Memories of an heroic trio who served in darkest days

By Toby Leigh in Feature

The Second World War memories of HMS Exeter and the men who served on her are being honoured in Exeter next month with a civic reception and a march to the city cathedral.

And among those being honoured will be three men from Totnes – who served on the Royal Navy warship and never returned.

Marine Wilfred Russell was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his part in the Battle of the River Plate in 1940 as HMS Exeter and other British warships cornered the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee.

The 32-year-old Totnes Royal Marine was among 61 men on board HMS Exeter who died in the sea battle which eventually forced the German ship in to the neutral port of Montevideo where she was scuttled.

Two years later HMS Exeter was sunk by the Japanese in the Java Sea leaving 22-year-old Able Seaman Wilfred Knapman missing presumed killed.

Chief Petty Officer Stores Wilfred Cranwell was among the hundreds of crew members taken prisoner by the Japanese – dying from dysentry two years later aged 36.

The HMS Exeter celebration in Exeter will be going ahead on March 1 – the date the ship was sunk 75 years ago.

It will also mark the 35th anniversary of the Falklands conflict in which another HMS Exeter served – the fifth to bear the name.

A remembrance service will be held at Exeter Cathedral when wreaths will be laid to honour all ‘Old Exeters’ who were lost during the Second World War or since.

Marine Russell was the son of Mr and Mrs C.H.Russell of Weirfields, Totnes, and had served with the Royal Marines for 14 years.

He was married with a young daughter Jean.

Totnes Times reports revealed that the marine and his new wife had spent just 12 weeks together in their five-year marriage

Said the report: ‘Marine Russell spent four happy days at home in August, coming home on the Exeter after nearly two years on foreign service.

His wife was waiting for him at the quay with their little daughter Jean, whom he had never seen before.

Four days later Marine Russell sailed again, this time for South America, without having an opportunity of returning to his home to say goodbye.’

In December 1940 HMS Exeter with two other British ships, HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax, ran the Graf Spee to ground.

During the sea battle the Exeter was hit a number of times.

Marine Russell was injured and died weeks later of his wounds and is buried on the Falklands Islands.

The citation for his CGM reads: ‘Wilfred A. Russell, having his left forearm blown away and his right arm shattered when a turret was put out of action by a direct hit from an eleven-inch shell, refused all but first aid.

He remained on deck and went about cheering on his shipmates and putting courage into them by his great fortitude; and did not give in until the heat of the battle was over.’

In June 1940 the Western Times reported that Marine Russell’s parents had been to see a film made of the Battle of the River Plate called ‘For Freedom’.

In May the Totnes Times carried a report detailing how Marine Russell’s widow and daughter Jean had received the CGM from King George VI.

Later, Jean was featured on the front cover of Good Housekeeping wearing her father’s medal.

Said the report: ‘She will be remembered as the little girl who held the Queen’s hand on the occasion when the King gave her mother the C.G.M., awarded to her father for his extremely gallant part in the Battle of the River Plate.’

Able Seaman Knapman was the son of William and Laura Knapman from Totnes.

He was one of the 54 crew who died when HMS Exeter was ambushed and sunk by Japanese cruisers and destroyers in the Java Sea on March 1, 1942.

Most of the crew managed to abandon ship and 652 were picked up and became Japanese prisoners of war.

One of them was Petty Officer Cranwell, the son of Richard and Minnie Cranwell of 8 Mount View Terrace, Totnes.

He died on January 12 1944 while in Japanese hands at Macassar Celebes and is buried at Ambon War Cemetery in Indonesia.

He was one of 154 HMS Exeter PoWs who died in captivity.

The Wreck of HMS Exeter in the Java Sea had been located and preserved as a war grave.

But, only last year, it was revealed that the wreck has been looted for its scrap metal.

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Jeff Stone · 163 days ago · Report

The Battle of The River Plate took place in December 1939

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