The Cruiser HMS Exeter
Building a legend
Following delicate and protracted negotiations at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921/22 Great Britain secured a major concession. The Royal Navy would be allowed to build seventeen 10,000 ton cruisers spread over a number of years. The Kent class were the initial result but only thirteen of the planned seventeen ships were completed including a pair for the Royal Australian Navy. The economic climate of the mid to late 1920’s saw a reduction in the construction of warships but as older units became obsolete so the need to replace them with modern tonnage increased. The Director of Naval Construction, accordingly, prepared a series of designs for smaller 8,500 ton cruisers armed with six 8 inch guns. Once the final design was approved YORK was ordered in 1926 and EXETER the following year.
EXETER’s keel was laid down at Devonport Dockyard on 1 August 1928 and construction was swift. Her launch on 18 July 1929 was a colourful affair with Lady Madden, wife of the First Sea Lord, performing the launch ceremony. EXETER had a length overall of 575 feet, a beam of 57 feet and a mean draught of 17 feet. Her displacement stood at 8,390 tons. For propulsion she had geared turbine machinery that gave her an impressive top speed of 32.01 knots on her sea trials which took place off the Isle of Arran: between 16-22 May 1931. Her armament comprised of six 8 inch guns in turrets, two forward and one aft and four 4 inch high angle guns in single mountings and multiple pompoms and a pair of triple 21 inch torpedo tubes were fitted amidships.
HMS Exeter's early career
EXETER was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 21 July 1931. One of her first tasks upon entering service was to sail to Invergordon on 15 September and arrived to find the Atlantic Fleet in a state of mutiny; although the cruiser’s ship’s company refrained from joining the mutineers. The next morning following the end of the sailor’s protest the fleet sailed and EXETER returned to Plymouth for modifications to her armour plating and the addition of a catapult for a Walrus observation aircraft.
In early 1932 the spring cruise of the Second Cruiser Squadron saw EXETER join YORK, NORFOLK and DEVONSHIRE on a journey to the West Indies before arriving home in July in time to be present at the Royal Review at Portland. The rest of the commission saw her visiting a number of ports in Scandinavia and Spain before paying off for refit in August 1933. The short refit was completed in October the same year and after work up she joined the South American Division of the America and West Indies Squadron.
EXETER came to international attention during the crisis over the planned Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. As part of the Royal Navy’s response to the threat, EXETER was ordered to the Mediterranean to strengthen the fleet. As events unfolded the British and French governments did nothing to prevent the Italians occupying Abyssinia and following this decision EXETER returned to Devonport.
Captain Henry Harwood took command of the cruiser on 29 December 1936. He was then in command of the South American Division and soon after joining EXETER he took her to Bermuda. The next few years before the outbreak of World War Two she remained on station showing the flag around the West Indies and further afield. She was also there to serve as policeman when necessary including putting down a riot by seamen at Port of Spain in June 1937 together with men from AJAX.
The Battle of the River Plate
August 1939 the cruiser was back at Devonport where it had been planned to pay her off into refit. War clouds, however, prevented this and the newly promoted Commodore Harwood took EXETER to Rio de Janeiro where she was joined by the AJAX and later by the CUMBERLAND.
When the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE commenced her attacks against Allied shipping the Commander South Atlantic formed eight hunting groups to track her down and sink her. Commodore Harwood’s three ships received reinforcement in the form of the New Zealand cruiser ACHILLES and were given the name Force G. Fearing an attack on Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands EXETER and CUMBERLAND sailed south.
By 12 December EXETER was in a position 150 miles east of the estuary of the River Plate with AJAX and ACHILLES. That night the three ships practised the plan to attack GRAF SPEE from different sides in order to split the German’s firepower.
0612 the next morning smoke was sighted on the horizon and EXETER was ordered to disengage and investigate. Just eight minutes later she signalled that they had found the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE. The German ship being larger and taller already had sighted the approaching British cruiser and had increased to her top speed of 24 knots as well as changing course to close the range to the approaching cruiser. Captain Lansdorff opened fire at a range of 20,000 yards at 0618. It was another agonising two minutes before EXETER could return fire with any chance of scoring a hit.
The gunners on the German ship were quickly finding their target and the third salvo from the 11 inch guns straddled EXETER with splinters killing the starboard torpedo tube crew and damaging the pair of Walrus aircraft. Within minutes a German shell scored a direct hit on the front of B turret and put it out of action. Splinters and shrapnel also killed all but the Captain and two other officers in the bridge. Captain Bell was lucky to escape with just facial wounds.
With communications smashed command was transferred to the secondary conning position with orders passed by a chain of messengers to the after steering position.
Within minutes two more direct hits were recorded. A turret was put out of action and the second saw damage inflicted on the 4 inch and B turret magazines flooded. Y turret, however, continued to fire until all power failed. By this time the ship was listing at eight degrees to starboard and down at the bow by three feet. 61 officers and men were dead and a further twenty three were severely wounded. She was in no state for the fight and EXETER left the battle making for the Falklands.
During her brief exchange with the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE EXETER’s 8 inch guns had scored three hits. The first caused little damage. The second destroyed GRAF SPEE’s ability to make fresh water and the third exploded inside the hull.
When EXETER arrived at Port Stanley the damage was assessed. The limited facilities in the Falkland Islands were insufficient to fix the issues the cruiser presented. For a while it was rumoured that EXETER would remain at Port Stanley for the remainder of the war. Winston Churchill, however, would have none of this. He saw the propaganda value of EXETER’s heroic fight and ordered that she return home after being made safe for sea. Repairs took until late January 1940 and on completion EXETER sailed for Plymouth where she arrived to a rapturous welcome on 14 February with the Prime Minister himself amongst the crowds. Nine days later her ship’s company and those of AJAX marched through the streets of London and Rear Admiral Henry Harwood received the KCB.
Refit and deployed to the Far East
Devonport Dockyard would be EXETER’s home for the next year as work to correct the damage and modernisations were put in place. Her four elderly 4 inch HA guns were replaced with newer guns, two eight barrelled pompoms replaced the older guns and the pair of 20mm guns were re-sited. A Type 279 aircraft warning radar was fitted and the elevation of the cruiser’s 8 inch guns was increased to improve their effective range.
Further work was carried out on the engine rooms, ammunition spaces and the layout of the bridge. EXETER’s refit was completed on 10 March 1941 and after re-commissioning the ship joined the First Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow in late March.
After her brief spell in northern waters EXETER joined the defence of a convoy from the Clyde to the Middle East where she remained until September. A docking at Colombo followed as did convoy duties to Rangoon.
The entry into the war of Japan in December 1941 saw EXETER dispatched to reinforce the fleet at Singapore. Sadly her arrival was after the tragic loss of the battleship PRINCE OF WALES and battlecruiser REPULSE.
In battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy
The next few months found the cruiser hard at work on convoy duties between Singapore and Colombo. When Singapore fell EXETER was at sea with a striking force that had hoped to intercept Japanese transports but they found nothing. The force consisted of the EXETER, USS HOUSTON, the Dutch ships JAVA and DE RUYTER and the Australian PERTH and nine destroyers. On 25 February reports were received that a Japanese troop transport was just 90 miles away.
Two days later at 1615 the Allied Force encountered the Japanese ships, which had been bolstered by a pair of 8 inch cruisers. The ensuing battle was conducted at a range in excess of thirteen miles. The Japanese, however, succeeded in targeting EXETER which received a direct hit to her boiler room that saw her speed plummet to just eleven knots. Escorted by a pair of destroyers, USS POPE and ENCOUNTER, the damaged cruiser reached Sourabaya late at night on 27 February.
The only escape route into the Indian Ocean was via the Sunda Strait and EXETER together with ENCOUNTER and USS POPE sailed the following evening. As the trio of ships approached the Straits at dawn the day was clear and bright. There already was a pair of Japanese 8 inch cruisers, later joined by another pair of 8 inch cruisers. In another case of David and Goliath, EXETER escaped from this trap by making smoke and even scored hits on the enemy ships from her severely depleted ammunition stock.
Sadly, however, at 1120 on 1 March 1942, she was struck by an 8 inch shell that exploded in her engine room and put all main armament out of action. The Japanese sensing victory closed on their helpless victim. After further hits Captain Gordon ordered ‘abandon ship’ at 1135.
Of the survivors 152 would later die in notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. As for the cruiser that had played such a heroic part in the Battle of the River Plate she slipped beneath the waves after being smashed by the combined force of four Japanese cruisers.