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HMS Exeter
The Final Days

By Bill Francis

HMS Exeter
A Cathedral class light cruiser of 8390 tons

It was February 1941 when as a young stoker I joined 'HMS Exeter' then famous for her role in the Battle of the River Plate. We did our working up trials near the Denmark Straits while keeping an eye open for the 'Bismark'. After several weeks we were ordered to Greenock to pick up a convoy for the Middle East.

We sailed via the Cape of Good Hope and up the Indian Ocean to Aden in the Red Sea. We continued convoying on this route from Durban to Aden for some months. We then moved farther east, Colombo, Bombay, Calcutta. On December 7th 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, we were off the coast of Burma with a convoy of troops heading for Rangoon. We were then ordered to make for Singapore to join 'HMS Prince of Wales' and 'HMS Repulse'. We arrived in Singapore on December 10th to find that they had both been sunk that day. We saw the survivors come in that night and we fed and clothed them in a warehouse near where we were berthed. They also had their tot of rum.

We then continued on convoy duty bringing troops into Singapore. They were coming out from the UK and we picked them up at Batavia in Java. Singapore fell on February 15th 1942 after we had poured thousands of troops in there.

On February 27th we joined forces with 4 other cruisers, they were the American cruiser 'USS Houston', the Australian cruiser 'HMS Perth', two Dutch cruisers 'De Reuter' and 'Java' and about 6 destroyers. The Dutch admiral on board 'De Reuter' was in command of the force.

We were in the Java Sea searching for a Japanese invasion force said to be steaming south between Borneo and Celebes. It was about 4.15pm and I had just picked up the first dog watch down the for'ard engine room when our 8 inch guns opened fire. We had been in action for some time when the ship seemed to shudder, we had been hit in the boiler room killing 14 men. We fell out of line but the action carried on and later that night the 2 Dutch cruisers were sunk and also the American and Australian cruisers. This action became known as the Battle of the Java Sea. We buried our dead in Surabuya in Java with full naval honours and sailed on Saturday night February 28th 1942.

On Sunday March 1st, St David's Day, we were at sea steaming on one boiler room. We were escorted by 2 destroyers, 'HMS Encounter' and 'USS Pope'. We had been ordered to make for Sunda Strait which is between Sumatra and Java. This would bring us into the Indian Ocean and freedom if we could avoid the Japanese fleet.

At 8 o'clock that morning I was back down in the engine room for the forenoon watch. It was 9.30 when our guns opened fire, the action had started again. At about 11.00am there was a terrific explosion, the lights dimmed and then went out, the secondary lighting came on but this only gave a very dim light. The engine slowed and the dynamo ran down. We were completely without power, so the guns were unable to fire. We had been hit in 'A' boiler room.

Efforts were made to bring the ship back into the action but to no avail. We were now a sitting target for the Japanese. There were several more explosions and eventually the order was given to abandon ship. I went up on deck and 'Exeter' was beginning to list to starboard. I jumped over the side and while we were in the water we watched her list further to starboard and sink to the bottom of the Java Sea. Our 2 escorts were also sunk.

Several hours later we were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to the island of Celebes where we were incarcerated in a prison camp for 3½ years from which many never returned.

We were released in September 1945 and took passage on a submarine depot ship 'HMS Maidstone'. I arrived home by way of Australia and South Africa in December 1945, just in time for Christmas and exactly 5 years since I was last home on leave.

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In February 2007 the wreck of 'HMS Exter' was discovered in the Java Sea and on 28th July 2008 a wreath-laying ceremony took place over the site of the wreck. This was attended by a number of survivors from the original sinking. To read about this ceremony and see some photographs CLICK HERE.

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