As we pay tribute to those who have given their lives in service of their country, here we look at one example from the thousands of sacrifices made by the sailors of the Royal Navy.
In December 1939 the cruiser HMS Exeter, together with HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles participated in the victory over the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee at the battle of the River Plate. During the action Exeter was heavily damaged and lost 61 men, all subsequently buried at sea. Ajax lost 7 and Achilles 4 while the 36 Germans killed on Graf Spee were buried in Montevideo. A veteran of HMS Exeter once told this author: “I thought I was going to die, trapped below decks with water pouring in, I assumed we were sinking. I shouted in desperation, not expecting anyone to hear me. It turned out the water was just from the firefighting effort and my shipmates got me out.”
Cornered by what he believed were superior RN forces, the captain of the Graf Spee ordered his ship to be scuttled in Montevideo – a triumph that pointed the way to how British naval supremacy would ultimately contribute heavily to Hitler’s downfall. Exeter limped back to the Falkland Islands and was repaired, eventually making her way back to Devonport to a rousing welcome. She underwent 13 months of repairs and upgrades and after some time on convoy escort work, was sent to the Pacific theatre.
Just over 80 years ago in February 1942, British Dutch and US warships could be found desperately trying to prevent the Japanese from attacking the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). On the 27th, Exeter and the allied warships operating in the Java Sea encountered a superior Japanese force which also had the advantage of support from the air. An 8-inch shell hit the Exeter seriously damaging the boilers and reduced to operating at half power. In a running battle, other allied ships were sunk but Exeter escaped to Surabaya for repairs having lost 13 men killed in this action.
After temporary repairs to her propulsion and with a reduced top speed, she sailed two days later escorted by HMS Encounter and USS Pope. On March 1, during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, HMS Exeter and her escorts encountered two heavy Japanese cruisers and turned away only to run into two more cruisers, the Ashigara, the Myōkō and two destroyers, Inazuma and Akebono.
The escorts gallantly tried to protect Exeter but HMS Encounter was badly hit and her captain was forced to scuttle her. Eight of the ship’s company were killed and the remaining 149 became prisoners. USS Pope escaped but two hours later was sunk by aircraft from the carrier Ryūjō.
In a one-sided battle, Exeter was hit in the boiler room, finally losing all steam pressure and power. There was no choice but to abandon the ship. 41 men died during this action but the majority of her ship’s company left the ship, clinging to rafts and debris while she was finished off by two torpedoes fired by the Inazuma.
About an hour after Exeter went down about 400 survivors were pulled from the water by the Japanese destroyer Inazuma, but another 200 or so spent a further 24 hours in the water before being picked up. The CO of the destroyer Ikazuchi, put his vessel at risk to rescue these survivors – the Japanese did not always bother with such humanitarian actions. 607 prisoners were recorded as being rescued by the Japanese and they were sent to a prisoner of war camp on Sulawesi. More than 150 of Exeter’s men subsequently died in captivity from starvation, deprivation, and disease. The last living survivor of the great generation who served on HMS Exeter passed away in 2020.
Donations can be made to the Royal British Legion here or the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity here.
Main image: Ceremony held over the wreck of HMS Exeter in the Java Sea on board HMS Kent (July 2008) in the presence of surviving veterans of the ship and the divers who discovered the location of the wreck.