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Scottish town honours men lost in wartime destroyer tragedy
22 August 2013

A block of flats in a small Scottish town has been named in honour of one of the Royal Navy’s often forgotten wartime tragedies.

A plaque – featuring the ship’s crest – was unveiled at Exmouth House in Wick in memory of destroyer HMS Exmouth, lost off the coast of Caithness in the opening months of WW2.

A BLOCK of flats in a small Scottish town has been named in honour of one of the Royal Navy’s often forgotten wartime tragedies.

Exmouth House in Wick takes it title from a destroyer lost with all hands off the Caithness coast in the opening months of WW2.

HMS Exmouth had been escorting the merchantman Cyprian Prince, which was ferrying guns, vehicles and searchlights to Scapa Flow to bolster the defences of the Fleet’s main wartime base when the two vessels were sighted by U22 some 20 miles off Wick long before dawn on January 21 1940.

The destroyer was torpedoed shortly before 5am and went down in under five minutes – it’s thought one of her magazines detonated in the aftermath of the initial hit.

E-class destroyer HMS Exmouth pictured pre-war. Courtesy of the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Although some men took to the water, none were rescued. With a U-boat nearby, the master of the Cyprian Prince deemed it too dangerous to pick up survivors (after hitting Exmouth, U22 fired at, but missed, the merchantman) and continued to the Orkneys.

As a result not one of the 189 souls aboard the destroyer survived. She was the first RN warship, though sadly not the last, to go down with all hands in WW2.

The bodies of 18 crew were subsequently washed ashore near Wick – they were found by a schoolboy playing truant for the day.

Hundreds of townsfolk lined the streets to pay their respects as the men were laid to rest with full military honours in Wick’s cemetery.

It was another 60 years before the destroyer’s wreck was found, a discovery which prompted the formation of an association among relatives of those lost; it now boasts members from Australasia to the New World, as well as in the UK.

The association has forged a strong bond with the people of Wick – there is a memorial plaque to the Exmouth in the town’s St Fergus Church, whose worshippers have promised “as long as this Church stands, the men of Exmouth will be remembered”.

As part of its redevelopment of its homes and apartments in Wick, Cairn Housing Association decided renaming one of the blocks after the Exmouth would be a fitting tribute to the men and the town’s association with their ship.

“The warmth and feeling of the townspeople of Wick has really been something. They are the custodians of the memory of HMS Exmouth,” said former killick stoker David Ellis and chairman of the HMS Exmouth 1940 Association; he lost his grandfather Stoker Leslie Darton on the Exmouth.

“It brings great comfort knowing that the memory of the ship and the ultimate sacrifice made by the crew in our country’s hour of need will live long in the memory through this kind gesture.”

You can learn more about the loss of the ship and the links with Wick at www.hms-exmouth.com