World War II: HMS Exeter, Last Days and Recent Tributes
Scenery in Bali, Indonesia
HMS Exeter's Destiny after the Battle of the River Plate
In a previous article about HMS Exeter and her companion ships, I described the outcome of the Battle of the River Plate (Uruguay 1939), in which the German battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee was damaged and subsequently scuttled by her Captain in the estuary of the river opposite Montevideo. The disabling shot came from HMS Exeter, the heavy cruiser which was the only relatively powerful member of the Allied South American Squadron although no match for the Graf Spee.
HMS Exeter also suffered severe damage caused by the German ship’s 11 inch shells, of which she received seven hits that destroyed her 8 inch guns (her most powerful weapons) and reduced her cruising speed drastically due to loss of power and steering. She had to withdraw to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs, leaving her two less powerful companion ships, the HMS Ajax and the HMNZS Achilles, to guard the exit from the estuary mouth and to try to prevent the Graf Spee from escaping her trap. The details of this famous Battle and its aftermath are discussed in my previous article in this series on WW2 events related to the Southern Cone (South America).
In February 1940, the Exeter arrived in Devonport for repairs and a refit that included some modernizations to make her more battle worthy. She rejoined active service in March 1941.
She was first destined to the Middle East and finally to the Far East Theater, where she took part in the Dutch East Indies Campaign against Japan.
HMS Exeter After Refit in 1941
The Military Expansion of Japan, Referred to by That Nation as the Greater East Asia War
During the 1930s, Japan was involved in a war with the Republic of China, having already invaded Manchuria.
However, in July 1941, in an effort to stem Japanese expansionism, the US issued an embargo on all oil exports to Japan. The Dutch government in exile joined this embargo in August of that same year.
At that time the colony of the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) was the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world and their large rubber plantations were also valuable for the Japanese war effort. This was an important factor in the decision to attack Pearl Harbor on the 7th December, 1941. The objective was to seriously damage or destroy the US Pacific Fleet, thus leaving the way open to reach the Dutch oil installations in Borneo and Java.
In the aftermath of the attack on the American Fleet, the US declared war on Japan on the 8th of December, immediately after the Japanese action. Also on that same date, the Netherlands’ Government in Exile declared war on Japan.
However, the forces opposing the Japanese advance were not sufficiently prepared to stop the invaders. One after another, the strategic Allied post fell.
- On the 18th of January 1942, the Dutch authorities started to destroy the oil facilities on Dutch Borneo.
- By the 10th of February, the capital of Borneo was captured.
- On the Malayan Peninsula, Singapore fell on February 15th.
- The island of Bali, east of Java, was occupied on February 19th.
- The Japanese also bombed Darwin in Australia on February 19th, in the first of several such attacks during the following years.
Japanese Airplanes over the Java Sea, 1942
The War at Sea
The Japanese invading forces were organized in convoys with troop ships sailing in the center, surrounded by a strong protective battle fleet.
To oppose these forces the Allies had formed a combined command known as ABDA – American British Dutch Australia Command, under Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman. The ships under his command were two heavy cruisers, USS Houston and HMS Exeter; as well as three light cruisers, the HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HMAS Perth. There was also a fleet of nine destroyers: three British, two Dutch, and four American. The ABDA Command included all the ships that could be made available to this theater by detaching them from other battle areas, and was not really strong enough to oppose the Japanese fleet, but Admiral Doorman was determined to try.
Sunset off Indonesia
Area of the East Indies Campaign, WW II
The Battle of the Java Sea
On February 27th the Japanese invasion fleet was sighted about 50 miles north of the port of Surabaya on the island of Java. The time was about 2.00 pm. The two fleets proceeded to engage, and after more than seven hours of fighting that involved various disengaging and re-engaging maneuvers, the ABDA fleet was severely defeated.
The lengthy battle action was a result of the repeated attempts by Doorman’s Striking Force to reach and damage the Japanese troop ships, with the intent of weakening any actual invasion. However, each attempt was rebuffed, with heavy losses for the Allies. Amongst the casualties was Admiral Doorman himself, who went down with his ship, the HNLMS De Ruyter, in the last encounter around 23.00 hours.
The result of this battle was the following:
- Ships lost by the Allies: 2 cruisers and 3 destroyers.
- Ships lost by the Japanese: 1 destroyer damaged and 4 transports sunk.
- In addition, HMS Exeter, the noble ship whose story we are following, received a direct hit in the area of the boilers, and was ordered back to Surabaya, due to loss of power.
HMS Exeter Sinks After Scuttling
The So-Called Second Battle of the Java Sea
After burying her dead, HMS Exeter sailed on the night of the 28th of February, escorted by 2 destroyers, HMS Encounter and USS Pope. The small group was headed for the Sunda Strait, which would bring them into the Indian Ocean and safety, if they could avoid the Japanese fleet.
During the morning of the 1st of March, the Allied ships were attacked by a Japanese battle force which included 4 heavy cruisers, and 4 destroyers. This action is sometimes known as the Second Battle of the Java Sea. Exeter was badly hit again, this time losing all power so that the ship could not move and her guns could not fire. After several more severe explosions, the order came to abandon ship and scuttling charges were put in place. She soon began to sink and finally disappeared under the waters around midday. The two escorting destroyers were also lost in that action.
A total of around 800 allied seamen were picked up and became prisoners of war. They were released when the armistice was signed after Japan surrendered, in September 1945. According to the survivors those were three and a half years in hell. About one third of these survivors died in prison, and are remembered to this day.
Remembrance Service, US Navy, Sixty Years After the Battle of the Java Sea
Exeter Cathedral, UK, Where Memorabilia From HMS Exeter Are Kept
Sixty-Five Years Later, the Legendary HMS Exeter Was Found!
The wreck was located and positively identified in February 2007. She lies at a depth of about 200 ft (60m). The wreck of one of her companions, the destroyer HMS Encounter sunk nearby, has also been found and identified. USS Pope got away from the scene of the battle, but was sunk some hours later by airplane bombing and lies in another location.
The divers who studied the remains of the Exeter confirmed a high level of destruction by shells and torpedoes.
They also remarked that the guns were aimed at their lowest elevation and pointing in different directions, thus showing how besieged the ship was, apparently surrounded at very close range.
According to survivors, the Exeter continued to fire until her guns were silenced due to the general loss of power.
Modern day news reports refer to HMS Exeter as a “wartime naval legend,” an expression that I believe is amply justified by her actions.
Traditional Remembrance Day Wreath
Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Site of the Wreck of HMS Exeter
On July 27th, 2008 (a Sunday), a memorial service was held on board HMS Kent, one of the British Navy’s most modern warships, at the site of the wreck of HMS Exeter.
In the presence of the ship’s company, and with the attendance of the British Ambassador to Indonesia, the service was conducted by HMS Kent’s Chaplain. The Last Post was sounded and a Two Minutes Silence was held to remember those who did not make it back. Also present were four surviving members of the crew of the Exeter, all of them in their eighties, as well as the diver who found the wreck.
Three wreaths were then laid over the site of the wreckage, the first one by the Ambassador, the second one by the Commodore of the Portsmouth Flotilla and the third one by the four veteran survivors. The event was recorded by the BBC.
Another memorial to the crew of the HMS Exeter is the stained glass window of "Christ Walking on Water", at Exeter Cathedral in Britain.
Beautiful Stained Glass Windows, Exeter Cathedral, UK
It was not an easy task to search the available records and to find a way to organize and present the information about the last days of HMS Exeter, mainly due to the fact that the naval actions that resulted in the loss of so many ships and men are not as well known as other naval battles of the Pacific Theater.
I consider it an honor to have had the opportunity to relate these events as a final tribute to a famous legend of the seas, whose active career started in my corner of the world, an area that is also relatively unknown: the South American Southern Cone.
I have also reflected on another significant element which is a part of a long lasting tradition. The three wreaths that were cast into the waters over HMS Exeter, were made up of the famous Remembrance Poppy, the red flower that became symbolic in WW1 in the infamous “Fields of Flanders”, and which have been used ever since to commemorate the memory of Allied servicemen who have died in action.
There is a definite link with the ceremony that takes place every year in St. John’s Anglican Church in Concepcion, and probably at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where the British Communities place a similar wreath on the memorial plaques that record the British Navy’s defeat at the Battle of Coronel, 1914.
This was the point where I started my series of articles about WW1 and WW2, and the memorial wreaths have allowed us to come full circle, all the way round to the British Navy disaster opposite Coronel, Chile.
Remembrance Day on the 11th of November, will soon be here once more, and I sincerely hope to attend, proudly wearing my Poppy.
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)