Artistic tribute to lives lost at sea

Colleen Appleton, left, encouraged her artist husband Merv Appleton to create a painting commemorating the sinking of the HMS Neptune. Times photo Wayne Martin

New Zealand’s worst naval tragedy is being commemorated on canvas.

Accomplished Eastern Beach artist Merv Appleton has created an oil painting depicting the HMS Neptune warship which formed part of the UK’s Royal Navy during World War II.

The ship’s sinking off the coast of North Africa on December 19, 1941, is New Zealand’s worst naval tragedy, according to the Royal NZ Navy’s Museum.

A Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Neptune struck four enemy mines and sank off Libya, claiming the lives of 764 men, with 150 New Zealanders among them.

Appleton’s wife Colleen is a direct descendant of one of the sailors who died when the ship sank.

Her uncle Norman Cook, then aged 23, was a member of the Royal NZ Naval Volunteer Reserve.

“His little boy was born two months after Norman left and he never saw him,” Colleen says.

“It’s so sad. It was just before Christmas and they kept getting ‘missing’ telegrams and it wasn’t confirmed until the next year.

“We aren’t sure if my aunty ever sent a photo of the baby to him. He’s a gorgeous boy.

“Those young reservists, it’s such a sad thing.”

Colleen says a “wonderful” commemorative service is held in Wellington to mark the sinking of the HMS Neptune but she’s not sure if it can go ahead due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“We just thought, because of Covid, we may not be able to have any commemorations and we’re not going to get the chance to do it again.”

Merv, a former Bucklands Beach Yacht Club commodore, says his goal in creating the artwork is to increase awareness of the HMS Neptune and its fate.

“There’s not really a lot of stuff around about the ship so I thought I’d do a painting.

“You can’t let these things get buried in history.

“At each service we go to for it, only Colleen and one other lady there are direct descendants and the rest are navy officers.

“We can’t afford to let these things go.”

The Navy Museum says in early 1941 the New Zealand Government had “answered British Admiralty’s call for more sailors to man the increasing number of warships being brought into service”.

“The intention was for New Zealand to provide a crew for an additional Leander-Class light cruiser to serve alongside its existing ships, HMS Achilles and Leander.

“HMS Neptune was approved for this purpose.”

The HMS Neptune was not a New Zealand ship, but its sinking and the massive loss of life “brought grief to many homes throughout the Dominion and cities and towns across New Zealand”, the museum says.