A story from the life of the SS Great Britain now restored and an award winning museum in Bristol, England
The HMS Exeter Connection
HMS Exeter was a York class heavy cruiser of the British Royal Navy which played a major rôle in the first important sea battle of the Second World war.The Exeter instantly became the icon for the bravery and determination of the British Armed forces.The Exeter was was laid down on 1st August 1928 at the Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth, Devon,England - 8,390 tons displacement, maximum speed just over 33 knots, [30k/p/h and a range of 10,000nm [18,000km] The Exeter was well armed and in 1939 also carried a catapult-launched sea-plane.
HMS Exeter [HMS = His Majesty's Ship]On the right - damaged in the Falkland Islands -December 1939
In 1939 at the beginning of the war the Exeter was stationed in the south Atlantic with two smaller cruisers Ajax and Achilles with the mission to destroy German navy ships - the notorious 'surface raiders' attacking British merchant shipping. Number one on the list was the pocket- battleship Admiral Graf Spee. In December 1939 Exeter was in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands when news of a sighting arrived by radio. Exeter went north to join what became known as he Battle of the River Plate. The rest is history. But less well known is the Exeter's touch-and-go return to the Falkland Islands, here digitally, and documented at the time is the account by Sir Herbert Henniker Heaton the Island's Governor.
The Governor of the Falkland Islands leaked the story to the London Evening Standard - READ THE ORIGINAL
Velma - the Islander who remembered

The Governor's story tells us how badly the Exeter was damaged and how the the ship limped back to the safety of Port Stanley. 61 sailors died and many were injured.

The condition of the Exeter was so grim that most of the survivors were billeted [given accomodation] with Island families. In the 1930s Stanley did not have an hotel or bed and breakfast or any restaurant / cafe. The main bar or 'pub was the 'Stanley Arms' run by Axel Pettersson the son of a Swedish sailor who had been shipwrecked on the Islands.

Axel took in some of the Exeter's crew including Chief Petty Officer - shipwright Leslie O'Neil knicknamed 'Spike' who was largely responsible for getting the Exeter to a point where it was sea-worthy and able to return to Devonport.

In the picture on the far left Spike in his Royal Navy kit is next to Axel's nine year old daughter Velma. Then in 1970 Spike is with Velma - on the right.

Leslie 'Spike' O'Neil - The Man who gave the 'OK' to salvage the 'Great Britain'

Velma wrote the account of the reunion in her unpublished 'book' of memoirs titled - 'As Ignorant as Sheep'. Velma heard Spike's name on the Island Radio in January 1970 when the list of passengers due to arrive on RMS Darwin was announced . The Darwin plied monthly between Stanley and Montevideo, Uruguay - the South American mainland.

Just before the Darwin arrived in Stanley, Velma received a telegram from Spike saying 'I'm coming to stay with you if that is alright..Spike ' She wondered what it was about.

After the second world war, Spike had taken a job with the well established marine salvage company Risdon Beazley based in Southampton, England. To his colleagues he was known as 'Bill' and outside usually as Leslie - a man of few but very sound words. Leslie O'Neil's second visit to the Falkland Islands came when his expert advice was essential to save the Great Britain.

The Great Britain was a very rusted hulk almost breaking in half on a beach. The the first salvage company approached to do the job simply said it was an impossible risk to take. But Risdon Beazley had different ideas thanks to their association with the German salvors Ulrich Harms and Spike was asked to make an assessment. The money was in place, Harms had a massive Mulus pontoon within range and a team of divers was ready to go. In January 1970 Spike looked at the wreck and said ' OK -- it can be done' and by April 24th the 'Britain' was on the way back to Bristol.

MORE on this story in the book Saving the Great Britain 


The age of the internet has spread a story about iron plates from the Great Britain being used by shipwrights to repair HMS Exeter when the ship was in Stanley Harbour after the battle. Some accounts even came from Exeter veterans though the facts do not support the memories.

The picture on the right came from a Falkland Islands family involved with the repairs and it reveals good steel being used on the deck - from personal experience clearly this is not metal from the Great Britain. It does not prove that the old Great Britain iron was not used elsewhere but from the available evidence it seems unlikely.

A note from Tony Morrison looks at the evidenceRoyal Navy and local shipwrights fit new steel plating to the deck of HMS Exeter -1939
Special thanks for information and photos:- to Leona Roberts/ Falkland Islands Museum, Stanley. Ailsa Heathman and Noeline Sloggie - neé Biggs, Stuart Whatley, Lyle Craigie Halkett, the late Leslie 'Spike' O'Neil,.Lynn Bruce and to the National Archives, Kew, Surrey, England

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