Remembering the Exmouth, 80 years on
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EIGHTY years ago this week, Wick witnessed a scene that was described as "probably the saddest in the history of the town". The event referred to by the John O'Groat Journal was the funeral of 15 sailors from HMS Exmouth, which was sunk by a German U-boat off Noss Head on January 21, 1940, while escorting the British merchant vessel Cyprian Prince.
The Exmouth was struck by a torpedo on her starboard side in the early hours of the morning and sank with the loss of 190 officers and men. A torpedo was also fired at the Cyprian Prince a few minutes later but it missed her.
Six bodies were washed up near Wick, with another nine found on the coast 12 miles away. Wreckage, including a piece of a small boat with the name Exmouth on it, was discovered too. It was thought a number of the men might have managed to get away from the destroyer before she sank and got into lifeboats and rafts, but it seems they perished before any vessel sighted them. All the bodies that were found were taken to a local mortuary.
It was decided the sailors should be buried at Wick cemetery with full military honours. A service was attended by naval, army and air force representatives. Also present were the provost, magistrates and officials of the town as well as representatives from Caithness County Council.
A Church of Scotland minister, a Church of England minister and a Roman Catholic priest took part in the service, representing the various denominations to which the deceased men belonged.
Royal Air Force men acted as the pall-bearers and the coffins were carried on two large service motor vehicles. A party of blue jackets preceded the hearses, which were followed by a large cortege and the chief mourners, the provost and the naval commander of the district. Behind them came an escort party of the RAF and Seaforth Highlanders as well as a number of townspeople.
Hundreds watched the departure to the cemetery. Along the streets there were many more people, and in all the groups women were reported to be "openly weeping at this moving sight". It was, the Groat said, probably the saddest scene in the town's history.
At the cemetery, many more people had gathered. The 15 coffins were laid in one big grave while a service was conducted by the Roman Catholic priest. The firing party fired three volleys, a sailor sounded The Last Post and many floral tributes were laid on the grave.
HMS Exmouth, which was built in Portsmouth in 1935 at a cost of over £330,000, was en route from Aberdeen to Scapa Flow when she was struck by the German submarine U-22, under the command of Karl-Heinrich Jenisch. She was one of the first British ships to be sunk during World War II and had previously been attached to the Mediterranean fleet. She had spent some time in Spanish waters during the civil war there, fought between 1936 and 1939.
When the destroyer was hit, the skipper of the Cyprian Prince approached to try to recover survivors but, after just three minutes, was forced to move on. There was a submarine close by and Admiralty orders specifically stated that ships must not stop to recover survivors. Several Scots, including Lewis islanders and an Edinburgh doctor, were believed to have gone down with the Exmouth.
The exact resting place of the destroyer was unknown until a dive team from Orkney discovered her in June 2001. Three months later a large group of relatives came to Wick to take part in special events to remember those who had lost their lives. Services were held and floral tributes laid at Wick cemetery and at the spot where the Exmouth went down.
The Wick fishing boat Boy Andrew and a dive vessel, Loyal Mediator, took relatives to where the ship was found. Messages of farewell were scattered on the surface of the sea.
A White Ensign posthumously awarded to the crew of the vessel by Commodore Sandford, on behalf of the Royal Navy, hangs in Wick St Fergus Church. Also there is a brass memorial plaque – provided by the HMS Exmouth (40) Association – with the 190 names of those who died in the tragedy. It also donated an album of photographs and details of the crew which is displayed beside the ensign. A service to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Exmouth was held at St Fergus Church earlier this month.
Sue Eastwood from Kent, the secretary of the association, organised the 2001 trip and said it was "emotional and poignant". Mrs Eastwood, who lost her grandfather, Able Seaman Walter Andrews, on the Exmouth, praised the people of Wick for their sympathy, consideration and sensitivity during the ceremony 19 years ago.
Speaking at the time, she said: "They reacted in the same manner as they did in 1940 when the 15 crew members recovered were buried, treating them in such a dignified way as if they were their own sons. Everyone associated with the Exmouth owes Wick a huge debt of gratitude. The town will always have a special place in our hearts."