Mark Alford's Journal (HMS Lively)Mark Alford's Journal (HMS Lively)
H.M.S. NEPTUNE on 18th, 19th and 22nd December 1941
Extracts from the journal of Midshipman M. H. T. Alford, Royal Navy on board H.M.S. Lively
Thursday December 18th 1941
At dawn our force was some 120 miles from Malta, which at 16 knots meant we would not enter Valetta until after midday.
At 0800 NEPTUNE and KANDAHAR were sighted on the starboard beam coming up to join us. JAGUAR who had got detached from them in the darkness joined up half an hour later. The screen then consisted of six destroyers with us on the port wing.
NEPTUNE and her destroyers were 30 miles astern of us yesterday and saw the bombers passing over to us on their way to Cyrenaica.
At 0850 an Italian reconnaissance machine appeared momentarily from a cloud, and dodged back into it when PENELOPE opened fire. We saw her no more but felt very tense as we had now been spotted. AURORA signalled that any W/T report from the aircraft was to be jammed, but no such report was heard by the fleet. Shortly after this S.O.K. made ‘Help Major’ to Malta W/T, a signal for fighter protection generally only used when being bombed. The reply came back that six Hurricanes were being sent and we breathed more freely waiting for them to arrive.
At 1040 six aircraft were spotted flying in formation at 6000 feet. It was a pleasant sight. Soon they were overhead flying in close formation at 3000 feet which they had descended to so as to make sure they would be recognised. The Hurricanes cruising at some 250 knots had difficulty in remaining over our 16 knot convoy and they flashed backwards and forwards overhead.
After they had been around for an hour we all felt safe as houses. I happened to be looking at PENELOPE away to starboard when suddenly several spiky columns of water raised themselves astern of her. Heavy calibre bombs. My head went back and I saw three Junkers 88’s flying across the fleet in our direction. At that moment three Hurricanes appeared ahead of us seemingly unaware of what was happening: then the buzz got round and they shot off on our port quarter to intercept, climbing to 6000 feet at which the Junkers were flying in formation. They caught them up at the edge of a large cloud. We heard machine gun fire as they all disappeared into it.
A few minutes later three Savoia Marchetti SM79 bombers came in and dropped torpedoes astern of the fleet. The most intrepid of these tri motored monoplanes flew a couple of cables away from us down our starboard side. Hands on the upper deck were ordered to cover stations but he did not use his machine guns. The Pom Pom thundered away with seemingly no effect and the brave wop went off home.
Three more torpedo bombers approaching from astern in formation were suddenly surprised by three Hurricanes who swooped down on them from behind and all soon disappeared over the horizon.
Well that was that, we saw no more enemy aircraft. At 1320 we made the entrance to the swept channel and passed the breakwater 1500 in front of BRECONSHIRE.
We secured in Dockyard Creek and an oiler at once came alongside. This was followed by ammunition lighter from which we embarked a large number of SAP and a few HA. So that meant we were due for a night action.
True to forecast we slipped at 1815, after sunset and proceeded out of harbour. Clear of the breakwater NEPTUNE came past us sounding off night action stations. Then we formed single line ahead in the sequence NEPTUNE (Captain R. C. O’Conor), AURORA, PENELOPE, KANDAHAR, HAVOCK, LANCE , LIVELY, ourselves the usual tail;. Passing Delimara light we set off on a course 196° at 29 knots.
It was filthily wet on the bridge as we crashed along in a heavy sea with no moon. This operation had been so hastily arranged that we did not know what it was about until the First Watch when it was flashed down the line.
We were out to intercept an Italian convoy of four ships escorted by 2 or 3 cruisers and about 7 destroyers. At the present time it was creeping along the African coast westwards towards Tripoli, for which we were heading.
Friday December 19th 1941
At 0110 we checked our headlong rush to the South and waited for reports from our A/SV Wellington. To increase the chances of interception, for we were in the hunting ground, we split up into two groups NEPTUNE, KANDAHAR and LANCE; AURORA, PENELOPE , HAVOCK and LIVELY. The lack of previous organisation was beginning to show.
At 0125 there was an explosion on our port beam some five miles away. We were in 2nd degree at the time, and at once went to action stations. Later we learnt it was NEPTUNE striking a mine.
This further disorganised the proceedings and we carried out an incredible number of turns in the inky blackness. At 0145 AURORA ordered us to close NEPTUNE and see what we could do.
In my own mind I have no idea as to the disposition of the seven ships and I doubt anyone had. But at about 0230 we contacted and prepared to close NEPTUNE. She signalled us to prepare to tow aft. When everything had been got ready we prepared to go alongside.
As we approached to within a cable of her on the starboard quarter we could see no damage, but apparently she had lost steam and was unable to move. While we were shaping up to go alongside her starboard side NEPTUNE signalled us to come up her port side, so we wheeled away to starboard to go right round and approach again.
Suddenly the sky behind us became a bright orange colour and looking round I saw a sort of Brocks firework display – a cone of red tracer superimposed on a bright yellow background. Then all was quiet again, and darkness descended. It was KANDAHAR being mined. She had been standing by NEPTUNE too and was some six cables from us.
This was the first real indication we had that we were in a minefield and that NEPTUNE had not merely picked up a stray floating mine.
NEPTUNE then signalled us to heave to which we promptly did. There were times in this confusing business when eighteen inch lights were used, and if the Italians had seen the flashing they would have put it down to a Battlefleet at least.
All these proceedings were taking place some eighteen miles off Tripoli and not once were we disturbed by the Italians. In the meantime our would be victims were arriving at their destination but it was obvious, with the disorganisation, that even a single ship could not proceed to molest them.
At 0310 we were most surprised to get the signal ‘Get out of it’ from KANDAHAR. Evidently some of her was still on the surface, a fact we did not think possible.
We joined PENELOPE who we thought was AURORA at the time and asked permission to go back for survivors. ‘Regret not approved’ was the answer. As it was only a few hours from dawn we set off at 25 knots (PENELOPE’s maximum) towards Malta.
At 0340 NEPTUNE was seen to strike a second mine as she drifted down to leeward through the field.
At 0800 we sighted AURORA, LANCE and HAVOCK ahead and closed them. AURORA had received more serious damage than PENELOPE, by mines going off in the vicinity of the ship.
We passed them and went on ahead into the swept channel being joined by six Hurricanes and an Albacore who carried out an A/S patrol ahead of us.
Passing the breakwater at 1230 we secured in Dockyard Creek. During the whole forenoon we had seen no hostile aircraft.
Monday December 22nd 1941
Raids continued today. A force of 22 Hurricanes came weaving around over the Grand Harbour. The fighters are reported to be downing 1 raider a day on average. But they generally make their interceptions out to sea when the bombers are returning to base.
I went over to JAGUAR today and found a champagne party in progress. It was occasioned like this:- On the 19th, the day we got back from the minefield episode, reconnaissance aircraft from Luqa reported that KANDAHAR was still afloat, but there was no sign of NEPTUNE. All that day the former drifted about just out of sight of Tripolitania. Why they were never molested by the enemy is a mystery, perhaps they left her as bait.
In the evening JAGUAR sailed from here and with the aid of an A/SV Wellington they found KANDAHAR in the early hours of the morning watch the next day. A heavy swell was running and JAGUAR was unable to get alongside, so the survivors jumped in and swam the few yards intervening. When this had been done KANDAHAR was sunk by a torpedo and JAGUAR then set off at high speed for home, arriving in the afternoon after an uneventful journey.
From some of the KANDAHARs I learnt that they had been preparing to go alongside NEPTUNE when they were mined. The after magazine went up and the stern as far as the forward cabin flat was blown off. A depth charge landed full pitch on the bridge but did not detonate. Two men were in the wardroom at the time preparing it for NEPTUNE survivors when the magazine went up. One woke up on the searchlight platform and another dimly remembers climbing onto the upper deck.
After we left NEPTUNE struck two more mines, making four in all. At the last one she broke in two and went down quickly, the bow touching the stern. The next day they did not even see any wreckage.
When JAGUAR got back with 157 survivors no preparations had been made to receive them here, so the cruisers produced food and clothing for them. But today one could meet bands of men in assorted clothes, well ‘lit-up’ inside doing the rounds. Corrodino canteen fund had been turned over to them for a celebration.
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