This image of HMS Neptune with Table Mountain in the background says a lot about the South African naval personnel seconded to serve on Royal Navy vessels and their supreme sacrifice.
As Simonstown was a British naval base during the Second World War thousands of naval ratings and officers who volunteered to serve in the South African Navy – known as the South African Navy Forces – landed up on British vessels. So when one was sunk, as HMS Neptune was, inevitably there is a very long honour roll of South Africans. Read on for their story.
HMS Neptune was a Leander-class light cruiser commissioned into the Royal Navy on 12 February 1934 with the pennant number “20”.
HMS Neptune at sea in her heyday.
Force K, operating in the Mediterranean, including HMS Neptune, was sent out on 18 December 1941, to intercept an Axis forces convoy (German and Italian) bound for Tripoli,
On the night of 19 – 20 December, HMS Neptune, leading the line, struck two mines, part of a newly laid Italian minefield. The first struck the anti-mine screen, causing no damage. The second struck the bow hull. The other cruisers present, HMS Aurora and HMS 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. HMS Aurora was unable to render assistance as she was already down to 10 knots (19 km/h) and needed to turn back to Malta. HMS Penelope was also unable to assist.
The destroyers HMS Kandahar and HMS 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, killing 737 crew members. The other 30 initially survived the sinking but they too died. As a result, only one was still alive when their carley float was picked up five days later by the Italian torpedo boat Achille Papa.
The loss of HMS Neptune was the second most substantial loss of life suffered by the Royal Navy in the whole of the Mediterranean campaign, and ranks among the heaviest crew losses experienced in any naval theatre of World War II.
The Royal Marine band on the jetty by the stern of HMS Neptune at Simon’s Town in July 1940
This is the honour roll of South Africans lost that day lest we forget the heroism and sacrifice of these brave South African men.
ADAMS, Thomas A, Able Seaman, 67953 (SANF), MPK
CALDER, Frank T, Ordinary Seaman, 67971 (SANF), MPK
CAMPBELL, Roy M, Able Seaman, 67318 (SANF), MPK
DIXON, Serfas, Able Seaman, 67743 (SANF), MPK
FEW, Jim, Able Seaman, 67744 (SANF), MPK
HAINES, Eric G, Able Seaman, 67697 (SANF), MPK
HOOK, Aubrey C, Able Seaman, 67862 (SANF), MPK
HOWARD, Harold D, Signalman, 67289 (SANF), MPK
HUBBARD, Wallace S, Able Seaman, 67960 (SANF), MPK
KEMACK, Brian N, Signalman, 67883 (SANF), MPK
MERRYWEATHER, John, Able Seaman, 67952 (SANF), MPK
MEYRICK, Walter, Ordinary Signalman, 68155 (SANF), MPK
MORRIS, Rodney, Ordinary Signalman, 68596 (SANF), MPK
RANKIN, Cecil R, Signalman, 67879 (SANF), MPK
THORP, Edward C, Signalman, 67852 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Francis D, Able Seaman, 67462 (SANF), MPK
WILD, Ernest A, Able Seaman, 67929 (SANF), MPK
Other South Africans who had enlisted into the Royal Navy were also lost, these include (and by no means is this list definitive) the following:
OOSTERBERG, Leslie W, Stoker 1c, D/KX 96383, MPK
TOWNSEND, Henry C, Stoker 1c, D/KX 95146, MPK
May they Rest in Peace, these brave men whose duty is now done.
Researched by Peter Dickens, Sources – Wikipedia. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell
Great post Peter. Six of the Neptune crew came from East London. Missing in the above list is Stoker First Class Henry Charles Townsend of the the Royal Navy who also came from this city. The HMS Neptune Association has a very active administrator and an informative website.
I have included his name, thank you for the additional information Alan.
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I was recently sent some letters written by a great uncle, Kenneth Posgate, who was RAF but on the HMS Neptune. First in Gibraltar and later (1936) at Kiel Canal, the crew of where they went to Berlin to watch the Olympics. They were alongside the Graf Spee. The Germans said they were like a ‘bag of old rasor blades.’
He then comments that the Ajax and Achilles are the Neptune’s sister ships! Karma!