Freelance writer from Cornwall
York-class heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, taken pre-war.
“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.’
Kapitan Hans Langsdorff describing HMS Exeter after the Battle of the River Plate.
To most people, the York-class heavy cruiser HMS Exeter is forever known for the Battle of the River Plate fought off the South American coast in December, 1939. Official accounts, books, documentaries and the 1956 feature film often cite Exeter as the standout feature, underplaying the roles of Leander-class light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles (without which Exeter couldn’t have survived). She was the fourth ship to bear the name and by far the most famous. Nominally a York-class heavy cruiser, Exeter was so different to her sister ship HMS York that, practically speaking, she was effectively a single-ship class in her own right.
Initially, seven York-class cruisers were planned. Naval budget cuts and the London Naval Treaty of 1930, coupled with the Admiralty decision that greater numbers of light cruisers better served naval needs, meant that only two were finally built. HMS York was laid down at Jarrow on 16 May, 1927 and completed on 6 June, 1930 by the Palmer’s Shipbuilding & Iron Company. Exeter was laid down at Devonport Dockyard on 1 August, 1928 by the Parsons firm and completed on 23 July, 1931. York, while a perfectly sound ship in her own right and having seen as much action as Exeter, has long been overshadowed by her better-remembered sister. Neither ship would survive the Second World War.
Exeter on the South American Station, pre-war.
It was unexpected that she would play a pivotal role in the battle that made her famous. Being effectively a single-ship class in her own right, much of her equipment as a melange of different pieces all melded together into a single ship. She couldn’t have been much more different from her sister ship to whose class she nominally belonged. That meant a long spate of continual mechanical problems often solved at great difficulty and no small expense. Thus it was that, in 1938 and with war already looming, she was about to be paid off and scrapped until reassigned to ‘fForce G’ under Commodore Henry Harwood alongside HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. Force G was sent to guard the shipping routes off the South American coast, where Harwood saw rich pickings for enemy surface raiders such as the Graf Spee. Harwood was the world’s leading theoretical expert on tactics for dealing with surface raiders. He was the worst possible opponent for Captain Hans Langsdorff, skipper of the Graf Spee.
Harwood was also right about the surface raiders and their interest in the South American shipping lanes. He mad an educated guess that the Graf Spee would double back and look for fresh prey in the area and his guess was absolutely right. His plan was to engage and divide his three cruisers into two divisions. Exeter, being the heavy cruiser, would fight on her own while Ajax and Achilles would support each other, their six-inch guns combined would prove vital to the success of Harwood’s plan and the very survival of the Exeter. The two divisions would approach and engage from different directions, forcing Langsdorff to divide his main guns, never able to concentrate on one division without leaving only his secondary guns to deal with the other.
Exeter was almost sunk at the River Plate.
December 13, 1939 dawned bright, hot and clear. It would be a fateful day for all involved especially Exeter and Graf Spee. For the British it would be a day of hard-fought victory and great success, albeit at a high price. For the Graf Spee it would ultimately result in her destruction. For Captain Langsdorff, disgrace and later suicide beckoned.
One of Graf Spee’s lookouts made a fatal error, one compounded by his captain’s ambition and ignoring express orders to avoid engaging British warships. The lookout correctly identified the Exeter, but misidentified Ajaz and Achilles as destroyers instead of light cruisers. Three cruisers would have arned Langsdorff that he’d met a British hunter force, out looking for him in particular. One heavy cruiser screened by two destroyers signified an escort for a small convoy, exactly the kind of prey that Langsdorff was looking for. He decided, defying his express orders, to engage, destroy the escort and then look for the non-existent convoy and destroy that as well. It was fatal miscalculation and a total breach of explicit orders from German Naval HQ. It would cost the German Navy a surface raider and its star skipper his life.
HMS Exeter taken after her refit following the Battle of the River Plate.
As Harwood had expected, Graf Spee’s main fire was concentrated on Exeter. Within a short space of time, Exeter was a shattered and blazing wreck. Aflame from stem to stern, listing heavily with only one gun still firing, the only asset left to the Exeter was her speed. Her skipper, Captain F.S ‘Hooky’ Bell, considered ramming his opponent, destroying both ships, but Harwood made it clear that this was not an option. He ordered Exeter away to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs and his light cruisers closed in, driving Graf Spee away before she could finish off the ruined Exeter. Exeter’s casualties were so severe, some 60 dead and 100 wounded, that she had to stop three times on that journey simply to bury her dead.
But, before she was nearly sunk by battle damage, Exeter made a crucial contribution. One of her eight-inch shells penetrated deep inside Graf Spee’s hull, destroying the freshwater condenser and the boiler serving it. With no freshwater condenser, Graf Spee was now short of fresh water and steam needed to clean the diesel fuel serving her main engines. With Graf Spee so far from Germany it was now highly debatable whether she would make it home at all. One single eight-inch shell had turned the Graf Spee’s fortunes from her highly-successful run of sunken merchant ships to being cornered in Montevideo Harbour
According to German Intelligence (listening to telephone communications coming from the British Embassy in Argentina), fuel stocks were being ordered by the British to refuel heavier ships heading at top speed for Montevideo to engage Graf Spee as she left Montevideo and destroy her in one climactic battle. According to the British after the war, they knew full well the phones were tapped. They also knew full well that the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland was the only British ship joining Harwood’s force to replace the shattered Exeter. Other units were simply too far away and the British were playing for time, using every diplomatic and legal means to keep Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbour until any heavy units actually could make an appearance. It worked beyond their wildest aspirations.
At dusk one night, with time running out and convinced British heavy units were waiting for him, Langsdorff steamed out with a skeleton crew and stopped in the channel between Montevideo and the open sea. What would she do? Where could she go? Would she try to run or choose to fight? With the world watching the first major engagement of the war, Langsdorff did the one thing nobody expected. At sunset, he scuttled his ship.
Graf Spee was torn apart by a series of rending explosions, ripping open her hull and rendering her a blazing hulk. Blast after blast demolished her while spectators, civilian and Royal Navy alike, watched dumbfounded. The chase was over and Graf Spee destroyed by her own hand. Shortly afterward, Captain Langsdorff shot himself, but only after attending the funerals of his lost crewmen and paying personal tribute to the crew of HMS Exeter.
The torpedo hit that crippled her at the Second Battle of the Java Sea.
The British ships, especially Exeter, returned home to a hero’s welcome. Chruchill personally demanded that Exeter be returned to full fighting condition and even turned up to greet her at Plymouth, boarding her and making a speech on her ruined quarterdeck.
Exeter arrived home on February 14, 1940 and spent the next 13 months undergoing extensive repairs. She spent the next year escorting convoys in the Atlantic before being sent to the Far East where she was sunk in the Second Battle of the South Java Sea along with the destroyer USS Pope. She lay on the sea bed undiscovered until 2007 when she was finally found and a White Ensign attached to the remains of her hull.