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Royal Navy Ships Named HMS Exeter

Updated 22nd May 2020

Letter home from CPO Alfred Whitehall crew of Exeter
How I went to the Falklands a nurse for HMS Exeter
Exeter's River Plate Crew List
Roll of Honour - offsite link
HMS Exeter - a photo essay of Exeter's 1937 to 1939 cruise.
Model of HMS Exeter

HMS Exeter - Third rate of 70 guns

The first HMS Exeter's contract to build was on the 20th February 1678 by Henry Johnson at Blackwall. She was launched in March 1680. She survived the Battle of Beachy Head against the French on 20th June 1690 under Captain George Mees. Following an explosion in 1691 she was classed as a hulk in 1697 and on 24th May 1697 she was ordered to be broken up.

First HMS Exeter Illustration Crown Copyright/MOD

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HMS Exeter - Fourth rate of 60 guns built in 1697

The second HMS Exeter was rebuilt between 1740 and 1744 and survived until 1763. She contributed to fighting the French off Newfoundland in 1702, in the Mediterranean in 1711, and at the Siege of Pondicherry in 1748. At Pondicherry, Exeter was joined by HMS Chester, Pembroke and the sloop Swallow. Captain Powlet was ordered to take soundings in case the ships were needed to cut off the town.

Second HMS Exeter Illustration Crown Copyright/MOD

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HMS Exeter - Third rate of 64 guns

The third HMS Exeter was responsible for four Battle Honours in 1782 at Sadras, Providien, Negapatam and Trincomalee. Under Sir Edward Hughes, Exeter's action were heroic against the French Commodore Suffren's fleet of twelve ship of the line and three frigates, just north of Trincomalee. At 1.30pm, and situated at the head of the line of eleven men o' war, HMS Exeter came under a heavy barrage of fire from the French fleet, to the point that she was a virtual wreck, leaking with holes from cannon shot. Captain H Reynolds asked Commodore Sir Richard King what should be done as two of the enemy were bearing down on Exeter; he replied "There is nothing to be done but to fight her till she sink (sic)".

In the action eleven crew, including Captain Reynolds, were killed and forty wounded. She limped to Bombay on her jury-mast, and repairs were made before she, along with seven other ships and two frigates sailed for England in 1784. At Table Bay, after encountering gales at the Cape of Good Hope, where HMS Sceptre was dismasted, HMS Exeter was found to be in such poor condition that her fittings and stores were removed and she was set on fire.

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HMS Exeter - York Class Cruiser - launched 1929

HMS Exeter's CrestBuilt by Devonport Dockyard, she was launched on 18th July 1929 and commissioned on 27th July 1931. A York Class cruiser, she had six, 8-inch and four, 4-inch guns. On 23rd May 1931, just before she was commissioned, the Captain and officers visited the Mayor at the Guildhall. By tradition Royal Navy ships named after a town are given a gift by the town, so the Mayor asked the officers what would be appropriate, to which they replied that a model of the Guildhall would be appropriate. The Mayor announced that the model would be made of silver and the public would be invited to make donations towards the cost. A photo appeared in the Express and Echo of the proposed model.

On the 2nd August 1931, the Mayor, H W Michelmore, attended by other dignitaries, presented the Captain with the silver model of the Guildhall, in a marquee at Exmouth. Pathe News filmed the event and recorded the Captain addressing the crowd with:

"On behalf of myself, my officers and ships crew and of those who will come after us, I thank you most heartily and sincerely for the beautiful gift you have given us. We hope that you will count us as citizens of Exeter, afloat."

Battle of the River Plate

At the start of World War 2, Exeter was part of the Royal Navy's South American Division 'Hunter Force G', with HMS Cumberland. On 13th December, 1939, with the light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles', she was patrolling the South Atlantic, searching for the Graf Spee. The Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Langsdorf, was what was known as a 'pocket battle ship', roaming the South Atlantic sinking unescorted merchant ships. The order went out that she must be found and sunk.

The small British battle group had a hunch that the Graf Spee would be found near the South American coast. The hunch was right and she was spotted off the River Plate. After a heated exchange in which HMS Exeter took some considerable damage, and with only one gun functioning, Exeter scored a decisive hit on the bridge of the Graf Spee. Further pressure from Ajax and Achilles forced the Graf Spee to turn west and retreat to Montevideo in the estuary of the River Plate. This created a diplomatic embarrassment for the Uruguayan President and the Graf Spee was given permission to stay for only 72 hours. She had sustained some damage during the battle, and believing there was a much larger British force waiting off the coast, Captain Langsdorf scuttled her.

The severely damaged HMS Exeter, with a main mast that rocked as the ship rolled, made for Port Stanley in the Falklands, 1,200 miles away for repairs. Three times she broke the journey to consign her dead to the ocean, a total of sixty-two officers and men. After basic repairs, and the wounded had been cared for in many private houses at Port Stanley, she was escorted by HMS Dorsetshire and Shropshire back to Devonport, arriving on the 14th February 1940; the first to walk up the gangway after docking was Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty who later wrote "I had the honour to pay my tribute to her brave officers and men from her shattered deck in Plymouth Harbour."

She received the names' fifth 'Battle Honour' for her part in the Battle of the River Plate. Captain S F Bell, who had sustained splinters in an eye during the action, used the word 'superb' when describing the intrepidity and coolness of his officers and men during the action. Captain Langsdorf said of the Exeter before he took his own life after the scuttling of the Graf Spee said, "I knocked out their foremost guns; I smashed their bridge; yet, with only one gun firing, they came at me again. One can only have respect for such foe as that".

HMS Exeter off Sumatra 1942 The Exeter off Sumatra in 1942. HMS Exeter 1930 HMS Exeter at Liverpool in 1932. Silver Guildhall A drawing of the silver Guildhall, a gift from the City of Exeter to HMS Exeter. This is the only known image. It is probable that the model lies within the wreck of the Exeter.

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The Freedom of the City

Captain S F Bell, 8 officers and 79 members of the crew were given the Freedom of the City on 29th February 1940 and welcomed by a crowd of 50,000 cheering Exonians. The crew arrived at St David's Station from Plymouth to be greeted by young soldiers commenting 'nice work, boys, nice work' and marched, with fixed bayonets, up Queen Street which had been decorated with bunting and flags, carrying Exeter's shell-torn White Ensign. This was an honour that had previously been given to Admiral Nelson and Admiral Beattie.

A popular song in the dancehalls went:

If you meet Old Hitler face to face
Just tell him this from me,

That we're the boys who sunk the Spee.

An Exonian who was a child at the time reminisced:

"Mr Lawrence was very proud of the role of HMS Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate. When the Captain and men were welcomed back to Exeter and given the freedom of the city, we lined the streets and watched them marching with their fixed bayonets. Mr Lawrence was even more proud that his daughter had gone up to the Captain outside the Guildhall and planted a kiss on his cheek!".

After the ceremony the white ensign was hung in the Guildhall for all to see.

HMS Exeter's bell Bell removed after 1940 refit.
Model of HMS Exeter The model of HMS Exeter in the White Ensign Club was made by Ernest P G Oddy of Beacon Lane.

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Exeter's last patrol

During early 1941, HMS Exeter under Captain O L Gordon, was engaged in escorting a convoy through the North Atlantic to the Middle East, and was for a brief time, the closest British ship to the Bismark, that was being hunted down by a large navy force.

When Japan entered the war, Exeter was escorting a convoy off Burma heading for Rangoon. She was immediately ordered to join Repulse and Prince of Wales in Singapore. The day she arrived, on the 10th December 1941, both ships were engaged with Japanese forces in the South China Sea and sunk by overwhelming airpower. 

After a short period escorting troop ships between Java and Singapore, Exeter joined, on 27th February, the USS Houston, HMAS Perth and two Dutch ships, the Hr Ms Java and Hr Ms de Ruyter to find and engage the Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java. Later on the same day the Japaness fleet was spotted and Exeter opened fire - the engagement was fierce and a return shot whistled in and hit the boiler room killing 14 men and knocking out six boilers, leaving the ship functioning with only two working boilers. The action continued and the two Dutch ships were sunk before the force disengaged from what would become known as the Battle of the Java Sea, the largest sea battle since the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The USS Houston and HMAS Perth were sunk on the 1st March in the Sunda Straight, attempting to break into the Indian Ocean.

The next day the Exeter limped at 15 knots into Surabuya for repairs and to bury her dead, where she was joined by the destroyers HMS Encounter and the USS Pope. On the evening of the 28th February, the Exeter, steaming on one boiler and with the two destroyers as escort, was ordered to the Sunda Straight to escape into the Indian Ocean. At 09.30 on the 1st March, Exeter's guns opened fire against some marauding Japanese ships and at 11.00 a torpedo hit and an enormous explosion took out the remaining boiler, completely disabling her, including the guns. Orders were given to "Sink the ship" and designated members of the crew opened the seacocks and valves, and charges exploded below the water line. There were several more hits and then at 11.35 Captain Gordon gave the command "Abandon ship".

Those crew who escaped onto rafts and into the water saw the great ship list to starboard and sink sixty metres to the sea bed. HMS Encounter and the USS Pope, the two escorting destroyers were also sunk. There were 714 officers and men from the Exeter picked up by Japanese destroyers and taken as prisoners of war. They remained in a Japanese camp in Macassar, Celibes, were they were suffered starvation, forced labour, disease and brutality. A contingent spent an equally hellish nine months at Pamalla, also on Celibes, where they lost sixteen dead working a nickel mine. Some of the officers and men were transferred to Nagasaki to work in the docks and a coal mine and were witness to the second atomic bomb that was dropped on that city. Those that survived imprisonment were finally released after three and a half years and after a spell in Manila or Sydney were transported back to England.

Letter home from CPO Alfred Whitehall crew of Exeter
How I went to the Falklands a nurse for HMS Exeter
Exeter's River Plate Crew List
Roll of Honour - offsite link
HMS Exeter - a photo essay of Exeter's 1937 to 1939 cruise.

Remembering HMS Exeter

A window of 'Christ walking on the water', in memory of the officers and men of HMS Exeter who were lost in the Battle of the Java Sea was dedicated in St Andrew's Chapel, Exeter Cathedral at noon on the 1st March 1948. Surviving crew and relatives of the fallen lunched in the Royal Clarence afterwards. The window was designed by Sir Ninian Comper and cost 410.

On the 1st March 2008, there was a reunion of surviving crew and relatives in the Guildhall, on the 66th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Exeter, and 60th anniversary of the dedication of the window, attended by the Lord Mayor, Councillor Hazel Slack, and eight surviving members of the crew. There was a service in St Andrews Chapel with the laying of a wreath at the window and a lone bugle sounding the Last Post.

I would like to thank the White Ensign Club, Exeter for allowing me to take the photos of the crest and bell. See Holy Trinity Church - White Ensign Club for more on Holy Trinity Church and photos of the interior.

For more on HMS Exeter including many photographs and marine prints visit Black Dog Studios.

Sources: The MOD website, Pathe News report of the Freedom ceremony, Express and Echo and 'Willingly to School', a history of Newtown School by Judith Sturman and Stephanie Barnes and No Surrender by W E Johns DSM and R A Kelly.

HMS Exeter sinking HMS Exeter sinking in the Java sea - photo taken by a Japanese aircraft. HMS Exeter under attack HMS Exeter left, during a battle in the Java Sea on 15th February 1942.
Steve Cairns OBE MBE Steve Cairns OBE MBE, Weapons Artificer at the Guildhall for the 2008 re-dedication of the HMS Exeter window in the Cathedral. The HMS Exeter window The HMS Exeter Window.

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HMS Exeter - Type 42 Destroyer - launched 1978

The seventh type 42 to be built, HMS Exeter is designed to provide area air defence to a group of ships. A secondary role is to provide naval Gunfire Support, take part in anti-surface operations and provide anti-submarine capabilities. Type 42's are often used to provide aid to civilian powers, and during disaster relief operations. She carries a crew of 260 men and women.

Built by Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Limited, her keel was laid down at Neptune Yard, Wallsend on 22 July 1976. She was launched by Lady Joan Mulley on 25 April 1978, and commissioned on 19 September 1980. She was awarded the sixth Battle Honour for her name during the Falklands Conflict of 1982, where she was credited with shooting down four Argentine aircraft. Two of the aircraft were A-4C Skyhawks of FAA Grupo 4 shot down east of Falklands by Sea Darts fired by HMS Exeter on the 30th May. On 7th June a Learjet 35A of FAA Photo-Reconnaissance Grupo 1 was shot down over Pebble Island by a Sea Dart fired by HMS Exeter (9.05 am) and a Canberra B.62 of FAA Grupo 2 was shot down west of Stanley by a Sea Dart fired by HMS Exeter (10.55 pm). Exeter was the last ship to engage with enemy aircraft before the end of the conflict.

One man who served on Exeter during the conflict remarked in 2007 that "She was a very happy ship and all the men onboard were very proud of being able to serve with our Captain Hugh Balfour, the man was a true gent he always had time even in the heat of battle to inform the rest of the crew outside the ops room what was going on... sadly Captain Balfour passed away some years ago but we as his crew will always be very proud to have served with him."

She was also involved in defence activities in 1991 when employed as an escort for a US Battleship and Mine Counter-Measures Unit off the Kuwait coast during the 1991 Gulf War. In 1997 she entered Rosyth Dockyard for an extensive refit programme which was completed in 1998.

Exeter has been posted to 14 major deployments since she entered service, while in 2004 visited the supposed position of her predecessor in the Java Sea to remember her last action and sinking.

Exeter was the last warship to be still in service from the Falklands war. In March 2005, it was announced that she was to be taken out of service in 2009 after 29 years of active service. The MoD went on to say that there may not be another HMS Exeter for several decades. In May 2009, the ceremony to decommision Exeter was held at Portsmouth, with 325 invited guests, including the Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor Winterbottom.

Various groups called for the ship to be purchased and towed up the ship canal, to be opened as a tourist attraction in the canal basin. A council spokesman stated "On confirmation of the decommissioning of HMS Exeter about 12 months ago, the council formally approached the Royal Navy with a request for artefacts from the ship to be donated to the city in view of its long and well respected affiliation with the ship. The bell was among the items sought." One of the ships nameplates was presented to the city in 2008 and put on display in the Guildhall. She will be stripped of her equipment and offered for sale to the highest bidder if a buyer is not found, she will be scrapped.

On 21st October 2009, the Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Defender was launched at the Govan shipyard in Glasgow. Exeter will be formally affiliated with the new warship, and the ships officers and crew will be formally given the Freedom of the City at some future date.

Source: Quote from Stephen Kay

HMS Exeter Type 42 Photo Crown Copyright/MOD HMS Exeter ready for scrap The decommissioned and rusting Exeter awaiting her fate at Portsmouth. Photo copyright 2009, Steve Wright. Freedom of the City 1983 Freedom of the City in 1983. Photo Alan H Mazonowicz

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