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HMS Newcastle War Record

THE LONG HAUL
History Compiled by Dennis.T.Churchill
Page prepared by Brian Joy

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In May 1940 a new navigation officer, Lieutenant A.E. Sutcliffe, joined the ship and remained with her for the remainder of the war. For much of this time Newcastle was in the distant oceans, far from the centres of the naval war though less dramatic than the experiences of some, such as Penelope, her duties and activities were more typical of the Cruiser's role. During the war Newcastle steamed the prodigious distance off 309,289 miles an average of 143 miles for every single day of the war.

Sutcliffe has preserved all the bridge notebooks recording every course and every fix, together with the many signal reports, Track charts and other records covering the period from May 1940 to September 1945. The narrative that follows has been compiled from his first hand information.


At the start of the war HMS Newcastle (Captain F Figginns) served as part of the 18th Cruiser Squadron in the Home Fleet. In the first nine months of the war she was almost continuously at sea on the Northern Patrol and escorting the first Canadian transatlantic troop convoys.

Following this arduous initiation into the routine of war, she returned in May 1940 to Palmer's yard Hepburn-on-Tyne where she was built, for a short refit.

Her brief overhaul completed Newcastle rejoined the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow on 3rd June 1940. Two days later she was dispatched with Suffolk to investigate what turned out to be a Mares Nest in Iceland.

The Germans were reported to have landed there in force. The two cruisers often in thick fog and without the benefit of radar, raced in and out of every Fjord along the islands dangerous and indented East coast.

They found no Germans but the exercise provided an alarming, initiation for the new "N". On the completion of this abortive mission, the ship's were ordered to proceed at high speed to augment the meagre escort for the final convoy from Norway.

Newcastle was then sent to Plymouth to augment the anti-invasion forces assembled in the Western Channel. On the day after her arrival, on the 2nd July, she was involved in the disagreeable business off immobilizing several units of the French fleet anchored in Plymouth Sound.

Following a series of anti-invasion patrols, scares alarms and excursions, Captain E A Aylmer now in command, sailed from Plymouth on 17th October 1940, in company with Emerald and Mountbattens 5th destroyer flotilla to intercept four German destroyers reported to be at sea on a sortie out of Brest. The enemy was duly sighted over the horizon and Newcastle, the senior officer of the force, hoisted the flag signal, "General Chase" during the following two hours she emptied the forward magazines at the retreating enemy who were zig-zagging and making smoke at extreme range.

In Action against German destroyers - Flying the General Chase signal, 17th Oct 1940
In Action against German destroyers - Flying the General Chase signal, 17th Oct 1940
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The chase was finally called off when The squadron was abreast of Ushant and the enemy destroyers had made good their escape back to Brest.

During the following weeks Newcastle's eight four-inch AA guns, the biggest and best battery in Plymouth, helped to defend the city against night air attacks, for several days in early November the ship, then under orders to sail on a special operation, was immobilized by a acoustic mine in the sound, she was eventually got to sea in safety with the aid of a long tow from a tug and two paddle tugs alongside, which it was believed acoustic mines could not hear.

Thence she proceeded independently to Malta at 25 knots loaded to the gunwales with a precious cargo of a 15,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 40 Hurricane engines and hundreds of tons of special stores, in addition to 300 RAF technical personnel. The journey ended on 19th November as it had begun in tow this time not because of enemy action but the complaint, peculiar to the steam-driven ship's known as "Condenseritis "caused by a leaking condenser tubes. When this happens salt and other harmful impurities contaminate the feed water and so effect the generation of steam and ultimately, if allowed to get to that stage damage the turbines.

The problem having been dealt with on a temporary basis in the Malta dockyard, she sailed on 26th November as part of Force D in company with a Ramillies, Berwick and Coventry, to take part, on the following day, in the battle of Cape Spativento, off Sardinia.

Complex operations covering several convoy and various offensive actions were being undertaken at this time, and the whole of the Mediterranean Fleet as well as Force H based at Gibraltar, were at sea. So was an Italian fleet, comprising 2 battleships, 7 cruisers and 16 destroyers, greatly superior to either Force H or Force D. But the Italian Admiral Canpioni failed to grasp his opportunity and the two British forces were able to make contact with each other before engaging the enemy. The cruisers were in the van of the combined forces steaming in a northerly direction on an approximate line of bearing 080 degrees -260 degrees in the order, Berwick , Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton, Sheffield, from east to west.

Flag officer, Force H (Admiral Sir James Somerville) summarized the action in the following words in a general signal made the day after the battle.

(1) After the enemy was reported, the convoy was detached and units from Gibraltar and the Eastern Mediterranean concentrated.

In Action with Manchester and Berwick at Spartivento
In Action with Manchester and Berwick at Spartivento
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(2) After concentration closed enemy at full speed, enemy force consisted 2 battleships including 1 modern 35,000 ton ship, 4 by 8 inch cruisers, 3 by six-inch cruisers and about 12 (sic) destroyers. Our force consisting of Renown, Ramillies, Ark Royal, 1 by 8 and 4 by six-inch cruisers and 9 destroyers.

(3) When sighted enemy turned away and when fire was opened made smoke, long chase continued for nearly an hour and to within 30 miles of the coast, enemy had the legs of us and no damage could be observed, chase was discontinued in order to close convoy now 60 miles away.

Straddled at Spartivento 27 Nov 1940 Manchester in background
Straddled at Spartivento 27 Nov 1940 Manchester in background
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(4) Subsequently learned enemy sustained following damaged by gunfire,

(a) One Cruiser believed on fire and burning furiously,

(b) 1 Gregale class destroyer down by stern and listing heavily,

(c ) One destroyers stopped and listing slightly.

(5) FAA attacks results as follows.

(a) One torpedo hit on Littorio class battleship.

(b) One torpedo hit on Bolzano 8 inch Cruiser.

(c) 2 very near dive-bomb misses on six-inch Cruiser.

(6) Only damage to our force 2 by 8in hits on Berwick.

(7) 2 enemy aircraft shot down by fighters, 1 Fulmer lost. Newcastle alone fired 503 rounds of 6 inch ammunition and would have fired more but for a jam in "A" turret training mechanism early in the engagement. Inability to close the range below 10 - 11 miles made it impossible for the cruisers to deploy their main armaments effectively. Against a weaving and smoke-laying enemy, range spotting and identification of fall of shots were all under difficulty and indecisive encounter was the result.

But for Newcastle herself the most important result of the action was a clear demonstration that her malaise of condenseritis had been far from cured by the temporary repairs at Malta. Pending major overhaul 25 knots was the maximum she could in future sustained without risk of complete breakdown. Dockyard facilities were not available anywhere at that time and neither of the Home Fleet nor Force H could accept her with his speed restriction. So Newcastle was assigned a roving commission on the South Atlantic patrol where she spent nearly the whole of 1941 under the overall command of the Commander in Chief, South Atlantic, whose headquarters were ashore in Freetown.

On Patrol
On Patrol
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The object of the Patrol was the protection of Allied shipping, especially the meat and grain traffic from the River Plate, against armed merchant Raiders and German warships, the German pocket battleship Scheer was still at large at this time and there was the possibility that others might break out into the atlantic through the Denmark Strait.

A second objective was the interception of enemy merchant ships waiting in the neutral South American Ports for a chance to run the blockade with cargoes of strategic materials.

The vast ocean area involved was that enclosed by Freetown St-Helena, South Georgia, Falkland Islands, Cape Horn and the east coast of South America as far as Pernambuco. To cover this huge area no more than two or three cruisers were as a rule available, with a similar number of armed merchant ships (AMCs) and from time to time the former were detached to escort a troop convoy round the Cape of Good Hope.

The area was far too large to operate a convoy system but the individual times of departure of all Allied ships were controlled and reported by the naval control of shipping officers' (NCSO) located at all ports, including the neutral ones.

As the ships could not report their positions while at sea they were given precise routes to follow and speed to make good. It was thus possible to keep a plot at Freetown showing the positions of all Allied merchant ships at sea. The relevant parts of this plot were transmitted four-times a day to all ships of the South Atlantic patrol so each would know the position within 20 miles or so of all shipping within their areas, it followed therefore that at any unexpected sighting was almost certainly that of an enemy. To make doubly sure there was finally the "Checkmate procedure". In doubtful cases the Cruiser would broadcast a signal on a special frequency in plain language but without originator or addressee in the form of in 'CHECK (alleged name of ship encountered) latitude: longitude: Too', if on receipt of such a signal, the Freetown plot indicated that the ship of the name given could or should have been within 20 miles of the position given, the broadcast reply was simply 'Mate to Check' , otherwise negative, when the ship in question would be presumed to be an enemy and action taken accordingly. In 10 months on patrol Newcastle had occasion to use the procedure only twice, on each occasion got a Mate in reply within 20 minutes.

Newcastle carried three walrus amphibians with two aircrews and these were constantly in use to increase the area of surveillance. This put a premium on rapid and safe recovery, with much practice and some trial and error. A procedure was perfected by which an aircraft could be recovered in a sea state six in 4 to 5 minutes, from touchdown to lift off the water, without reducing the ship's speed below 12 knots. 

International law permits a warship of a belligerent country to visit a neutral port for not more than 24 hours and prohibits visits to any port in any one country more frequently than once a month.

However, the factor that limited the frequency of each visit was not international law but the size of the patrol area and the scarcity of ships. In 10 months Newcastle spent just five 24 hour periods in South American ports; Buenos Aires, Rio-De-Janiero, Pernambuco and twice in Montevideo. On these occasions the German ambassador was usually present in person to greet the ship with his stopwatch to ensure that she was secured not a second longer than the permitted 24 hours. For these periods in harbour the ship's company was divided into three watches each in turn having an eight hour run ashore only the Captain, the Principal medical officer and the Padre were excused. As was only to be expected, every effort was made to sabotage the ship, spoil or contaminate provisions being embarked and subvert and hijack the Crew, but these attempts by enemy nationals and other ill-disposed person's were unsuccessful. In the five visits Newcastle left behind only 5 men, one of whom was murdered. In addition to these official visits, Newcastle and other warships on patrol were in the habit of using certain remote bases and anchorages along the South American coast for fuelling and provisioning entirely without the knowledge or by your leave of the country concerned.

For the navigator, the staff officer operations (SOO) and the Captain himself this long stint was one of an absorbing interest and for the most of the time they were busy in plotting and planning. But for the rest of the ship's company there was never enough to do and boredom accentuated by the scarcity of mail from home. All manner of activities credible an incredible, from deck hockey to cockroach racing were introduced to keep everyone on their toes for the big encounter that might happen at any moment or not at all.

On 15th April 1941 Newcastle took over from HMS Nelson the escort of the round the Cape to Suez troop transport convoy WS 7, somewhere south-east of St-Helena.

The following signals were exchanged:

Nelson to Newcastle
For this relief much thanks, I am a little weary having been steaming continuously for 31 days.

Newcastle to Nelson
Have a nice rest, you deserve it. I have been steaming continuously for 126 days.

A week later Newcastle finally reached Simonstown for rest and refit, after taking the convoy as far as Durban. This stint of 133 days' continuous steaming, 109 of them with no sight of land was a record for any HMS ships during the entire war. The NCSOs at the South American ports as well as controlling the movements of Allied ships, also kept a watchful eye on the enemy merchant ships in their ports. By the summer of 1941 NCSOs had access to secret transmitters by which preparations for going to sea by any enemy ship could at once be reported direct to the ships of the South Atlantic patrol. The most important of these ship's was the German freighter Erlanghen at Mar-del-Plata 100 miles south of the River Plate estuary. Erlanghen sailed at 1900 just after dark, on 23rd July 1941, Newcastle already alerted of her imminent departure was 35 miles off Mar-del-Plata and this information reached her 2 hours later.

As luck would have it the weather was foggy and Newcastle's rudimentary radar out of action. In the circumstances they could only be an outside chance of making an immediate interception and so it was decided to attempt to find her by means of a Vignot curve of search.

For this type of search it is necessary to assume that the quarry will steer a particular course and stick to it and maintain a particular speed for any chance of success, the hunter must have a substantial margin of speed in hand, the shape of the search is a helix. Newcastle took the view that the master of the Erlanghen would steam straight out into the Atlantic for at least 500 miles before turning to a northerly course. Newcastle put his initial course at something between 100 decrees and 160 degrees and the speed made good of 11 knots. Steaming for the most part in fog, for the rest of that night and for a whole of the following day and night Newcastle Steadfastly adhered to the original premise and at 0945 on the second day after 36 hours of search she had the reward for her perseverance when the Erlanghen were sighted five miles dead ahead in a clearing in the fog. Erlanghen at once fired her scuttling charges and abandoned ship. Energetic attempts to force the crew back on board to save the ship were unsuccessful, though she did not sink for over 12 hours by which time a lot of valuable material had been recovered by Newcastle's boarding parties, though the main cargo of tungsten and Molybdenham used in the manufacture of high-grade steel, was lost. 16 Officers and 40 men were picked up, many of them escaped prisoners of war from Graf Spee. 

Two months later Newcastle entered the United States Navy shipyard at Boston for the long delayed permanent cure for her Condenseritis. She remained there for nearly three months during which time two of her four boilers were replaced and her AA armament was augmented. After working up at Norfolk, Virginia, Newcastle to all intents and purposes a new ship, with the new captain, P B R W William-Powlett finally rejoined the Home Fleet at Scapa on 29th January 1942.

She remained there exactly a fortnight before being dispatched to the Clyde to host the flag of rear Admiral W.G. Tennent, appointed on promotion after surviving the loss of HMS Repulse, to command a reconstituted 4th Cruiser Squadron of the Eastern Fleet. Thence she escorted the 21 - ship troop convoy, WS 16 carrying two divisions of troops, tanks, guns, stores and ammunitions as far as Durban on the way to Suez.

There were no incidents though plenty of U-boat alarms, and the most scarifying experience was so to speak, home-made. In Sutcliffe's own words: at least once on each major leg of the journey, provided there was no U-boat in the vicinity, the convoy was formed in to one long single line ahead. Newcastle took station astern and launched a large close range AA kite target (with the longest possible tow) then worked up to full speed to give the kite plenty of lift and roared up one side of the line of the convoy, each ship as we passed her having a go at the kite with all and any armament she possessed.

This was quiet the most hazardous and terrifying week we ever went through we were shot at by soldiers with rifles, machine guns, field guns, mortars, the liner's own Bofors and Oerlikons, and usually an ancient 6 inch or 4 inch on the poop, all blazing away at a range of about one cable. Never once was the Kite shot down and never once did Newcastle escape being spattered. But being able to discharge their pieces just once apparently did the soldiers morale a lot of good. On 8th April 1942 after refueling at the Seychelles, Newcastle was on her way to a rendezvous in the vicinity of Addu atoll with the Commander in Chief, Eastern Fleet, who was collecting together the widely scattered elements of his Fleet, to challenge the entry of a powerful Japanese force known to be steaming up the Malacca Straits on its way into the Indian Ocean. That encounter never took place. On the next day the aircraft carrier Hermes and the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire while on the way to the same rendezvous. were all sunk by Japanese carrier aircraft.

In the face of these setbacks the Commander in Chief, Admiral Somerville, decided to fall back on Bombay. Here Newcastle, having been fortunate in escaping the attention of Japanese aircraft, joined the Fleet a few days later. Rear Admiral Tennent's 4th Cruiser Squadron was now reduced to his flagship, Newcastle, the two veterans, Emerald and Enterprise, and the Dutch Cruiser Helmskerk. The thought uppermost in the minds of the Navy's staff at Bombay was the possibility that this Japanese fleet might attempt to interrupt the impending occupation of Madagascar about to be undertaken by a force assembled at Cape Town under Admiral Syfret, consisting of Ramillies, Illustrious, Devonshire, Hermione, destroyers and troop transports. The Eastern Fleet accordingly placed itself to the North East of Madagascar to intercept any Japanese threat. In the non-event, the French naval base at Diego Suarez near the northern tip of the island was captured from the French with little resistance while the Japanese retired to Singapore, no more anxious, it seems than the British to risk a Fleet action. Early in May the Eastern Fleet fell back on Kilindini, the port of Mombassa, which was then developed as a major naval base. They remained there for 18 months and a very trying time it was. The concept of a Fleet in being, as this Fleet became, may be valid enough in terms of global strategy but takes little account of human nature. Endless exercises at sea maintained operation efficiency, but in wartime officers and men alike are keyed up to have a crack at the enemy. When this prospect is denied, moral inevitably suffers. A sort of Condenseritis of the mind sets in. Newcastle, more fortunate than the rest, escaped most of this period of stagnation. On 27th May 1942 she was detached with four destroyers to reinforce the Mediterranean fleet for a major operation involving convoys to supply Malta sailing both from the West (Operation Harpoon) and from the East (Operation Vigorous). At this time the Mediterranean Fleet had neither aircraft carriers nor battleships, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant both having been immobilized in Alexandra harbour on 19th December 1941 by Italian X craft. As a desperate substitute the old Centurion that many will still remember as a remotely controlled gunnery target ship before the war, was pressed into service and dressed up to look like the Duke of York. Her role was to attract the enemy bombers away from the ships of the convoys and in the many air attacks that took place she certainly succeeded. She was hit several times but managed to stay afloat. She never got to Malta with the store's she was carrying and nor did any of the other ship's of the convoy. In the face of heavy and continuous air attacks and reports that the Italian fleet had sailed from Toronto to intercept, Admiral Vian was authorized by the Commander in-Chief to withdraw to Alexandria.

The convoy and its escorts were also attacked by U-boat and E-boats during the night of the 14 /15 June and its was by a torpedo from one of the latter that Newcastle was hit just before 0400hrs shortly after the turn back to the East had been completed. The hit was right forward on the starboard side there were no casualties and Newcastle was soon able to manage 20 knots with an enormous hole in her bow. Less fortunate was Hermione torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat on the following night. During the ill-starred venture three destroyers were also lost and several other ship's damaged.

For Newcastle the damage sustained led to yet another oceans spanning odyssey. Repairs being beyond the resources available at Alexandria, the first plan was to sail the ship, after extensive shoring to Simonstown. All went well as far as Aden, but as soon as she put her nose past the Horn of Africa (Cape Guardafui) and headed into the Southern West monsoon it at once became apparent that this was going to be a very dicey operation. Speed had to be radically reduced, but even at six knots the bulkhead abaft the damage plating began to spring dangerously. At this speed the 2 destroyers escorting Newcastle could not have reached Kilindini without refueling from their stricken charge.

When the ships plating on Newcastle's ports side had been torn away by the sea to leave a 25 ft- hole right through the ship, and she was reduced to only 3 knots going stern first, it was at last decided to give up the struggle and go back to Aden. Here a concrete cofferdam was constructed to support the watertight bulkhead abaft the damage, and a decision reached to repair the ship in America. So off she went, first to Bombay, riding comfortably with the monsoon on the quarter for further temporary repairs , and thence to Mauritius, Cape Town, Pernambuco, Bermuda, New York and the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she arrived on 11th October 1942.

At repair in New York
At repair in New York
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Repairs nearing completion New York Nov 42
Repairs nearing completion New York Nov 42
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On the 2nd December Newcastle put to sea once more, a brand new ship from stem to stern and fitted with an up-to-date radar system and close range AA armament. A fortnight later she was back in Davenport were it was decreed that she would undergo further modernization of her fire control, action information and damage control systems. This work took three months to complete and then Newcastle sailed west about for Scapa to rejoin the Home Fleet. She did not remain for long being detached after a fortnight to the Clyde to relieve Sheffield, who was suffering from main engine defects, as escort to another round the Cape convoy, WS 29. And so back once more to Kilindini where she arrived on 27th May 1943 a year to the very day after her departure from the Mediterranean, to rejoin the Eastern Fleet and re hoist Rear Admiral Tennent's flag.

After a month of exercising with the Eastern Fleet, Newcastle was away again, this time to escort a lone troop transport carrying 11,000 Anzac troops for part of the journey from Fremantle to the Mediterranean. Newcastle was responsible for a 1,330 mile leg of the journey through the Indian Ocean and steamed no less than 8,150 miles there and back. As the year 1943 drew to a close the tide of the Far Eastern war began to turn and Eastern Fleet moved forward to Trincomalee in December. and began to contemplate a more active role. In January 1944 following visits to Colombo and Madras, Newcastle, still flying the flag of CS 4, Rear Admiral A.D. Read, sailed to Mauritius to take charge of a composite force comprising Kenya, Suffolk the Woolworth carrier Battler and, the AMC Canton, 2 destroyers, a frigate and an RAF oiler and six RAF VLR Catalina flying Boats. The object was the interception of German tankers being used to refuel U-boats in the southern Indian Ocean. Even with the assistance of a long range carrier aircraft, the search area was very large and the task was made harder by the ultimate appearance of a hurricane of considerable ferocity. Three search operations were conducted over wide areas of complexity to great to examine in detail. These operations were assisted to a great extent by Special Intelligence arising from decrypted German ciphers. The First sortie was unsuccessful, but on each of the second and third a tanker was intercepted and sunk.

The elimination of these two tankers, Charlotte Sheliemann and Brake effectively put an end to the German U-boat offensive in the Indian Ocean. Newcastle rejoined the Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee in March 1944, and shortly thereafter took part in an offensive sweep into the northern end of the Malacca Straits while the Fleet Air arm made a strike against the Harbour of Sabang at the northern tip of Sumatra. The First appearance of the Royal Navy in these waters for three years produced no reaction whatever from the Japanese. 

Towards the end of April, Newcastle ever on the move, made the long voyage to Simonstown for dry-docking and refit. Captain J.G. Roper relieved Captain William-Powlet. October 1944 found Newcastle back once again at Kilindini and Trincomalee once more carrying the flag of CS 4 later to become CS 5. From December onwards the Cruiser force acted in support of the 14th army driving southwards to clear the Japanese forces out of Burma. The cruisers Newcastle, Nigeria, Kenya and Phoebe were made available for bombarding targets indicated by the 26th Indian Division on the coastal wing of the 14th army as they move down the deeply indented Arakan coast. Cheduba Island 150 miles south of Akyab was a point of strategic importance strongly-held by the Japanese and here it was decided that the Navy should plan and undertake an opposed landing. The operation was assigned to CS 5 and the detailed planning was all done in Newcastle. The landing was to be made by a special force of trained commando of 500 Royal Marines with four LCP (M)S for the assault. The plan called for three cruisers Newcastle, Nigeria, and Kenya, embarking the Commando and the landing craft to anchor before dawn on 25th January 1945, five miles off the northern tip of the island. They had to reach the exact spot in darkness off this low-lying unlit and largely featureless coast swept by strong and unpredictable cross-currents and tidal streams. Radar could give only a general indication of the land ahead but could not delineate the coast. Star sights are conventionally taken at dusk and dawn when both horizon and stars are visible. Sutcliffe kept precise track of his position throughout the night by taking star sights every hour using the director layers crossed wired telescopes with its gyro stabilized horizontal to provide an artificial horizon. He was able to bring the Squadron to anchor on the spot on the dot of time. 

Everything went exactly according to plan but the assault was unopposed the Japanese having got wind of the plan and having prudently evacuated the island a day before. After visiting Calcutta in February to plan further naval operations, Newcastle dry docked in Colombo and then having transferred the flag of CS 5 to Ceylon, sailed for Sydney to join the British Pacific Fleet. When she arrived on 6th April 1945, the Commander in-Chief with his Fleet, was not at home and had decided that he did not need any more cruisers. It happen that the liner Empress of Scotland with the division of New Zealand troops on board, was about to sail from Wellington to Italy, she lacked only suitable escort the job was assigned to Newcastle. She escorted the ship via Fremantle, Colombo and the Suez to the Mediterranean. Whence she proceeded independently to Davenport, arriving 10 days after the end of the war. The LONG, LONG HAUL was over at last and somehow it was not so much a matter of celebration as anti-climax.

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