- 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)
Nothing else in the world could have done more to urge us on in our efforts to make our ship seaworthy for the thousands of miles that lay between us and home. So we set to work with a will. But what were we going to use, for what in some instances were extensive repairs? For instance, that very large hole starboard side forward?
Luckily, the small cargo and passenger vessel owned by the Falkland Island Trading Company was at Buenos Aires, and through official channels we were able to order steel plate and sheet to back up our normal stores quota. We also ordered plenty of electric welding rods as we had a useful welding generator in the Engineers’ Workshop and on shore there was a portable petrol drum generator which, although some years old, had never been used.
Our Shipwright Staff was small enough for the great amount of structural repair to be done but we were assisted, whenever possible, by members of the Engineering and Ordinance Branches. As I had carried out any necessary welding during the commission it fell to me to organise and carry out welded repairs to the ship’s side where necessary.
There were three major shell repairs – starboard side aft abreast the refrigerating machinery compartment, the big hole just abaft the stem abreast the paint shop and the hole in the port side punched by the shell which caused so much trouble in the CPO Flat and nearly put Exeter out of the fight.
The ship’s side abreast the refrigerating machinery compartment was riddled with splinter holes from a very close near miss, some very near the water line. I covered nearly one hundred holes with patches of quarter inch thick mild steel. By the time that that job was completed our plating for the forward hole had arrived from Buenos Aires. That repair gave no end of trouble – our new three eighths thick steel plate was as straight as could be – the ship’s side, even after we had burned away all the ragged edges, was distorted and rippled – anything but straight or a nice fair curve.
With no real facilities to help us, the only thing to do was to put a couple of bolts through the plate and ship’s side at one end and begin to form the plate to the ship’s side. So it went on – heat part of the edge to red, flog it to fit and touch the ship’s side plating and tack into place with electric welding – all along the top edge. The second plate was then placed below the first but with the top lapped under the upper plate and a bolt put in one end to support it. Once again the same process to make the bottom edge of the second plate fit the shape of the ship’s side – heat, hammer, tack – heat, hammer, tack, on and on.
The two ends of this now very large patch were treated in the same way and when all edges fitted the ship’s side and were well locked the whole, including the lap between the two plates, were given two or three runs of welding to make the patch secure. All this was, of course, most unorthodox but practical, given the circumstances, and with some stiffening inside made up of heavy angle and plate formed to the inside shape to replace two frames which we had burned away, that patch stood the voyage home even though we had several days of heavy weather which found many weak points throughout the ship.
Meanwhile, inside the ship, the after bulkhead of the Chief Petty Officers’ Flat was distorted and weakened. Something had to be done about it, but what? We really needed some fairly heavy channel bar.
Then someone said something about a railway line. That was it! And off we went to take a look. Sure enough, there they were, lovely lengths of railway line.
As we stood there deciding which rails we would dig out, we noticed, in some long grass, a pile of spare rails that must have lain there from before the First World War. They were in surprisingly good condition, just what was needed to stiffen that bulkhead and one or two other places in the ship. And that is just what we did – pulling and forcing the distorted structure to fit the straight rails and welding all together. Some of the rails were used to form bearers across the big hole in the forecastle deck to carry sheets of thin steel which were then covered with plates of wood well secured and bedded in to keep water out of the compartments below. As for defence – Y Turret was put into working order and all spare ammunition in the forward magazines transferred to Y Magazine and Shell Room. That would have to do.
Early one morning, the cruisers Dorsetshire and Shropshire entered harbour and a few days later, at the end of January 1940, and leaving our wounded behind, we sailed from Port Stanley and began our long voyage home escorted first by the two cruisers, then by units of Force H (not the Force H of later years in the Med.) and over the last leg by nine destroyers.
On the morning of 14th February Exeter entered Plymouth Sound, past a cheering mass of people on the Hoe, into the Hamoaze past the throng of men who had built her and who were banging hammers on anything that would make a noise, on past cranes dipping their jibs in salute and so to her berth in Devonport Dockyard.
There, amidst the, welcoming crowd of Naval men and dockyard workers, was Mr. Winston Churchill who had come ‘. . . . to pay my tribute to her brave officers and men from her shattered decks in Plymouth Harbour.‘