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.
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.