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World War II: HMS Exeter, Last Days and Recent Tributes

Updated on May 06, 2016

Scenery in Bali, Indonesia

This marvelous scenery shows some rice fields in traditional Bali, Indonesia
This marvelous scenery shows some rice fields in traditional Bali, Indonesia | Source
The beautiful Lantana flower, seen in Bali, Indonesia
The beautiful Lantana flower, seen in Bali, Indonesia | Source

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

HMS Exeter sails proudly along after her refit in 1941
HMS Exeter sails proudly along after her refit in 1941 | Source

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 Japanese airplanes are attacking. The smoke comes from one of the Allied ships, that was sinking.
The Japanese airplanes are attacking. The smoke comes from one of the Allied ships, that was sinking. | Source

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

A beautiful sunset over calm waters in Indonesia
A beautiful sunset over calm waters in Indonesia | Source

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 last moments of a legendary ship: HMS Exeter sinks after scuttling.
The last moments of a legendary ship: HMS Exeter sinks after scuttling. | Source

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

Sixty Years after the Battle of the Java Sea, a Commemoration Service aboard a US Navy ship at the scene of the Battle. HMS Exeter had not been found at that date
Sixty Years after the Battle of the Java Sea, a Commemoration Service aboard a US Navy ship at the scene of the Battle. HMS Exeter had not been found at that date | Source

Exeter Cathedral, UK, Where Memorabilia From HMS Exeter Are Kept

A view of the marvelous stained glass window above the altar in Exeter Cathedral, UK
A view of the marvelous stained glass window above the altar in Exeter Cathedral, UK | Source

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

A Remembrance Day Poppy Wreath.
A Remembrance Day Poppy Wreath. | Source

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

Another beautiful window in Exeter Cathedral, where HMS Exeter is constantly remembered
Another beautiful window in Exeter Cathedral, where HMS Exeter is constantly remembered | Source

Closing Words

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)

A Field of Red Poppies

A beautiful tribute to so many WW2 servicemen who never came back
A beautiful tribute to so many WW2 servicemen who never came back | Source

Traditional Indonesia

This is Stupa Borodur, traditional Indonesia. Isn't it beautiful?
This is Stupa Borodur, traditional Indonesia. Isn't it beautiful? | Source

Indonesian Scenery, Borobudur

A beautiful photo showing Indonesian scenery at Borobudur
A beautiful photo showing Indonesian scenery at Borobudur | Source

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    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      This time in history is very special to me for many reasons. It was a time when our country fought for freedom and helped others. The soldiers did their job and did not have any of the current issues that exist today. You wrote a great hub full of special information. Voted UP.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Thank you so much for your visit, the comment and the vote! This one was the most difficult of the series I have written, the information is very confusing! Still, I was happy to make the effort, and your visit makes it all that much more significant. Thank you again and have a good day!

    • mailxpress profile image

      Michelle Cesare 4 years ago from New York

      Interesting content and the pictures are awesome. The way you end the article as a tribute to history that is not as known as other navy loss of men and ships. The wreaths of Red Poppies of the memory too. Great article. I had to come back three times to continue reading. Writing about History is a timeless topic. Great work and I'm sure you had to do a lot of research to put into action how you would sit down to write it.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You have once again done a remarkable job of researching for this hub, as you do for all of your hubs. Well done my friend; a fascinating account of one of the legends of the sea.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi mailxpress, thank you for your wonderful comment! It makes me very happy when others appreciate my small tributes to great events. As you say, it was not easy to put together, but I finally did ir! Thanks again for the visit and the comment and have a good day!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi billy, so nice to have you back! I can relax now, I finally got to the end of my tribute to HMS Exeter, that started off with the ship's stsy in Concepcion in 1939. I'm so glad you liked it, and thanks for the comment! Have a nice day!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Each your hub opens a new page of the history which is unknown for most of people. Voted up!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Pavlo, it's nice to have you visit my article once again! I'm glad you read it and liked it, it was not easy to find the information and put it all into some order, but I feel it was important to make the effort. Thanks for the comment and the vote, and have a good day!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Another interesting article in your series, joan. I had no idea that the Dutch were still in the war (other than based in England). Thanks for the info!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi UH, you are not the only one! I didn't know either, I only discovered this information when I was looking for the "last days" of HMS Exeter. So many events that are not well known. Thanks for the visit and the comment, and have a good day!

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 4 years ago from South Wales

      Very well researched, joanveronica. Voted up and awesome.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and awesome. Another fascinating read about a time in history. Fantastic pics. Enjoyed much and passing this on.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi scarytaff, how nice of you to visit! And I'm so glad you liked this "story", I'm not really a historian, I feel happier with the concept of storytelling. I also think we should never forget these sacrifices, they are still important to this day. Thank you for the visit and the vote! Have a good day!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Gypsy, I'm so happy you liked this "story"! I'm glad to have written this final tribute to a ship that did so much for my hometown in 1939, I pass the street sign that says Exeter every day when I go to work.

      It seems only fair that we do not forget these sacrifices. Thanks for the visit and the vote, and have a good day!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Your research is impeccable and always brings us such interesting and factual hubs. So many things we didn't know and you are right, Nov. 11 is celebrated in the US as Veteran's Day (formerly Armistice Day) and in many countries around the world.

      Thank you for this wonderful history lesson.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi tillson, lovely to have you visit! You provide such valuable feedback for my efforts, and this is very important to me. I have learnt so much that I only half knew, it has been a great experience. And it was also great to be able to pay tribute to these unforgettable sacrifices. Thanks again for the visit and the lovely comment and vote! Have a nice day!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      Dear Joan,

      You have posted another fascinating hub on these ships of the sea. Always an educational experience for readers. Well done and researched. Voted up!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi teaches! So nice to have you visit my Hub! Your comment motivates me to try yet again, and to keep up a similar level if at all possible. Thank you so much for the visit and the comment, and have a good day!

    • DS Duby profile image

      DS Duby 4 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Your hubs are like incredible history books that I just can't put down. This was once again a beautiful tribute loaded with awesome photography. I thank you for the knowledge that I've gained here today. Voted up, awesome, interesting and shared.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi DS, your comment was a wonderful start to another day! I really appreciate your visit and your comment, sometimes this writing adventure feels rather lonely! I'm so glad all the hard work I put into organizing this information, has gained such positive feedback! Once again, thank you for the visit, the comment and the share, and have a good day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I just dropped by to tell you that you will be mentioned in my hub on Saturday. Hope you enjoy the notoriety! :)

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Billy, nice of you to tell me and I'm thrilled! Have a good day (or night?)

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great well researched and written hub that was very interesting and i did learn a few things from reading it. I loved all the great photos you used to highlight this hub. Well done !

      Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi kashmir56, so nice to have you visit! I'm glad you liked the article, it was a topic I felt should be written! I would like to point out that it is the last in a series about that ship, the Exeter, maybe you would like the ones that come before it also? Just follow the links! Thanks again for the visit, the comment, the votes and the share! Have a great day!

    • profile image

      Claudio Müller 4 years ago

      Dear Joan,

      Congratulations for this publication. Beautiful pictures. I hope you're doing well. Regards, Claudio.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Claudio, so nice to hear from you! Thanks for the visit and the comment, both are appreciated. How are you and Francisca doing these days! You must be studying hard! Have a good day from Chile!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job. Thanks for the info. One of the best articles I've seen so far on Hub Pages and on the Royal Navy. Keep up the good work.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi lions, your visit and your comment are much appreciated! And I'm so glad you liked this Hub! Actually, it is the last one in the series about the HMS Exeter, there are two previous ones (At least I think there are two, I've written several articles of this type so far!) Each and every one of my WW2 Hubs are favorites of mine, so there are quite a few for you to enjoy! Thanks again, and see you around!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 19 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Fascinating article. I always wondered what happened to "The Exeter" after the River plate.

      By the way the "Achilles" was also sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea but not before she made them pay a high price.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 11 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Joan, thanks for sharing this historical hub on the HMS Exeter in World War II. This was new information I never heard or learn about, but this wealth of knowledge made it real interesting to know. Lovely photos! Congrats on HOTD!

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