The night of Sunday 6 July 1952 saw Exmouth witness a terrible disaster involving 25 Royal Navy ratings who served aboard a destroyer, HMS Battleaxe, which was making a visit to Exmouth. The ship is pictured in the accompanying photograph courtesy of the late W A Puddicombe, photographer, of 34 Strand, Exmouth. They had been in Exmouth enjoying a bit of shore leave and late in the evening set out from Exmouth Docks in the 25-foot Royal Naval motor launch to return to their ship, anchored in the estuary.

The night was very dark and had been echoing to the sound of an isolated thunderstorm but sea conditions were still calm. It was in these conditions the motor launch set out from the docks on a rising tide. The Official Coastguard Report at the time stated that around two o’clock in the morning the motor launch had appeared to run aground on Maer Rocks, but that no distress signals had been sent up by the boat. It was however understood that HMS Battleaxe had despatched another motor launch to the area.

The tide was coming in and as a result the stranded motor launch lifted itself free of the rocks but it was very clear it had been badly holed. The naval ratings had managed to scramble from the stricken vessel and made their way ashore. After a head count was made it was discovered that two ratings were missing. At 2.45 in the morning the police alerted the coastguard and after confirmation that two men were missing the Exmouth lifeboat, The Catherine Harriet Eaton, was launched at 3.24 in the morning under its coxwain Harold John Bradford who had succeeded Reginald Searle the year before. The lifeboat crew searched diligently all night and by dawn had located an area of oil where the motor launch had subsequently partially sunk, but there was no sign of the two missing ratings. The lifeboat then ceased the search and returned to its boathouse at 6 o’clock in the morning. Another local boat, The Lilian Rose, had also been searching for the missing sailors, but to no avail.

The lifeboat station received a signal from the Commanding Officer of HMS Battleaxe in which he thanked the RNLI authorities for their kind assistance and the action they had taken. The stricken motor launch was subsequently brought into Exmouth Docks by the Chief Pilot, Percy Bradford and the lifeboat coxswain, Harold 'Dido' Bradford. The Royal Navy lost two of its sailors that night and how the boat came to run aground in calm seas remains a mystery.

It was not the only incident that night as the lifeboat signalman P Clifford when answering the shout sustained multiple cuts, bruises and abrasions as a result of falling from his bicycle. His injuries however did not prevent him from reporting for service but he was afterwards treated for his injuries and remained out of service for about a week. The museum has a copy of the report from the Exmouth Journal and pictures relating to the incident if following this article anyone wishes to investigate further,

As we are now rapidly approaching Christmas this will be the last article on local history this year. May I take this opportunity on behalf of everyone at the museum to thank you for your support for the museum this year and we look forward to welcoming you back in April when we reopen. I will be back in the new year with more local history articles. If there is anything you would like me to write about, please do drop me an email. In the meantime, from all at the museum our best wishes for a very happy Christmas and peaceful and healthy new year.

You can find out more about Exmouth Museum at the museum’s website or you can email me at