- Atwill, R., DSM, Lieutenant, RN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The fires out, our main job was to shift all the wrecked lockers aside, not only to see whether there was anyone alive under that mess but to expose a hatchway at the after end of the compartment, below which we knew there was a switchboard with one man in attendance. He was alive and with the hatch cover partly lifted, elected to stay down there as there was still ‘juice’ on his board.
Below that flat, too, was the Gunnery Transmitting station, but splinters from the exploding shell had passed through the deck plating and cut through cables and gears and ruined what was left of any possible gunnery communications and caused X Turret to go into local control. Amazingly, all those stationed in the Transmitting Station came out alive and unhurt except for a few bruises and perhaps shock.
We had, of course, been effectively ‘straddled‘ by Graf Spee. A near miss had swept the after control with splinters and punctured the fuel tanks of one of the two Walrus aircraft on the catapults near the control position, saturating everyone there, including Captain Bell and Commander Graham with aviation spirit – followed, thankfully and fortunately by a great spout of water which drenched all hands and washed away the highly volatile fuel. A red hot splinter instead of water would have been disastrous at that moment.
At about the time when the CPO’s flat was hit another 11 inch shell passed through the Armament Office and Bridge Wireless Office, killing five telegraphists before travelling another sixty or so feet to burst on the barrel of ‘Starboard One’ 4 inch gun. Several more men were killed or wounded there. This shell set fire to the nearby 4 inch ready use ammunition locker which contained some live shells.
An ordinary seaman tried to smother the flames with his greatcoat. They were put out eventually with the help of some buckets of sand. A young midshipman, seeing this effort, called up a couple of nearby ratings and between them threw the now very warm shells over the side.
Further aft, drums of petrol stowed under one of the catapults were heaved over the side and, after much effort, the two Walruses still dribbling fuel from their ruptured tanks were also successfully ditched.
Not long after B Turret had been hit, two more shells hit Exeter forward – one hit the sheet anchor, blowing it away and tearing a hole some 8 feet by 6 feet in the ship’s side above the waterline and abreast the Paint Shop. Splinters from this shell started a fire in the Paint Shop and in the Bosun’s Store and riddled the watertight bulkhead at No 10 frame. The second shell burst on the forecastle deck just abaft the cable holders, ripping away a section of wood decking about twelve feet square and a section of the steel deck of almost the same size. Once again much damage was done by splinters and numerous small fires were started. If I remember rightly a midshipman was on the forecastle organising the firefighting made necessary by the first of the two shells and was later found to be missing. It was presumed that he, with a rating, had been blown over the side by the second shell.
Despite all the damage sustained during the first forty minutes of the battle, Exeter was still afloat and fighting – fortunately there had been no damage to engines or boilers and Y turret was still firing in local control.
At 0700 the general position was that only Y turret was firing and only one 4 inch gun could be fired. There were no telephone communications and all orders had to be passed by messengers. Also all W/T had broken down as the aerials had been shot away. The Bridge, Director Control Tower and the Transmitting Station were out of action. The ship was four feet down by the bows and had a list of about eight degrees to starboard which made movement within the ship very difficult as the decks were also covered in fuel oil and water.
- ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets were out of action from direct hits.
- ‘Y’ turret firing in local control.
- The Bridge, Director Control Tower and the Transmitting Station were out of action.
- A fire was raging in the CPO’s and Serving Flats.
- Minor fires were burning on the Royal Marine messdeck and in the Paint Shop.
- There were no telephone communications – all orders had to be passed by messengers.
- The ship was about four feet down by the bows due to flooding forward and had a list to starboard of about eight degrees due to some six hundred and fifty tons of water which had flooded in splinter holes near the waterline plus accumulations of fire fighting water. This degree of list is quite considerable and makes movement within the ship very difficult when decks are covered with fuel oil and water.
- Only one 4 inch gun could be fired.
- Both aircraft had been jettisoned.
- W/T communications had completely broken down – mostly due to aerials having been shot away.
As long as Y turret was firing, Captain Bell maintained Exeter’s position so that Graf Spee was always within that turret’s arc of fire, but at about 0730, flood water entering splinter holes stopped the power supply and, with it, the ability of Y turret to keep on training and firing. A few minutes later Exeter broke off the action as Graf Spee turned to the westward pursued by Ajax and Achilles.
Our job now was to keep the ship afloat, put out fires which were still burning here and there, concentrate on the wounded, prepare for possible bad weather and begin the huge task of cleaning up the ship and burying our dead.
So, listing heavily to starboard and still burning forward, our battered ship turned towards the Falkland Islands twelve hundred miles away. We made good speed – about 18 knots. The weather was kind although it worsened towards the end of our journey. Three times during that long trip we stopped to commit our dead to the deep.
We arrived at Port Stanley with sixty two officers and men no longer on board. After landing our wounded and placing them in the care of the local hospital we carried on the huge task of cleaning up, repairing structure and fittings and the thousand and one minor jobs that had to be done for the safety of the ship and our own comfort and wellbeing. We had to get the ship back to England somehow.
There was a rumour that Exeter would be left at Port Stanley until after the war and then be taken home for repairs. This we could not contemplate – our much loved and victorious ship to become slowly but surely a rusting hulk! The majority of us had served in her for three years.
But there was someone else who thought and felt that this should not be – Mr. Winston Churchill. He wrote, to the First Sea Lord, the Controller of Dockyards and others:
‘This preliminary report of damage to Exeter shows the tremendous fire to which she was exposed and the determination with which she was fought. It also reflects high credit on the Constructor’s Department that she was able to stand up to such a prolonged and severe battering. This story will have to be told as soon as possible, omitting anything undesirable (i.e. what the enemy should not know). What is proposed about repair? What can be done at the Falkland Islands? I presume she will be patched up sufficiently to come home for a long refit.’ A week later Churchill wrote, ‘We ought not readily to accept the non-repair during the war of Exeter. She should be strengthened and strutted internally as far as possible . . . and come home.’
Of Mr. Churchill’s thoughts, of course, we knew nothing then, so it was with great relief that we heard Captain Bell talk to us on the quarter-deck and tell us that we were to take Exeter home to Devonport – the yard in which she was built.