HMS Exeter provided ocean escort to Atlantic convoys in 1941.
In December 1941 Japan entered the war by attacking Pearl Harbour and Malaya, the attack on Pearl Harbour also brought the USA into the war. Troops were quickly dispatched to the Far East and Exeter was sent as part of these convoys as protection.
At the beginning of 1942 she was in the ABDA Command as part of the Allied Striking Force formed to defend the Dutch East Indies from Japanese invasion.
The Allied Headquarters received information that two Japanese convoys were observed leaving the Makassar Strait, these included 97 transports and were carrying the 16th Army for the invasion of Java. General ter Poorten had only 30,000 trained troops to defend Java and it was seen as essential to destroy these convoys or Java would be lost. An Allied Naval force was assembled under Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman to fight the Battle of the Java Sea.
The Allies were at a disadvantage as their war effort so far had not co-ordinated any combined effort between them and this led to communication difficulties.
Doorman’s assembled command included:-
- Exeter - British
- Houston - USA
- De Ruyter - Dutch
- Java - Dutch
- Perth - Australian
- 4 - USA
- 3 - British
- 2 - Dutch
The 27th February found the Allied fleet setting a course for Surabaja, they had been making continuous sweeps off the Java coast for the last 37 hours. At 1500 hours, Doorman was off the port of Surabaja when he was ordered to intercept the Japanese convoy under Rear-Admiral Nishimura, which was heading towards him.
Rear-Admiral Nishimura’s assembled command included:-
- Nachi - Rear-Admiral Takagi
At 1530 hours, a Catalina flying boat reported two enemy cruisers, four destroyers and several transports about fifty miles north of the Allied ships' position.
The Allied fleet immediately turned northwards and at 1614 hours engaged the enemy force. The crucial factor in the engagement which now commenced was they had thirteen miles of water between the two fleets and although the Allies had the advantage in Light Cruisers, they had the disadvantage of having only twelve 8-inch guns compared to the Japanese’s twenty and these guns could bridge that thirteen mile gap. The Houston was also at a disadvantage of having her after turrets wiped out by bombs on the 4th February.
The Allied fleet opened fire at 25,000 yards with the Exeter scoring a hit on an enemy cruiser. One of the Japanese flotillas at once attacked, but was driven off by gunfire.
The range now closed to 20,000 yards and HMAS Perth scored hits on an enemy destroyer. The De Ruyter sank one of the enemy cruisers and turned her fire to a second.
The battle was going the Allies way until at 1708 hours when the Exeter was hit in her engine room and was forced to leave the formation and headed for Surabaja. Other cruisers following Exeter, thinking this was a manoeuvre, this caused disruption to the Allied fighting line. The Japanese quickly seized upon the moment and launched an attack, 72 torpedoes were launched, lucky for the Allied fleet only one of these found a target, the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer exploded and sank. Electra followed the Exeter in an attempt to support her withdrawal, the Japanese attacked the support ship, causing major damage.
Doorman re-grouped and searched for the convoy but Nishimura had ordered it to retreat during the action, the American destroyers were running low on fuel and were out of torpedoes, Doorman had to release them from the search. There then followed a catastrophic blunder, Doorman came across the Japanese cruiser Jintsu with seven Japanese destroyers, to avoid contact and losses Doorman turned away and ran with the remainder of the Allied fleet, straight into a newly laid Dutch minefield, the British destroyer Jupitor was hit and lost.
The Japanese seized the initiative and the Nachi and Huguro attacked, the De Ruyter and Java were both hit and sunk, Doorman was lost in the sinking, going down with his ship.
The Perth and Houston broke away and returned to Batavia to refuel before orders reached them to withdraw south through the Sunda Strait. The two ships accidentally ran into the second Japanese convoy, who had sailed from French Indo China to land its 2nd Division in Banten Bay. The Allied ships attacked and sunk one transport causing extensive damage to three others, these had to beach themselves. The Japanese also suffered damage to a cruiser and three destroyers in this action before the Perth and Houston were both sunk by enemy fire.
The Exeter now had six of her eight boilers out of action and her effective speed was reduced to 15-20 knots. She was ordered to make a run for it through the Sunda Strait but with the large Japanese fleet in the area the crippled cruiser stood little chance of survival. With Encounter and Pope in company, she was spotted by a Japanese aircraft. On 1st March, four Japanese cruisers and four destroyers (Inazuma, Akebono, Yamakaze and Kawakaze) engaged the three vessels.
HMS Exeter was badly damaged by gunfire and two torpedoes from the destroyer Inazuma , the cruisers captain decided it was a lost cause and scuttled the Exeter off Bawean Island.
HMS Exeter is sunk
With this naval defeat Java stood no chance to survive and fell to the Japanese on 10th March, the two major ports at Batavia and Surabaja were now in Japanese hands.
The crews of the Allied ships and the troops in Java were now Japanese prisoners of war and were to suffer three and a half years of starvation and cruelty.