The wreck of the Exeter

Posted by lex, on May 18, 2008


The Java Sea yields up one of its more famous ghosts:

The cruiser HMS Exeter, best known for its valiant role in the Battle of the River Plate when it hunted down the pride of the German navy, the Admiral Graf Spee, was located by divers searching the Java Sea.

The British vessel was sunk on March 1, 1942, when, with two escorts, the destroyer HMS Encounter and the American destroyer Pope, it was intercepted by nine Japanese warships.

All three Allied ships were lost in the action. The wreck of Encounter, which had passed up a chance to escape by turning back in a brave but futile attempt to protect Exeter, has also now been located…


Examinations of the wreck have provided historians with vital new insights into the ship’s final battle, one of the war’s least known naval encounters.

The divers, for instance, found many of its guns were at low elevation, indicating how close in the Japanese ships had got, and the extent to which Exeter was encircled and outgunned.

They also discovered the extent of the damage to the ship, testimony not only to the ferocity of fire it faced in its final moments.

Exeter had been a key player in the hunt for, and destruction of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in 1939, an early and significant propaganda victory for the hard pressed British. The German ship had been badly mauled by a larger British force consisting of Exeter and two light cruisers, the HMS Ajaxand HMNZS Achilles. While the light guns of Ajax and Achilles provided little more than harassing fire topside, Exeter’s big 8″ guns deeply wounded the German heavy cruiser, including a critical blow to her fuel separating system. With only 16 hours worth of usable fuel laid by, Graf Spee’s captain retreated to a neutral port in Uruguay in order to effect repairs and bury his dead. A ruse by British intelligence convinced the Captain Hans Langsdorff that a large allied force awaited him outside the port, and – having sighted the recently arrived HMS Cumberland along with Achilles and Ajax after getting underway – Langsdorf scuttled his ship rather than butcher any more of his crewmen in a futile engagement.

In the second battle of the Java Sea nearly three years later Exeter – mauled in an earlier brawl two days earlier and withdrawing under escort –  met a powerful force composed of four Imperial Japanese Navy heavy cruisers and three destroyers. Exeter and Encounter were both sunk by gunfire after a fierce three-hour action around noon on the first of March, 1942. Pope sank below the waves an hour later, battered by 12 dive bombers, having fired all of her torpedoes and 140 salvoes of gunfire.

Aboard Exeter, 50 sailors were killed in action and 650 made prisoner. Of those, 152 would die in detainment.

(H/T to JMH for the link)

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Naval History

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