Iconic Ships 12: HMS Barham

November 2021

In this, episode 12 of our ‘Iconic Ships’ series we discover the story behind one of the most remarkable pieces of footage to come out of the Second World War: the battleship HMS Barham capsizing and exploding having been torpedoed by a U-Boat on 25 November 1941. HMS Barham was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship, She enjoyed a lengthy career, serving in both the First World War and Second World War. Her role in the Second World War was largely focussed on the complex Mediterranean theatre at a time when the French navy and Italian navy both posed significant threats to the British. To find out more Sam Willis speaks with Dr Philip Weir, a historian who specialises in the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. He has written for the Navy Records Society, History Today and Time and has contributed to television and radio programmes, including the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. Philip is also a Titan in the world of maritime and naval history on Social Media and can be followed on Twitter @navalhistorian

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the mariners mirror Podcast. Today we are finding out about the battleship HMS Barham. This is part of our iconic ship series. It’s actually episode 12. So if you’ve not managed to listen to any others do, please find the rest of them online wherever you get your podcasts or at snr.org.uk There is a veritable fleet of iconic ships we have covered, both merchant and naval and leisure ships as well covering, centuries of history. Today, we are looking at HMS Barham, because it is the 25th of November, and on this day in history, in the Second World War, HMS Baron was sunk by a U boat, and the event, astonishingly, was captured on film. To tell me more about the remarkable ship and the dreadful events of this day in 1941. I’m speaking to Dr. Phil Weir. Phil is a naval historian, and he is without doubt the most active naval historian on Twitter. You can find him with the well selected twitter handle at “Naval Historian”. Phil has recently published a book about Dunkirk called ‘Dunkirk and the Little Ships’ which I would urge you all to buy for Christmas. Here is Phil.

    Sam Willis
    Phil, thank you very much for talking to me today.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Pleasure as always Sam.

    Sam Willis
    HMS Barham. I mean, we decided to have this discussion because primarily of the unbelievable images that survive of the explosion. I came across it a few years ago. And I was astonished at the kind of the graphic detail of it really brought home the you know, the violence of warfare at sea in the Second World War. But I was also amazed by how few people had seen it, it almost feels like it’s something that should be better known than it is. You’ve seen the pictures?

    Dr Phil Weir
    Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it’s one of I think really only two battleships ever caught on moving pictures. The other one was the Austro Hungarian battleship that was also frequently used in games. Torpedoed by an Italian torpedo boat and is caught on camera capsizing in a in a very similar fashion. So yeah, I mean, it’s quite phenomenal as footage and almost unique.

    Sam Willis
    It’s extraordinary when you look at it in detail as well. I should say everyone is listening. You haven’t seen the footage of HMS Barham exploding shocking and sad as that is, do check us out the Society of nautical researcher’s Twitter feed or Facebook on the mariners mirror pod, Instagram, we’ll be able to get it up there for you all to look, but um, you know, obviously you’ve got this this extraordinary scan of the explosion, but when if you look closely, you can actually see people scrambling around on the hull as it capsizes.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely yeah, it’s incredible footage and she’s, she goes down in a very, very short space of time. So casualties are obviously very high. The torpedoes start filling her with water she starts capsizing, the abandon ship order is given all those fairly obvious that this point is on fire. And yeah, the magazines get touched often there’s this almighty explosion. And as you say, you can still see there are people desperately scrambling over the hull of the this rapidly capsizing battleship to try to get off and it’s incredible visceral imagery. These poor guys who are literally in a lot of cases at that point ‘here one second and gone the next.’

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. Well, let’s rewind a bit, and we’ll find out a bit about HMS Barham. So tell me about the ship.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Well I guess Barham was one of the probably the most successful remarkable classes battleship perhaps ever built. Choose and also extremely consequential in many ways. Now, she was fourth in the Queen Elizabeth class. Very famous class battleship, they are the most powerful battleships arguably of the First World War. They are the fastest, biggest guns. They’re huge, 32,000 ton beasts. The first ships armed with the 15 inch guns, you know, the huge things that you see outside the Imperial War Museum.

    Sam Willis
    I know them exactly.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Those are the exact guns, they were, in fact, effectively created for the Queen Elizabeth class. They’re the first ones to be to be fitted with these things. So they’ve got enormous gun power, very well armoured, very fast. And the speed is an interesting one. And this is one of the sort of key consequential bits of these ships. Because the Royal Navy’s first oil fired, solely oil fired battleships, which, of course comes with geopolitical consequences. Britain doesn’t have at this point a domestic supply of oil. So back in 1886, I think Britain’s first big oil company the Burma oil company is founded in to exploit the oil fields of Burma. And a little bit further down the line. It’s sort of becoming obvious that oil fuel is perhaps the way to go. Because obviously Britain’s got huge amounts of coal and has been since HMS Warrior. Before HMS Warrior, Britain has been using coal to fire it’s steam engines on board, its warships and other ships. But of course, with oil you get a lot more power per ton out of it. It’s a lot cleaner to refuel, a lot easier. You can actually use pumps to put it into boilers rather than lots of large sweaty men with shovels and so forth. So the Admiralty starts looking at oil in around 1904’ish and they convert a little torpedo boat destroyer HMS Spiteful to oil firing. And they put her up against one of her sister ships. I think it’s HMS Petrol and It’s blindingly obvious that Spiteful is quicker, far faster to fuel and all the rest of it. It’s a remarkable change so they start moving towards oil firing start building another class of destroyers in the tribal class, the first ones that are solely oil fired, but still they haven’t quite made the move with the big battleships, which obviously use 1000s and 1000s of tons of this stuff. And obviously, that’s because of the supply issues. And it’s not really until an offshoot of the Burma oil company, the Anglo Persian oil company starts digging around the Middle East. And you can see where the geopolitical consequences start coming in. That the Admiralty really starts looking at this and in 1912, around the same time, they’re that deciding to build the Queen Elizabeth’s, and go to the 15 inch guns and so forth. They also decide to go for oil and thereafter buy a very large chunk out of the Anglo Persian oil company put one of their admirals Vice Admiral Sir Edmund Slade on the board and thereafter Britain has a serious interest in the Middle East because that’s where the oil comes from to fire the Royal Navy is battleships.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. Amazing, isn’t it?

    Dr Phil Weir
    So they in effect they come with a very serious geopolitical consequences. So of course, Britain wouldn’t have been involved in the oil trade and in the Middle East, anyway, because of course, oil is so utterly ubiquitous to our lives, but the Royal Navy and the Queen Elizabeth class and obviously, as part of that nature, HMS Barham is right at the core of this.

    Sam Willis
    And what was her role in the First World War? How did they use this this amazingly weapon?

    Dr Phil Weir
    The Queen Elizabeth class, they have all a have fairly active First World War. Queen Elizabeth herself gets sent to Gallipoli as her shakedown kind of thing. But the main thing they do is they are at the core of the grand fleet, the most powerful squadron. All of them bar Queen Elizabeth, which I think is under refit at the time, and led by HMS Barham as the fifth battle squadron, take part in the Great Battle of Jutland. W very active part in the battle where they’re with Beatie’s battle cruiser force. He handles them fairly badly, so it takes them too far away to begin with to properly support him. And then when he runs into the German battle fleet, he effectively sort of leaves them almost fighting off the entire German fleet. on their own. They hadn’t. But I mean, they, they take a fair bit of damage in the process, but they performed superbly, and they cause a hell of a lot of damage in return, because, of course, that huge guns, I mean, it’s just literally inside the most powerful battleships in the world. And, you know, they, they are there for the surrender of the High Seas Fleet at the end of the war. Queen Elizabeth is of course, there as the flagship of the entire fleet, the site of the middle surrender ceremony of the High Seas Fleet that something that was, of course, somewhat replicated 25 odd years later for the surrender of Japan. So that’s all highly consequential and, obviously, interesting little aside there, also, the duty battle Squadron at the time, the High Seas Fleet scuttles itself in 1919, the first ones on the scene. Then have a sort of fairly busy interwar period doing the usual’s of the Spanish Civil War and bits of imperial policing and all the rest of it.

    Sam Willis
    Flag waving, threatening.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Flying the flag and all this sort of stuff. So yeah, that’s kind of their role. They’ve already had very active lives. And a number of them start to be almost effectively entirely rebuilding, especially famously Warspite, Queen Elizabeth, and Valiant get almost entirely rebuilt. With new anti-aircraft, guns, amour, engines, and so forth. Barham is not as heavily rebuilt, she does get some modernization before the Second World War, but not a great deal.

    Sam Willis
    But then the Second World War comes and that they’ve got this this this extraordinary weapon, and they need to, to use her as effectively as possible. And she finds herself in the Mediterranean. Yes, primarily that’s that that becomes the focus of her work.

    Dr Phil Weir
    She does indeed. At the start of the war, despite the fact that the war is kind of going on elsewhere. She’s actually sort of left in the Mediterranean for the first six, nine months of the war, really until the end of December 1939. She’s kind of, pretty much is the Mediterranean Fleet, because obviously, the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet has been drawn back home. And she then heads home and it’s not the greatest of homecomings, because she finds herself basically, runs into one of her escorting destroyers HMS Duchess, and sinks it literally as she’s approaching Scotland, on the journey home, which wasn’t great.

    Sam Willis
    Doe’s it happened at night or a fog or something

    Dr Phil Weir
    Its bad weather. But yeah, it’s really quite, quite tragic accident.

    Sam Willis
    What a very sad way to begin the war.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely. Not long thereafter Barham herself is torpedoed by U30 takes some damage, and is out for the next six months. So misses Norway and various other bits and pieces around there. And when she rejoins the home fleet, she’s fairly promptly thereafter actually sent down, and bear in mind this is sort of August, September time in 1940. So height of the Battle of Britain, Churchill decides to send a small fleet down to what is now Senegal, Dhaka, with Charles de Gaulle aboard

    Sam Willis
    Why is he doing that? What’s that for

    Dr Phil Weir
    Basically an attempt to, France obviously just surrendered, De Gaulle has basically become the leader of a French government in exile in effect. What they want to do is try to bring over some of the French Empire to the Free French. So they sent down De Gaulle and fleet led by Barham with Vice Admiral John Cunningham on board, to try to persuade the French authorities in French West Africa, now Senegal, to change sides. It does not go terribly well and Barham and I think it’s Resolution she’s with the other battleship end up exchanging fire with the French battleship Richelieu. A French submarine then torpedoes Resolution and Barham has to sort of tow her away to Freetown and Sierra Leone and, and that’s kind of the end of the operation. It’s something of an unfortunate fiasco at that point. And Barham is then sent back home, and interestingly, going via Gibraltar, she comes very close to being a victim of one of the first attacks by Italian naval commandos using sort of human torpedoes.

    Sam Willis
    At this stage, is the French Navy still a significant strategic problem?

    Dr Phil Weir
    Yes, yeah. And the French Navy has, it remains a significant problem. It’s a lot of it has been neutralised with a major operation against the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, also the elements of French fleet that were at Alexandria that have gone to Britain, So there was this whole huge operation in July, just before the just before Barham gets sent down to Dhaka, that they, the Royal Navy, effectively takes out sort of half the French fleet in literally a couple of days that they’re all either captured or of course, tragically at Mers-el-Kabir, a significant number of them are sunk. So there is still a problem. There are still survivors out there. Richelieu is brand new, just about complete. And she’s actually one of the really one of the most powerful battleships in the world at this point. She’s highly dangerous, highly difficult problem for the Royal Navy if she actually comes out and does anything. But fortunately, that doesn’t, doesn’t really occur.

    Dr Phil Weir
    So on the one hand, we got the French and then the other hand, you mentioned the Italians and they’re starting to this human torpedo things. There’s an Italian threat in the Mediterranean as well.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely, yes, the Italians have declared war in June, just before the French surrender. So that suddenly he completely opens up another front. The British have had to start recreating the Mediterranean Fleet almost from scratch, drawing forces down away from Britain, that might otherwise have been put to use in the defence of Britain against potential invasion and so forth. So a huge strategic shift going on there. The Suez Canal route is effectively kind of shut so British merchant shipping now has to go right around Africa and it’s a massive strategic shift.

    Sam Willis
    All to do with oil as well is where we started off talking about

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely as the route through which Britain’s oil comes now has to come through the Mediterranean, it’s got to go around Africa. So you need more shipping and there’s higher level of threat up the the Atlantic route and it’s a massive strategic shift that happens in and around that sort of mid 1940 point.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. So the Barham has this fiasco with De Gaulle and that doesn’t really work and then and then it did you say she was torpedoed or was nearly torpedoed?

    Dr Phil Weir
    It is on her way back. So she comes up from Freetown having towed Resolution and heads back up to Gibraltar and sat there refuelling for a couple of days. And the Italians decided to go for a little commando raid basically, they send a couple of manned torpedoes from what will become the famous Decima MAS, The Commando Unit of the Italian navy they become very famous for this sort of stuff. They send these little manned torpedoes into Gibraltar to try to attach a massive charge to Barham’s hull and sink her at Harbour in Gibraltar. They don’t quite make it, they get to about 200 feet of her hull and end up having to sort of let the charge off there and hope that the shockwave will do something. It doesn’t, but it’s kind of a warning shot that these guys are out there and are starting to do things which isn’t entirely heeded as future events end up proving. She thereafter heads up and entirely safely and gets back to gets back to Britain. And then, is involved in one of the big, really great operations of the war. And this is this is her return to the Mediterranean. And it’s all part of the operation that ends up with the sinking of half the Italian fleet by the aircraft carrier Illustrious at Toronto. Barham’s part in this is basically she’s loaded up with a battalion of troops. And she has to go right through the middle of the Mediterranean.

    Sam Willis
    But one of the advantages, to jump in. is these battleships, they are so enormous. They’re also very, very effective for carrying troops certainly,

    Dr Phil Weir
    Oh, yeah, you can quite happily do stuff like this. And of course, they’re quick, well armoured and so forth, you can actually send troops on the reasonable chance that they’re going to make it rather than on a slow badly protected troop ship potentially

    Sam Willis
    Wonder if they were aware of that, the designers, when they originally built them or for the First World War, they were just imagining huge battle fleets fighting each other in the North Sea?

    Dr Phil Weir
    I think it’s, it’s primarily for naval warfare rather than rather than amphibious warfare. The Royal Navy had long sort of done bits and pieces like this. They notably, I think the defence of Antwerp in 1914, with the Royal Naval Division was delivered by the old pre Dreadnought battleship squadron. So they do stuff like this. And I think some of the battleship the older battleships also involved in carting troops around it to Gallipoli as well. So this, this sort of thing does happen. But yeah, the for the most part of the design is principally around naval warfare

    Sam Willis
    And bare in those guns, so she’s in the Med and she’s got a battalion of troops on.

    Dr Phil Weir
    So she obviously heads back down from Britain via Gibraltar. And it’s the thing we always remember about Toronto is the great air strike by the swordfish off of Illustrious on Toronto, but there’s this huge operation around it. That involves convoys, to Greece convoys, to Malta from Alexandria convoys and also from Gibraltar. Couple of airstrikes from Ark Royal heading from Gibraltar out onto Sardinia, it’s normal operation. Barham’s part in all of this is to carry this battalion of troops through to Malta and then proceed on to Alexandria to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet as a as another battleship and she does pretty spectacular the sort of head through the Mediterranean and Ark Royal launches her airstrikes and Barham arrives with I think it’s a couple of cruisers and they’ve got troops aboard as well, Malta, just to explain of course, is so close to Italy that it had to be abandoned as the traditional great Fleet Base of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean they’ve had to pull back to Alexandria because of the threat of air attack. But you stood still do get visits by ships just sort of temporarily and Barham and this little fleet sort of arrived and they get the get the troops out on deck do it do the full lining of the deck bands playing the whole nine yards make it sort of terrific spectacle out of this and deliver these guys off and then pop off out and it’s quite spectacular for morale of course You get to see this huge ship of a band playing stuff so yeah, that’s Barham’s part in all of this and she she’s obviously a notable part of that operation. And then find yourself in Alexandria for what will now be the final year of her life.

    Sam Willis
    So Alexandria, is being temporarily used as a naval base by the by the British?

    Dr Phil Weir
    Yes it’s it was kind of the, it was designated as their backup Fleet Base when Italy starts to become more of a threat around the Abyssinia crisis in 1935. And they, the British suddenly start realising that, okay, if we find ourselves at war with Italy, Malta is probably not going to be tenable as a fleet base. Your just going to end up with your fleet, badly damaged by air attack and so forth. It’s we need a backup base, and particularly something in the eastern basin that helps protect the vital Suez Canal. And Alexandria basically fits the bill.

    Sam Willis
    So she’s there and must lead towards the Battle of Mattapan. With dealing with the Italians finally, was she involved in it?

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely. Yeah, I know. She ended up its becomes a fairly busy, busy routine of basically supporting the army and its operations in North Africa. So there’s, there’s bombardments famously of Bardia, Tripoli, and Benghazi as well, I think. And this is just sort of in support of the Army’s efforts in North Africa, first against the Italians and against Rommel and the Germans. But also defending convoys, and covering convoys that are heading for Malta, or indeed for Greece, which has just been invaded by Italy just before just before Barham arrives. So Mattapan is, of course, one of the big convoys out to Greece. Now, it’s one of those, those fascinating little ones because Britain has just an incredible piece of luck and skill. It must be said, Bletchley Park and a little team in there, they discover that the Italian fleet is planning to attack a convoy that’s heading for Piraeus in Greece, a troop convoy. And thereafter this this sort of big operation is put together. Admiral Cunningham, the Commander in Chief takes his golf clubs ashore and makes like his off for a weekend of golfing and then races back aboard. Obviously,

    Sam Willis
    He is an amazing character as well. Any listeners who want to investigate a British Admiral the second world war look at Cunningham. He’s fantastic.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely is one of the great characters and one of the great fighting admirals of the Royal Navy.

    Sam Willis
    Do you know who the Secretary was? My grandfather There you go.

    Dr Phil Weir
    We have known each other for God knows how many years and you had not mentioned that to me so

    Sam Willis
    there we are. So he goes he goes to show with his golf clubs to pretend everything’s kind of okay. There’s the British aren’t doing anything.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s the Alexandria at this point in time is kind of full of various agents and so forth, would reveal movements to the Italians, particularly the the Japanese ambassador, rather rotund chap who cunning and nicknamed the blunt end of the Access. The Japanese and Italians are actually pretty close and the Italians allow the Japanese to look into the results of Toronto Of course with one can over exaggerate the effects it doesn’t entirely lead to Pearl Harbour but it kind of nudges things a bit further in that direction. So yeah, that the Japanese ambassador is particularly one they like to fool. Nightfall comes and of course Cunningham hotfoots it back, in a blacked out car to HMS Warspite. One of one of Barham’s sisters is she’s the fleet flagship. Loads himself aboard and they sail under the cover of darkness and head out into the Mediterranean. And obviously the Italian fleet under Admiral Iachino is heading in the opposite direction. And what follows is in some respects, sort of classical sea battle you kind of get the two cruiser forces meet first and the British cruisers try and draw the Italian cruisers back on to onto the guns, Cunningham’s battleships. Iachino with his flagship Vittorio Veneto moves in to cut the cruisers off, and the British cruisers have to be kind of rescued by an airstrike from, from HMS Formidable that shifts the Italians off for a bit. Then the chase kind of resumes and thereafter, another couple of strikes from, from Formidable. These have huge consequences for the course of the battle. One of them hits a Iachino’s flagship Vittorio Veneto. Right in the stern. It’s that vital soft spot that kills Bismarck and later Prince of Wales, and slows down horribly and is basically now sort of out of the battle and is in serious danger if Cunningham catches up. The next one hits the heavy cruiser Pola. Now these two ships end up suffering rather different fates because through some brilliant damage control, and engineering work, Iachino’s crew on the on the Veneto managed to get her moving again and obviously start limping for home. Pola’s crew do not and Pola is left behind with two other cruisers the Zara and the Fiume under Vice Admiral Cattaneo, they’re sort of there to try and escort her back but she’s basically not going anywhere nights falling at this point, and effectively Vanessa manages to get back home. Zara, Pola, and Fiume are effectively run into by Cunningham’s full battle fleet. And the British at this point unlike, Barham’s previous experience at Jutland. The British fleet at this point is now very well trained in night fighting, battleship Valliant and has got radar and they just sort of sweep in find these cruisers. The Italians are not terribly well trained in night fighting incidentally Of course, the Italian crews are completely unprepared and the British should have come in and they get in really close as about 3/ 4000 yards point blank range flows vast guns and they open fire and they just smashed them. It’s just a complete turkey shoot basically. And there’s a famous painting by Roland Lang made of the sort of scene of the battle and Barham, which is bringing up the rear of the line is of course his paintings done from the rear quarters so Barham at the rear is of course front and centre to all this and you’ve got search lights reaching out to the cruisers, Zara, which is her target. And those 15 inch guns at minimum depression just firing into this this poor Italian cruiser just caught completely by surprise and obviously no way of standing up to that level of firepower in each of the battleships, 556 salvos each and that that’s all done. Yeah. And thereafter, they can’t catch the Vittorio Veneto so that’s pretty much the end of the battle and they turn for home

    Sam Willis
    Delt a huge blow to the Italian to Italian’s absolutely

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely huge blow it’s basically wipes out a cruiser squadron there in one fell swoop

    Sam Willis
    So the combination of the airstrike on the on their naval base and then then this the sea battle effectively removes the Italians.

    Dr Phil Weir
    I’m not entirely the only Italian fleet is one of those that I think we tend to over exaggerate a little the the effects on the Italian fleet, the Italian fleet does still keep banging away and keeps doing things.

    Sam Willis
    Amazing how often that’s a theme that happens in naval history where there has been the battle and everyone assumes that that’s the end of the that the defeated fleets influence and it good just doesn’t work like that.

    Dr Phil Weir
    It does not, no and it doesn’t in this case and the Italian fleet. I mean, it’s hamstrung particularly and primarily really by lack of oil and difficulties in in repairing damaged ships. That that’s really the key problem to a lot of their mobility but they do still keep coming out and they you get the battles of assert going ahead later on. into sort of 1940 turns over And this really is out until the sort of invasions of North Africa and then Italy and Sicily and Italy itself. They don’t really respond to those, but they are still active throughout a large chunk of the rest of 41/42.

    Sam Willis
    Interesting. So the next stage is Crete must be the next big campaign, is it? So what’s going on there, was Crete important?

    Dr Phil Weir
    Well, it’s it’s all to do with I mentioned the Italian invasion of Greece. That didn’t go terribly well. And the Germans then, remarkably, they sort of repeat Norway in terms of is a wild dispersion of their ethics. They’re obviously at this point prepping to do this huge invasion of the Soviet Union. But Hitler authorises this little Sideshow off down to the south, much as when they were preparing for the invasion of France disappeared off to Norway. These generals think it’s nuts but so by the end of end of April, in essence, the allies are having to withdraw from Greece and they start an evacuation process. And in the middle of this, the Germans go for just completely go for broke it’s completely mad operation, but they decided to go for the island of Crete, which has got a British airfield and British Garrison, New Zealand as well on it, and they go for this despite the fact that the Mediterranean Fleet is there, they’ve got no control of the sea or anything like that. So they have to do it with paratroopers. And the Luftwaffe just send in their parachute guys the Fallschirmjager under General Kurt Student and it’s an astonishing military feat because the paratroopers go in, and it’s carnage the losses are huge, but they managed to take the airfield and thereafter, the rest of the island and fairly shortly thereafter, the literally end of May again for the second year running. hearken back to Dunkirk. The Royal Navy is finding itself covering, running another major evacuation The British have got to get out of Crete. And it’s this one’s bloody the Luftwaffe is a lot better at anti shipping. You’ve got less air cover particularly now Maleme airfields gone. And Greece’s has basically fallen at this point. So yeah, it starts to get bloody you get Warspite gets damaged, Valiant gets damaged. Famously Of course, with the young Prince Phillip aboard, Mountbatten’s destroyer Kelly gets sunk along with various others. And it’s a mess and in the middle of this Cunningham is kind of offered the opportunity to stop the evacuation. And for sends the famous signal in response saying “Takes the Navy three years to build a ship would take 300 years to rebuild the tradition the evacuation will continue” famous line and, of course, the evacuation does continue, but the losses are quite grim. And at the end of it, I mean, Cunningham famously sort of aggressive ‘up an at ’em guy’ and sends at least one cruiser out turn to just sort of stiffen their upper lip and they think because they’re exhausted and breaking point, they get sunk. He’s then seen on the dock side of Alexandria, virtually tears in his eyes, welcoming them back, back home. He knows what’s going on, but he feels this has to happen. So they keep pushing ahead in amongst all of this, they try to reduce the Luftwaffe air attacks by sending Formidable out to run an airstrike on a German airfield at Scapanto, and she’s escorted by Barham. Basically, this doesn’t work terribly well. And all they do really is stir up a hornet’s nest of attention. Formidable gets badly damaged and Barham gets a bomb on Y turret. The one that’s manned by the Royal Marines get badly damaged and has to be sent to Durban in South Africa for repairs for the next few months.

    Sam Willis
    So it’s an interesting part of the war, isn’t it? Where things are not necessarily going the way the British want them to? It’s particularly bloody part of the war for the Royal Navy.

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely, yes. And it’s this is the losses suffered by the Mediterranean Fleet at this point, a huge I mean, they’ve, they’ve, ironically, literally just before Crete really kicks off they receive reinforcement, the Queen Elizabeth herself arrives on station. So the fleet has been at its most powerful arguably. But then Crete just smashed its way through huge amount of that strength in in fairly short order. But I mean, the ships do get repaired, and Formidable, I think has to be sent to the US for major repairs. But Barham comes back a few months later, and joins with Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. Warspite’s damage was far more significant, she gets sent off to the States as well. But she does return before the end of the year. In September, October, though, the damage gets repaired at Durban and by the end of end of September start of October, she’s back with the Mediterranean Fleet doing the convoy covers and supporting the army. And also because of course the Italians are having to support their forces in North Africa with convoys from Italy and send supplies that way. They’re also trying to intercept and stop those and it’s on one of these operations that Barham is tragically lost

    Sam Willis
    by a German U boats patrolling

    Dr Phil Weir
    Absolutely I mean, along with the German air force and the German troops and the Africa Corps and so forth the German send U boats into the Mediterranean to try and affect the war there. And in its end of November, the British get the message that an Italian convoy is heading for North Africa. And they send a small group of cruisers out to intercept and also use the battle fleet Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Barham, to try and cover this just in case the Italians decide to send out their fleet. As we said earlier, the whole idea of the Italians still being stuck in harbour is not really quite, quite accurate. And in essence, the cruisers go in and they sink a couple of ships. But in the midst of all of this, unfortunately, U Boat U 331. manages to slip its way through and it’s literally I think she gets within about three 400 yards of one of the British destroyers and they sort of slip between two of them through the screen. And having tracked the fleet got into position and they get into position. And all of a sudden Barham is sat there in the crosshairs of the boat skipper through the periscope and fire a spread of torpedoes. I think four torpedoes go through and three of them hit and Barham not terribly well modernised. First World War design can’t take this sort of punishment and very rapidly starts healing over as we see in the film. crew starts abandoning and obviously Barham then explodes and sinks very rapidly. U 331 has an interesting time of it actually because the combination of firing torpedoes and I think it’s Valiant’s wake, makes the submarine broach the surface and she gets fired out with anti-aircraft guns and so forth before crash diving going as you notice me as I recall going beyond crushed depth or certainly beyond her safety depth until she levels out and manages to evade and escape but it’s quite a remarkable and obviously horrible loss for the for the Royal Navy

    Sam Willis
    And they kept it quiet didn’t they .

    Dr Phil Weir
    They did, and it’s obviously to try to cover the fact that the, the Mediterranean Fleet had been significantly weakened

    Sam Willis
    Was a massive holes in British power,

    Dr Phil Weir
    This hugely powerful battleship. Not long after, of course, Ark Royal has been sunk at the other end of the Mediterranean. And it’s the losses are starting to mount throughout this period for the Royal Navy really, really quite badly. And they do. I mean, they do actually notify next of kin, they write out various letters to the 800 or so that are lost. And obviously, there are the survivors as well. The, the next of kin are asked to keep it quiet, and they don’t officially announce it. But they rather they don’t officially announce it until January 1942. So they keep it quiet for a couple of months. Really. Unlike the first world war example of HMS Audacious where they didn’t actually bother announcing it until after the end of the war. It sunk in first couple of weeks, which, I mean, everybody knew about but it was kind of a bit of a ludicrous situation. Yeah, they announced it after a after a couple of months. But it’s, there is a curious story attached to the end of this. And it’s that in the middle of all of this the sinking of HMS Barham results in one of the last convictions for witchcraft

    Sam Willis
    I wasn’t expecting that.

    Dr Phil Weir
    No, normally people do. It’s a fascinating one story by the name Helen Duncan, as I recall, who was a sort of spiritual medium, who comes out with starts telling people that she’s seen this sailor dressed in white and she, she’s been told HMS Barham’s been sunk. And I mean, they can’t find out who actually leaked it to her because it she just sort of keeps sticking to her story of it’s this spiritual figure. And so in the end, they just kind of shut her up. Basically, they convict her of witchcraft and bang her up for eight months, Just to sort of keep it quiet. But I mean, as I say, that give out 800 or so people letters, telling them that HMS Barham has been sunk and terribly sorry that your son has son, father, etc., has been killed. I think they, they figured on average, there’s about 10 family members that would thereafter get told so you can start seeing the 1000s upon 1000s people actually know about this. So it’s as a not the best kept secret ever. So there are ways and means in which she almost certainly found out. But yeah, it’s, it’s quite fascinating when she, you get one of the last convictions for witchcraft. I think they abandon that law in 1944. It’s repealed, they are she is one of the one of the if not the last convictions for witchcraft in in Britain. And this results from the sinking of HMS Barham.

    Sam Willis
    Very unexpected ending. And Phil, thank you very much indeed for sharing us the story of this, this remarkable ship and for all of you listening, do please find the Society of nautical research on social media and make sure that you, you watch the footage. Thank you very much.

    Dr Phil Weir
    My pleasure.

    Sam Willis
    Thank you all so much for listening. Do please take the time to find the Society for Nautical Research on social media. We are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. Please also take the time to find the mariners mirror podcasts own YouTube channel, where we have some wonderful and innovative videos, teaching you all about our maritime past. But best of all, please join the Society for nautical research. Your annual subscription will help support this podcast. It will help us publish our quarterly journal Yes, also called the Mariners Mirror, which has been published for over a century, and it will go towards helping to preserve and protect our maritime past. Members also receive other benefits, not least of which is being able to attend our annual meeting and have dinner on the gun decks of HMS Victory. And we have just launched a series of online winter lectures presented by some of the biggest names in maritime history, though to attend, you do have to be a paying member. So go on, treat yourself. If you’re not already a member. Please join. We hope See you soon

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