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The Life, Times, Death, and Epilogue of the HMS Barham

HMS Barham in Service

World War I

The Royal Navy commissioned the HMS Barham on October 19, 1915. On December 1 it collided with the HMS Warspite. The Barham underwent repairs until December 23. The only major sea battle of World War I was the Battle of Jutland. The HMS Barham served in this battle. The battle involved 250 ships and 100,000 sailors. The British lost 6,784 sailors to the German 3,058 and the British lost 111,000 tons of shipping to the German losses 62,000 tons.[i] It was a strategic victory for the Royal Navy since the German High Seas Fleet never again seriously challenged the Royal Navy.

On May 31, 1916 at 4:46PM the German battleships opened fire on the British fleet from 21,000 yards. The British were executing a turn and the HMS Barham was the only ship hit by this barrage. In the Battle of Jutland the HMS Barham fired 337 15” rounds. It received hits from 5 12” rounds and 1 11” round. These hits killed 26 of her sailors and wounded another 46. One of ships the Barham hit was the battlecruiser SMS von der Tann, which sank the HMS Indefatigable. The SMS von der Tann also scored a hit on the Barham.[ii] The British repaired the Barham and she rejoined the fleet on July 4, 1916.

World War II

  • December 12, 1939 - The HMS Barham collided with the destroyer HMS Duchess. The Duchess sank and 124 of her crew died.[iii]
  • December 28, 1939 - The U-30, commanded by Kapitainleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, fired four torpedoes at the HMS Barham and HMS Repulse. One torpedo hit the Baham and killed 4 of her crew and wounded 2 other sailors. The U-30 also sank the Patrol Craft Barbara Robertson that day. The Barham underwent repairs in Liverpool until April 1940.
  • September 1940 - The Barham took part in Operation Menace, an attempt to have Free French forces take over Dakar which was under Vichy control. The Vichy forces did not join the Free French. The HMS Barham scored two hits on the Vichy Battleship Richelieu with its 380mm(15”) guns. A 240mm and a 155mm shore battery each scored a hit on the Barham. The Richelieu scored a 380mm hit on the HMS Barham. These hits caused little damage. The Vichy submarine Bèvèziers struck the battleship HMS Resolution with a torpedo.[iv] The Barham had to tow the Resolution to Sierra Leone. The allies called off the operation and Dakar remained in Vichy hands.
  • November 1940 - The Italians attempted to sink the Barham while it was at Gibraltar by using a human torpedo. One torpedo got within 30 yards before the pilot, Lieutenant Brindelli, had to stop because of a problem with his breathing apparatus. The British captured Brindelli before he could reach a Spanish vessel.
  • January 3, 1941 - The HMS Barham, HMS Warspite, and HMS Valiant bombarded Bardia.
  • March 28, 1941 - The Barham fought in the Battle off Cape Matapan. The Barham and the Valiant sank the Italian heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume.[v] The British also sank the cruiser Pola and two Italian destroyers and damaged the Italian battleship Vitorio Veneto.[vi]
  • April 21, 1941 - The Barham bombarded Tripoli.
  • May 20, 1941 - The Barham began operations in the Battle for Crete. The Germans took Crete but suffered heavy losses. It was during this battle on May 27th a Ju-88 struck the Barham with a 500lb bomb.[vii] The Barham sailed to Durban, South Africa for repairs. She left Durban for a return to the Mediterranean on July 31.

[i] – (

[ii] Ships – (

[iii] – The Death of a Duchess by Wendy Middlemas, (

[iv] World War II Database (

[v] Ship – (

[vi] (

[vii] (

The Sinking

On November 17, 1941 the U-331 dropped off 7 saboteurs in North Africa. The saboteurs’ mission was to blow up a railway line. The saboteurs failed. On November 25 the HMS Barham, HMS Warspite, and HMS Valiant with eight destroyers were en-route to intercept an Italian convoy. The U-331, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Freiherr Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, got past the destroyer screen and fired 4 torpedoes at the Barham. Three torpedoes found their mark. Soon the Barham’s magazine exploded and she sank, 862 of her crew were killed or morally injured. There were 396 survivors. The HMS Valiant steamed towards the U-331 in an attempt to ram her. The U-331 crash dived. During the dive the submarine went well below its crash depth. The U-331 held together and escaped. Gaumont British News cameraman John Turner recorded the last moments of the HMS Barham.


The Royal Navy lost the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal on November 13, 1941. They reported this loss immediately. The Royal Navy notified the families of those killed on the Barham but asked them not to tell anyone but family about the ship’s loss. Some sources give the reason for withholding the information from the general public was to keep the information from the Germans. Other sources say the British didn’t publicly report the loss was not to hurt the public morale. During a séance psychic Helen Duncan claimed she spoke to a spirit of an HMS Barham sailor and the Barham was sunk. This brought a lot of attention to her from believers and skeptics. In 1944 she was charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She spent 9 months in prison and was the last person imprisoned under the act. The Witchcraft Act was not written to prevent people from practicing witchcraft but to prevent people from claiming they had supernatural powers. In 1956 she was charged with vagrancy, the common charge for those who held séances, and died a few days later.

Kapitainleutnant von Tiesenhausen was awarded the Knights Cross for sinking the HMS Barham. On November 9, 1942 the U-331 sank the troop ship USS Leedstown.[i] On November 17, a Lockheed Hudson disabled the U-331. The ship signaled its surrender but was attacked by a Fairey Albacore from the HMS Avenger. Thrity-two of its sailors died, 17 survived and were captured. Kapitainleutnant von Tiesenhausen was one of the survivors.[ii]

The U-30 sank the ocean liner Athena on September 3, 1939. It was the first ship sunk during the war.[iii] Kapitainleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp was killed on May 9, 1941. The U-Boat he was commanding, U-110, was captured by British destroyers. The British got the U-Boat’s enigma machine and code books.[iv] The U-30 was scuttled at the end of the war.[v]

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Besides appearing in documentaries the film of the HMS Barham sinking appeared in a number of movies including; Task Force (1949), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and The Guns of Navarone(1961).

[i], USS Leedstown (AP 73), last accessed 2/15/2019

[ii] (

[iii] Sharkhunters ( German Submarine.htm)

[iv] – (

[v] Axis Submarines, Anthony J. Watts © 1977.


Robert Sacchi (author) on October 06, 2016:

Yes, also a feature in the pre-CGI days was using actual disaster footage. Besides the HMS Barham's demise Earth vs The Flying Saucers also shows combat footage of a plane being shot down and footage of an airshow disaster where 3 planes collided.

Peter Geekie from Sittingbourne on October 06, 2016:

She was a ship that was always in the thick of it, but generally seem to be able to shake off the damage.

Her catastrophic finale was featured in an incident including Winston Churchill and witchcraft as you mentioned. This was one of the last possible witchcraft trials which was dropped.

kind regards Peter

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 25, 2016:

Yes, before CGI actual combat footage was used in War and Science Fiction movies. Sometimes the story behind the footage in these movies is more interesting than the movie. The Helen Duncan case can also be a study in if they don't like what you're doing they'll get you for something.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2016:

That is certainly an interesting account of that ship with many details including information about Helen Duncan being charged under the Witchcraft Act. So much to learn about history! Certainly an interesting subject!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 14, 2015:

Interesting to find out what happened to ships like the Barham. I went to the Imperial war museum when I was a teenager, they have the 12" inch guns from the front turret of the Warspite at the front on the Museum. I've never really forgotten just how big they were. Really good hub full of detail. Voted up.

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