Wreck survey report by Kevin Denlay
3D renditions by Stefan Draminski. (See more 3D wreck images at the bottom of this feature)
After many years of searching for the wreck in the Java Sea, Indonesia, Vidar Skoglie (at the time the owner/skipper of the dive vessel MV Empress) and three others divers; his wife Alice Skoglie, Capt. Phil Yeutter(USN Retd.) and Kevin Denlay discovered and first dived the wreck on the 21st of February 2007 and that of her consort the destroyer HMS Encounter sunk nearby, using side-scan sonar.
The wreck lay at a depth to the seabed of approximately 61 mts (200 ft) and about 140 km (90 miles) north-west of Bawean Island – some 97 km (60 miles) from the estimated sinking position given by her Captain Gordon in his after-action report made post war after returning from a prison camp in Japan.
While only several dives on the wreck could made because of time constraints – having found the wreck on the second last day of their fourteen day expedition! – Denlay still managed to video the wreck from bow to stern before they had to set sail for Singapore.
With Empress being booked out well in advance by other charters, another expedition to the wreck was not possible until 2008.
It thus transpired that in April 2008, MV Empress returned to the wreck of HMS Exeter for the first time since the 2007 discovery, this time with a larger group of divers, again including Kevin Denlay, a Fellow International (FI98) with The Explorers Club (HQ’d in New York), who carried Explorers Club Expedition Flag #45.
Several of the participants on that expedition helped Denlay further survey the shipwreck and build a thorough picture of her condition.
On departure the group left a Royal Navy Ensign – that had been given to the expedition by the crew of the modern British destroyer HMS Exeter D89 (since decommissioned) – attached to the torpedo tubes on wreck in honour of her crew and those that perished.
The highlight of this survey confirmed that, as the Japanese destroyer IJN Inazuma had historically claimed, she had hit Exeter with two torpedoes on her starboard side, not just one as historically believed (Exeter had been completely abandoned prior to the torpedoes adding the coup de grace).
The survey also confirmed that the one torpedo that hit amidships blew out part of the bottom of the hull (and hence why it could be seen by the divers, as the wreck lays on its starboard side) and that the second torpedo had hit just forward of ‘A’ Turret, the forward-most turret, almost severing the bow. (Note: Bearings or angles given in the following report use the clock numbering system, i.e. 12 o’clock is the bow point, 3 o’clock is ninety degrees to starboard / to the right when looking forward, the 6 o’clock position is the very stern
point, while 9 o’clock would be ninety degrees off to port, or to the left when looking forward.)
The wreck itself lays on its starboard side on a heading, or pointing, almost due east.
The main 8 inch (20cm) fore-guns are pointing starboard aft at either maximum aft rotation (‘A’ turret, of which conclusive photographic evidence of same can be seen in the 3D wreck image section of these pages), or almost maximum aft rotation for ‘B’ turret (the second forward turret), that is at an about 4.30 o’clock angle (the very bow being 12 o’clock), and both gun barrels in both turrets are elevated just above level ( to ‘about’ 10 degrees elevation at most).
The bridge superstructure has collapsed downward towards the seabed somewhat – from both the ‘gravity effect’ and the structural weakening caused by the extensive damage done to the port side of the superstructure from shell hits and subsequent fires – but remains just up off the seabed.
The HACS (High Angle Control System) director has collapsed onto the seabed, as has the foremast, but while the base of the foremast has pulled away from the deck, it otherwise remains intact.
The fore-funnel is ‘missing’ completely, having disintegrated over the years from its metal structure being so weakened by the fires that raged in the forward area above where the fatal shell struck ‘A’ Boiler Room (which immediately severed all power to the ship) rendering her helpless and no longer able to fight back, and hence requiring her subsequent abandonment. Neither starboard dual four inch mounts can be fully discerned as they are buried in the seabed, or covered by collapsed debris.
The aft funnel surprisingly remains intact and still upright. The port catapult (for her ‘Walrus’ seaplane, which was not aboard at the time) has collapsed onto the seabed while the starboard catapult remains in place.
The mainmast has completely collapsed, with one segment of the main ‘post’ hanging suspended from the ship while other parts lay partly buried in the seabed. The surrounding area around the catapults and mainmast were also severely affected by fires prior to the ship sinking, thus weakening all the surrounding metal, much of which has ‘peeled‘ or fallen off’.
The aft deck-house, while basically ‘intact’ also shows signs of fires and shell hits, while directly below the aft deck-house in the very upper port hull near the deck edge is a sizeable jagged entry hole from what can only have come from a large (8 inch) calibre shell hit from one of the Japanese cruiser off to port (i.e. either IJN Myoko or IJN Ashigara).
The aft 8 inch main turret (‘X’ turret) is pointing off the starboard quarter at about the 3.30 – 4 o’clock position, with both barrels raised to almost their maximum elevation.
(Given that all three main gun turrets point basically off the starboard aft quarter would imply that that aft south-westerly direction was where the main threat was considered to be coming from towards the end of the engagement that sank her, and the direction that Exeter was last firing all her main guns just prior to the fatal shell hit that caused her to lose all power). (This starboard direction was where the four Japanese destroyers, IJN’s Yamakaze,Kawakaze, Akebono and Inazuma, and the two IJN heavy cruisers Haguro and Nachi were engaging
Just aft of that rearmost, or ‘X’ turret, is a large spilt across the deck and partway down the port side hull, causing the very stern aft of there to have collapsed down onto the seabed.
This collapse has been caused solely by the ‘gravitational effect’ of the weight of the two after-most propellers and rudder weighing down on the unsupported stern over the years underwater, causing it to collapse downwards; it is unequivocally not from a torpedo strike in that area.
A very small almost elongated ‘V’ shaped gap between the starboard deck edge and the seabed, where the aft section canter-levers downwards, allows a diver to swim completely under the hull from the deck side all the way to the propellers and observations from doing so unquestionably confirms that there is no torpedo hit, or hole of any sort, anywhere here, or near here on the starboard side.
This collapse was simply caused by gravitational effects alone (after all, the ship was never constructed to be able to carry the massive weight of the two aft-most propellers and rudder when laying on its side). All four propellers were attached and could be seen– although the outer starboard propeller is partly buried in the seabed – and the rudder itself is in place and points directly forward.
Swimming forward from there along the port deck edge one passes the aforementioned shell hole in the upper hill, past the coral encrusted octuple 40mm anti-aircraft gun mount to the right and then comes to the aft dual 4 inch multipurpose HA / LA gun mount (the so-called ‘secondary’ armament), which points aft at about the 7 o’clock position, barrels elevated just above level.
Further forward one comes to the enclosure for the port triple torpedo tubes, stored inboard pointing aft, that according to Captain Oliver Gordon’s After Action Report (made post war as he had spent the rest of the war after Exeter’s sinking in Japanese Prisoner Of War camps) were fired at the Japanese heavy cruisers (Ashigara and Myoko) off to the north (port) at around 11 am, but no hits were reported.
However, wedged under the inner-most torpedo tube is, surprisingly, what has been identified as a torpedo warhead.
There are no reports of a misfire or how this came to get there, so whether this is an actual warhead from one of the torpedoes, or a practice warhead that has come loose from its storage location upon capsising is unknown.
(Below this location and only slightly aft and right on the seabed is the position of the starboard amidships torpedo hit that blew out part of the bottom of the ship.)
Further forward along the port deck edge is the forward dual 4 inch multipurpose HA /LA gun mount, its barrels also just above level elevation, and pointing aft at about the 6.30 o’clock position, and from where the up-line to the dive vessels was attached.
Later in 2008, subsequent to the expedition, Denlay was invited to attend a memorial service over the wreck site of HMS Exeter, held aboard the British destroyer HMS Kent F78, and which was also attended by various dignitaries and four surviving veterans of HMS Exeter’s sinking.
During the memorial service Denlay presented the four veterans with the Royal Navy Ensign he had also flown over the wreck (not to be confused with the Ensign that was left attached to the wreck) and which has since been made into a Standard and is kept at Exeter Cathedral (in England) and brought out during the ceremony held in Exeter city every year on the anniversary of her sinking.
Sadly, in 2016 the wreck of HMS Exeter, and her consort from the battle on March 1st, HMS Encounter, and several other warships from the previous battle on February 28th (including Hr. Ms. Kortenaer, HMS Electra, Hr. Ms. Java and Hr. Ms. De Ruyter) were discovered either partially or complete salvaged, the work of an illegal salvage company using larger ‘grab’ barges.