The Neptune Association

Board of Inquiry - comments

Board of Inquiry - comments

 

COMMENTS ON NEPTUNE BOARD OF ENQUIRY REPORT (draft 6)
 
 
Page 7Question 8                   “Minefields QB 10 and QB 11”
 
Q         There is a hand-written addition stating “Mediterranean Docket BM - Sec O Page 19 Tripoli shown as French”. Post war records show the minefields south of the Italian Minefield Barrier were 1 AN, 4 AN and 5 AN laid 4 Jun 1940, with “Harle” mines. These were French design but laid by the Italian Navy and probably were QB 10 and QB 11. Minefields 2 AN and 3 AN were swept in March 1941 to clear the way for laying Minefield T. When Admiral Cunningham (in Barham, Warspite, Valiant and Gloucester) bombarded Tripoli on April 21st 1941, it is probable that he knew from an enigma decrypt that two minefields had been swept and he took the chance (not admitted in any of the history books).
 
Page 8Question 11, 12 & 14              “Bombs not mines”
 
A.        According to these answers, the Wellingtons dropped bombs on the convoy not mines in the entrance of Tripoli harbour. I have a copy of the enigma decrypt of the Italian Naval report on the morning of 19/12/41 which states “Convoy is to enter harbour this morning after sweeping has taken place, owing to the probability of magnetic mines being dropped”. The convoy which Neptune had being trying to intercept, consisted of 3 big merchant ships PISANI, MONGINEVRO and NAPOLI escorted by 6 destroyers and 2 torpedo boats. Recent books written since the BOI was released in 1973 state that the Wellingtons dropped mines in the entrance of Tripoli harbour to hold up the convoy. Maybe there was a security reason why the BOI answers emphasise that it was bombs not mines. It seems strange why, if mines were dropped, it wasn’t admitted. Furthermore Commander Evans’ answer would be untruthful. A deeper reason may be that Wellingtons dropped mines elsewhere (ahead of Force K?) and the Italian suspicion of mines and the need for sweeping was used to cover it up. The sweeping hardly took very long as the convoy started entering Tripoli at 1015 on 19th (another enigma decrypt). The full decrypt reads “PISANI and MONGINEVRO escort VIVIALDI and Da RECCO arrived at Tripoli 1015/19. Destroyers ZERO, PESSAGE, Da NOLI and MALOCELLO arrived at 1400/19th and the NAPOLI who had been damaged by torpedo aircraft, escorted by 2 Torpedo Boats arrived 1600/19th.”
 
Page 8Question 15                 “Acoustic mines”
 
A         I must check what sort of mines were laid in the Sicilian Channel from both Italian and British records.
 
Page 9Question 22                 “Paravanes”
 
A         This answer (plus the record in her log) shows conclusively that Aurora had PV’s streamed for the whole of the passage south. Almost certainly Neptune did as well and this is backed up by evidence from Norman Walton who was in the PV streaming party. The reason for this slightly unusual passage procedure (wasteful on fuel) was probably the need to avoid wasting time slowing down for streaming them later, and the knowledge that they would probably have to go through the minefield. The cruisers could do 30 knots with PV’s streamed but the destroyers were struggling to keep up. If entering a minefield the cruisers would lead with PV’s out and the destroyers would follow exactly in their wake. Destroyers weren’t fitted with PV’s
 
 
A         I think this is where the oft stated misconception of O’Conor’s intention of “getting to the 100 fathom line and sweeping east” comes from. The Italian convoy route was well known. They would head for the coast keeping well to the east of Minefield T, and make a landfall at Cape Homs 30 miles east of Tripoli, before heading west, hugging the coast inside the mine barrier. Neptune was too late and on the wrong course to intercept the convoy outside Minefield T. In fact on his chosen course of 1970 the only way for him to get between the convoy and Tripoli was to go through the minefield. It was a stormy, moonless night and he could not have fired at and hit the ships from outside the minefield at a range of about 10 miles.
 
The oft quoted “100 fathom line” (20 miles north of Tripoli) is irrelevant too. The northern limit of Minefield T was 5 miles south of the 100 fathom line and the first minestrike at 0106 was probably14 miles north of Tripoli.
 
Page 10           Question 29                 “86 fathoms”
 
A         86 fathoms = 516 feet = 157 metres. This depth puts the mining position roughly halfway between the 200 metre and 100 metre depth contours and ties in quite well with the BOI agreed mining position but is about 5 miles to the south of the Hydrographic position for her wreck. See also hand written note in Kandahar’s Report of Proceedings on Page 40 para 3.
 
Page 12           Question 45                 “PV’s”
 
A         Further confirmation that Aurora had PV’s streamed all the way south.
 
Page 13           Question 48                 “soundings”
 
A         Probably he meant 0055? Penelope was still in harbour at Malta at 1255. He also states that the depth was greater than 120 fathoms.
 
Page 13           Question 49                 “acoustic mines”
 
A         Why is he worried about acoustic mines? British aircraft dropped acoustic mines. Did the Italians? The Italians had laid a massive minefield of antennae mines. Why would they be using acoustic mines as well? It is of course possible.
 
Page 20           Question 95                 “capsized within 10 minutes”
 
A         Kandahar’s Captain reckons Neptune capsized within 10 minutes of the last mine explosion, which would probably put her wreck about 1 mile to the east of minelane “c”.
 
Page 26 para2      Aircraft enemy report         “corrupt position”
 
The reported position of the 3 merchant ships at 2310/18th (100 degrees 6 miles from 33North 13East) puts them already south of the minefield to the north-west of Tripoli. The signal NR 1 was received corrupt in Penelope (see page 38) but then re-broadcast. Para 2 speculates that the position was 33 North 15East and mis-read before coding but this puts the enemy ships 100 miles from Tripoli – not true. My own analysis is that a position of 100 degrees 16 miles from 33North 13East would have been about correct.
 
Page 26/1        S.A.M. signal              “position to start search” and “minefield”
 
B.        gives size of enemy forces as 3 cruisers, 8 destroyers and 3 merchant vessels.
 
Q.        states position for the ASV Wellington to start looking for the convoy. De-crypted Enigma signals gave the precise convoy route, so the ASV Wellington knew where to go and look. All attacks had to follow a reconnaissance sighting to protect enigma knowledge.
 
Z.         – see hand-written note stating “Attention of surface forces is invited to QB 10 and 11”. I have seen it claimed that O’Conor enquired about minefields and this was added. I wonder when and by whom this note was added?
 
Page 27           VA Malta’s signal                   “bombs not mines”
 
A         This clearly says bombs and frankly it is more likely that Wellingtons would attack with bombs at night. They could have used mines carrying one mine per aircraft but why should VAM not tell Force B the truth? Yet most books published since 1975 state that the Wellingtons dropped mines to delay the convoy. I suspect that this came from the enigma intercept already mentioned on page 8.
 
Page 28           VA Malta’s signal                   “Swordfish attack”
 
Enigma decrypt shows that the merchant ship Napoli was damaged by an aircraft launched torpedo and I suspect this was the Swordfish attack. Napoli limped into Tripoli 6 hours after the first ships of the convoy.
 
Page 29           Aurora’s transcript                  “Neptune’s two signals”
 
The two signals Neptune sent at 1955 and 2136/18th clarify attack policy.
 
Page 30           Aurora telegram          “pieces of mine”
 
I find this strange. The signal was sent on 22 Dec. Aurora didn’t enter dock until 23rd Dec as recorded in her log. How could pieces have been so positively identified before docking? Were the pieces flung in the air, landing on the upper deck? One would expect stray bits of mine to be in the bottom of the ship, in flooded compartments that wouldn’t be visible or accessible until docked down.           
 
Page 32           Aurora Report of Proceedings            “drift”
 
At 2000, course steered was 1970 to 1980 with Drift estimated at ½ knot. For every 10 steered to starboard of track there would be a displacement of 2.6 miles to the west after a 150-mile passage (5 hours at 30 knots). If current and wind caused a 1-knot drift to the east, it would give a compensating displacement to the east of 5 miles after 5 hours.
 
N.B. Last but one para – the star sight taken at dawn (0730/19th) did not allow for drift.
 
Page 33           Penelope Report of Proceedings       “passage speed & wreck position”
 
Para 3 At 2100 Penelope gave Neptune estimate of passage speed as 29 ½ knots. She had paravanes streamed.
Para 9 Penelope's estimate of Neptune's first mine strike 330 13' N 130 23' E is 1 mile from Neptune’s charted wreck position of 330 13.3' N 130 22.4'E, but Neptune must have drifted 4 or 5 miles ESE in the 3 hours before she sank.
 
Page 34           Penelope Report of Proceedings         “signal to FO Malta for help”
 
At 0530B/19 “Neptune and Kandahar mined unable to steam in position 330 15’N, 130 30’E.” He doesn't say Neptune sank, but may not have known for certain - were some crew in boats? The position given is 7 miles ENE of the charted wreck position.
 
Page 36           Summary of W/T reports        “corrupt signal”
 
(b) NR1 is the signal that caused confusion. It was received corruptly in Penelope but was subsequently re-broadcast by Malta. The position puts the convoy already south of the minefield.
 
Page 37           Summary of W/T reports        “signal from Wellington”
 
(h) “Destroyer number O28 sinking – 0350 Tripoli 30 miles – crew on board.” This was Kandahar (pennant no.G28) sighted at 1026B/19th Dec. The position is odd in that it puts Kandahar 25 miles from land, a long way further North than reported anywhere else and 9.5 miles ENE of the wreck position. The aircraft could have got it wrong but it seems a long way out.
 
Further analysis of these signals is needed.    (by me)
 
Page 40           Kandahar’s Report of Proceedings                “position of mining”
 
In para 2 the position of Kandahar when Neptune was mined is a hand-written addition to the BOI report.
 
In para 3, the depth of water below Kandahar when Neptune was mined is a hand-written addition – 86 fathoms or 516 feet.
 
N.B. CO Kandahar did not make these alterations - his writing is different. (see the "s") Who made these changes and when? Could it have been his Navigator or someone trying to show Kandahar was further south when mined?
 
Page 41 Kandahar Report of Proceedings    “Kandahar position reports”
 
In paras 21 & 22, the positions of Kandahar the next day when drifting have been snow-paked out. Why? Do they disagree with desired position?
In paras 20, 24, 25 & 27, RAF planes flew over Kandahar and would have reported her position. (Marylands at 1000 and 1700, Blenheims at 1530 and the ASV Wellington at 1026 & 2200. Only the Wellington sightings are included in the BOI.
 
Page 43           Kandahar’s manoeuvres                      “Kandahar’s course after mining”
 
This is really interesting. It shows that Kandahar led the destroyers through the line of mines twice. Maybe the cruisers had set off the mines on their track, and they were just lucky.
 
Page 48    Para 7         Havock’s Report of Proceedings        “Minefield position”
 
Havock didn’t think Force B/K had hit declared minefields QB10 or 11.
 
Page 49    Para 3         Jaguar’s Report of Proceedings          “Course steered”
 
Jaguar steered course of 1880 to find Kandahar.
 
 Page 51    Para 13      Jaguar’s Report of Proceedings          “Drift of Kandahar”
 
Kandahar’s drift estimated as 3 knots after 1300/19th. I think the drift rate after being mined is more likely to have been fairly constant, and Kandahar’s position reports were in error as they couldn’t quite believe how fast they were drifting to the east – see comments on page 41 above.
 
Page 51    Para 15       Jaguar’s Report of Proceedings          “ASV Wellington”
 
ASV Wellington deserving of highest praise. The fact that Kandahar was found was entirely due to skill and perseverance of the crew. (Sadly the pilot was killed a few days later.)
 
 
CONCLUSIONS
 
Page 56 para 3 (i)        As regards the sinking                        “Neptune”
 
Neptune struck the first mine at 0106. The last explosion was at 0404, so she was afloat for at least 3 hours before sinking.
 
Page 56 para 3 (ii)       As regards the sinking                        “Kandahar”
 
Kandahar therefore drifted 50 miles to the East-South-East in 26.5 hours.
 
Page 56 para 4 (i)        Secret & Confidential matter              “Neptune”
 
Depth depends on how long she stayed afloat after the final explosion.
 
Page 57 para 4 (ii)       Secret & Confidential matter             “Kandahar”
 
Kandahar had 26 hours in which to destroy her books so would have done so.
 
Page 57 para 5 (i)        As regards loss of life             “Neptune”
 
..So the RAF report that both ships were still afloat the next day was wrong. This was announced to Penelope’s ships company on return to Malta on afternoon of 19 Dec.
 
Page 57 para 5 (vi)      As regards loss of life             “Jaguar”
 
The delay in sending Jaguar on her rescue mission can still be criticised and she did brilliantly to find Kandahar at night with the help of the ASV Wellington.
 
Page 58 para 7 (i)        Circumstances leading to loss             “Neptune”
 
Does this include the details of Minefield T ?
 
Page 58 para 7 (ii)       Circumstances leading to loss             “Course set”
 
The course of 1950 was set by FO Malta not Neptune who steered 1960 or 1970 to compensate for the eastward drift caused by current and wind. Every degree would give a displacement of 2.6 miles after steaming 150 miles.
 
Page 58 para 7 (iv)      Circumstances leading to loss             “Mines encountered”
 
Not QB 10 or QB 11. Probably Minefield T.
 
 
?? I doubt it – see below.
 
Page 58 para 8 (iii)      As regards the minefield                     “Extent of minefield”
 
This is the most surprising statement in the whole Board of Inquiry Report. The co-ordinates chosen exactly encompass the “unexpected” Minefield T, which proves that before the Report was forwarded on 8th January 1942, the full detail of this minefield was known – presumably from enigma decrypts of the Italian mining operational order in May and June 1941. Whether Captain O’Conor knew the details before setting out on 18th December is unknown but it would be surprising if Rear Admiral Rawlings hadn’t been briefed.
 
Page 58 para 9 2nd Para           General                        “Intentions of CO Neptune”
 
“…place his squadron between enemy and Tripoli…..on point of heading eastward.” No evidence is given to support this conclusion. Yes, he wanted place his squadron between the enemy and Tripoli, and the reduction in speed suggests he knew he was approaching a minefield. There was no point whatsoever in heading eastward - the Italian convoy was already almost off Tripoli to the South. Why steam flat out for 5 hours on a course of 1950 if the course to make the coast to the east of the minefield was 1850 ?
 
Page 59 para 11           General                                    “100 fathom line”
 
It is quite clear that the 100 fathom line was irrelevant and is a “red herring”. “20 miles from Tripoli in a depth of water and distance from land that made it totally unexpected” is the quote so often used in History books in support of the alleged position of the mining. If they were 20 miles from land they didn’t hit the Italian minefield. The evidence shows that the first mine strike was much closer.
 
Page 59 para 12           General                        “pieces of mine found in Aurora”
 
Aurora sent the signal identifying the mines as German on 22 Dec 41 but didn’t enter dock until 23 Dec. I have seen the damage photos of Aurora in dock. Any pieces of mine would have been embedded in flooded compartments near the bottom of the ship, and finding them would be unlikely until docked down. I think the statement is another “red herring” to protect the knowledge obtained from enigma decrypts of the type of mines in Minefield T. Our own forces needed to know the type of mine in the newly published minefield (QBB 224) when operating in the area. (see page 58 para 8 (iv)).
 
Page 59 para 13           General                        “Vice Admiral Malta - 100 fathom line”
 
A danger line? It wasn’t.
 
Page 59 para 14           General                        “Not attributable…Vice Admiral Malta”
 
This gets FO Malta staff off the hook….. but the course of 1950 was set by FO Malta not Neptune.
 
APPENDIX 1
 
Page 62 para 5             Captain Simpson         “Submarine patrols”
 
“Submarines had not been patrolling within the 100 fathom line to the north of Tripoli since May 1941. Before that date it was patrolled constantly for 6 months.” Minefield T was laid on May 1st and June 3rd 1941. Three submarines had been lost in it - Undaunted on May 9th, P32 and P33 in August. This is another strong pointer that the co-ordinates of Minefield T were known probably from enigma decrypts.
 
Page 64 para 3             Lt Cdr Waymouth                  “Enemy position report”
 
Signal sent at 0110/19th (4 minutes after Neptune was mined) giving enemy position as 080 degrees 15 miles from Tripoli. Merchant vessels 2, destroyers 5. This is a very accurate report since the convoy actually consisted of 3 Merchant vessels and 6 destroyers.
 
Page 66 para 15           Lt Cdr Hiscock                       “German antennae mine”
 
This is a very definite report. Possibly the proof of German mines from exhibits was a cover for the fact that we knew from enigma decrypts that German antennae mines had been laid in Minefield T. Enigma knowledge had to be protected at all times.
 
Page 67 para 2             C in C Med.                “Minefields QB 10 and 11”
 
The inner minefield was laid by the French Navy in May 1940. Details declared.

 

 

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