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HMS Exeter- a Royal Marine's Story

by Aidan Toase

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Contributed by 
Aidan Toase
People in story: 
Aidan Edward Toase. Humphrey Woods .Captain Bell .Marine Russel .Commodore Harwood .
Location of story: 
South Atlantic
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

Captain A.E.Toase

The Royal Marines
HMS Exeter

Historical background
Since the war started, a German battleship, the Graf Spee, had been roaming the South Atlantic sinking unarmed British merchant ships. She was being hunted by several British hunting groups, and was found by the three British cruisers, Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles on 13th December 1939, and then began the Battle of the River Plate. The main armament of the Exeter was six 8inch guns, and that of the Ajax and Achilles was eight 6inch guns. The Graf Spee had six 11inch guns and eight 6inch guns.

Personal story
On the morning of 13 Dec 1939 I was keeping the morning watch in the after control position. My particular job was to keep the lookouts awake and doing their job. It is all too easy to go to sleep sitting on a comfortable seat and leaning against a bracket holding a powerful set of Admiralty binoculars. I was a junior lieutenant in the Royal Marines and was second in command of the Royal Marine Detachment. Humphrey Woods was the Captain of Marines and at action stations he was in charge of B turret manned by the R.M. Detachment. Most cruisers had four turrets A,B,X and Y and the Marines manned X turret. However as Exeter only had three turrets A,B and Y, The Marines manned B turret. I had tried to get charge of the turret myself a few weeks earlier as it would be more interesting than chasing lookouts. But Captain Woods was not having any of it and I had to remain with my lookouts.

At about 0600 the Graf Spee was sighted well down on the horizon and the bugler sounded Action Stations over the tannoy. I well remember my heart went well down into my boots as everyone was hurrying to his position. Very soon two great clouds of fire and smoke burst from the enemy as he fired his first broadside and about a minute later a line of shells landed in the sea about 300 yards short. Our course was set to get within range of the enemy and return fire. The next enemy broadside was correct for range but fell about 300 yards astern. Thereafter we were receiving our punishment but managed to get within gun range of the Graf Spee and scored several hits.
B turret was hit by an 11 inch shell between the guns after firing about 5 broadsides and everyone in front of the breeches were killed including Capt Woods. Splinters from this shell killed several people on the bridge and cut all communications so Captain Bell (The ship's Captain) came aft to fight the ship from the after control Position. Very soon both A and Y turrets were put out of action because their electrical supplies were cut off, so Captain Bell said within my hearing " I'm going to ram the --------. It will be the end of us but it will sink him too". So off we set.

Fortunately the electricians managed to get Y turret working again so we turned away and carried on firing with Y turret. Normal steering of the ship was not possible due to damage so we organised a chain of seamen to pass steering orders down to the after steering position. Lookouts were no longer required so I went to look at B turret. There was some burning debris on top of one gun loading tray and immediately under it a naked charge ready for loading into the gun. Looked a nasty situation so I removed the charge by chucking it overboard and put out the fire.

I remember Marine Russel with his forearm shot away. He was walking around rallying some leaderless seamen and putting them to useful work. When we got back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands Mne Russel was taken into the hospital and appeared to be making a good recovery. However he needed a minor operation to improve his forearm stump and he died under the anaesthetic. He was buried with full military honours in Stanley on the very day the ship left for UK.

While we were getting our punishment Commodore Harwood in the Ajax and the Achilles were scoring hits on the Graf Spee from the disengaged side. It was clear that the Graf Spee was trying to get into Montevideo so Commodore Harwood signalled us to report the state of the ship and then ordered us to go back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Ajax and Achilles followed the Graf Spee until she was interned in Montevideo and waited outside for reinforcements in case she tried to get away. That evening we buried about 50 of the ships company at sea. On 17th December, the Graf Spee sailed out of Montevideo and scuttled herself, thus saving many lives.

I well remember our reception in Stanley. Nothing was too much for people to do for us. It took about six weeks to get the ship seaworthy. We had a lot of steel plating sent up from the whaling station in South Georgia. I had a very happy time there as I made the acquaintance of a young girl called Cora Newing. Whenever I could get ashore I would seek her out and she would provide a horse and we would go out to the lighthouse or some other beauty spot. She followed me to UK in 1943 arriving the day I was off to the Mediterranean. She joined the Marens (The Royal Marines branch of the Wrens) and had an interesting time.

My ship now was the Abercrombie a monitor with one 15 inch gun turret. I was now the Captain of Marines and manning this turret was our job. We took part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy. One day I fired off about 100 15 inch shells. Each shell weighed a ton. We would do a quick return to Malta to re ammunition between the air raids and then back to the invasion beeches. At Salerno we got mined and returned to Malta for repairs and then leaving Malta we got mined again. When the gun goes off there is a gentle but powerful "whoosh" in the turret. No Bang is heard. The gun recoils and then the breech worker opens the breech to load the next shell and charge. Immediately on opening the breech there is a loud roar of the air blast blowing straight up the barrel of the gun. This clears away all the smoke and gases and leaves the atmosphere good in the turret. If for any reason the air blast does not work the turret very quickly becomes uninhabitable. Inside the turret is a very comfortable place to be. The behaviour of people in the turret was just as though they were working machinery in a factory ashore. Each man just calmly doing his job, but each with his private thoughts.

After that I was transferred to the cruiser Aurora for a few months and then sent home in time for Christmas 1944. So I met Cora for the first time after a 5 year break and was married by my father one week later after getting home. My father was a priest and was Rector of Ashill near Swaffham in Norfolk. We got a special licence and he pulled a string or two so we were married a week after I met up with Cora. Cora's Commanding Officer Major Beasley Royal Marines was also very helpful to us.

In March 1945 I was with 27 Bn Royal Marines in Holland and we chased the Germans all the way up to Williamshaven.

We celebrated our diamond wedding on 30 Dec 2004.

Aidan Toase: DOB 15th July 1918, age 87years

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