EXETER: A CRUISER OF MEDIUM SIZE

January 14, 2018
Posted by: Alastair Wilson

Short Report. This is an account of HMS Exeter’s second commission, 1937-1940, which included the Battle of the River Plate, written by her Warrant Electrician.

Long Report. Sounds simple and basic, doesn’t it? But this really is a superb book, and the account of the Battle of the River Plate, ‘seen’ from Exeter’s main switchboard is as good as, if not better than, C S Forester’s fictional The Ship, which was based on Vian’s action at the second battle of Sirte in 1942. It will particularly resonate with those of our readers who fought their damaged ships ‘down south’ in 1982.

Reginald Cogswell was a scholarship boy at Trowbridge Grammar School. After completing an engineering apprenticeship he had a number of jobs until he was accepted by the RN as an Electrical Artificer 4th class in 1926. Ten years later, at the age of about 33 he was promoted to Warrant Rank and appointed to Exeter as her sole electrical officer. (There was no Electrical branch, as such, in those days, electrical duties being the responsibility of the Torpedo branch. It would seem that Exeter’s (T) officer, recognising a highly competent subordinate, left him to get on with running the ship’s electrics.) Mr. Cogswell, as he would have been called at that time, ended his RN career as a Lieutenant-Commander (L) with a richly-deserved MBE, and after retirement went to Bath on the staff of Director of Underwater Weapons Material.

NavyBooks are to be congratulated on having obtained the manuscripts from Mr. Cogswell’s son, and for the very light editing which has resulted in so readable a book. (It seems appropriate to refer to him as Mr. Cogswell, his rank throughout the period of which he wrote.) Your reviewer cannot do better than crib from the NavyBooks website this description of his style: “The language is that of a grammar school boy educated in the early part of the 20th century by Victorian schoolmasters – precise, elegant and poignant.” Such men were (and no doubt are) the backbone of the Navy and a credit to the educational system which produced them.

Exeter was classified as a heavy cruiser, but as Mr. Cogswell says she was “of the medium size”, having only six 8” guns as her main armament, on a displacement of just over 8,000 tons, as opposed to the bigger ‘Counties’ which had eight 8” on 10,000 tons (the upper limit allowed by the 1922 Washington Treaty).

The first half of the book is a description of Exeter’s first two years, showing the flag around South America (two circumnavigations), with one foray up the west coast of the USA and Canada. This was all ‘old navy’ to your reviewer’s generation, but really, it seems unchanging, except that from the ‘50s onwards we were more immediately concerned with preparing for war and fighting minor campaigns (none the less dangerous for being minor) in between doing the usual cocktail parties interspersed with aid to civil power. In Exeter’s case this meant suppressing riots in Trinidad; helping the Chilean authorities to restore services after a major earthquake in Concepción and its port of Talcahuano, and evacuating a large number of its population; and helping the authorities in the Falklands with many little come-in-handy tasks which were beyond the resources of the local community. Large chunks of this part of the book are pure guide-book, but none the less fascinating, because most of us won’t now get an opportunity to visit such places as Antofagasta, where British capital was invested in the major industry – copper-mining. But squeamish readers may prefer to skip his account of a visit to the Frigorifico Anglo, a meat-packing factory at Buenos Aires, where thousands of beasts were slaughtered and tinned for English consumption; we forget how important tinned provisions were in the days before the domestic freezer.

The Munich crisis in September 1938 provided an uncomfortable reminder of what the ship’s real job would be, but it passed and she remained on station until she returned to Devonport after more than two years and seven months away. Harmony rules – Ha! This was in August 1939, and she was expecting and needing a refit. But four days after a joyous home-coming, and before any long leave could be given, they were on their way back to the South Atlantic.

The remainder of the book is a description of their activities in the three months from September to December 1939 and it goes into some detail of the strategic planning and searching for the German ‘pocket battleship’, thought to be the Admiral Scheer, which was believed to be operating in the South Atlantic. Before the days of radar and LRMP aircraft the ocean was an almost impenetrable hiding place. It culminated in the battle of the River Plate, when Commodore Henry Harwood’s squadron of Exeter, Ajax and Achilles outfought the German ship, resulting in her seeking refuge in Montevideo, before coming out to scuttle herself just offshore.

Mr Cogswell’s story of the battle, as ‘seen’ from his action station in Exeter’s main switchboard, left your reviewer feeling limp and drained. The amount of punishment Exeter withstood speaks volumes for the designers and her damage control parties – the German’s 11” shells each weighed 783 lbs (356 kg) as opposed to Exeter’s 8” at 256 lbs (116 kg) and the smaller ships 6” at 100 lbs (45 kg). One 11” shell exploded only nine feet away from his compartment – it sounded like a sledgehammer striking a baulk of wood. He could judge the punishment that Exeter was absorbing by the state of the varying supply circuits – the for’ard gyro went off the board – a hit up for’ard, low down; and so on. He and his Chief EA and their LTO communications number were trapped in the switchboard by that ‘sledgehammer’, and nearly didn’t get out. When they were finally released, it was to find that ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets had been disabled by direct hits, and that ‘Y’ turret, which had kept firing until Scheer turned away, had succumbed to some technical malfunction. The bridge had been swept by a hail of splinters with only the Captain and two ratings surviving. The primary and secondary steering positions had gone, as had both gyros. The ship had 300 tons of water in her and was listing to starboard and was down by the bow. More funnel gases came of holes in the funnels than came out of the top. The Captain was conning the ship from aft, verbally by a chain of men to the tiller flat, and steering by a boat’s compass. The starboard 4” magazine had been opened up like a sardine tin, but luckily the same shell fractured the firemain immediately above, which flooded the magazine. Virtually no telephones worked anywhere and all the radio aerials were shot away. “You never saw a ship in such a bloody awful mess in all your life”, reported the Chief EA when they were finally released. However, throughout the battle the main machinery continued to operate at full power, and the four turbo-generators remained on the board, on full load. Only after the fight did they discover that it was the Graf Spee they had been fighting.

The book concludes with a description of how they made good their battle damage in the Falklands (with difficulty but with typical resource) and their rapturous return home, and their reception when they marched through London.

It should be noted that HMS Exeter: A Cruiser of Medium Size won the The Mountbatten Maritime Award for 2017. The Award is made to the author of the work of literature published in English during the qualifying period that, in the opinion of the Awards Committee, has contributed most significantly to public awareness of maritime issues.

As was said at the beginning, strongly recommended.

ALASTAIR WILSON