The glorious story of the fourth ship to bear the name HMS Exeter came to an end twice — in 1942, when she went to the bottom off the Dutch East Indies with fifty men of her crew, and the survivors went into Japanese captivity (where over 150 more would be slaughtered); and again in 2016, when her wreck and war grave, rediscovered in 2008, was found to have been completely plundered by Asian metal thieves.
Exeter was not the only ship to be erased from the seabed. British destroyers HMS Electra and Encounter, Royal Dutch HMNLS De Ruyter and HMNLS Java sunk in the same battle are gone as well (although some bits of Electra remain). HMNLS Kortenaer is partly gone. The US Submarine Perch sunk in an unrelated action is gone, but is not a war grave (her whole crew escaped the fire of sinking into the frying pan of Japanese captivity); along with the two cruisers sunk at the follow-on Battle of the Sunda Strait, HMAS Perth and USS Houston, war graves for over 300 Australians and Americans respectively, which were determined by surveys in 2013 and 2015 to have been invaded and partly stripped by scrappers.
While the British losses at the Battle of the Java Sea were not trivial, the Dutch lost over 900 seamen in the battle, including the Netherlands’ last great admiral, Karel Doorman. It was a Dutch expedition to place a plaque in memory of Doorman and his men that first discovered that the ships were not there. There’s no question of a navigational error, as the indentations where the ships used to be are still there.
The Indonesian response has been flippant. Indonesian Navy Spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta suggested that it’s the Netherlands’ own fault for not requesting that the Indonesians guard the location.
The Netherlands, the former colonial power, is little loved in Indonesia, and the majority mohammedan population does not respect the graves of infidels.
The only remaining question, at this point: were the thieves Indonesian, Chinese, or Indonesians and Chinese working together?
Exeter may be the most historic of these lost ships. She was a proud ship. Built in the 1920s under the strictures of the naval disarmament treaties of the era, the 8,400 ton cruiser was the second and last of the York class and sufficiently different from York as to be readily distinguished. In order to meet the weight strictures of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, York and Exeter dispensed with belt armor, reducing weight but increasing tophamper and rendering the ships vulnerable in a fight with peer or larger units. (It was Exeter’s fate in WWII to get into such fights).
Battle of the River Plate
Exeter was one of the three cruisers that harried DKM Graf Spee into this harbor off Montevideo, Uruguay and caused, ultimately, the scuttling of the vessel and suicide of her captain.
Exeter, the best armed and armored of the three ships opposing Graf Spee (The others were HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles) went toe-to-toe with the German battlecruiser and paid the price.
Exeter took a considerable beating, as seen here. German day gunnery was thought to be the best in the world, and the 100-plus hits Exeter took in barely 20 minutes proved that conventional opinion was valid. But a couple of hits from Exeter drove Graf Spee into harbor to make repairs. Believing he was bottled up — an erroneous belief, as Exeter had already decamped for the Falklands and hasty repairs of its own — the German captain, Hans Langdorff, scuttled the ship and then shot himself.
Graf Spee remains on the bottom of the Rio Plata. Why? Uruguay and Argentina, the adjacent countries, are civilized. Indonesia? Not so much.
Battle of the Java Sea & 2nd Battle of the Java Sea
In 1941, Exeter transited the Panama Canal enroute to her new station in the Far East.
After the Sino-Japanese war that had been percolating for years broke out into general warfare after the Japanese became one of the ill-fated multinational ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) squadron in the southwest Pacific. Exeter fought a number of actions against Japanese ships and aircraft (see below), before the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942.
In the Battle of the Java Sea, the ABDA force sortied from Surabaya on the Dutch (now Indonesian) island of Java to intercept a Japanese landing force, under the command of Admiral Doorman. The Japanese force was screened by the IJN’s surface combatants, at that stage of the war probably the best in the world, man-for-man and ship-for-ship.
The ABDA force comprised 9 cruisers, including USS Houston and Marblehead; HMAS Hobart; HMS Exeter, Jupiter, and Express; and Dutch DeRuyter, Java, and Piethien.
Exeter was again ordered to seek repairs. She buried 14 dead at sea, and was provided with two escorting destroyers, HMS Encounter and USS Pope, and set course for Surabaya. After hasty repairs to Exeter, the same three ships headed for the Royal Navy’s docks in Ceylon, but nine Japanese warships caught up to the squadron on 1 March 42 and sent them all to the bottom. (This is called, by historians, the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea). Most of the crewmen survived, with Exeter taking the most casualties — 52, fewer than she lost at the River Plate. This photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft.
The ships were found in 2007 by a US/Australian and identified in 2008, and wreck archaeologists were only beginning to study the wrecks to shed light on the 1942 battles. One of the then-living HMS Exeter survivors, Fred Aindow, then 88, remembered of his station in a gun turret:
We were firing until the last moment,” he said. “I think we were the last to stop. Then it was over the side and I hung on to an oar for an hour until I was picked up. The next three years were sheer hell.
It’s great news that they’ve found Exeter. I’d like to dive down myself and get my shoes from my locker that I had only just bought.
Another, Tom Jowett, a spokesman for the Survivors’ Association:
This is great news but it is important now to make sure the wreck is properly respected.
That didn’t happen. The UK MOD, seeking to protect the ships’ locations as grave sites, shared the closely-held location with Indonesian officials, which is now looking like a rather large error and a Judas-and-Brutus level betrayal by the Indonesians.
As the ship went down, her surviving company, afloat in the water, sent up three cheers.
For the survivors, Japanese captivity killed three times the men that the sinking of their ships had done. It didn’t start off that way; Japanese captains including Shunsaku Kudo of the destroyer IJN Ikazuchi hazarded their own ships to rescue survivors; Kudo took 442 on board his own ship. But once the prisoners were transferred from the relatively cosmopolitan and chivalric Navy to the custody of the barbarous Japanese Army ashore, they were badly abused.
USS Pope’s XO, Dick Antrim, was awarded the Medal of Honor for a selfless act of heroism during captivity: as the Japanese were beating another prisoner to death, Antrim demanded that they punish him instead. The Japanese were astonished by this act, and ceased the beating, and generally seemed to respect the Americans more and abuse them less after this. Antrim is buried in Arlington… where the Indonesians can’t get to him!
The Telegraph (destruction & desecration): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/16/dutch-probe-mystery-of-wartime-shipwrecks-that-appear-to-have-go/
The Telegraph (original discovery, survivor quotes): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/indonesia/1975561/Wartime-naval-legend-HMS-Exeter-found-off-Java.html
WWII Today (excellent long quote from surviving Exeter officer Lt. Cmdr. George Cooper). http://ww2today.com/1st-march-1942-hms-exeters-final-battle
Reuters (Dutch irritation over missing ships, Indonesian Navy flippant comment): http://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-indonesia-missing-ships-idUSKBN13D1Z5
Japan Probe (story of Captain Kudo and the Itazuki. Kudo survived the war, but his ship and most of the crew were lost later). http://www.japanprobe.com/2007/05/19/the-untold-story-of-captain-kudo-shunsaku-and-the-destroyer-ikazuchi/
Heroism of Dick Antrim: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/rantrim.htm