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The Blowing up of H.M.S. Barham

by Isle of Wight Libraries

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
Isle of Wight Libraries
People in story: 
Roland Bundy
Location of story: 
Eastern Mediterranean
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A5777625
Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

"This story was submitted to the People's War site by Lois Cooper and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr. Bundy with his permission and he fully understands the site's terms and conditions"

On the 25th November 1941 I was serving on H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, which was at that time the flagship of Admiral A. B. Cunningham. We were in the Eastern Mediterranean, midway between Crete and the Bay of Sollum. It was a most beautiful day - warm sunshine, blue cloudless sky and the sea was flat calm.

It was just after 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and I had just come off watch. Like most of the watch I had taken a mug of tea on to the upper deck to enjoy the sun and admire the view. It was a beautiful sight - 3 large battleships steaming in a line ahead and with a screen of twelve destroyers in a “V shape” ahead and around us. H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth was leading, followed by H.M.S. Barham which was about 300 yards astern of us, and H.M.S. Valiant another 300 yards astern of her.

Suddenly at 4.23 we saw two or three large columns of water rear over the decks of H.M.S. Barham, followed by an enormous explosion and two further explosions seconds later. She had been struck by four torpedoes.

Almost immediately after a German submarine broke surface before crash diving only about 40 yards off the starboard rail of the Valiant. She was unable to manoeuvre to ram the submarine for fear of colliding with the Barham which was still continuing to steam on her course, rolling over on a perfectly even keel with neither bow nor stern in the air, but listing very quickly indeed. The Valiant did open fire on the submarine but it was so close to her that she couldn’t depress her guns sufficiently and the rounds passed over the submarine.

In the meantime the Barham was listing over so far that dozens of men were sliding down her side and standing on the anti-submarine bulge halfway down. It was obvious to us on the Queen Elizabeth that the Barham was sinking fast, and I can remember that we were shouting to the men to jump. This was how close we were to her.

The Captain's motorboat and the ship's whalers all broke away from their lashings and rolled down the deck and side of the Barham knocking men over like ninepins. The list became so pronounced that after only about 3 minutes from the time of the torpedoing the Barham's mainmast struck the surface of the sea, and seconds later we saw water pouring into her funnel.

Suddenly there was a blinding flash, an enormous explosion and a mushroom of black smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. Debris was hurled into the air, and I saw one of the 15 inch gun turrets lifted up hundreds of feet. We were ordered to take cover because of the falling debris. Apparently a fire aboard the Barham caused a small magazine to explode and this in turn blew into the main magazine of the battleship.

In 4 minutes and 45 seconds a 35,000 ton battleship was lost and with her 868 officers and men. A friend who was serving on her dived overboard as soon as she was struck and was picked up a mile astern. The gives some indication of the speed of the fleet and of the stricken ship which had kept up even while she was sinking. Two destroyers picked up 474 survivors. The submarine couldn’t be attacked by depth charges because the survivors were spread over a large surface of the sea. Unfortunately many sailors couldn't swim and on a large ship not everyone wore a life jacket. It was difficult to imagine such a large ship sinking so quickly.

There is no doubt that it was a very brave effort on the part of the German submarine. It was presumed that she must have been only just below the surface when she crept through the screen of the12 destroyers so the ASDICs failed to detect her and the surface ships were also closely packed. Probably the reason she was visible when she crash dived was also because she was so close to the surface. The German crew were apparently given a tremendous reception when the submarine returned to her base.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - hms barham

Posted on: 19 September 2005 by greenhill2

Thank you Mr Roland Bundy for a most deeply interesting account of the loss of the Barham. It made such a difference from the longwinded (over 20 Articles) which were submitted by one Graeme Sorley who monopolised this site for weeks.I formerly lived in South Queensferry between the Wars and can remember the Barham anchored off Rosyth it was about 1936 as one of the ex-German Navy the Derflinger (?)cruisers was towed up the Forth from Scapa Flow for scrapping.
Incidentally a former Signalman was blown from the ships bridge into the Med and he still had his tea mug in his hand!! I wish I could remember his name he held the DCM and finished life as a street cleaner in South Queensferry. Thank you again for the succinct Contribution.
My Regards,
greenhill2 Age 76

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