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Old shipmates reunited

By Don Farmer

[email protected]

Retired sailor Mike Newton hardly expected his trip to New Zealand to meet up with old shipmate Eric Blown in Masterton to get away to a shaky start, but it sure did.

Not because the two mates didn’t rub along well but because the British visitor and his wife Fran arrived in Wellington on the very night the Kaikoura earthquake struck.

At first the Newton’s thought the hotel bed they had just settled into was a water bed, but the violent rocking and rolling soon gave the show away – they had experienced their first ever major shake.

Luckily they managed to catch one of the few trains running to Wairarapa in the wake of the massive quake and met up with Eric and his wife Edna.

The two men share an association which extends back to May 10, 1954, when both, then unknown to each other, joined the Royal Navy on the very same day in England.

Salt water was in their veins as both had fathers who were sailors, although Mike never had the opportunity to get to know his.

His dad died when HMS Neptune was lost in December 1941 after the cruiser, part of Force K operating out of Malta attacking Italian and German convoys to North Africa, ran into an Italian minefield in the Gulf of Sirte.

The ship struck two mines then tried to reverse from the minefield hitting another which blew off her propellers.

The destroyer Kandahar tried to tow her but was also mined and had to be sunk.

The Neptune signalled other British ships to keep clear but then hit yet another mine and capsized.

All but one of a crew of 750 died, the sole survivor being rescued from the sea five days after the sinking.

Three Wairarapa sailors died when Neptune went down, being Graeme Dawson from Eketahuna, Jim Blackley from Masterton who had both previously served on the HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate, and Allan Raper, an 18-year-old sailor from Featherston who was serving aboard his first ship.

“I was only three when dad died, living at Ashford in Kent,” Mr Newton said.

“I vaguely remember him though when his ship returned for a re-fit in 1941 and he had a couple of weeks leave.”

A week after the Neptune sank his mother Violet gave birth to his younger brother Robin.

Mike Newton’s decision to be a sailor was never in doubt and at 16 he signed on for 12 years but went on to serve for 30 years as an engine room artificer.

Eric Blown’s father Ernest served on the HMS Sheffield and survived the war despite being involved in very similar actions to the Neptune.

The Sheffield helped to track down and sink the menacing German battleship Bismarck and attacked enemy convoys in the Atlantic and Arctic Circle.

Eric’s dad survived the war and was still in the navy when his son, who had been at Nautical School since he was 12 years-old, signed up at age 15.

He was also an artificer and met up with Mike Newton several times, becoming mates, especially when both served aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Albion.

That vessel visited Wellington in 1959 with a party of 120 sailors taking an opportunity to visit Wairarapa for “a day in the country”.

There was also a flyover of jet aircraft from the Albion, with six jets taking to the skies above Masterton.

Ironically while the Albion was berthed in Wellington eight-year-old Neil Frances went to look the vessel over and yesterday in Masterton he hosted the friends and their wives at Wairarapa Archive.

To add further irony, on that same day in 1959 Eric Blown met his future wife Edna who was also in town to see the vessel.

Mr Blown, who transferred to the New Zealand navy, left the service in 1970 to become a teacher, teaching at both Masterton Intermediate School and Wairarapa College.

Yesterday the two reunited shipmates paid a visit to the cenotaph in Masterton’s Queen Elizabeth Park to pay their respects to Neptune sailor Jim Blackley who is commemorated there.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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