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The sudden end of HMS Barham
25th November 1941: Royal Navy battleship immediately keels over after being hit by three torpedoes
The 1st Battle Squadron, comprising the battleships HMS Barham, Queen Elizabeth, and Valiant left Alexandria in Egypt on the 24th November as part of of an operation to intercept German supply convoys crossing to Libya. On the 25th the U-boat U-331 managed to to penetrate the screen of eight destroyers around the battleships and fire four torpedoes from relatively close range.
Captain C. E. Morgan commanding HMS Valiant described1 the final moments of the Battleship:
Our battleships were proceeding westwards line ahead, with the Valiant immediately astern the Barham and with a destroyer screen thrown out ahead of the battlefleet. At 4.23 p.m., carrying out a normal zigzag, we turned to port together, thus bringing the ships into echelon formation.
Suddenly, at 4.25, I heard a loud explosion, followed by two further explosions a couple of seconds later. Fountains of water and two enormous columns of smoke shot skywards. The smoke formed an enormous mushroom, gradually enveloping the whole of the Barham, except the after part, which was subsequently also blotted out as the ship slid into a vast pall of smoke.
As the explosions occurred the officer on watch gave the command “ Hard to port,” to keep clear of the Barham.
Fifteen seconds later I saw a submarine break the surface, possibly forced there by the explosion. Passing from left to right, the submarine was apparently making to cross the Valiant’s bows between us and the Barham. He was only about seven degrees off my starboard bow and 150 yards away, though he must have fired his torpedoes from about 700 yards.
As the periscope and then the conning tower appeared I ordered “ Full speed ahead, hard starboard.” But, with the helm already hard to port, I was unable to turn quickly enough to ram him before he crash-dived only 40 yards away on our starboard side. The submarine was visible for about 45 seconds, and, simultaneously with our ramming efforts, we opened fire with our starboard pom-poms. He was so close, however, that we were unable to depress the guns sufficiently and the shells passed over the conning-tower.
I then gave the order “Amidships” again to avoid turning into the Barham, which was still under way with her engines running but listing heavily to port. As we came up on her beam she heeled further about 20 or 30 degrees, and through the smoke I could see all her quarter-deck and forecastle. Men were jumping into the water and running up on the forecastle.
The Barham was rolling on a perfectly even keel with neither bows nor stern sticking into the air. For one minute she seemed to hang in this position; then, at 4.28, she suddenly rolled violently, her mainmast striking the surface of the sea sharply a few seconds later.
I saw water pouring into her funnels. There followed a big explosion amidships, from which belched black and brown smoke intermingled with flames. Pieces of wreckage, flung high into the air, were scattered far and wide, the largest piece being about the size of my writing-desk.
I immediately ordered “ Take cover ” as the wreckage started flying, and that was the last we saw of the Barham, which had run almost' a mile since the moment she was hit. When the smoke cleared the only signs left were a mass of floating wreckage.
The 35,000-ton ship disappeared with unbelievable suddenness; it was only 4 minutes 35 seconds exactly from the moment the torpedoes struck until she had completely disappeared.
There is much more material relating to the ship at HMS Barham, including this account from Bryan Samuels2, one of the survivors. He managed to climb across the ship and onto the deck only to find his way still blocked:
In front of me was the Glacis, a deck outside the gun battery which was now a 6 foot sheer wall between me and the ship's side. I wasn't alone, the whole side seemed to be swarming with men, some trapped as I was, others both fore and aft of the Glacis. As I watched, I saw men diving off the ship's side only to hit the barnacled bottom as it came up to meet them, due to the capsizing of the ship.
I removed my shoes and waited for what seemed an eternity, but was really just a few seconds. Suddenly I saw a tremendous flash and the whole after section seemed to blossom outwards, in a split second I saw men and metal hurtling into space, and then I too was flying. It happened so quickly, one moment in space, the next I was under water, going down, down, down.
My lungs were bursting, "This is it" I thought, surprisingly calm, I had heard of 'La panoramie ce la vie passee' and now I had experienced it. I could hold my breath no longer and opened my mouth, expecting to take in water, amazingly it was air. I must have been in the wave caused by the ship sinking and been sucked down round and up again.
Inky blackness! I rubbed my eyes, "My God" I thought "I'm blind", I couldn't imagine going through life sightless, I began to panic for the first time. Then gradually the blackness began to clear and I could see vague shapes, I then realised that the blackness was caused by oily smoke, coupled with the fuel oil which covered my face and head.
Through the gloom a figure appeared close by, I called to him, no answer so I swam towards him, his head was bowed and I saw that he was dead, held up by his inflated lifebelt I turned and swam away and he followed, 1 swam faster but he kept coming. It took me a while to realise that I was swimming through the oil, inches thick and anything caught in my wake followed me. A ghostly spectacle and very frightening as other bodies and debris joined in, I soon saw, however, that if I used a gentle stroke, the oil was not so disturbed and closed in behind me more quickly. The pall of smoke gradually cleared and I could see heads bobbing all around the area, the oil seemed to cover the sea from horizon to horizon, but in the distance I could see two Carley Floats and swam towards them.
862 men died on the Barham or immediately afterwards, there were 396 survivors, including the Admiral commanding the Battle Squadron Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell.
It was not until much later in the war that film of the loss of the Barham was made available publicly:
This account first appeared in The War Illustrated, published 1945.