HMS Exe (1903)

HMS Exe (1903) was a River class destroyer that served with the Grand Fleet in 1914, the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla in 1915-17 and the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla on the Humber in 1918.

HMS Exe from the right
HMS Exe from the right

The Exe was one of three River class destroyers ordered from Palmers in the 1901-1902 batch, part of the first group of River class destroyers. The three Palmer boats all had four funnels, in two pairs.

The Exe was built to the original design, with her forward 6-pdr guns on sponsons on either side of the forecastle. This made them rather wet in some seas, and they were lifted to a higher position on ships from the 1902/3 batch and later.

Although she was built with a mix of one 12-pounder and five 6-pounders, she was soon modified to carry four 12-pounder guns. She was listed with that armament in January 1914 and 1919 Navy Lists.

It took the Exe two attempts to pass her coal consumption trials in late October 1903. The first attempt failed because of leaking condensers, caused by two tubes leaking after they were damaged by vibrations from the side of the condenser. The trial was repeated at the end of October and this time she passed, consuming 2.37lb of coal per ihp per hour at 25.273 knots.


On 1 May 1904 she and the Erne departed from Plymouth, heading for Malta. She was part of the Mediterranean Destroyer Flotilla from then until 1905.

In 1905-1906 she was on the China Station.

The Exe was part of the Second Destroyer Flotilla during 1906, part of the Channel Fleet.

HMS Exe from the left
HMS Exe from the left

In 1907-1908 she was part of either the Second or Fourth Flotillas, part of the Home Fleet, and with full complements.

In June 1908 the Exe suffered the unexpected loss of her commander, Lt. Percy William Pontifex. He was taken ill with pneumonia, taken to the Naval Hospital at Harwich and died four days later, on Sunday 31 May.

In March 1909 she completed a refit and rejoined the Eastern Destroyer Flotilla at Harwich.

In 1909-11 she was part of the Second Destroyer Flotilla, which supported the 2nd Division of the Home Fleet, and was fully manned.

In July 1910 a court of inquiry had to be held after one of the Exe’s gunsights went missing, possibly thrown overboard.

In 1911-12 she was part of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla on the Nore, supporting the older destroyers of the 3rd Division of the Home Fleet. The ships in this flotilla were only partly manned.

From May 1912 she was part of the 9th Destroyer Flotilla, one of the new patrol flotillas.

In 1914 she moved to the Grand Fleet Flotilla or Scapa Local Defence Flotilla.

In June 1914 she was one of eight River class destroyers that were attached to the First Fleet, but not allocated to one of the Destroyer Flotillas.

First World War

In August 1914 she was part of the Second Battle Squadron of what soon became the Grand Fleet, and was based at Scapa Flow.

In November 1914 she was one of eighteen destroyers directly under the control of the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe.

In January 1915 she was attached to the Grand Fleet.

At the end of March 1915 the Beagle class destroyers, which had been escorting troops across the Channel, were sent to the Dardanelles. The Exe was one of eight destroyers that were moved south to take over from them, forming the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla. The move was decided earlier than that, and the Exe, Teviot, Ure, Boyne and Foyle left Scapa Flow heading for Dover and Devonport on 27 February 1915, to begin escort duties. The Exe and Ure arrived at Dover on 2 March. One of their key early duties was to try and prevent German submarines passing through the Dover Straits, but it took a great deal of luck for a destroyer to chance upon a U-boat in this period, and the Exe was unable to prevent a U-boat sinking the French trawler Grisnez on the night of 9-10 March.

In June 1915 she was one of seventeen destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla, a mix of River class and the older 27-knotters and 30-knotters.

In January 1916 she was one of eighteen destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla, once again a mix of older ships and River class ships. She was one of two destroyers to be equipped with the anti-submarine high speed submarine sweep, but was undergoing repairs. 

In October 1916 she was one of nine River class destroyers in a new Escort Flotilla, based at Portsmouth.

On 6-9 December she was one of a number of warships that helped with the salvage of SS Poona. In January 1918 her crew were awarded naval salvage money for their part in the salvage.

On 15 December the Exe and Cherwell were returning to base after a trip to Havre when they found UC.17 attacking the SS Red Rose. They were able to save the Red Rose, but when the Exe attempted to lower her paravane in an attempt to attack the U-boat the charge exploded almost immediately, probably due to an operating error.

In January 1917 she was one of thirteen destroyers in the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla, still mainly made up of River class ships, but with two Acheron class and one Acorn class destroyer as well.

On 27 February 1917 the Exe and P.33 dropped depth charges on U.B.40, which was forced to submerge.

On 13 May 1917 the Exe was escorting the SS Irwell when she spotted a U-boat on the surface, possibly UC.20 or UB.36. The Exe attempted to ram, but the submarine disappeared into a rain squall. The Exe dropped a depth charge, probably forcing the submarine to submerge.

In June 1917 she was one of nine destroyers in the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla, now all River class ships, supported by a force of P-ships, smaller anti-submarine warfare vessels.

In January 1918 she was officially part of the large Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, based on the Humber, but she was undergoing repairs at Aberdeen.

On 27 March 1918 the Exe and the Kale hit mines while operating off the east coast. The Exe was damaged, and lost five men, but the Kale was sunk with heavy loss of life.

In June 1918 she was one of twenty five destroyers in the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, based on the Humber.

In November 1918 she was one of seventy seven destroyers in the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, still on the Humber.

In January 1920 she was list as for sale.

Lt P.W. Pontifex: July 1906-June 1908
Commander Alan M. Yeats-Brown: 21 May 1911-January 1914-
Lt in command: Robert Constable: 3 August 1918- February 1919-

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed







233.5ft oa
225ft pp



Armaments (as built)

One 12-pounder gun
Five 6-pounder guns
Two 18in torpedo tubes

Armament (wartime)

Four 12-pounders

Crew complement


Laid down

14 July 1902


27 April 1903


March 1904

Broken Up


British Destroyers From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Norman Friedman. A very detailed look at the design of British destroyers from their earliest roots as torpedo boat destroyers, though the First World War and up to the start of the Second World War, supported by vast numbers of plans and well chosen photographs [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 November 2019), HMS Exe (1903) ,

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