Petty Officer Norman Walton, who has died aged 84, was the only survivor of the 765 crew of the cruiser Neptune, sunk in a minefield off Libya in 1941.
The loss of Neptune occurred on the night of December 19. Commanded by Captain Rory O'Conor, she was leading Force K, a cruiser raiding squadron sent to intercept and destroy an important Italian convoy carrying Panzer tanks, troops and supplies to Tripoli. Having become trapped in a minefield 12 miles offshore, Neptune struck four mines in three hours and sank with the loss of 764 officers and men.
Thanks to his courage, tenacity and supreme physical fitness, Able Seaman Walton, then aged 20, survived three days in the water and two on a raft before being picked up by an Italian torpedo boat. After 15 months in Italian PoW camps, he was released in 1943.
Walton later gave a dramatic account of the sinking: "We had been at action stations since 8pm, when soon after midnight there was an explosion off our starboard bow. The captain stopped engines and went astern but we hit another mine, blowing the screws and most of the stern away. Then we were hit abaft the funnel. We were ordered up top and had a bad list to port and were down in the stern. The destroyer HMS Kandahar came up to take us in tow.
"With seven others, I was asked to go forward to help with the tow, but Kandahar then hit a mine and slewed off. Then we hit a fourth mine and we were lifted up and dropped back again. I got the Petty Officer of the forecastle from beneath the anchor chain but he had broken his back. Four of us - Price, Middie the Midshipman, Quinn and me - climbed down the anchor. They jumped in, but I wanted somewhere to swim to, not just float around, and when I saw a Carley raft I jumped in and swam to it.
"I took the tow rope back to Middie, who had no lifejacket, and when we got back to the raft it was crowded - about 30 people on and around it. We saw the ship capsize and sink, and gave her a cheer as she went down. We picked up Captain O'Conor, who was clinging to what looked like an anchor buoy, and he and three other officers finished up on a cork raft attached to ours. The sea was thick with oil and most of us had swallowed a lot of it. A few died around us that night and at daylight there were 16 of us left. The weather was pretty rough, and two officers tried to swim towards the Kandahar, but they never made it."
Since there was no room for him on the raft, Walton simply hung on to it - periodically swimming around it in circles in order to keep warm. "By the fourth day there were only four of us left, including the captain, who died in my arms that night. I was in the water for three days before being able to find room aboard the raft. Most of the lads just gave up the ghost, but I was very fit because of playing so much sport and this is probably why I survived.
"I had a smashed leg, and by Christmas Eve on the fifth day there was only Price and myself left. I saw an aircraft, waved to it and an hour later an Italian torpedo boat came alongside and threw me a line. I collapsed when I got on board and woke up on Christmas Day in a Tripoli hospital. They told me Price was dead."
When he was picked up, Walton found that the oil in the water had temporarily blinded him: "On Boxing Day I got my sight back and looked in a mirror. My tongue was swollen to twice its size and my nose spread across my face, which was black from the oil and from exposure. Still, apart from my broken leg I was almost back to normal by New Year's Day, when I was put on a ship bound for Italy full of German and Italian troops going on leave."
The eldest of nine children, John Norman Walton was born on January 15 1921 at Rowlands Gill, near Gateshead. His father was a professional footballer who played for Gateshead, Tottenham and Everton. Brought up at Swalewell, near Gateshead, Norman was educated locally before finding employment as a steelworker. He joined the Navy in September 1938, aged 17. In 1941, before joining Neptune, Walton served in the destroyer Janus. He was then drafted to the crew of a Greek whaler taking supplies along the North African coast to Tobruk; the boat was sunk by enemy aircraft, and Walton spent several hours in the water before being rescued. Later that year, he was serving at Alexandria in the depot ship Woolwich. The submarine Tetrarch was alongside and he was invited down "for a wet" to celebrate a friend's birthday. After a bottle of rum had been consumed, Walton suddenly realised that the submarine had sailed, and he was added to the "next of kin" list. As they left Alexandria harbour, Walton dived in and swam back to the breakwater, returning to his ship undetected. Tetrarch never returned from patrol, and his parents received a telegram saying that he was missing; Walton had some explaining to do. He joined Neptune on November 13 1941.
After his release from a PoW camp in 1943, he served in a frigate on
Russian convoys and then in the minesweeper Rowena, before being de-mobbed in 1946.
Walton settled in Leeds and became a professional boxer, fighting under the name of Patsy Dodds - Dodds was his wife Irene's maiden name, and he took Patsy because, in the fairground fights in which he started his boxing career, he pretended to be in trouble to deceive his opponent into over-confidence.
In those early days he fought both in gloves and with bare knuckles.
Continuing his boxing career until the late 1950s, Walton had 147 recorded fights as a middleweight, winning 82, losing 61 and drawing four. He fought three times for the Northern Area Championship against Bert Ingram, but lost on each occasion.
Called up again during the Korean War, Walton served another five years in the Navy. After retiring as a petty officer, he joined a container firm in Leeds as works director. He retired to Pudsey in 1985.
The circumstances surrounding the loss of Neptune had been kept secret by the Navy; the crew's next of kin merely received a telegram saying that their husbands or sons were "missing on active war service". Of the crew, 150 were New Zealanders, representing the greatest loss of life suffered by New Zealand in a naval action. Sixty years after the event, a chance meeting between Norman Walton and Commander John McGregor, whose father had died in Neptune, resulted in the formation of the Neptune Association, now a thriving organisation of more than 250 members. Walton was the obvious choice for President.
When he was 82, Walton was mugged by two youths who demanded his wallet. Walton told them: "You will have to get it out of my pocket," and - as one of the men leaned forward - the former boxer butted him on the nose, then landed a left hook on the second and struck both of them with his stick. As they ran off, what upset Walton most was not being able to chase after them and sort them out.
Norman Walton, who died on 20 April 2005, married Irene Dodds in 1943. She died in 2002, and he is survived by their daughter. A son died at the age of three.
WATCH A 2002 INTERVIEW WITH NORMAN WALTON BY CLICKING HERE