Brave souls who perished at sea during WWII’s earliest skirmishes
TWO LOCAL men were lost at sea during the early stages of WWII from HMS Neptune – a Leander–class cruiser, built between 1931 and 1933 at Her Majesty’s Naval Boatyard, Portsmouth.
Launched in January 1933, it was the ninth Royal Navy vessel of that name.
Almost 170 metres in length with a beam of 17 metres, the ship was considered heavy duty.
By December 1939 the Neptune was part of a group of RN vessels patrolling the South Atlantic on the lookout for the Graf Spee.
After the sinking of the Graf Spee, the Neptune was deployed to the Mediterranean to lead Force K, a raiding squadron of cruisers with the mission to stop German and Italian convoys carrying supplies to Rommel’s Africa Corps via Libya.
On December 18, Neptune led Force K from Malta in a single line to intercept a convoy heading for Tripoli.
The British cruisers, sailing in single line, with three destroyers accompanying them, encountered rough seas on a particularly pitch black night when the Neptune sailed into an uncharted minefield, laid some months earlier by the Italian Navy.
The minefield had been laid just 15 miles from the coast of Libya and in shallower water than was usual and so it was totally unexpected.
The two other cruisers, HMS Penelope and HMS Aurora also sailed into the minefield, both hitting mines and sustaining damage.
The Neptune hit two mines, causing some damage and attempted to reverse out of the minefield but hit a third mine which destroyed the steering gear and propeller, leaving the ship incapacitated.
The Penelope and one of the destroyers, the Kandahar, tried to reach the Neptune but the Kandahar hit a mine and was struggling, Captain
O’Conor of the Neptune sent a signal to ‘keep away’ and an hour or so later the Neptune hit a fourth mine and began to sink.
Of the two local men lost, the first was Sub-Lieutenant James Mercer Knowles, of 39 St Helens Road, Ormskirk, son of local brewer Wilfred Knowles and his wife Anne.
James had married in West Alvrington,
Kingsbridge in early 1940 after joining the Royal Navy.
It was June 1942 before his parents and wife Sheila were officially told of his death.
For many months after the sinking there was hope that many of the crew had been taken prisoner by the Italian navy; in fact only one man survived the sinking, out of a crew of 764 officers and men.
James is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, the HMS Neptune memorial at the National Arboretum, and the War Memorial in West Alvrington and the Ormskirk Parish Church Memorial.
The second local man who was lost was Surgeon Lieutenant Eric Beresford Riding, son of the late Samuel Joseph Riding, Master Builder who died in 1934; and Mary Agnes Riding of Allandale, Ally’s Lane, Ormskirk.
Eric had attended Ormskirk Grammar School and was 27 when he was lost.
Eric’s brother Douglas was also a Doctor.
Eric is remembered on the Ormskirk Comrades Memorial, the Ormskirk Parish Church Memorial, the Congregational Church memorial, the Grammar School Memorial, the HMS Neptune memorial at the National Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire and the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
The memorial to the crews of HMS Neptune and HMS Kandahar – a 7ft tall Derbyshire gritstone pyramid at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffs
Above, lost at sea: Surgeon Lieutenant Eric Beresford Riding