HMS Montrose remembers Far East wartime tragedy

In the pitch black of the Indonesian night, one of HMS Montrose’s youngest sailors Guto Thomas showers the now-calm waters of the Java Sea with poppies.

Here 77 years ago, 62 men lost their lives when cruiser HMS Exeter and destroyer HMS Encounter – two of the most battle-hardened ships in the Royal Navy – fell victim to the Japanese.

Crew of frigate HMS Montrose paused the latest leg of their journey from Plymouth to Bahrain via the Pacific over the last resting place of the heavy cruiser, sunk while trying to escape from Japan’s clutches as the Rising Sun ran rampant through Southeast Asia in the late winter of 1942.

Fate caught up with the two British warships on March 1 while making a break for present-day Sri Lanka when they ran into a larger and more powerful Japanese force in waters between Borneo and Java.

As HMS Montrose lays upon the sea poppies, in remembrance of all who served aboard HMS Exeter on March 1 1942, those poppies carry with them the love of families

Warrant Officer Stephen Witty

In the ensuing encounter – the 2nd Battle of the Java Sea – the cruiser and destroyer were quickly overwhelmed; Exeter hastened her end by scuttling herself when crippled. Only the American destroyer USS Pope escaped – until Japanese bombers caught up with her later in the day.

Sixty-two British sailors were killed, 54 on the Exeter, while 799 men were picked up by the Japanese and sent to prison camps. One in four would die in captivity.

Nor has any peace been afforded their fallen comrades for in recent years Exeter’s wreck has been plundered by illegal salvage hunters – pre-atomic age steel is particularly valuable – such that it’s feared there’s little left on the seabed 200ft below of what was once a 575ft-long 10,000 tonne warship, twice as heavy as Montrose.

A service of remembrance was conducted on the flight deck led by Executive Warrant Officer Stephen Witty, with the words of the chairman of the HMS Exeter Association, Alan Leslie, read out: “As HMS Montrose lays upon the sea poppies, in remembrance of all who served aboard HMS Exeter on March 1 1942, those poppies carry with them the love of families and the deep respect and gratitude, of us all. We will remember them! Semper fidelis – always faithful.”

During the two minutes’ silence, Commanding Officer Commander Conor O’Neill joined Engineering Technician Thomas in casting poppies into the Java Sea.

Given its location and distance from the UK, the wreck site is visited perhaps twice a decade by Royal Navy warships and the service struck home for sailors who’d served on the most recent HMS Exeter, the destroyer which served in the Falklands and 1990-91 Gulf War, such as weapon engineer officer Lieutenant Commander Dave Barnes.

“Being a former ship of mine, it was particularly poignant to remember and pay our respects to those who lost their lives this evening,” he said.

The President of the HMS Exeter Association, Vice Admiral Paul Bennett, thanked HMS Montrose for paying tribute on behalf of the ship, crew and their families.

“The poppy laying was a very important event in memory of some extraordinarily brave men that had fought well and for which the families of those lost would be extremely grateful. We will remember them,” he added.

HMS Montrose is on a three-year mission, the bulk of which will be spent in the Gulf conducting security patrols.