HMS Kent, one of the Royal Navy's most modern warships, looked back at history as she remembered one of her illustrious World War II predecessors last Sunday. The Portsmouth based frigate, currently undertaking tasking in the Far East, laid wreaths over the recently found wreck of cruiser HMS Exeter during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Indonesia, veterans and descendants of the sinking and the diver who discovered the wreck.
Bill Francis was a veteran embarked for the ceremony. In his time a Stoker First Class, he remarked that the end chapter for HMS Exeter – the period after her heroism during the Battle of the River Plate - is not well known. In fact, the sailors present at her end endured two naval battles in the Java Sea against the numerically superior and more powerful Imperial Japanese Navy. It was a decisive Japanese victory, and HMS Exeter was attempting to escape to the Sunda Strait when she was sunk. After finding themselves in the water, the crew was then taken to Japanese prisoner of war camps where they suffered terrible conditions for over 3 years. HMS Exeter together with HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles made up a flotilla operating in the South Atlantic from the Falkland Islands that in December 1939 surprised and put an end to the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, the first major naval battle of World War II. The wreath laying was held during a moving memorial service for the former HMS Exeter. The Last Post was sounded and a two Minutes Silence was held to remember those who had fallen. Then first Martin Hatfull - the British Ambassador, next Commodore Cameron – Commodore of the Portsmouth Flotilla - and thirdly the four embarked veterans laid a wreath over the site of the wreck. The Service was conducted by Ship's Chaplain, Reverend David Roissetter, who believed that the commemoration –and in particular a very special moment of quiet after the wreath laying– allowed the veterans to have a sense of closure as they remembered their lost friends. Joe Asher, a veteran who was a Boy Seaman working in the gun turret at the time of the sinking, noted, "The ceremony was why we came. It was a very solemn occasion". Joe's modern day equivalent onboard was Leading Engineering Technician Ben 'Dusty' Miller who is trained to work in HMS Kent's gun-bay; Ben hosted Joe onboard and, having learnt of Joe's wartime experiences, really felt for him as the wreaths were laid. "I wondered what was going through his head. It was quite a smoky flight deck." Ben believes that the opportunity for the veterans to talk about their experiences with someone who would appreciate what they were saying was invaluable and said, "It definitely gave me a lot more perspective of the sacrifices these old boys made for us. It did make you think, 'Could I endure so much?' I'd like to say we would keep fighting on." The veterans also visited the Junior Ratings to recount their wartime experiences. As Ben said, "It was the first time I've ever seen a mess-deck so attentive. Joe got a lot out of it, and said it was one of the highlights of being onboard." Australian Rob Rae joined the RNR during World War 2 and was a Midshipman onboard HMS Exeter during the Battle of the Java Sea. He had mixed feelings when he was invited to join the veterans to commemorate the lost ship, but came along when his wife insisted he couldn't miss the opportunity to renew acquaintances. He is glad he did and treasures the sense of fellowship he now has with the other veterans. Of the Battle of the Java Sea, he remembers particularly the unique command circumstances, where the Allied ships were united under an American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA) led by Admiral Karel Doorman. Kevin Denlay, one of the Australian divers who discovered the wreck, was honoured to be invited to the ceremony to hand over to the veterans the white ensign he flew from the wreck of the cruiser. "Being able to hand over the flag that flew over the wreck, to hand that to the veterans, and see the emotion and what it meant to them was a highlight." Kevin mentioned that the real thrill for him in diving on wrecks was finding out about the history of the ships. HMS Exeter was no exception. As he commented, "Even though they lost in 1942, the crew put up a gallant fight, and their sacrifices should not be forgotten. What is good about this discovery is it has let lots of youngsters know about HMS Exeter, and hopefully some will get interested in the history of it." Thomas Jowett, whose father was an Able Seaman stationed on Exeter's PomPoms (a close range gun), is Secretary for the Macassar Veterans – those survivors of the sinking who went on to a Japanese POW camp. He's been delighted that the discovery of the wreck has uncovered many more survivors from all around the world. Hoping to hold a reunion next year, he encourages any survivors or their families to make contact with him. HMS Kent's Commanding Officer, Commander Simon Hopper, also welcomed the opportunity to respect those who lost their lives during the Battle of the Java Sea on 1 March 1942. "We're proud to have been chosen to commemorate the crew of this famous warship. HMS Kent has a highly trained team and a world-class fighting capability. While the technology the Royal Navy uses now would be unrecognisable to a 1942 sailor, the spirit and traditions of the Service we are in remain the same. The history of HMS Exeter – which fought in the Battle of the River Plate, resulting in the incapacitation of the more powerful enemy ship the Admiral Graf Spee – is something from which every man and woman onboard can draw inspiration". HMS Kent is currently undergoing tasking aimed at demonstrating the UK's enduring commitment to the South East Asia region. A key role for the frigate is Maritime Security which encourages security and stability at sea by combating challenges such as drugs, terrorism and international crime. To do this, HMS Kent tracks shipping around the world and can draw on a range of measures to 'police' the seas, including conducting boarding operations on suspicious vessels. In addition, she is visiting countries around the globe including Russia, China, Japan and Indonesia, and participating in several high level multi-national defence exercises. Type 23 Duke Class Frigate HMS Kent was commissioned by HRH Princess Alexandra on 8 June 2000 and is one of the most advanced ships in the Royal Navy. With a complement of 174 officers and ratings she carries a broad array of modern weapons and sensors including a Lynx helicopter that can be used in a variety of roles. The Battle of the River Plate, December 13, 1939, was the first major naval battle in World War II. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September. It was found and engaged off the River Plate estuary off the coast of Uruguay by three smaller Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Exeter; HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, which was part of the RN New Zealand Division. In the ensuing battle, HMS Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire, while all other ships received moderate damage. Ajax and Achilles then shadowed the Graff Spee, which entered the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo. After a tense period, the captain of the Graf Spee, Hans Langsdorff scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe had assembled.