The York-class was a two-strong group of heavy cruisers deployed by the British Royal Navy prior to World War 2 (1939-1945). HMS York was commissioned in 1930 and HMS Exeter followed in 1931. The gap between their order dates allowed several key modifications and improvements to be enacted upon the Exeter design that made for a more modern, streamlined surface fighting ship. HMS Exeter (68) was ordered on March 15th, 1928 and saw her keel laid down at the Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth on August 1st, 1928. She was launched to sea on July 18th, 1929 and was formally commissioned on July 27th, 1931.
The modifications brought to Exeter produced a noticeably different profile from the original lead ship York. The bridge superstructure of the Exeter was lower and more contained while her smoke funnels and twin masts were completely vertical as opposed to cranked rearwards. The ship was also slightly wider. Armament-wise, the Exeter followed the design pattern of the York and the propulsion machinery remained the same.
As built, HMS Exeter displaced at 8,400 tons under standard loads and up to 10,400 tons under full loads. She featured a length of 575 feet with a beam of 58 feet and a draught of 17 feet. Her machinery consisted of 8 x Admiralty three-drum water-tube boilers with 4 x geared steam turbines developing 80,000 horsepower to 4 x shafts. Maximum speed reached just over 32 knots in ideal conditions and range was out to 12,430 miles when steaming at 14 knots. Her complete crew complement numbered 630. Armor protection saw 3" at the main belt and 2 inches reached on the deck.
Heavy cruisers were intended for long, ocean-going service yet they needed to maintain a fine balance between speed and capable armament while also giving through to armor protection. Like other medium-sized warships, cruisers could be called upon to operate independently or as part of a greater fleet which required a multi-role design approach. Many served as forward scouts for the main fleet and their guns provided them a good fighting chance against other warships. As with other such designs of the period, Exeter was constrained by the limitations agreed upon in the naval treaties that followed World War 1 to help prevent another global naval arms race.
Exeter held a primary battery of 6 x 8" (203mm) BL L/50 Mark VIII main guns with two guns fitted across three primary turrets - two turrets forward of the bridge and one turret aft of the aft mast. Only a full broadside could count all six guns in play. Additional firepower was seen through 4 x 4" (101.6mm) QF Mk V guns set in single-gunned mounts. Some 8 x 0.50 caliber Vickers heavy machine guns were used for local defense and beyond this were 2 x "triple" torpedo launchers in the standard 21" (533mm) size (six torpedoes total). Over-the-horizon sorties were handled by a pair of Supermarine Walrus floatplane reconnaissance aircraft which were launched through two catapult systems at amidships with recovery handled through a starboard-side crane.
After commissioning, HMS Exeter was put into service with the Atlantic Fleet to which the vessel operated from 1931 to 1935. She saw service in Mediterranean Waters until 1939 and the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe on September 1st. By this time, the vessel had relocated to South American waters and it was during the middle part of December 1939 that HMS Exeter, along with HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, were pulled into battle with the KMS Graf Spee - an important German pocket battleship operating nearby. The engagement went down in history as the Battle of the River Plate. During the battle, Exeter was able to deliver considerable damage to the German warship which resulted in the enemy retreating to neutral Montevideo, Uruguay. Believing a much larger British fleet awaited the vessel outside of the port, the Graf Spee was scuttled and placed permanently out of the war.
However, the battle had also caused considerable damage to Exeter herself. She was moved to the Falklands for basic repairs until January 1940, enough to get her across the Atlantic and back in home waters at Devonport for complete repairs - this taking place from February 1940 until March 1941. At this time, she also underwent a refit which modernized her parts after her combat experience with the Graf Spee. 8 x QF 2-pdr (40mm) guns and 2 x 20mm Oerlikon cannons were added for anti-aircraft defense. She rejoined Royal Navy service during 1941 and undertook several convoy escort sorties against German U-boat submarine attacks.
After the Japanese surprise attack on the American naval port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941, HMS Exeter was redeployed in the Far East to protect British and Allied interests from possible take-over by Japanese forces. On February 27th, 1942, she took part in the First Battle of Java Sea which pitted Dutch, American, British, and Australian forces against the Japanese Navy. The battle was a decisive Japanese victory which led to the fall of the Dutch East Indies and resulted in two Allied light cruisers, along with three destroyers, sunk - this against the sole IJN destroyer damaged and 36 men killed. During this engagement, Exeter took a direct hit from an 8" shell which removed the crippled ship from battle.
On February 27th, 1942, Exeter arrived at Surabaya for temporary repairs and headed out the following evening with HMS Encounter and USS Pope, both destroyer escorts, towards the Java Sea by way of the Sunda Strait (to reach Ceylon for additional repair work). Another engagement with Japanese warships (cruisers and destroyers) then followed in the early part of March 1st - this marked the Second Battle of the Java Sea. The Japanese force was made up of four cruisers and four destroyers and the fighting began as a gun duel that ran for several hours.
Exeter received a critical hit at her boiler room which cost it her power. and slowed the warship to a halt. The order was given to scuttle her lest she fall into enemy hands but, before this action could be completed, she received two torpedoes at her starboard side courtesy of IJN Inazuma. Exeter, now badly damaged and taking on water, went under (Encounter and Pope also joined her in time). Six hundred fifty-two of Exeter's crew were taken aboard by the victorious Japanese as Prisoners of War, including the captain, as well as other high-ranking officers, but 152 of them would die under brutal conditions in the months and years that followed.
The hulk of Exeter rests about 90 miles northwest of Bawean Island under some 200 feet of water. The wreck site was discovered in February of 2007.