabeth.”
More of Frank Wade’s account can be read at A Midshipman’s War , or in his autobiography Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War: A Young Man in the Mediterranean Naval War, 1941-1943.
At a stroke the Mediterranean Fleet was hopelessly crippled. Following the loss of HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham this was a serious shift in the balance of power. Fortunately it was possible to conceal the state of the damage to Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, both ships had settled evenly on their keels, only a few feet lower in the water than they had been. All the Italian commando’s on the raid had been captured – so the Italians never learnt what had actually happened.
The ship’s boilers continued to make smoke as if they were ready to go to sea. Soon pictures of the two ships in port appeared in British newspapers showing them apparently undamaged. The Italian Navy were deceived and never realised the advantage they had.