HMS Exeter’s final battle

HMS Exeter fighting off an aircraft attack in January 1942 during the Battle of the Banka Straits.

On the 27th a combined ABDA – American British Dutch Australian – task force of ships had sustained heavy damage whilst attacking the Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java, now known as the First Battle of the Java Sea. The fleet retired to the port of Tanjung Priok, in the Dutch East Indies (now part of Jakarta, Indonesia). Separate groups of ships left on the 28th February – the USS Houston and HMAS Perth (sister ship to HMAS Sydney) ran into the Japanese fleet again and were sunk in the early hours of 1st March in the Battle of the Sunda Strait.

The cruiser HMS Exeter, famed in Britain for her role in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939, had sustained serious damage. On 28th she buried her 14 dead at sea and departed with the destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope. Between Java and Borneo they encountered eight Japanese warships – four heavy cruisers and four destroyers and the Second Battle of the Java Sea followed.

Lieutenant-Commander George Cooper was on board HMS Exeter:

For some unaccountable reason it was considered at headquarters that our best means of escape lay through the Sunda Strait to the westward, whereas the chances of doing this successfully were very remote in such enclosed waters. It would have seemed wiser to get away to the eastward towards Australia, as a chase in this direction would have drawn the enemy away from his fuelling bases, which he could not easily afford.

The following morning, Sunday, March lst, 1942, at 7.30, we sighted the topmasts of two Japanese heavy cruisers and turned south until they were out of sight, when we resumed our westward course. At 9.30, we sighted them again to starboard with a large destroyer, and shortly afterwards two smaller cruisers with five destroyers appeared on the port side. We turned to the eastward with our escorting destroyers, the British Encounter and the American Pope, to put the enemy astern.

For two hours we had a running fight with them. They straddled us many times but never hit us until at 11.30 one shell penetrated the boiler room. It was a shot in a million as it cut our one remaining main steam pipe.

The ship just came to a stop in all departments. The main engines stopped through lack of steam. The dynamos stopped. The turrets were motionless on different bearings. The steering failed. The inside became full of smoke as escaping oil fuel in the forward boiler room burst into flames. There was nothing we could do except sink her.

So the magazine valves were opened. The condenser inlets were allowed to flood the engine room, and watertight doors usually kept closed were opened. A pretty good inferno was going on down below as the fire spread. She started to list slightly to port, pouring black smoke out of her funnels. I thought she looked defiant, like a stag at bay. Men were cutting down carley floats and flotanets, casting timber adrift, turning out boats.

The Japanese were starting to hit us now as the range closed in. The after superstructure caught fire and the whine of projectiles sounded like the Ride of the Valkyries. She was getting lower in the water and heeling more. The inside had been completely evacuated; no one could live down there. At the bottom of the ladder leading to the upper deck were a lot of people, all quite cahn. She was very nearly stopped, and men were leaving in dribs and drabs. As they went they drifted away astern. Then I climbed over the side and
jumped into the water.

A little later, a destroyer closing on the starboard beam fired a torpedo. It was a good shot as it hit her right amidships. The old dear shuddered a bit. She seemed to shake herself from bow to stern. She must have had very little positive buoyancy left as she went right over to starboard until her fumiels and masts were horizontal. Then, heaving herself up in a final act of defiance, she disappeared in a swirl of water, smoke and steam.

I had never seen a ship sink in day time before. I had seen twelve ships sunk in a convoy in the Atlantic one wild night in October 1940. One of these I saw break in half and the two halves rear up in the air and disappear in twenty seconds. But darkness had spared me the most terrible sight for any sailor – a ship’s final lurch below the waves when the ocean floods inside and gets her down forever.

So I shall never forgot 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.

Anyhow, we all gave her three cheers as she went. You could hear the faint cheers rippling over the water.

George T. Cooper was to survive the war but his experiences at the hands of the Japanese are reflected in the title of his memoir: George T. Cooper: Never Forget, Nor Forgive. He was awarded the OBE for services to other PoWs and later became a Captain in the Royal Navy.

A captured Japanese aerial photograph of HMS Exeter sinking in the Second Battle of the Java Sea.

Britain at War has the full despatch on the action made by the commander of HMS Exeter, Captain O.L.Gordon in 1945, written when he was being repatriated on board USS Gosper after release from PoW camp.

HMS Encounter was sunk shortly after HMS Exeter and about an hour later USS Pope was sunk when attacked by dive bombers.

By dusk of 1st March 1942 the survivors from all three ships, spread out miles apart, were clinging to wreckage in the waters of the Java Sea

In 2016 came the sad news that HMS Exeter and other ships which constituted War Graves had been illegally salvaged. The Guardian has the full report.

The U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer USS Pope (DD-225) in January 1924, sunk by Japanese dive bombers on the 1st March 1942.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrian December 2, 2016 at 1:03 am

John Scott Rickcord (Mid-Shipman) who died on board HMS Exeter,is one of many RN relatives and my Gt Grandfathers cousin, his Uncle being (Father of John S.R)- Percival S . Rickcord, Cptn M.24 (Dreadnought)

Nicola Laxton November 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm

My granddad, Robert Laxton, was the chief stoker on HMS Exeter, and was killed when she went down in 1942. He never got to meet my dad who was a baby at the time. Lovely to read about other people’s relatives who would have known him.

Editor July 10, 2016 at 1:52 pm

There is now a formal ‘HMS Exeter Association’ that has been set up for all Exeter’s, their dependents and for those with an interest in the ship or it’s history.

The association is FREE for all to join and is an amalgamation of all previously separately run groups such as the Macassar & River Plate. If you would like to join the association, please email:

There is also a Facebook Group page for all to join:

The HMS Exeter Association are once again holding a service to remember all our fallen comrades on: Saturday 4th March 2017. This will be the 75th Anniversary of the sinking of HMS Exeter 68 also the 35th Anniversary of the Falklands HMS Exeter D89. If you would be interested in attending, please contact the committee via the above email.

We look forward to welcoming you.

Kind regards

Jessica Davis
HMS Exeter Association Secretary.

Tom Jowett March 14, 2016 at 6:23 pm

!st time I’ve seen this website:

Since 1948 the survivors have held a Reunion on the weekend closest to 1st March. I took over running the event in 2007. It is attended by survivors when possible, but an increasing number of descendants.

Recently the Reunion has re-located to the Corbyn Head Hotel at Torquay, the weekend usually involves a small service to lay a wreath at the “Exeter” window in Exeter Cathedral, which was paid for by the relatives of the “Exeter” crew members, thinking they had all died during the sinking.

Dougie Leask February 18, 2016 at 11:32 am

Are any of you attending or aware of the Macassar wreath laying service in Exeter Cathedral on 27th Feb 2016?

I served during the Falklands Conflict on HMS Exeter D89, the Type 42 Destroyer. Our crew have joined up to have a Standard made with all of the Battle honours of both HMS Exeter’s. The Standard is being dedicated on the same day and there is a large ceremonial parade and service in Exeter Cathedral to mark the occasion.

The date is the weekend closest to the 1st March in respect to those involved in that fateful day and as a token of remembrance to those who suffered in the Macassar POW Camp.

If you would like more details about the weekend, please contact me at

Kimberley January 8, 2016 at 11:06 am

“Hi Kimberley, I am David John Evan’s Grandson I have a photo of Gordon in uniform.”

Hi Mark,
Thanks for getting in touch!
Wow how did you find the photo of Gordon?
Would you be able to share the photo?
I would like to hear more of your grandfather’s story too.
My email address is:
sonnynkim06 [AT] gmail [DOT] com

Mark Biddle December 16, 2015 at 7:00 pm

My grandfather, Gordon Evans, was a marine on the Exeter when it was sunk. He was taken as a POW to Macassar and then on to somewhere else. He survived and returned to Wales but sadly passed away before I was born.

My father has been searching for wartime photos of him for a long time but hasn’t had any luck. We are both very interested in understanding more about my grandfathers life during the war.

Hi Kimberley, I am David John Evan’s Grandson I have a photo of Gordon in uniform.

Mark Macey December 8, 2015 at 4:08 pm

My Grandad Leading Seaman Thomas Prior was a POW – and unfortunately died at Celebes his grave is in the Ambon War Cemetery ….my mum never met her father

Andrew Ross Muldoon November 11, 2015 at 1:10 pm

My Great Uncle (Boy 1st Class) Stephen Ross was on HMS Exeter while it Sank & after doing some research have found names of all of the British Survivors for Fukuoka 2.

On there is a list of their ranks & serial numbers which may aid you in your search.

jeff hazell September 28, 2015 at 5:36 pm

My grandad was on the Exeter when it went down ( Frank Hazell), Ive been trying to locate a crew list but have been told that one does not exist. He sadly died approx 1980 when i was 12 and he spoke very little of what happened to him although he had many scars on his thumbs and a big scar on his head where im told the Japanese tortured and operated on him. Can anyone shed any light on how i may obtain a crew list so i can obtain his records. His son (my father is 74 now and becoming very old and didnt see his father ,Frank, until he was 5) nothing would please him more than getting some good information on the crew. I have read the book by Captain Gordon and believe my Grandad was in the same POW camps finishing up in Nagasaki.

Kimberley September 19, 2015 at 1:14 pm

My grandfather, Gordon Evans, was a marine on the Exeter when it was sunk. He was taken as a POW to Macassar and then on to somewhere else. He survived and returned to Wales but sadly passed away before I was born.

My father has been searching for wartime photos of him for a long time but hasn’t had any luck. We are both very interested in understanding more about my grandfathers life during the war. If anyone could recommend any books or have any information regarding him, that would be great.

Sharon Peppard August 24, 2015 at 10:38 pm

Hi Everyone

To Add My father Wilfred Eric Dean was an Able Seaman, on board the HMS Exeter, and was a POW in Macassar, and Maros.

Andy Maule August 16, 2015 at 7:41 pm

It is so good to see that the men of the Exeter are not forgotten. My great uncle Stoker P.O. Walter Edward Trueman died when the Exeter was sunk on 1st March 1942.

Derek Robertson August 9, 2015 at 7:22 am

To Win Clark and anyone else looking for more info on the crew of the ships and their experiences as POW’s.

I have amassed quite a lot of info, memoirs of several nationalities of live in the various camps Exeters men were distributed to, as well as documents from the national archives i’d be happy to share with you.

Kim Harrison, your uncles memoirs would be fascinating to see if you see this thread again.

email me at deeko [AT] hotmail [DOT] com


Paul August 4, 2015 at 1:16 pm

My uncle William Thomas Phillips was the Yeoman of Signals with HMS Exeter. He was transported from the Celebes to Fukuoka No.2, where he worked at the Kawanami dockyard. He was killed there in 1943 and I have letters from him and a naval doctor, who wrote to my gran to offer some comfort. However, his comforting words painted a very different story to the horrific treatment they received from their Japanese captors.There are a number of books out there, e.g. No Surrender, but I recently found a very rare copy of a book called Bamboo Rice and Seaweed by Owen F. Mahoney.

Alan Murcott August 2, 2015 at 5:10 pm

In 1983 my Wife bought an old trunk at an auction sale, somewhere near Ulpha in Cumbria. It contained some old books, and amongst them was some well written notes by a sailor who was on board HMS EXETER on the 1st March 1942. He wrote in great detail about the sinking, his life in the prison camps, also the Atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the last entry being Sept. 14th. 1945.
Unfortunately, the papers were not signed, but if anyone recognises any connections in the region, we would be pleased to give them further information.
A & T Murcott.

Roni Streeter June 23, 2015 at 4:43 am

My Uncle Jim was aboard the Exeter when she was sunk. He survived, was a POW in Nagasaki ( down in the mines) when we bombed that city. I too would like to know more.
He did not talk a lot about.

Dominic Wilkinson May 22, 2015 at 4:25 pm

My great uncle JOHN WILKINSON AKA “GEORDIE” the stoker was on HMS EXETER when it went down,in a POW camp in Macassar in the then celebes.Busy reading a book called NO SURRENDER! written by chief ordinance Artificer Johns.It mentions my great uncle page 153 into the book and a marine Mickey Dodds,on how they salvaged food whenever they could, and tried to smuggle it back into camp having been advised never to do that. Would love more information on how they got home etc where he was repatriated as has passed on now & lost contact with his offspring.

Win Clark May 13, 2015 at 7:43 am

My uncle G Bartholomew was captured by Japanese following sinking of HM Exeter 1st March 1942. He was at Nagasaki working on the docks and he did mention Mitsubishi. Does anyone have any further information? I know he didn’t mention his experiences in great detail and I would like to know more. The family do know that a Japanese father and son, with great risk to themselves, did give him some help e.g. some of their food.

Tony Wright May 10, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Not been on here for a year or so.
Kim if you do have memoirs would love to see them. Respond to this message and we can get in touch.

monica raioney April 27, 2015 at 8:18 pm

Hello, who ever is out there my father was on the HMS Exeter,and never returned I was two and half when my father died,but to me he is my hero,I was the youngest of seven so it was hard for us,anyone alive that new my DAD, he was a stoker first class any phtos of the crew i would love to see as I have no photo of my father.

Caroline Timberley February 24, 2015 at 2:15 pm

My Dad was a Marine on HMS Exeter, I am researching everything I can. I have his Service Record and Medals, Letters from the King on his and his commrades release, it broke my heart to read of such cruelty endured by him and so, so many others and still does every time I uncover something new.
As a survivor he was a truly remarkable person, without a bitter bone in his body, at least not one that he would let the outside world see. I am so proud to be his daughter.

john kelly doyle January 28, 2015 at 10:22 pm


Tony Mercer January 14, 2015 at 2:35 pm

My father William Mercer was an AS onboard Exeter in the aft turret and like many of your fathers and grandfathers was captured by the Japanese after days in the sea.
They were transported to camp in the Celebes and were repatriated via Australia. I was interested to see another Mercer in the comments above :-)
I’ve seen the photos of the wreck at:

andrea morosi January 4, 2015 at 8:11 pm

Salve sono andrea morosi mio nonno materno si chiamava Hugo Calleja era maltese era imbarcato come capo cambusiere e capo pezzo è stato nel campo di prigionia è morto nel 1986 a 82 anni sono orgoglioso di aver un nonno della Royal Navy
Hi andrea defaulters are my maternal grandfather’s name was Hugo Calleja was Maltese had boarded as chief steward and head piece was in the prison camp he died in 1986 at 82 years is proud to have a grandfather of the Royal Navy

Eileen gray December 30, 2014 at 1:34 am

My father was able seaman Stanley Bell from Belfast Northern Ireland he served on the Exeter and became a pow aged 19.

I am trying to find out more about him as he didn’t tell much about his time he died in dec 1994 I have researched that he was a pow in celebs as he wrote on the backs of photos of his pals and some of the places I have found out a lot thanks to the Internet aand Google maps to find places,I am traveling to singapore where he talked of raffles and to lay a poppy at the war memorial in his memory and then to freemantle where he spent time in hospital and to lay a poppy at the war memorial there as well ,I would be delighted to receive any information on the Exeter and the reunion which is held each year dates and places , thanks for any information I might receive , e.gray

Valerie Rodgers October 6, 2014 at 6:59 pm

I’m very sorry to hear of Bill Francis’ death this week. My father, PO Lawrence (‘Bennie’) Goodman, was on the Exeter, and was in the camp at Macassar, but did not survive. It was Bill’s article on the sinking of the Exeter that introduced me to COFEPOW and I attended a couple of the reunions.May he rest in peace.

Alison Pattimore October 4, 2014 at 8:39 pm

My uncle, William Francis, was also on the HMS Exeter and became a POW. sadly he passed away this week on 1 October aged 91. He was a tremendous character and met up with his fellow POW comrades for many years. Earlier this year was invited to the Queen’s garden party with two others ; I believe they were the last three surviving members.

Diana Kinzey August 8, 2014 at 4:36 pm

My brother was on the USS Pope. Gunner’s Mate I think. Was one of those POW’s sent to the Celebes prison camp. Liberated by the Australians in Sept. of 1945. My mother found out in April of 1943 that he was alive and a prisoner. He was able to get a message out through Short Wave Radio and folks all over the country relayed it to her. Sometimes the card or letter was just addressed “To the family of William A. Smith” with the name of the town and state.

Kevin Dyos June 14, 2014 at 12:48 am

My Dad was a Royal Marine his name was Walter Dyos, he was a a small camp call Maros in the Celebes near Makkasar would love some info..

Derek Robertson May 21, 2014 at 12:25 am

Nice to see other folk interested in the expoerience of the crew ofthe Exeter also.

My grandad was Stoker John Black, he and all the rest of the survivors were transported to Macassar in the then Celebes.
Senior officers were shipped to Japan soon afterwards, a batch of men went to Japan in october 42, all to fukuoka 2B Nagasaki, with some transferred to coal mines in summer 45. At wars end they returned home via Canada.
The majority of Exeters men remained in the Celebes for the duration, being repatriated via Australia.

I’ve a lot on the POW experience if anyone wants more info.

Marilyn Mercer May 18, 2014 at 8:15 am

My uncle Able Seaman Alfred Callister was aboard the Exeter and was drowned during the 2nd battle of the Java Sea on 1st March 1942. Knowing the terrible conditions and cruelty of the POW Camp, I can only feel he was possibly one of the lucky ones.

Wendy Richens April 25, 2014 at 12:59 am

My Grandfather, Raymond George Beaugie was also POW and was on the HMS Exeter. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about his experiences while captive, so not much is known by the family about where he was held.
Makes me sad to think what he and many others went through. I do know he was in Perth for 6 months or so for reconditioning prior to being allowed home to his family.

Kim Harrison April 18, 2014 at 1:20 am

My uncle, Admiral Sir Frank Twiss, was Gunnery Officer on Exeter and must have known Tony Wright’s great uncle very well as he was also in Macassar with him. If Tony would like to get in touch I will send him some of his memoirs.

Tony Wright January 6, 2014 at 3:38 pm

My great uncle was on board the Exeter.
He was an anti aircraft gunner.
After being taken prisoner, he was held in the camp at Macassar and then transported to Japan. Held in POW camp Fukoaka no26.

David Gee October 8, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Very interesting I am trying to trace any information on my grandfather Chief Petty Officer Guns L F H Acott.
He was on the Exeter when she went down and was in the water for several days He said sharks accounted for several of his colleagues before the Japanese eventually found them and reluctantly took them prisoner.
He had his leg badly injured by shell splinters and was apparently only saved by a Dutch doctor in the prison camp.
I am trying to obtain any further information

Karen Tilling December 3, 2012 at 8:59 pm

A lovely informative article. My granddad, Albert T Glover was one of the survivors from HMS Exeter who went on to a Japanese Prisonor of war camp. I’m extremely interested in all information that can help me to track his experiences.

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