HMS Exeter: A Survivor’s Account
Orders to form a band for HMS Exeter given to:-
- Bandmaster Victor Vidler
Band Corporal Bill Hartley - clarinet & violin
Musicians Alan Dodds - basses
Johnny Buckle - cornet & violin
Harry Bance - euphonium & cello
Andy Beveridge - percussion
Archie Bowler - clarinet & viola & cymbals
Terry Butcher - solo cornet
Stan Thomas - solo clarinet
Hedley Adams - saxophone & violin
Ken Cayser - saxophone & violin
Ted Jones - flute, piano & bass drum
Frank Harris - cornet & violin
Doug Wilkins - clarinet & violin
And me (The Author) - trombone
Then to a Royal Naval Training School, HMS Impregnable, at St Budeaux, Plymouth, during the winter 1940/41, carrying out band duties, until Exeter was ready for sea. The band then embarked on Exeter and set sail in March 1941 for Scapa Flo to carry out sea trials on completion of which Exeter proceeded to Greenoch on the River Clyde, to collect a convoy for the North Africa campaign via Cape of Good Hope. During mid 1941, the ship was escorting convoys in the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, until Dec 41 when the Far East became a theatre of war. Convoys were then essential to India and Singapore and, in Jan 42, Exeter passed through the Sunda Straits (in sight of the shattered peak of Krakatoa) to the seas around Singapore and the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where Exeter joined the Combined Allied Fleet under the command of the Dutch Admiral Doormann. There was constant harassment from Japanese aircraft. On one occasion, Exeter scared off the enemy by firing a salvo from it’s two forward twin 8 turrets at a formation of fighter-bombers heading for the Exeter and accompanying ships. About this time Terry Butcher fell ill with severe abdominal pains, appendicitis was suspected and he was put ashore in Singapore for hospital treatment. He was left behind in Singapore, eventually escaping from the turmoil of the Japanese invasion of that island, and returning to Britain. That left Exeter with an RM Band of 14.
The Japanese progressed South through the East Indies and by end of February 42 were threatening Java and at that stage the Combined Fleet joined battle with a large Japanese fleet, and on 27 February the main Battle of the Java Sea was fought during which Exeter was severely damaged when an 8 shell hit one of the starboard twin 4AA gun and continued down into B boiler room putting six boilers out of action and reducing the ship’s speed greatly, as a result of which Exeter fell out of line and effectively out of that battle. Exeter returned to Surabaya in Java to bury it’s dead crew members and effect repairs to the damaged areas of the ship, remaining in Surabaya until the evening of 28 February when the ship set sail, together with two destroyers, HMS Encounter and the USS Pope, intending to attempt an escape route through the Sunda Straits to Colombo. At that time these three ships were all that remained of the Allied Combined Fleet in the Java Sea, most of the ships in the fleet having been sunk. On 1 March, in the afternoon, enemy ships (four cruisers and three destroyers) were sighted and the ensuing battle resulted in all three of the Allied ships being sunk. The RM band in the TS of Exeter all managed to escape from the sinking ship and together with other survivors of that action, were taken prisoner by the enemy and spent the next three years six months in captivity. Many books have been written by Far Eastern POWs, telling of the hardships endured; inadequate food, negligible medical supplies to combat the maladies which fell upon us, dysentery, malaria, beriberi and so on, the beatings by ferocious guards, the incessant hard physical labour, and, for we survivors of the sea battle, no personal possessions other than the few clothes we were wearing at the time. In my case, a pair of underpants, a KSD shirt and KSD shorts, and a pair of slip on shoes. (The shoes were lost as soon as I jumped off the side of the ship into the Java sea and the wash of the ship, still underway, whipped the shoes off from my feet). Some of the crew were picked up by a Japanese destroyer on the same day, but the majority, me included, spent a night and half the next day huddled on carley floats and balsa rafts before the Japanese sent a ship to collect us. Eventually, we of the Exeter, Encounter and Pope found ourselves in Macassar, on the Celebes Islands. The RM band tried to keep together as best we could, however, later in 1942, two, Alan Dodds and Stan Thomas, were included in a working party which was transported to Japan. We were then twelve RMB members at Macassar.
Due to the poor diet we had to endure, our physical condition deteriorated quite rapidly and coupled with attacks of malaria, for there were no mosquito nets in that tropical ‘Butlins’, and most inmates succumbing to dysentery, deaths began to occur among all sections of the camp, British, Dutch and Americans. In 1943 a large party of Brits were detailed off to form a working party in a nickel quarry in Pamella, a day’s journey by ship to the other side of the Celebes. Among that party were Johnny Buckle and Doug Wilkins. Major McMahon was the senior officer in charge of that party, and the survivors speak very highly of the way in which he administered the delicate situation between the Japanese and the POWs. The party was away from Macassar for some eight months, and when the survivors returned to Macassar, Johnny and Doug were not among them, they had both died, Johnny of dysentery aggravated by malaria and Doug of septicaemia, occasioned by tropical ulcers caused by injuries sustained at the quarry work.
Then we were ten RM Bandsmen remaining at Macassar.
Throughout the remaining months of 1943 we struggled to survive on our daily meagre rations of boiled rice and ‘greens’ (mainly edible leaves somewhat similar to watercress) supplemented by whatever we could scrounge while out of camp on working parties, such as unripe mangos bananas and bits of coconut etc. Harry ‘Knocker’ Bance, our euphonium/cello player, was the next to fall extremely ill, appearing to lose all energy and will to carry on in the fight to survive. He died in the camp sick bay after falling into a coma.
We were then nine in Macassar, determined to see it through to the end and to freedom. But in 1945, only a few short months before victory over the Japanese, we had two more of our number pass on.
First, Bandy Vidler, in April 1945 died of beriberi. I saw him just before he died, as I, too, was carried into the camp hospital with the same illness. Bandy was in an advanced stage of the illness and never recovered. In the hospital hut at the time was Frank Harris, struck down with an abdominal illness, weak with dysentery, and all hope gone. I was with him to the end.
So we ended the war with seven RMB survivors at Macassar, not knowing what had become of our two comrades in Japan, Allen Dodds and Stan Thomas. Fortunately, they also had survived, so, eventually nine returned to the UK out of the 14 taken into captivity.
The two in Japan returned home courtesy of the US navy and airforce.
The seven of us from Macassar were taken by the RN to Freemantle in Western Australia, from where five returned home on HMS Maidstone in 1945. Two of us, Bill Hartley and I remained in hospital, me in Perth and Bill in another hospital in the country. It was not until early March 1946 that I finally set foot in England again, five years since the Exeter sailed out of Plymouth with its RM Band of fifteen.
I have since learned, over the years, of the deaths of seven of the nine survivors of the original fourteen captured in 1942. Terry Butcher (the one who had managed to escape captivity) died aged 86. Only Ted Jones, who I last saw in hospital in Perth, Australia, in 1945, has ‘gone missing’. I do not know where he is, or whether, he too, has passed on. (If you are still around Ted, and you happen to read this, please get in touch).
As the years have gone by, I have thought constantly of those five shipmates who never returned to Britain from that prison camp in Macassar. Every November, on Remembrance Sunday, and on 15 August (VJ Day), as I stand at the Cenotaph in Whitehall during the two minutes silence, I recite their names in my head, and remember those other crew members of HMS Exeter who never returned, some of whose names I can still recall.
During the Naval Actions of 27 February and 1 March, 58 lives were lost from Exeter’s crew (including 7 Royal Marines) and in the ensuing three and a half years of captivity a further 144 died (including 18 Royal Marines).
AT King RMB X1136
Thanks for the Laurels, we have a lot to live upto