The building of HMS Exeter was started on the 1st August 1928 at the Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth. She was launched on 18th July 1929 and completed on 27th July 1931.
Exeter had a pair of catapults (although only one aircraft could be carried at a time) angled out from amidships, with the associated crane stepped to starboard.
In 1932, Exeter had side plating added amidships to the upper deck to enclose her open main deck as far as the after funnel
In 1935, the single 2-pounder guns were replaced by Vickers machine guns. Early war modifications saw the replacement of the single 4 inch (102 mm) guns with modern twin Mark XVI guns, a single 20mm Oerlikon gun was added to both 'B' and 'X' roof turrets. Radar Type 286 air warning was added requiring the pole masts to be replaced by tripods, this primitive metric set had separate Tx and Rx aerials , one at each masthead. Radar Type 284 was fitted to the director control tower atop the bridge to provide ranging information and spot fall of shot.
HMS Exeter formed part of the South American Division with Cumberland and together with the Ajax and Achilles engaged the German pocket battle ship ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ at the Battle of the River Plate on 13th December 1939. This action resulted in the scuttling of the Admiral Graf Spee several days later.
This action resulted in the loss of 61 crew members with a further 23 injured. Exeter made for Port Stanley in the Falklands for emergency repairs which were completed January 1940, she then returned to Devonport for full repairs over fourteen months between February 1940 and March 1941. That she survived such damage from direct hits with large calibre shells is a testament to her design and construction, as well as the damage control efforts of her crew.
On the entry of the Japan into the war in December 1941, Exeter formed part of the ABDACOM naval force which was intended to defend the Dutch East Indies from Japanese invasion.
On 27th February, 1942, she was badly damaged in the Battle of the Java Sea when she received a hit in the boiler room and was ordered to Surabaya. The destroyer HMS Electra was sunk covering her withdrawal. On 1st March while Exeter was attempting to reach the Sunda Straits, she was again engaged by the Japanese cruisers Nachi and Haguro. Exeter was soon badly damaged by gunfire and a torpedo from the destroyer Inazuma. Taking on water she began to list to starboard, by noon on the same day she sank. Her escorting destroyers, HMS Encounter and USS Pope were also lost in this engagement. About 800 Allied seamen, including the commander of Exeter, Captain O.L. Gordon., became prisoners of war.