HMS Exeter and the Battle of the River Plate

'Her finest hour' - Update on this project Summer / Autumn 2009.

Unfortunately the project to produce a new painting of HMS Exeter has been shelved. This is sadly due to the current economic situation preventing the client from proceeding with the project. To all those who have expressed an interest in purchasing a print of the painting we sincerely apologise for the situation.

The Battle of the River Plate

Robin Brooks plans to begin a new painting of HMS Exeter in Spring 2009. Here are his thoughts leading up to this new work.

'Her finest hour'

13th December 1939
Oil on canvas

I find a title a most important part of any painting. The title may come first and spur feelings and visions, which will help focus one's mind or the title may come after work progresses and be born out of the experience of creating the painting. In the case of 'Her finest hour', the title precedes the painting by almost two years, in fact. HMS Exeter and her story, as portrayed in the film, "Battle of the River Plate" 1956, had a most profound influence on my life.

As I anticipate next year's 70th anniversary in 2009, I felt inspired by the ship and her gallant crew on that fateful morning on December 13th 1939. The heroic action that was ultimately to inspire so many books and a film, was not, in itself, of enormous military significance, but it did have an enormous psychological influence, both on the Allies and Germany, particularly lifting British public spirits, when the world was on the very edge of descending into the horror and chaos, which became the Second World War.

I will be looking to capture on canvas all the essential elements of this historic encounter just after dawn, off the River Plate. HMS Exeter was a heavy cruiser, carrying six 8" guns as her main armament. She was in company with HMNZS Achilles and HMS Ajax. These were both light cruisers, carrying eight 6" guns each.

Ajax was the flagship of Commodore Henry Harwood. These ships were cruising off the South American coast.

Harwood had correctly guessed that the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, a powerful surface raider, carrying six 11" guns, would seek to destroy British and French merchant ships off this important seaway. Graf Spee had already struck fear into the hearts of merchant seamen, cruising in the southern hemisphere. She had already sunk 13 merchant ships. It was essential to bring this powerful ship to action.

The British ships were numerically superior to the German ships, but the Graf Spee and her two sister ships were of a novel design, said to be faster than any ship that could outgun them an outgun any ship that could outsail them. On the morning of the 13th, just after dawn, lookouts on the Exeter spotted a faint smudge of smoke on the horizon to the north west. Exeter was despatched to investigate and she now turned out of line to port, towards the Graf Spee. Lookouts on the Graf Spee spotted and correctly identified the two tall wooden masts they could see, as the Exeter. So the scene was set for one of the most dramatic encounters, harking back to a previous era.

This is before radar, when the sharp eyes of a lookout were all important. Exeter's lookouts now identified the tall control tower of the Graf Spee, which was racing towards them and signalled back to Harwood's two cruisers, the famous signal, "I think it's a pocket battleship." The ensuing action initially at long range, became fast and furious and Exeter was severely damaged and eventually forced to turn away in a near sinking condition. The remarkable bravery of her crew is well documented.

The action with the two remaining cruisers continued for all of that day. Exeter had succeeded in damaging the Graf Spee sufficiently for her captain, Hans Langsdorff to decide that his ship had to put into the neutral port of Buenos Aires to effect repairs.

The story of these dramatic events and the political intrigue that followed is another story. Enough to say that rather than lose more lives or see his ship captured, Hans Langsdorff, not a Nazi, in the most dramatic circumstances, on the 17th December, sailed the Graf Spee out of Buenos Aires, with a huge crowd watching. The ship sailed just outside territorial waters and was blown up by her crew.

Meanwhile, Exeter with 60 of her crew lost and in a very bad condition, made the long journey to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where temporary repairs were made to make her fit for the long journey back to the U.K., where in the greatest secrecy, she sailed into her home port of Plymouth on 14th February 1940. Word quickly spread and huge crowds lined every vantage point to see the ship sail in to a huge hero's welcome.

To recreate, on canvas, HMS Exeter in 'Her finest hour'

Firstly, I will search out all extant material. This will include all official logs, documents. The importance of these papers cannot be over-stressed, together with any unofficial diaries, letters or writings. Obviously I will concentrate on the day in question, but experience tells me that it will be well worth while reading back some weeks or even longer prior to the event and indeed after the event.

This is for two reasons. It helps one build up a sort of rapport with the people involved as they often reveal much of themselves in their writings and secondly, useful pieces of information can emerge, which can offer vital clues to technical details. For me, this is a tried and tested formula and helps me to get into the spirit of the ship and her people.

In my work as a marine, historical painter, I will search for every nuance of feeling, colour, light and anything that I can. The ship's course, the state of the sea, wind, light, all will be studied in minute detail, to fully identify with my subject. I am motivated to try and recreate on canvas with authenticity and imagination, my chosen subject.

Marine historical painting requires a special kind of dedication and skill. It is something of a unique discipline. The painter needs more than picture-making skills. To this, must be added scholarship, knowledge of seamanship in different periods of history and cultures, together with some understanding of navigation, sea and weather conditions. To this could be added several other understandings, plus, and most importantly, imagination.

It is planned to publish two limited edition prints of these two paintings, strictly limited to 70 copies of each only. Dates to coincide with these notable anniversaries.

The header on this page was taken from an original painting dated 1967.

Painting of HMS Exeter HMS Exeter, Acrylic on panel, 20" x 30", painted in 1967 directly from the model. (The model is now displayed in the White Ensign Club, Exeter). The painting is in the private collection of a direct descendent of Captain H R D Woods R.M., who died in action at the Battle of the River Plate.

© Robin Brooks 1967

Click to read another article by Robin Brooks: HMS Exeter Conundrum

HMS Exeter / River Plate Survivors

Jim Smith is the point-of-contact for the HMS Exeter / River Plate Survivors. Anybody with any connection to 'Exeter' / River Plate survivors, whether it be wishing to join in with these reunions, share memories, or simply pass the time of day, should contact Jim.

Jim's contact details:-

Jim Smith
Secretary, The River Plate Veterans and Families Association,
Lyntondale Kirton Lane

Telephone: 01302 841806

Although the association is for all three ships at the River Plate battle, it has predominantly HMS Exeter veterans.

The ships career has been divided into two sections.

1928 1940:
The Battle of the River Plate,
Robin Brooks' planned painting

1940 1942:
The Far East and sinking in the Java Sea,
HMS Wreck Found

The Fifth HMS Exeter 1978 has been painted twice by Robin Brooks from life at Swan Hunters Neptune Yard in Newcastle. The following pages relate to this ship.

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