Honouring the sailors who gave their lives in wartime

MOST people are familiar with the big events of the Second World War.

But few will have heard about the disaster of HMS Neptune in 1941.

Neptune led a squadron of ships from Malta in 1941. Their aim was to seek and destroy an enemy convoy carrying supplies for the German army en route to Tripoli.

Disaster struck when they ran into a huge minefield – more than 1,800 mines covering 77 sq miles.

Neptune struck one of them at 1.05am on December 19.

In trying to reverse out of the uncharted minefield she then hit two more in succession, destroying her propellors and steering gear.

Two other ships – HMS Aurora and Penelope – struck mines as well. The destroyer Kandahr, while trying to go to Neptune’s aid, hit another mine, blowing off her stern.

After a short time with no ability to move or steer herself, Neptune drifted into a fourth mine. Just after 4am HMS Neptune capsized and sank.

Although a few men survived the sinking, it was five days before the raft they clung to was found on Christmas Eve.

By then there was just a single survivor from Neptune’s crew of 838. Some 109 teenagers were among the dead, the youngest was just 15. The eldest casualty was 45.

The disaster was the Navy’s fifth worse loss of life during the war.

One of those who died was leading stoker William Griffiths, aged 25.

Now his uncle, Graham Davies, who lives on Lang Farm in Daventry, is a trustee of the Neptune Association.

He said: “Because it was wartime the sinking wasn’t well publicised.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s when details of what happened were released by the Government.

“My mother, whose brother was on board, never knew what happened.

“I came across the association when I was reading a piece in a newspaper and that’s helped me discover what happened.”

The Neptune Association was founded in 2002 to promote historical and educational research into the incident.

The association is largely made up of people, like Mr Davies, who have a connection to those who served on HMS Neptune.

The ship’s sole survivor, John Norman Walton, was president of the association until his death in 2005.

As a mark of respect, members of the association, including Mr Davies, will, for the first time, march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall this Sunday as part of the national Remembrance event.

The march-past, 70 years after the tragedy, will be an emotional time for all those taking part, including Mr Davies.

He said: “It’s going to be a difficult day.

“I will be saying goodbye to someone I never knew, and I’m doing it for my mother who never had the chance to find out what happened to her brother.

“It should be a tremendous occasion.”

Later this month, on November 26, a short service will be conducted at the memorial built at the National Memorial Arboretum by the association.

For more information on the association, HMS Neptune, and the disaster go to www.hmsneptune.com.