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World War II, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, a Tribute to Two Gallant Ships.

Updated on October 15, 2012

The Ecuador Park, Concepcion Chile

The Ecuador Park, Concepcion Chile, in beautiful autumn colors
The Ecuador Park, Concepcion Chile, in beautiful autumn colors | Source

Ships with important Roles in the Southern Cone of the Americas

These two ships, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, played important roles during World War II, but they were in good company, as many other Allied ships also carried out heroic tasks.

However their activities had some special twists and turns that makes them relatively famous in Latin America’s Southern Cone, that area where the continent narrows down and the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean come together.

The Tragedy of War

Italian Heavy Bomber during the Spanish Civil War. (Franco's Nationalist Forces)
Italian Heavy Bomber during the Spanish Civil War. (Franco's Nationalist Forces) | Source

Rumblings of War

At the start of 1939, the drums of war could already be heard. The Civil War in Spain was proceeding to its bloody conclusion in April of that year. The Nationalist forces, led by Francisco Franco, had the support of Germany and Italy, both of them under Nationalist governments.

The repression of Germany’s Jews was making itself felt, and infamous events such as Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass, had already taken place.

HMS Exeter, a Gallant Ship

HMS Exeter, World War II
HMS Exeter, World War II | Source

HMS Ajax, another Gallant Ship

HMS Ajax, a gallant ship
HMS Ajax, a gallant ship | Source

Goodwill Patrols of HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax off South America

HMS Exeter was a York class heavy cruiser. In 1934 the ship was assigned to the America and West Indies Station, where she formed part of the South American Division under Commodore Henry Harwood.

HMS Ajax was a Leander class light cruiser, a relatively new ship, completed in 1935. At the end of 1937, she joined the America and West Indies Station, also serving under Commodore Harwood.

The two ships were deployed to the Pacific, off the South American coast and paid several goodwill visits to various ports including Valparaiso, Chile. They were actually sailing off the coast of Chile, when the 1939 earthquake struck Chillán (the epicenter) at 23:32 on 24thof January at strength 8.3. Concepción was subsequently hit at 23:35. Chillán was practically razed to the ground and Concepción lost about 95% of the buildings and homes.

This is considered the single earthquake that has caused most deaths in Chile. There were approximately 30.000 victims, with no tsunami involved, the tragedy took place entirely on land.

Our two gallant ships immediately changed course and proceeded to the port of Talcahuano, to give what assistance they could.

Disaster in Concepcion, 1939

A view of one of the streets in Concepcion, 1939 eartquake
A view of one of the streets in Concepcion, 1939 eartquake | Source

The Disaster, a Short Description

The towns of Talcahuano and Concepción were a total wreck, with very few buildings left standing. Emergency operating centers were set up in the main square, the Independence Plaza, where surgeons were amputating injured persons as fast as they possibly could.

The bodies of the dead were collected in piles, later to be buried in large tracts of free land on the outskirts of Concepción. The water pipes were damaged and there were gas fumes emanating from various places as the gas distribution system was also damaged. Witnesses have commented that the stench that hung over the town, was appalling, and several days later, rescue teams could only enter the area wearing protective masks. Numerous fires broke out in different areas of the city, and burned unchecked due to the lack of water, and besides, all the relief squads were concentrating on digging survivors out from within the remains of the damaged buildings.

All in all, a complete disaster, caused not so much by the strength of the shake, but more related to the quality of the constructions. Most were “bricks and cement” with supplementary fill-ins that used the old adobe technique, that is “mud and straw”. The earthquake showed the need to modify the construction technology of that time, and to add more reinforcements to the building supports.

The Disaster, 1939, 30,000 dead

Another view of the general destruction
Another view of the general destruction | Source

The Towers of the Cathedral are brought down

The Towers of the Cathedral are dinamited
The Towers of the Cathedral are dinamited | Source

HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax Provide Welcome Aid

Into this horror scene came the crews of HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, and a very welcome contribution it was! They helped remove broken masonry, they gave first aid to the more lightly injured, they distributed precious drinking water, they organized emergency kitchens, and they contributed in every way they could.

Their most remembered task, completed very successfully, was to dynamite the two towers of the Concepción Cathedral. These towers were badly damaged and threatened to collapse at any moment, so it was necessary to devise a “planned destruction” so as to avoid even more damage to the surrounding area, which happened to be the very heart of the town center: the main Plaza. The actual job was done by the Chilean armed forces, but with the indispensable technical recommendations of the experts from the Exeter. The credit has always gone to these British crews.

The Cathedral of Concepcion, classic period

The Cathedral before the 1939 eartquake
The Cathedral before the 1939 eartquake | Source

British Crews in Concepcion during 1939 Earthquake

Some members of the British rescue squds
Some members of the British rescue squds | Source

The British crews work at clearing the wreckage

Members of the ships' crew at work, 1939
Members of the ships' crew at work, 1939 | Source

Refugees to Valparaiso

While the men from the Ajax continued to work at clearing fallen masonry from the streets, the Exeter contributed another unforgettable service, that of evacuating large groups of the population and taking them to Valparaiso. This was a most opportune aid, as the roads, the bridges and the railway out of Concepción, were all badly damaged, and the area was practically isolated. Some days after the earthquake, the sanitary conditions were appalling and there was real danger of epidemics causing even more casualties. Food and clothing were also scarce, although fortunately it was mid summer.

An acquaintance of mine was one of the lucky evacuees. Her husband held a minor official position at the time, and could not attend to her needs, and she was in a difficult situation, as her first born son was just 11 months old, and her second child, another boy, was born on that same fateful day, the 24th, so he was only hours old when the earthquake struck the city. She spent some days living in a car, parked in the Ecuador Park; she described her “home” as a roomy old-fashioned Ford, one of those vintage square ones!

Accompanied by her mother, my friend traveled to Valparaiso with her two baby sons, sitting on a mattress on the deck of the Exeter. Her memories of the crew were of the best, she said they did everything possible to make their extra passengers comfortable, and there were several hundreds of them, mostly women and children. She described the ship as overflowing with family groups, stuck into every little spare place that could be found on the ship.

It is my understanding that the Exeter made more than one trip to Valparaiso with evacuees, but I have not been able to find any record with the precise number of persons that were able to leave the disaster area in this way.

Exeter Street, in Downtown Concepcion

A markerExeter Concepcion Region del Biobio Chile -
Exeter, Concepción, Región del Biobío, Chile
get directions

An Eloquent Street Sign

HMS Exeter lives on!
HMS Exeter lives on! | Source

HMS Exeter Lives on in the Urban Center of Concepcion

At the time of this particular earthquake, Concepción was a rather old-fashioned, traditional sort of city. There was an important and powerful group of “aristocratic” families, who owned large rural properties in the surrounding districts and a large town dwelling in the city, preferably near the Independence Plaza. These were prime urban properties, with very large homes, something like 10 or 12 bedrooms, with a façade right on the street, and a large garden in the back.

San Martin Street, one block away from the main Plaza, had this kind of dwelling, and most of these “mansions” were destroyed in the 1939 earthquake. In one specific block, the owners sold off their large back gardens, in order to finance the reconstruction of their dwellings, which continued to border directly on the street, forming a continuous façade that is still in existence.

The new owners of the back garden properties needed to have access to them, so a short one-way street was created. It is L-shaped, and starts in the middle of one block and exits in the middle of the adjacent street. It is located about a block and a half away from the scene of the dynamited towers of the old Cathedral, so the grateful city authorities named this street “Exeter” in honor of that gallant ship.

The name is still showing on the street signs, and all the “new” constructions, which date from about 1942, are still standing. In fact, the Berlitz Language Center, where I work at present, occupies one of these properties, and the whole block has successfully survived both the 1960 and the 2010 earthquakes, with no apparent damage.

As “Exeter Street” starts just a few paces away from the Language Institute, I always make a point of asking my ESL students if they know the history of the name. Sadly, the younger generations seem to have lost all connection with the urban legends of the place where they live, work and study.

Reconstruction period house, 1942, still standing in Exeter Street, 2012

A "new" construction, built after the earthquake. Still standing!
A "new" construction, built after the earthquake. Still standing! | Source

Another 1942 reconstruction period house, still standing in 2012

House built on Exeter Street, 1942, still standing in 2012
House built on Exeter Street, 1942, still standing in 2012 | Source

More about our Two Ships: Early Participation in World War II

After the emergency in Concepcion was relatively under control, Exeter and Ajax took up their normal duties until hostilities broke out in September, 1939, when they were stationed at the Falkland Islands and ordered to patrol off the River Plate.

They formed part of the South American Naval Division, together with HMS Cumberland and HMNZS Achilles. The Division was still under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood.

Their greatest feat at the outbreak of the war was to confront the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, in the famous Battle of the River Plate.

This Battle took place in the South Atlantic, in the vicinity of the River Plate Estuary, on the 13thof December, 1939. During this Battle, HMS Exeter was severely damaged, but the small British fleet gained a strategic victory in causing sufficient damage to the Graf Spee, to induce the German Captain, Hans Langsdorff, to run for the port of Montevideo in Uruguay, and a few days later, on the 18th of December, to scuttle his ship at the mouth of the Estuary.

The news was followed with great interest by the inhabitants of Concepción and Talcahuano; after all, these were “their” ships!

For some additional information, see my article on spy rings in Latin America

The Admiral Graf Spee, Sinking in Flames

The Admiral Graf Spee after beeing scuttled
The Admiral Graf Spee after beeing scuttled | Source

Chilean Authorities Give Official Recognition to the Participation of Our Two Gallant Ships

In September, 1940, Commodore Henry Harwood received the Order of Merit from the Chilean government, with the grade of Grand Officer, in recognition for the help provided at the scene of the 1939 disaster area.

The Order of Merit is only awarded to foreigners and is specifically related to meritorious service provided by foreign military personnel to Chilean officials.

Commodore Harwood also received the Gold Medal of Concepción, in honor of his participation in the 1939 earthquake emergency

Aftermath

Both the Exeter and the Ajax went on to more glorious deeds as World War II continued unabated until the final Allied victory.

Sadly, HMS Exeter did not live to see the victorious conclusion, she was lost in 1942.

HMS Ajax survived to the end, and was finally decommissioned in 1948, and broken up in 1949. Winston Churchill did not allow her to be sold, as he felt that her important history would be better preserved through break-up.

I hope to continue to write about these two gallant ships, particularly HMS Exeter, so stick around, it could be interesting!

A Tribute to the Fortitude of the Inhabitants of Concepcion

The city of Concepcion always rises from its ashes. I am including a few photos of the present day, very progressive urban area

© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)

An Aerial View of Modern Concepcion

Modern Concepcion, on the banks of the Biobio river
Modern Concepcion, on the banks of the Biobio river | Source

The Entrance to the Campus of the University of Concepcion

The Campus of the University of Concepcion, an important landmark in the modern city
The Campus of the University of Concepcion, an important landmark in the modern city | Source

Araucano Hotel in Downtown Concepcion

A large Hotel in downtown Concepcion,  it receives many foreign guests.
A large Hotel in downtown Concepcion, it receives many foreign guests. | Source

The Neoclassic "Hirmas Palace" in Downtown Concepcion, built in 1925

This Neoclassic style structure is now a National Historical Monument, and has been reconstructed several times, due to the various earthquakes. The department store is now responsible for its upkeep.
This Neoclassic style structure is now a National Historical Monument, and has been reconstructed several times, due to the various earthquakes. The department store is now responsible for its upkeep. | Source

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

      Hi, lalitha, many thanks for your visit and comment, this was a great story, I think! See you

    • profile image

      lalitha prakash 4 years ago

      A very interesting and informative hub joanveronica. really loved reading it :-)

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

      Hi Pavlo, I liked your comment about the ships, nicely put! This story is very dear to me, I constantly walk by the new Cathedral that replaced the old one with the towers, and I cross Exeter Street every morning when I go out for my "latte". It's all so much a part of my life. I never saw HMS Exeter, but I did visit HMS Shefield somewhere along the years, when she was anchored in the bay opposite Concepcion. Those were interesting times! Have a good day, or night as the case may be!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Dear Joanveronica, this hub slipped out of my attention somehow, but I found it on G+ and was glad I read it now! It was interesting. These ships not only participated in history, the MADE history themselves.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Ian, how nice to hear from you again! And I so enjoyed your comment, it means valuable feedback for me. As to research, this wasn't all that difficult. I moved to Concepcion around 1945, just a few years after the devastation of the '39 earthquake. People all round me were still talking about it. A good topic for conversation at social meetings was: where were you when the earthquake hit? Also my mother, who was not in Concepcion at that time (she was either in Viña del Mar or Rio Loa) lost many school mates and friends on that date. We always visited the family mausoleums of well known people when we went to the cemetery here, after we had finished with our own family graves, and she would tell me the stories related to these families, practically all showed casualties dating to the 1939 earthquake. So the information was all there, waiting for me to write it down!

      The Battle of the River Plate is the next one in my series, did you read it! So all the best to you too!

    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Here at last, Joan!

      What I love about your Hubs is your attention to detail and your descriptions of all of these terrible earthquakes. These two ships were amazing especially being part of the Battle of the River Plate!

      You certainly did your research!

      All the very best from a damp but upbeat Edinburgh.............

      Ian.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Great to have you visit again! And your son will certainly find little known information on these hubs! Many people and even historians tend to ommit South America as a war theater, forgetting that WWII was just that: world wide! Thank you again for your visit. Enjoy!

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 4 years ago from Wales

      Such detailed information - fascinating. I'm sending your profile link to my (almost) 14 yr old son, who really enjoys anything WWII that isn't mainstream knowledge.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Wonderful tribute to such two grand ships and their crews. Love the pics and modern day Concepcion looks wonderful. Passing this on.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Jools, nice to have you visit! I'm glad you liked the article, it was fun to write. Have you followed the links back at all? This is hub 8 in a series of similar topics. Maybe they would also interest you and your Dad?

      In the meantime, thanks for the vote and the share! have a good day!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      joanveronica, what a fascinating story! I had never heard about this before reading your article and I'm so glad to have learnt something new to tell my dad who is very interested in these types of stories. Excellent article which I thoroughly enjoyed - voted up and shared.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi carol7777, nice to have you visit my article! I'm so glad you liked it, as I enjoyed writing it. I'm happy to leave a record "somewhere", it's sad to see these dramatic events fading away into forgetfulness.

      Thank you for the comment and the vote, and have a good day!

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi UH, great to have you read my article! When you offer praise, I feel proud of my work! You write such fine historical articles yourself, so your praise is very important.

      I agree, many people do not have a clear idea about Chile, which is sad. It is so full of beauty, and the Chileans as a nation have many good qualities. I should know, I've been teaching here for 56 years! How time flies! Have a good day!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      This time in history is of great interest to me and also sadness. You did a wonderful job with fabulous photos. Quite a history lesson for us. Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub and Vote UP.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi teaches, thank you the visit and the comment. The funny thing is, I hated history when I was a student! That's one of the reasons I later went into Maths. (No Biology and no History!) I finally got into history through reading many fine historical novels, especially about Britain. And now, my age helps, I find that I have a perspective on "older" happenings that others seem to have lost. I must say, I've enjoyed this voyage! Have a good day!

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, gmarqurdt, nice to have you visit my article! I agree, the South American theater was more important than many people think it was. The Southern Cone was important strategically, too, because of the southern maritime passages. I hate to think what would have ahppened if the Axis had managed to damage the Panama Canal! Have a good day!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      joan, your history articles bring to light many unheard of events and are always most welcome. This is just another of them. I always learn from them. Keep up the great work. oh, and you always have terrific pictures. I think many people are ignorant of Chile's beauty.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      I would have enjoyed having you for a history teacher. You make facts so interesting. Enjoyed the read and learned something today.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I used to play a naval miniature game and I had a tiny model of the HMS Ajax, but I never knew much about the ships's history. Thanks for all this info!

    • gmarquardt profile image

      gmarquardt 5 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      Excellent pictures and work. Always a joy to get the South American theater in a better perspective.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi billybuc, so nice to hear from you! This was a long haul, I'm exhausted! It took some effort to put together, but it's done! Thank you so much for your continued support, it feels really thankless at times, as no doubt you know very well. Have a good day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating as always! These should be hubs of the day; your detailed telling of little known facts is exceptional. I really appreciate your hubs.