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- David Ritchie
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- 20 May 2005
DAVID RITCHIE – Royal Marine from Ottery St Mary, Devon
At the beginning of World War II, David Ritchie’s ship HMS Barham was recalled from the Mediterranean to England and as it approached the entry to the Clyde, it collided with a patrolling destroyer, the Duchess. While the Barham underwent repair, Marine Ritchie was sent to Norway to patrol the area around Alesund returning only when the enemy covered the country.
Rejoining the Barham, they sailed to Gibraltar to join the main fleet then on to Dakar to prevent the French from joining the German fleet. Although HMS Barham had armour plating, two shells penetrated the superstructure during a battle with both battleships and submarines including the French, Richelieu. Barham first towed her sister ship “Resolution” which had been torpedoed onto Freetown in Sierra Leone before heading back to Gibraltar.
In that harbour she survived air and sea strikes by both German and Italian forces before joining the convoys of troop and ammunition ships that assembled with aircraft carriers and destroyers to sail to Malta. Submarines had to guide them through the heavily mined Straits of Pantallerian. They came under constant attack with the loss of many ships; the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was badly damaged during heavy bombing and torpedo attacks.
The Mediterranean Fleet then went on to Alexandria to protect the convoys from the Italian fleet and Barham was involved in the Battle of Cape Matapan. Whilst helping with the evacuation of Crete, the ship was bombed and lost five men and damaged badly enough to return to Alexandria. Barham sailed through the Suez Canal to Durban for repairs crossing the equator with the usual ceremony. Whilst the ship was undergoing repairs, Marine Ritchie was accommodated by a family in Peitermaritzburg travelled there via the Valley of a Thousand Hills train. He returned to Durban for watch keeping duties finding the social life extremely pleasant – the stout and oysters being particularly good!
When HMS Barham left Durban, a good crowd waved them off and “the lady in white” came onto the quay and sang, as she did for almost every ship leaving harbour.
Back in the Mediterranean, Barham was constantly under attack while on patrol and several ships, including the Ark Royal, were lost. On 25 November 1941, sailing in line with HMS Warspite in front Barham second and HMS Valiant in third, and with destroyers and cruisers giving protection, a German U-Boat avoiding the destroyer escort, was able to fire three torpedoes. Probably two of these hit Barham and immediately she listed to starboard and reeled. Knowing that he would have to abandon ship, David Ritchie made his way aft and as he jumped from the barnacle encrusted torpedo bilge, he damaged his arms and feet. The force of the explosion blew him across the water and when he surfaced he was some way away from the ship. HMS Barham sunk within minutes. Bleeding badly, covered in oil and unable to use his right hand, he clung onto some passing wreckage for around 45 minutes until the destroyer HMS Hotspur hauled him out. The force of the explosion brought the U-Boat to the surface but because of the number of casualties in the water, neither Valiant or the destroyers were able to use their guns or drop depth charges.
A cameraman on board HMS Valiant captured all this action – the film is now in the archives in London.
David was taken into the 64th General Hospital in Alexandria where they found initially his arm was broken in two places, but after investigation a further two breaks were diagnosed. After some ten weeks he was transferred to Addington Hospital in Durban. Further operations on his arm followed and ultimately David was issued with a ticket for home, sailing to Liverpool on the Empress of Russia.
David was first sent to Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth then moved to the Sherborne hospital were he spent a few months whilst they tried to repair the nerves in his right arm. Having undergone two more operations he was invalided out of the service and worked in a munitions factory for the rest of the war.
David died at the age of 80, his last comments being “In spite of my injuries, I was very lucky to be alive, as I was one of only 300 saved whilst over 800 lost their lives and to this day I have always said, “Every day I have lived was a bonus”
Supplied by Mrs T M Ritchie
Edited by Dawlish Museum
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