HMS Exmouth was ordered by the Admiralty on 1st November 1932 under the 1931 Naval Programme and laid down at Portsmouth Dockyard on 15th March 1933. She was launched on 30th January 1934, named the following day, and commissioned for service on 9th November 1934. She measured 343.0′ x 33.8′ x 12.5′ and weighed 1495 displacement tons. Powered by two Parsons geared steam turbines three Admiralty three drum boilers which delivered 38,000 shaft horse power capable of reaching 35 knots. Her armament consisted of 5 × 4.7 inch Mark IX guns, 2 × 4 0.5 inch Mark III anti-aircraft guns, 2 × 4 – 21 inch torpedo tubes, 35 × depth charges.
On commissioning, Exmouth was assigned as leader of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla of the Home Fleet. The flotilla was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet from August 1935 to March 1936 during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The ship patrolled Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War enforcing the edicts of the Non-Intervention Committee. She returned to Britain in March 1939 and was assigned to training duties and local flotilla work based at Portsmouth on 28th April. She carried out these duties until 2nd August when, as tensions with Germany escalated, she was placed into full commission as the leader of the 12th Destroyer Flotilla. At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 Exmouth and her flotilla were initially assigned to the Home Fleet . She escorted the battle cruiser HMS Hood as she patrolled south of Iceland in late November. In December, she was transferred to the Western Approaches Command based at Milford Haven to carry out patrols and escort convoys, then, in January 1940, was transferred to Rosyth to carry out the same duties in the North Sea. She was to become the first surface warship to be lost with all hands in World War Two.
On the afternoon of 20th January 1940 Exmouth received orders to escort the small steamship Cyprian Prince which was en route from Aberdeen to Scapa Flow with supplies. With Captain Richard Stoddart Benson in charge on the bridge and with a crew of 188 men aboard, the two ships met up off from Aberdeen and continued en route north. At the same time German submarine U-22, under the command of Karl-Heinrich Jenisch, was on patrol in the North Sea and in pursuit of a large steamship Jenisch had spotted through his periscope. However, U-22 was spotted on the surface on the clear moonlit night and was forced to dive to elude the escort ships that raced towards her. Having shaken off their pursuers Jenisch calmly returned to his patrol and, at 04:25 am, they spotted three steamships and their destroyer escort, HMS Exmouth, steaming across their bows. At 05:35 U-22 fired a single torpedo from a range of 1500 metres which struck the starboard side of Exmouth 2 minutes and 35 seconds later. A second torpedo fired at the Cyprian Prince missed or failed to explode. The log of U-22 later revealed that the Cyprian Prince almost rammed the submarine as it manoeuvred to attempt to pick up survivors but the Exmouth sank within two minutes with the loss of all hands. Later reports from Captain Benjamin Prince of the Cyprian Prince of a second large explosion after the initial impact explosion would indicate that an ammunition magazine aboard Exmouth blew up shortly after the torpedo hit.
Captain Prince then ordered his ship to escape from the scene at full speed despite cries from the water of some of the Exmouth’s crew who had managed to escape from the sinking ship. This decision, while completely in line with the Admiralty Defence of Merchant Shipping regulations, attracted much attention at the subsequent inquiry but a review of the submarine’s log after the war supported his decision as Jenisch was foiled in his attempt to sink the steamship by her rapid departure from the scene of the initial attack. The bodies of 18 crew members were washed ashore a week later. Eighteen bodies were eventually recovered and buried in a mass grave in Wick – they were not individually identified.
The Wreck Today
The location of the wreck was recorded by the Admiralty at the time but was then lost until she was discovered in 2001 and identified by divers from the European Technical Dive Centre, based at Scapa Flow, in position 58°18.467’N, 02°28.941W. They positively identified the wreck from the serial number on the vessel’s steering helm. She lies upturned in 56 metres and rises 4 metres from the seabed oriented 110°/290°. The wreck is partially in tact but collapsing with evidence of a major explosion, most likely the result of the magazine exploding, near the starboard bow. The site was designated a protected military wreck in 2002 which establishes a protected area of radius 750 metres around the wreck.