HE helped defeat the Nazis in one of the most famous naval battles of the Second World War, but sadly Jim London couldn’t beat Old Father Time and he has died just a few weeks short of his century.

In fact, a gathering to celebrate Jim’s life has been arranged for the date of his 100th birthday on Wednesday, October 2.

He was a young stoker on the British light cruiser HMS Exeter when it was one of three ships sent to confront the pride of the German Navy, the pocket battleship Graf Spee, in what became known as the Battle of the River Plate.

As a Royal Navy regular, who had joined up in 1937, the sound of the guns was nothing new; he had heard them often enough in practice.

But to feel the ship shudder as the mighty shells of the Graf Spee smashed into Exeter’s forward and middle sections was an altogether more un-nerving experience.

In an interview with this newspaper in 1989, 50 years after the battle, he said: “I couldn’t exactly tell what was happening because I was three decks down towards the rear of the ship, but I knew it wasn’t good.”

The odds for the encounter had never been on the British ships’ side.

The combined firepower of Exeter and its sister cruisers Ajax and Achilles was dwarfed by the armament of the Graf Spee, which completely flaunted the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.

Nevertheless the order was given to hunt down the Spee, which had been causing havoc among British merchant shipping, and the three cruisers were given the job.

They came across their quarry near the estuary of the River Plate, off the coast of Uruguay and Argentina , as dawn broke on December 13, 1939.

Jim explained: “At that time every day ‘Battle Stations’ was sounded and on that morning we had just been stood down when it sounded again, so we knew something must be up.”

Up it most certainly was and deep in the bowels of Exeter Jim watched over the oil fuelled dynamos as they pushed the ship up to full speed in a very short time.

However, the Graf Spee’s bigger guns began picking off the cruiser as it tried to get within range for its own weaponry to come into play.

He added: “You could feel the ship rocking as it was hit, although I couldn’t tell how bad it was.”

For 90 minutes Exeter took a brutal pounding from the Graf Spee, then one of the most formidable fighting machines on the High Seas.

Shell upon shell rained down on the cruiser, but she returned shot for shot until only one of her guns could be fired and that by hand. “In all the noise it was difficult to tell whether the explosions were hits from the enemy or our own guns being fired,” Jim recalled. “Either way, the noise was tremendous.”

By 7.30 that morning, crippled and with nearly 70 of her officers and men killed, Exeter was forced to quit the fight, but her bravery in tackling the Spee head on had enabled her two smaller colleagues to harry and hustle the battleship and together the Ajax and Achilles pushed it into the neutral Montevideo harbour.

Three days later the Spee emerged and in a grand gesture which astonished everyone, her commander Hans Langsdorff scuttled his ship.

Meanwhile Exeter limped through Christmas and the New Year to the haven of The Falklands, where it took six weeks to repair the damage.

The cruiser eventually arrived back in Plymouth on February 16, 1940 to a hero’s welcome and Jim and his mates marched through London to a party at the Guildhall. Jim fought right through the war and got every Royal Naval Campaign medal going, but even they hadn’t been the sum of his achievements.

In January, 1939, HMS Exeter had helped to rescue survivors of a massive earthquake at Concepcion in Chile, which killed more than 30,000 people.

Along with Ajax, the ship was in the port of Valparaiso, almost 300 miles away, but sailed

to the disaster zone carrying 200 soldiers of the Chilean army, fresh water and supplies.

It returned with hundreds of refugees. On the 50th anniversary of the rescue, Jim London was able to add a commemorative Concepcion Earthquake medal to his collection.

His son Graham said: “Dad never considered himself a war hero. I once heard him tell someone who asked what it was like being on Exeter under such heavy fire and he replied : ‘I kept going because I didn’t want to look scared in front of my mates and let anyone down.”

Born in Pembridge, Herefordshire, and son of a merchant seaman, Jim lived in Morrin Close, Claines, Worcester for most of his life and after the war had a career in electrical engineering. Following a fall he moved to St Stephen’s Care Home a couple of years ago and died in Worcestershire

Royal Hospital. His wife Margaret died 20 years ago and he leaves two sons Graham and Ray and family.

Jim London’s funeral will be at Worcester Crematorium at 2.30pm on October 2 followed by a gathering to celebrate his life at Claines Royal British Legion Club at 4pm when surviving members of the River Plate Veterans’ Association will be there. They are bringing with them Exeter's official standard to drape over the coffin to give their old comrade an official goodbye.