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New Zealanders mark Neptune tragedy by joining service in Faslane

21 December 2023
Senior figures from New Zealand gathered with personnel and civilians from Faslane to remember the darkest hour in their country’s naval history.

There has been no greater loss of New Zealand life at sea – 150 souls – than the sinking of cruiser HMS Neptune in the Mediterranean in December 1941.

Of 765 men aboard the Neptune, 764 died, killed when the ship struck a series of mines off Tripoli while leading a task group attempting to intercept an enemy convoy.

In fact, around 30 crew survived the sinking, but died of wounds or exposure as they awaited rescue – which only came five days later.

By then only 20-year-old Able Seaman Norman Walton – he’d managed to clamber down the ship’s anchor and find a raft – was still alive. He was eventually picked up by an Italian ship and spent the next 15 months as a prisoner of war. 

When told that no-one else had survived Norman refused to believe it. It wasn’t until he was repatriated in 1943 and the Royal Navy confirmed the story that the reality hit home; even then it was a reality that was “hard to take in”.

Fifty years later he visited New Zealand to unveil a memorial in Nelson to honour his fallen shipmates. He died aged 84 in 2005.

The name Neptune was resurrected by the Royal Navy in the 1960s, proudly borne by the new establishment of HM Naval Base Clyde, where an imposing memorial can be found in honour of the men of 1941.

To mark the 82nd anniversary of the tragedy, Scott Williamson, Honorary Consul for New Zealand in Scotland, accompanied by Commander Wayne Andrew and Commander Jennie Hoadley of the Royal New Zealand Navy attended the annual service of thanksgiving.

“It was a privilege and an honour on behalf of the Government and People of New Zealand to be able to remember all those who lost their lives in the sinking of HMS Neptune on 19th December 1941,” Mr Williamson said.

“Although we gathered at Faslane on a wet, windy morning in December our passing discomfort really counts for nothing as we recall the horror of all of those on board – particularly the sole survivor. It is at times like this that we appreciate the sacrifice that all these sailors made.”

Commander Peter Noblett, the Base Executive Officer, organised the service and invited the New Zealand representatives.

“It is only since becoming part of HMS Neptune, the shore establishment here at Clyde that I have learned the full story of the disaster and that it was one of the biggest losses to befall the Royal Navy in World War 2,” he explained.

“I also learned that Neptune was still an important part of New Zealand history, as with 150 men lost in the disaster, it is the worst maritime loss in the history of the Royal New Zealand Navy and is widely commemorated throughout that country, especially in their Reserve units from which the 150 volunteers had come.”

He continued “It was therefore extremely pleasing to welcome not only the New Zealand Honorary Consul but also two serving Royal New Zealand Navy personnel to the ceremony this year and have the New Zealand Flag and Ensign fly proudly alongside the White Ensign on the Main Mast.”

The service was led by HMS Neptune Chaplain, Reverend Mark Allsopp, wreaths were laid, Mr Walton’s harrowing story read by Leading Hand Jhobell Pigganto, and the two nations’ National Anthems brought proceedings to a close.

A similar event took place in Bluff, New Zealand, attended by the Chief of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Rear Admiral David Proctor, along with present and past navy staff and members of the public.

Although we gathered at Faslane on a wet, windy morning in December our passing discomfort really counts for nothing as we recall the horror of all of those on board – particularly the sole survivor

Scott Williamson, Honorary New Zealand Consul

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