A Summary of Nigel Fawcett Midshipman's Journal
January 1940 to February 1941A Summary of Nigel Fawcett Midshipman's Journal
January 1940 to February 1941
What follows is a year in the life of NEPTUNE during the early years of WWII. As she darts about so much do dig out your World Atlas and get a real feel for the places visited, actions undertaken and distances travelled.
The Neptune Association has been given the Journal of Nigel Fawcett, a Midshipman serving in HMS Neptune from January 1940 to February 1941, when she arrived back in Chatham for a short refit.
Nigel first saw Neptune at Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, after a trip from the UK in the Armed Merchant Cruiser Mooltan. His initial description of her is “a fine looking ship” and how proud he was to have been appointed to her..
A Midshipman, at this early stage of his Naval career had been at the Naval College, Dartmouth, for 5 years, undertaking a normal school curriculum but on top of this concentrated Naval instruction. Now, with his first ship he could put all this training into practice. For the next 18 months he would be further instructed on board and at the same time be kept extremely busy with all sorts of tasks to widen his experience including watch keeping at sea and in harbour, boat running, manning armament at Action and Defence Stations, intensive grooming in Gunnery, Navigation, Communications and general ship running, and finally writing his Journal.
The Journal, a plague in all Midshipman’s lives, was a daily record of their activity, observations and comment. The ‘Snottie’s Nurse’, ( A Snottie being the universal Naval slang for a Midshipman), a Senior Lieutenant Commander, would be responsible for the Midshipman’s progress and coordination and, as part of this supervision, would check the Journal regularly, making suitable comment, and every month or so the Captain would review each Journal, probably also commenting.
So here we have another reasonably accurate history of Neptune between 19th January, 1940 and 10th February, 1941, when Nigel left her. Although we know from other sources her movements and activities this gives us a different slant of life in a warship, sometimes in a war zone, sometimes enjoying banyans, (Beach picnics), on a deserted beach, sometimes plunged into rough weather but like many others, short periods of high activity and fright, combined with long stretches of not much happening.
So joining ones first ship, meeting the more senior Midshipmen, normally by six months, the Sub of the Gunroom, Lord North, and getting settled in is an adventure in itself. Everything is much more cramped than expected, not enough room to stow all your gear, which included both blue and white uniform, and a hammock. While Officers in a Cruiser live in the Wardroom Midshipmen live in the Gunroom, a much smaller and cramped compartment aft in the ship, hot and airless in the tropics.
So you settle in, meet the Captain, Commander (Second in Command), Medical Officer, Chaplain and many others, and tour the ship, huge and mysterious to young new eyes, and then glorious, a beach banyan to cool off with a most enjoyable swim, and finally a film on the Quarterdeck. So life, maybe , is not so harsh after all.
Early days were spent finding one way around the ship and instructions on Torpedoes, depth charges and paravanes, and a lecture form the Doctor about the power of the sun, all having suffered sunburn after the beach swim!
On 3rd February HMS Exeter of River Plate fame, entered Freetown Harbour, accompanied by Ark Royal and Renown. Neptune’s crew gave Exeter “Three Cheers” and although she had been patched up in the Falklands she still looked badly damaged. The Battle of the River Plate, the first real naval battle of WWII, was a great victory so in this Journal is a very detailed sketch plan of the ship tracks and manoeuvers, both of Graff Spee and the RN/RNZN ships, Exeter, Ajax and Achilles on 5 December, 1939.
So, on 5 February, off to sea for the first time to exercise Action Station, a first night watch on the Bridge and, as traditional, making cups of kai (cocoa) for the Officer of the Watch. A quick visit to Bathurst, the Capital of the Gambia, which included Church on the Quarterdeck conducted by the Bishop of Gambia. Then a dash to Dakar for docking and essential underwater work. Life in dock was not too hot but the opportunity was also taken to take the sailing gig up the coast and later a 24 hour beach camp which included cricket, bathing and a bbq. But all jollity and entertainment had to cease as back to sea, gunnery shoots whilst enroute to Freetown again, and at last mail, a vital component in keeping everyone happy.
And the French, which way would the French Navy go if France was invaded, plenty of French ships around in Dakar and Freetown. Something to think about. Harbour routine harshly interrupted on Feb 22 with a rush to sea to seek an isolated but valuable German merchant ship; thrilling to be out in the Atlantic, that there really is a war on and we are in it but no sign of our quarry even as far west as the Brazilian coast so back to Freetown. Shortly to sea again, heading south past St Helena to Cape Town, from whites to blues and finally into Simon’s Town on 13 March, having weathered Cape rollers for the first time. Rough stuff. Leave and instruction both taken seriously before seagoing again on 7 April to escort a convoy north. Elsewhere Germany has attacked Norway so the Naval actions in northern Norway were closely followed. Freetown by 18 April but now boat running in harbour, a pleasant change.
Off again, north to Gibraltar to back up the Mediterranean Fleet should the Italians enter the war. The famous Rock in sight on the 23 April, alongside, a quick trip to Gieves, the Naval tailors, Admirals visit and off again to Malta on the 24th with sister ship Orion. More warlike now at sea, dawn and dusk Action Stations and Defence watch cruising, ready for anything. Gozo sighted so round the north side of Malta into Grand Harbour, marvellous narrow harbour with Valetta rising up to the west, all whitish yellow, very hard on the eyes. To sea, with Admiral Cunningham embarked, to Bizerta for talks with the French Admiral, then back to Malta. Off to Alexandria, now the main British base, lots of ships in harbour, both British and French Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers. We remain in the 4th Degree of AA readiness with instruction and exams to keep us on our toes.
Today, May 10th, Germany marched into the Benelux Countries, a repeat of 1914, Warspite arrives as reinforcement. At home Winston Churchill takes over as Prime Minister and we have our first dust and sand storm, most unpleasant. To sea with the Fleet, most strange to see so many ships manoeuvring when we have been so used to being a single ship. Harbour and sea is the current routine but on 24th May we change Captains. Captain Morse is relieved by Captain O’Conor.
Captain Morse, before leaving, addressed the ships company saying “he was very sorry that he had not taken us into action and secondly brought us home victorious”. Captain O’Conor said he realised “what a disappointment it was for all of us coming out here when we were bound for home”. He later briefed the Gunroom on the European situation, most interesting but serious. Boat running in harbour, exercises at sea, problems in France and Mussolini probably going to declare war in the near future.
Our first air raid alarm in Alexandria on 7 June for practice but we are well within striking range of Italian bombers. Very hot in the boats. Italy enters the war on June 10th. And we are off to Benghazi to catch supply ships and transports, (So similar to 18/19 Dec ’41), but not an exciting night. Joined up with the whole Med Fleet to intercept more transports up towards the Greek Islands. Life has settled down to eat, sleep and watch keep, or in harbour 24 on and 24 off at Defence stations.
Back in Alexandria the PMO, Surg Cdr Larkworthy, gave us a very interesting lecture of his practical experience of an air attack on board the Cruiser Curacao. Off Again to bombard Bardia, targets oil and ammunition dumps and a wireless station. Success all round. Back in Alexandria attacked by enemy aircraft. The harbour looked like one of Brocks Crystal Palace fireworks displays.
By 22 June we are off again to draw the Italians out. A huge force, led by Warspite, heading for the Adriatic but all change, back to Alex, something to do with the French. Off again and our first surface action against Italian Destroyers, one being sunk and a vast amount of ammunition used by us. Italian prisoners reported that they had been told “that passage to Libya was guaranteed safe because the British Fleet never left their base”.
Excitement. Will the French Fleet make a dash for home but the example of Oran with Force H where several French ships were sunk and many more damaged showed that such a flight from Alexandria would be disastrous.
Sunday 7 July. Off again for what turned out to be the Battle of Calabria, with Neptune signalling to the C in C ‘Enemy ships in sight’, the first ship to do so since one of Nelsons Frigates at Aboukir. Cruisers against Battleships, first baptism of shell fire and thought the noise of shells screaming overhead most unpleasant. A long, busy and successful battle, we were even undamaged during the follow up air attacks although only 20 miles from the Calabrian coast. To Malta for fuel and ammunition, convoy escort back to Alexandria after a most strenuous week at sea.
In and out, meeting Sydney with a large hole in her funnel after a gun fight and sinking an Italian Cruiser. We are painting out decks light blue to make us practically invisible from the air, and also dazzle painting, all ships individually.
All change, we leave the Med for Aden and the Indian Ocean to search for a German surface raider. The Red Sea in August is very hot and not so much fun but we are to take 800 men of the Sussex Regiment to British Somaliland which has been taken over by the Italians. In Aden on 19 August, meeting up with Kandahar and inspecting a captured Italian submarine. Shortly off to Mombasa, heavy weather and rain around Socotra but it’s much cooler. Green coast of Kenya in sight on 26 August and into Mombasa, a huge natural harbour and most attractive spot. No peace, off again, next stop Durban, raider searching the Mozambique channel on the way. Once in Durban into the graving dock, the largest dry dock in the Southern hemisphere for bottom scape and minor repairs. Neptune looks very small in the bottom of the dock.
By 5 September, afloat and fully fuelled, off to search ports in Madagascar for the raider which has been sinking ships off Port Elizabeth and deeper into the Indian Ocean. Nothing seen, so off to Mauritius, fuel and continuous searching, another ship sunk 1000 miles east of us. Back to Port Louis and after a 22 day patrol back to Durban, closely followed by Port Elizabeth and Simon’s Town on 2 October. We hear that the trend of Neptune’s route is homeward
Ha Ha; off we went on 7 October expecting to turn north to Freetown but no, we were off on a long patrol searching several islands in the Southern Ocean for this raider. Into the “Roaring Forties”, down to uninhabited Kerguelen and on further East to Amsterdam Island. All at economic speed to conserve fuel. Temperature has dropped rapidly, by the time we get to Prince Edward Island we are almost acclimatised but wearing practically all clothing possessed. Prince Edward Island and Marion Island deserted except for seabirds, seals, penguins and elephant seals. Kerguelen, also deserted but beautiful in a rough and unspoilt way, snow capped peaks stretching down to the waters edge. No raider, we have been south of 50 South so have set foot in Antarctica. On to Amsterdam Island. The most amazing part of this long patrol is that we have not seen a single ship since leaving Simon’s Town.
St Pauls Island, an extinct volcano, with possible boat entry into the inner crater lake. Plenty of good fishing including Crayfish, ashore a derelict jetty and abandoned fishing settlement, again plenty of penguins and seals. The Sea Fox, always a useful extra pair of eyes, has also been searching Amsterdam Island, 60 miles to the North but has nothing to report. Empty seas, thousands of square miles of them. By 26 October back in Mauritius for fuel and relaxation, exploring and bathing. On Sunday, after Divisions, the Ships Company ‘lay aft’, mustered on the Quarterdeck. The Captain read out two messages, one from Admiral Cunningham, C in C Med, and one from Admiral Tovey, now C in C Home Fleet but recently Vice Admiral Destroyers in the Med. All Neptune’s must feel proud to have personal messages from the Admirals commanding the most important Fleets.
Then away from Mauritius en route to Simon’s Town at 20 knots to have various repairs to the ship undertaken. The raider is still at large but we hope to “get him” before leaving the station. Italy has declared war on Greece and the Empress of Britain, who was at Durban with us, has been sunk with heavy loss of life off Ireland. But no, change of plan, we go to Capetown, better all round.
Newly painted and repaired off again for Freetown and possibly home. The Cape rollers made the ship fairly uncomfortable but after a few days the sea has calmed down. Now to Lagos to become Flagship for Vice Admiral Cunningham. The thrill of a news flash about the very successful Fleet Air Arm attack on Taranto; Italians now get attacked at sea and in harbour. Confusion once alongside with all the requirements of a Flag Ship being transferred in a hurry, so not much time to explore Lagos although bathing parties were wonderful.
The Captain kindly invited the Gunroom to a beach party after Church on Sunday, lovely bathing and plenty to eat. Holdsworth and Houston, reverting to children and playing in the sand, made a marvellous racing car. (see p39 Minefield II)
Friday 19 November off again as a Flagship, ‘Showing the Flag’ at certain Ports in French Equatorial Africa. Past Fernando Po, up the Cameroon River to Victoria, receiving presents of bananas and grapefruit from the Nigerian Government. Instead of going further north we re-cross the Equator going south, much to the disappointment of those who commissioned the ship three years ago. Next stop Brazaville, Capital of the French Congo but after due ceremonial off again chasing up a possible ship contact off a port in Angola but we found nothing suspicious. On past the island of Sao Tome to rendezvous with the Cruiser Delhi for a “throw off shoot”, the first time we have fired the 6” guns since Calabria. And back to Lagos for rest and recreation.
Not for long, away south to the Cameroon River again but we need to be careful as there is possibly a Vichy Submarine around. More bananas. We pass close to the Island of Principe. We hear of a spirited action between the AMC Carmarthen Castle and a raider off Rio, rather too far away for us to be involved. To Port Gentil so the Admiral can continue his discussions with the French. Back to Lagos for rest and recreation and the Gunroom is to be repainted. It certainly needs it.
A rapid recall, off to Freetown via Takoradi to pick up mail, away again, a raider in the South Atlantic between Freetown and the Brazilian coast, we assume the Admiral Scheer. Toing and froing across the Atlantic, excitements few but lots of ocean to look at.
Christmas at sea, back in Freetown on 26 December.
The Admiral has left us his job with the French completed so we can sail on Dec 28 as escort for a troop ship carrying French Legionaires going to Egypt. Directed towards Ascension due to a raider report, the more one sees of this ocean you understand how difficult it is for the Royal Navy to catch raiders with so few ships available. Lagos for fuel then Takoradi to meet the Carrier Furious who is flying off Hurricanes and Fulmars for the RAF and FAA in Egypt. They fly to Lagos, to Kano, to Khartoum for their destination Cairo. Also a new evolution oiling (refuelling) Destroyers at sea was of great interest to us all. Achieved successfully with Encounter and Isis, thus allowing them to stay at sea for longer.
Freetown again but not for long. Off northward with Furious, the buzz is that we are escorting her to England. Past Cape Verde Islands. Still heading north, refuelling Destroyers and heading for Gibraltar although bad weather called for a diversion into the Med, entering harbour on January 23. Convoy escort for Free French ships through the Straits on 27 and 28 Jan, off with Furious on the 29th. We initially turned east to “fool the enemy”, there are plenty of spies in Gibraltar, before reshaping course for the Azores then turning north. Rough cold weather, rolling up to 30 degrees either side and very wet, one roll took us up to 42 degrees. What a shock after the African coast and now we head for Scapa Flow, the main Naval northern base.
Past Cape Wrath with snow covered mountains behind, lots of warship activity and new ships to be studied and finally anchoring in the Flow. Welcomed by Admiral Tovey, of Mediterranean fame, who expected us to come home via the Cape but since then we have managed to steam another 60,000 miles! He told us that we would be sailing at Midnight for Chatham, a short refit and 3 weeks leave to each watch.
Finally heading south through the narrow dangerous channel off the East Coast. Harwich at daylight on Sunday Feb12, a final attack by a ‘large black plane’ before entering the Thames Estuary.
So ends Midshipman Fawcett’s Journal. He leaves Neptune in Chatham to join the Hunt Class Destroyer HMS Berkeley for his “Small ship time”.
I hope that you have enjoyed this resume of the travels of HMS Neptune between January 29 1940 and January 29 1940 and February 10, 1941, when you can see that there was fun, frustratons and danger.
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