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Sinking of the “Barham”
HMS Barham, 31,000 ton battleship sunk November 25th, 1941. Time of sinking: 3˝ minutes with the loss of life 868 men.
We were doing patrol, just off “Tobruk”, in company with the “Queen Elizabeth” and the “Valiant” and escorted by about ten destroyers. At about fourteen hundred hours ‘Alarm to Arms’ was sounded off and on closing up on the ‘Pom Pom’ I was informed that the “Valiant” - R.D.F. control ship – had picked up and aircraft about twenty five miles closing. Before long, reports were being flashed from the “Valiant” at regular intervals giving reports of the single aircraft’s distance, bearing and angle of sight. At approximately fourteen forty hundred hours, it was about nineteen miles waiting, and our six inch battery opened fire to port – next report from the “Valiant” was single aircraft twenty two miles opening. That movement was carried out a couple of times and everyone on board was under the impression that it was just a reconnaissance plane. Well, at about fifteen thirty hundred hours she came in for her last run, but directly we opened fire, she withdrew. The next report from the “Valiant” was “force??” “opening, going away”, the next being “plot clear”, the last report (RDF) the “Barham” ever received from the “Valiant”. At ten minutes to tour. I think, the “Queen Elizabeth” relieved watches and reverted back to cruising stations. At hour o’clock, the “Valiant” changed to cruising stations. At sixteen ten hundred hours we were relieved by Starboard watch.
I went straight down below to my Mess No. 9 and on my way below met my cooking oppo. A.B.Hardcastle, who later went down with the ship. He informed us that he had prepared supper and taken it up to the galley (sausage and mash) and he said all I had to do was clear up the Mess. On entering the Mess I filled a cup with tea. I had just lifted the cup to my lips when the first “Tin Fish” hit. There was an enormous explosion, followed by a deathly silence, and an acrid smell of super heated steam and the stench of cordite. The last words I remember spoken on mess deck were from A.B.Thornton, who perished that day “We have taken one before and we can still take one now”. Before he finished his statement I was halfway along the Starboard passage. On getting to the ladder leading up to the Batteries, the second and the third torpedoes hit. At the same time the ship gave an alarming lurch to Port. Everyone at that moment seemed to go in a panic, but at the bottom of the ladder was RPO Robinson who’s action station duty was to control congestion in such cases as this. He carried out his duty marvellously and in remaining at his post, lost his life.
I reached the top in the Starboard battery and by that time we were listing heavily to Port. I drew level with the gallery floor at the bottom of the ladder going up to the ‘Bakery Flat’. The boiling water was pouring from the hot water tanks in the gallery. This sign of that seemed to put extra haste in out efforts to get on deck. BUT??? Two marines (who I have never seen since – I guess they were lost) sat on the bottom rung of the ladder facing outboard and said they wouldn’t move until the panic stopped. It was as though someone had called attention for the Captain during Saturday rounds, as it quietened down, (quicker than I can write this). We all them made it to the upper deck. By this time the ship had keeled right over. I moved up to the guard rail. The most remarkable thing of the whale sinking was when I stood near the guard rail I put my hand in my pocket and withdrew an American magazine and said to the PTI (who survived) “Well, I won’t need that any more” and at that I threw the magazine over the side. At the same time I turned and looked at the ship. She looked as though she was utterly exhausted and wanted to sink below the waves of the Med, to rest on her last anchorage.
Up to then no order to abandon ship had been given. At that time the funnel was nearly touching the sea. I climbed over the guard rail and slipped quickly down the ship side onto the first bilge and then to the second. My hands were torn badly from the barnacles on the ship’s bottom. I don’t know really if I dived or jumped but the next thing I knew was I was swimming like a madman with one thought, getting away from the suction of the ship (I don’t know why but I guess I had always had that impression in my mind subconsciously). When I thought I was clean (about fifty yards) I stopped swimming and looked around. The ship was right on its side, still going along with the port screw deep in the ocean and the starboard screw revolving in the air. At that moment there was a terrific EXPLOSION!!!! and a wave rose or rather a great wall of water rose thousands of feet in the air. At the same time invisible hands seems to clasp me around the stomach and threw me forward at the same time pushing me down. What actually happened was the blast from the X and Y magazines blowing up under the water line propelled me forward at an alarming speed – over and over I went until my shoes were pulled off my feel and my socks just vanished. I seemed to be under the water for ages – at first I was in a horrible panic but suddenly!!! I realised all was hopeless and I stopped struggling and said to myself “Well, I have to breathe whether it is salty water or air.” My chest felt as if it was being crushed, red flashes in my eyes, with that I steeled myself to take in a lung of salt water!!! With all my body tense I tool a great gulp. A miracle then happening – for I took a mighty gulp and it was air, for at that spilt second I had surfaces. It tasted my nectar, but in reality it was smoke, cordite, oil fuel and burnt air. I looked around me, but to my horror could not see a thing – just like a black curtain in front of my eyes. Terrible thoughts went through my mind – I have pulled through but I am blind. I then shook my head about a dozen times at the same time treading water, over and over again I kept shaking my head and rubbing my eyes. A tinge of light seemed to filter through and then I could see the sun, right down low on the horizon, and it was throwing its rays through the pitch dense smoke. My next thoughts were that the oil fuel will catch alight and I will burn to death. That thought was followed by – I am the only survivor and then won’t stop to pick me up. Whether my hearing wasn’t working I don’t know, but after a short while I head someone shouting and moaning. But this time, the old “Barham” was on the sea bed and all the spares etc. were breaking loose – shooting out of the water about fifteen to twenty feet. If any of those had hit anyone I am afraid it would have been the end. Much to my good fortune not one touched me. On looking around I discovered half the boom with three of four ratings hanging over it, at the same time treading water. I swam over to it doing a steady breast stroke and clasped the book under my arms. I had only been like that for about three minutes when another rating swam up to it, and put all his weight on one end. Naturally his weight on one end made it submerge.
I left it then and with a chap from the next Mess, Denyer, we swam towards an Admiralty type life belt. Denyer was approximately twenty yards ahead of me, and about ten feet from the lifebelt. He suddenly kicked to the left and swam like mad. My mind not being alert, I carried on swimming. When I was in visible distance I could see what had startled the fellow – for inside the lifebelt was a midshipman (I believe) and his neck was broken with a great blob of fuel on his face and head. With as much speed as I could possibly make, I swam like a madman in the opposite direction.
All this time I had been in the oil fuel and it was warm. On seeing a destroyer (Hotspur) drawing in towards me, I endeavoured to swim to a ‘Carly Float’ which she was towing. In doing so I swam out of the oil fuel and I found the sea was very cold. A few minutes later I scrambled onto the Carly Float and for the first time in my life I really prayed and I am not embarrassed to say so, as I really think it was an Act of God that I survived.
After a few moments the Chief Supply swam towards the float and the Captain of the “Hotspur”, thinking that there were no further survivors to pick up in that area, started up his engines and moved slowly forward, doing about forty knots. The float on the end of the line began to go forward and a chap in the water was going a forward breast stroke but making no headway as the float was being towed away. For the first time in my life, and the last I hope, I saw the man with his eyes standing out of his head and absolutely exhausted and slowly drowning, and we were not able to help in our condition. I don’t know whether the captain saw this incident or that he had come upon more survivors but the destroyer stopped and we managed to pull the chap into the float. A few minutes later, the Carly Float being full, we were pulled alongside the Mediterranean upright wooden ladder and we all scrambled aboard. I must say if that wooden ladder had been made of solid golf and trimmed in full splendour it could not have looked more beautiful as it did at that moment. I must admit when I stood on those steel decks I felt as safe as the ‘Bank of England’. The crew of the destroyer was absolutely marvellous and would have gladly given up what they stood in to assist us.
After stripping off all my oil soaked clothes, which were ripped and torn from the blast. And threw them over the side – it wasn’t until later that I realised I had thrown away my money belt with about four hundred pesetas. I rubbed myself down with bundles of cotton waste. I then made my way to the Main Mess Deck and was very pleased to see some of my shipmates safe and sound. After a few minutes word went round that run would be issued at the Victualing office, so I borrowed a cup and proceeded to draw the above. I was very fortunate that I had not swallowed any oil fuel, but some were not so lucky for directly the rum touched the pit of their stomachs, the oil fuel gushed out in volumes, so actually did them a great deal of good. After drinking the above, I proceeded on deck and was just in time to see a Maltese steward getting up from sitting on the steel decks and much to his astonishment left half his behind on the deck. He was then rushed to the Main Mess desk, which was being used as the operating theatre. The mess deck tables were being used to operate on. To my dying day I will never forget the way the Medical Officer worked on the injured all through the night. He toiled, covered in blood, you could not even tell he was an officer, one moment taking temperatures and the next bandaging someone’s wound. The only disgusting thing of the whole affair was when the run was being issued, one chap went round at least three times to fill his cup and the result was men who lay on stretchers with legs off and broken ribs and nerves shattered to pieces had to do without. Barring that one incident, I consider everything went marvellously, according to Navel discipline.
After a while my nerves settled down and I tried to sleep. One can just imagine a destroyer which usually carries a complement of about two hundred officers and men, on this occasion there would have been about three hundred and fifty. So I crawled out on the way under a mess table and with an Admiralty lifebelt as a pillow tried to sleep – but not with much success so carried on through the night chain smoking. One thing was in my mind and that was getting back to solid earth once more, with the thoughts of u-boats and torpedoes far from my mind.
The next morning came, I seemed ages. I had a wash as best as conditions permitted. From there I went on the desk for a breath of fresh air. I stood forward for the funnel. At that moment the M.O. came up and leaned over a prone figure on the desk. I then realised it was a dead man. He said he had died through shock and the after effects. At first I was startled – afraid – I felt myself shaking and felt like running from the scene. I then made my mind up – I would stop and watch. As the saying goes “If one falls from a ladder, go back up again”. I thought if I ran away I would be affected for the rest of my life. I would stop and watch the burial at sea. After he was prepared for burial, the M.O. asked me if I knew who the rating was, but I informed him that I didn’t. I said I thought he must be a stoker as I didn’t know him as a seaman. A couple of other survivors came and stood by. One said he was a Leading Stoker and he was then entered as that name on the death certificate. The burial was a real quiet affair – she was lowered gently below the waves of the Med. I am afraid my theory did not work as predicted as I was haunted by that sight for months after.
I had just returned to the Mess Deck when the word was passed round that all survivors able to walk were to muster on Deck Aft. I made my way there and found my Officer taking all the names of the survivors. We were informed that our next of kin would be informed that our next of kin would be informed as soon as possible. It was three months before this was done due to secret Admiralty reasons.
After giving my name, official number, home address etc. I returned back to the mess. An hour later an order was given that all ex-Barham men should muster on deck. I found that Admiral Prid & Wippel was going to give his last talk to his late ship’s company. It must have taken all his control to speak as he did, his body was taut and his hands clenched. He wished us all the best for the future and was sorry that a most dedicated and experienced crew was being split up.
After an hour or so later, we reached harbour (Alexandria). The “Hotspur” secured alongside the jetty, ahead of HMS Resource. All the survivors jumped ashore – don’t need to explain the feeling of relief that passed through my whole body at that moment – I thought, I hope that never happens again – I did not know that in a year’s time, Dec. 3rd 1942 I would be on HMS Quentin when she would be torpedoed. We were all dressed like tattered and torn beggars, pieces of cloth tied round our feet for shoes and lengths of cloth draped round our waists, but it did not matter to any of us. We were once more on dry land, safe and sound.
We then staggered on board the “Resource”. At the top of the gangway the Captain and Commander (I think) gave us cigarettes, matches and we obtained soap and towels and then went for showers, our rum, and our dinner.
After finishing our meal we all went over to the slap room and were rigged out temporarily with clothing, put into lorries which were waiting and taken to a Rest Camp.
What had actually occurred at the beginning of this disaster was that the plan thought be be a reconnaissance plane was in contact with the U-boat which was laying ‘doggo’ and was waiting to surface. When she did she was only about a hundred yards from us. In fact, when X and Y magazines blew up, it is thought the U-boat was wrecked as well, and therefore did not get its message back to Germany informing of its great prize. The British Admiralty did not tell our next of kin as the Germans did not know the “Barham” had gone down, so did not know that we were one battleship less in that part of the Med and we had time to get HMS Ramillies in its place before the weakness had been discovered.
Douglas Wilfred Ralphs
| last updated:
13 July 2013