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York Class Heavy Cruiser
540' x 58' x 17'
3 x 8" guns
4 x 4" AA guns
2 x 2 pdr AA guns
2 x triple 21" torpedo tubes
2 x aircraft catapults
2 x seaplanes
RN April 1941
RAN February 14, 1942
Denlay/Skoglie Feb 21, 2007
Kevin Denlay April 2008
Royal Navy July 27, 2008
Empress November 2016
Built by Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth, United Kingdom. Laid down August 1, 1928 as a York Class Heavy Cruiser for the Royal Navy (RN). Launched July 18, 1929. Completed July 27, 1931 as HMS Exeter (68) in honor of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Between 1931–1935 assigned to the Atlantic Fleet then between 1935–1939 severed in the Mediterranean Sea.
At the start of World War II, assigned to the South American Division under the command of Captain Frederick S. Bell. In October 1939 assigned to "Force G" tasked with hunting down Kriegsmarine (German Navy) Panzerschiff (Pocket Battleship) Admiral Graf Spee and German raiders in the South Atlantic Ocean off South America.
Battle of the River Plate
On December 12, 1939 Exeter was ordered to rendezvous with Achilles and Ajax off the mouth of the Río de la Plata (River Plate). On December 13, 1939 in the morning spotted by Admiral Graf Spee and engaged during the Battle of the River Plate. During the battle, Exeter was hit seven times by 11" shells and several near misses. All three turrets were damaged and her speed reduced to 18 knots. During the battle, sixty crew were killed and twenty-three wounded.
Afterwards, to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs until January 1940 then to Devonport for fourteen months of additional repairs at Devonport Dockyard at Plymouth. On November 30, 1940 captain W. N. T. Beckett took command. On March 10, 1941 he died from complications after surgery the same day Exeter was recommissioned with repairs completed.
On March 11, 1941 assigned to Captain Oliver Loudon Gordon took command. Afterwards, underwent sea trials off Plymouth. On March 24, 1941 departs Plymouth for Scapa Flow to conduct training, gunnery and exercises with other warships. Afterwards, escorts an Atlantic convoy before being deployed to the Far East where she continued escorting convoys in the Indian Ocean. She had just set out escorting a small convoy from India to Burma when she was ordered to break away and head to Singapore to reinforce Force Z.
On December 10, 1941 arrived Singapore the same day HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were sunk off the east coast of Malaya. For the next two months Exeter continued to escort convoys and participated with the so-called Combined Striking Force (Gasper Strait sortie) on February 15, 1942.
On February 20, 1942 escorted Convoy SJ 5 that departed Batavia (Jakarta) bound for Colombo including British transports Angby, Filleigh, Jalakrishna, Lulworth Hill, Silverlarch and Yoma plus Norwegian transport Hai Lee. The convoy was escorted in the Sunda Strait by destroyer HMS Stronghold (H50) and Indian sloop Jumna. On February 24, 1942 returned to Batavia and sustained light damaged during a Japanese air raid.
Battle of the Java Sea
On February 27, 1942 participated in the Battle of the Java Sea. During the battle, she was crippled by a hit in the forward ‘A’ boiler room by an 8" shell fired by Haguro, and hence was ordered to withdraw towards Surabaya for temporary repairs. During this surface action, thirteen of her crew were killed. Just minutes after Exeter was hit, Dutch destroyer Hr. Ms. Kortenaer was sunk by a torpedo, also fired by Haguro. A short while later while covering Exeter's withdrawal, destroyer HMS Electra (H27) was sunk by gunfire.
Before desperate attempts to conduct repairs were completed in Surabaya, Exeter was ordered to attempt to withdraw from the area via the Sunda Strait, which meant she had to transit back through the Java Sea now controlled by the Japanese.
Second Battle of the Java Sea
On February 28, 1942 during the evening departed Surabaya escorted by destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope (DD-225).
On March 1, 1942 at the start of the Second Battle of the Java Sea (The Battle off Bawean Island, The Battle South of Borneo) the three Allied warships were intercepted by the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi and Haguro plus destroyers Yamakaze and Kawakaze. The chase was soon joined by two more heavy cruisers Ashigara and Myoko plus destroyers Akebono and Inazuma.
Towards the end of an extended running exhange of gunfire, Exeter was vastly outnumbered and out gunned, was badly damaged by gunfire from the heavy cruisers, one hit knocking out a boiler room again, this time resulting in the loss of all power. She was thus in such a state that her captain gave scuttling orders, and as a result Exeter began listing over to port. However, before actually sinking, but after all personnel had abandoned her, she was hit on the starboard side by two torpedoes fired by the destroyer Inazuma. After the torpedoes struck, Exeter briefly righted herself from what had been her ever increasing port list, stood upright, then sank to starboard shortly before noon to the northwest of Bawean Island at approximately Lat 4′ 54′ S, Long 111° 34′ E. During this surface action and her sinking, forty-one of her crew were listed as killed or missing presumed killed.
Also sunk were both her escorts: HMS Encounter by gunfire at almost the same time as Exeter, and about one and a half hours later USS Pope DD-225 was sunk, primarily from aerial attack.
Account of Lt Cmdr George Cooper sinking of HMS Exeter (War Illustrated, 1946)
"So I shall never forget the sight of Exeter going. It did not seem real. We had lived in that ship for a year. We had our cabins and messdecks there, all our private belongings and treasures, mementos of home, books, photographs. I remember throwing my large Barr and Stroud binoculars on the deck before I went over the side. What a waste, I thought, yet a bagatelle compared to the loss of a fine 8-inch cruiser with a score that included the Graf Spee off the River Plate."
Fates of the Crew
Forty of her crew died in the sinking. Approximately 600 survivors including Exeter’s commander became Prisoners Of War (POW). The Allies knew little about her sinking or the fate of her crews until the end of the Pacific War.
The captured crew members were transported to Banjermassen in southern Borneo before being transported to Makassar POW Camp where seven died in captivity. The senior officers were transported to Japan and interred at Zentsuji.
During October 1942 a group of 200 prisoners mostly from Exeter plus HMS Encounter, HMS Stronghold, USS Pope DD-225 and USS Perch SS-176 with 800 Dutch prisoners were transported aboard the Asama Maru to Nagasaki then moved to Fukuoka No. 2 camp on Koyagi Island and forced to labor in factories. A total of seven died in captivity. During April 1945, the officers were moved to Hoten near Mukden in Manchuria until the end of the Pacific War.
During January 1943, 200 prisoners from Exeter were forced to to work in a nickel mine at Poemalla in eastern Celebes (Sulawesi) then returned during September 1943 suffering serious casualties. Another group worked on Marros Airfield, details unknown. During 1945, a group officers and senior ratings were moved to Java.
At the end of the Pacific War, the surviving prisoners were liberated from four locations: Makassar POW Camp on Java, Fukuoka No. 2 and Zentsuji in Japan plus Hoten in Manchuria.
Since 2002, MV Empress then owned and skippered by Vidar Skoglie repeatedly searched for the shipwreck of HMS Exeter, using side scan sonar to cover every official sinking positions and several unofficial ones, along with many other possible sites without success. However, scores and scores of other wrecks, some of significant historical importance, were discovered by the MV Empress group during these searches including Hr. Ms. De Ruyter and Hr. Ms. Java.
On February 21, 2007, MV Empress located the shipwreck approximately 90 miles northwest of Bawean Island, approximately 60 nautical miles from her captain’s estimated sinking position. This particular dedicated expedition had been at sea for almost ten days with only a skeleton crew on board, specifically searching various Java Sea locations for Exeter (as opposed to a regular dive charter just ‘tourist’ diving various wreck sites). As it turned out, only hours before they were to head directly for Singapore, while on one of the very last legs of large search box (that had almost been completed several months before) Exeter was discovered and then dived. Later that same day, the team also discovered and dived HMS Encounter several miles away. The only divers on board where Vidar Skoglie then owner/skipper of MV Empress, Alice Skoglie (his wife), Phil Yeutter (Captain, USN Ret.) and Kevin Denlay (researcher / photographer).
The shipwreck lies at a depth of over 200' / 60m on her starboard side at the bottom of the Java Sea. Although the discovery participants knew unquestionably the shipwreck was HMS Exeter, news of the discovery was delayed until MV Empress could return to record high definition video footage and more photographs to confirm beyond reproach to the relevant authorities and the public at large that there could be no doubt whatsoever about the shipwreck's identity.
During April 2008, MV Empress returned for the first time since the 2007 discovery with a group of divers, again including Kevin Denlay who carried an Explorers Club Expedition Flag and some of the participants on that expedition helped Kevin Denlay survey the shipwreck. On departure they left a Royal Navy Ensign flag in honor of her crew and those that perished. The highlight of this survey confirmed that, as Japanese destroyer Inazuma claimed, she had hit Exeter with two torpedoes on her starboard side, not just one as generally believed. The survey confirmed one torpedo hit amidships that blew out part of the bottom of the hull (and hence why it could be seen by the divers). The second torpedo hit just forward of ‘A’ Turret that had almost severed her bow.
Between 2012 to 2016, amateur Indonesian salvage divers began removing scrap metal from Exeter plus other World War II shipwrecks in the Java Sea. By late 2016 the entire shipwreck was removed likely by a large scale commercial salvors operation. By November 2016, an expedition to dive Exeter discovered the entire shipwreck was "totally removed", leaving only an indent in the seabed as to where she once lay.
Kevin Denlay adds:
"I was informed by Mr. Skoglie that Exeter was still completely intact in 2012 when Empress last visited the wreck site (prior to her November 2016 visit). And although there are claims of her being striped bit by bit over the intervening years, I believe the complete removal of the wreck was done in one massive operation using a ’crane barge’, possibly over several weeks, or maybe even less, sometime between 2014 and 2016 (after the same salvors were banned from Malaysian waters circa 2014 for doing the ‘same thing’ to wrecks there)."
During the evening of February 27, 1942 the thirteen crew killed during the surface action were brought ashore and buried at Surabaya. Postwar, these graves were exhumed and permanently buried at Jakarta War Cemetery.
The forty crew missing presumed killed March 1, 1942 are memorialized at Plymouth Naval Memorial in Devon, United Kingdom. The seven that died in Nagasaki are memorialized at the Yokohama Cremation Memorial.
During the April 2008 expedition, the Royal Navy Ensign flag attached to the wreck was supplied to members of the expedition by the then current HMS Exeter (D89).
Another Royal Navy Ensign, "flown" on the wreck by Kevin Denlay during the initial 2007 discovery expedition now resides in Exeter Cathedral (Cathedral Church of Saint Peter at Exeter) in Exeter, Devon in the United Kingdom. This Ensign has been made into a standard and is brought out on display during the yearly ceremonies held in Exeter City on the first weekend in March on the anniversary of the sinking.
On July 27, 2008 a memorial service that included five veteran's of Exeter's surviving crew was conducted aboard the British Type 23 frigate HMS Kent (F78) and a wreath placed into the sea over Exeter’s shipwreck. The veterans present included: George Gaskell (Stoker, ‘A’ Boiler Room), Bill Francis (Stoker, ‘A’ Boiler Room), Joe Asher (Boy Sailor, ‘A’ Shell Room) and Midshipman Rob Rae. The ceremony was attended by Commander Hopper (Commanding Officer HMS Kent), Commodore Cameron, Ambassador Hatfull (British Defence Attaché to Indonesia) and Chaplain Roissetter (Chaplain HMS Kent) plus many other distinguished guests. In a solemn ceremony on the aft deck of HMS Kent, Kevin Denlay presented his Royal Navy Ensign from their 2007 discovery expedition to these survivors.
HMS Exeter (68) crew killed in surface action February 27, 1942 and surface action and sinking March 1, 1942
Action Report: Captain O. L. Gordon HMS Exeter Battle of the Java Sea by Captain O. L. Gordon Oct 1, 1945 [PDF]
War Illustrated 1946 "Lt Cmdr George Cooper account of HMS Exeter’s last action"
Makassar POW Camp Celebes (Sulawesi)
Makassar POW Camp Celebes (Sulawesi) - HMS Report
Robin Brooks - Official Media Release "Two Famous WW11 Warship Wrecks Discovered!" April 30, 2008 [PDF]
Robin Brooks - Java Sea 2008 War Grave
Robin Brooks - Memorial Service in the Java Sea HMS Exeter (1931-1942) Memorial Service photographs from the commemorative service aboard HMS Kent (F78) over the HMS Exeter shipwreck with veterans July 27, 2008
Royal Navy "Royal Navy Commemorates WWII Warships Sunk In Java Sea" 2008 via Wayback September 8, 2008
ANZEC Members - Mr. Kevin V. Denlay (International Fellow - 1998, Australian) via Wayback May 20, 2016
The Guardian "British second world war shipwrecks in Java Sea destroyed by illegal scavenging" Nov 16, 2016
"A preliminary report from an expedition to document sunken ships, seen by the Guardian, shows that the wrecks of HMS Exeter, a 175m heavy cruiser, and destroyer HMS Encounter have been almost totally removed."
History of War: "Java Sea Shipwrecks of World War 2: One of the men who found them reflects on their loss" by James Hoare November 23, 2016
YouTube "Al Jazeera: Indonesian Shipwrecks - WWII shipwrecks sold as scrap in Indonesia" November 23, 2016
U-Boat.net - HMS Exeter (68)
IWM - Cranefield, Philip Garton (Oral History) April 28, 1982 (IWM catalogue number 6192)
IWM - Adams, Thomas John George (Oral History) September 8, 1981 (IWM catalogue number 5206) audio online
Thanks to Kevin Denlay for additional research and analysis
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