Crew Name Search
Photos & video
Press & letters
Title: A Sailor's odyssey
Author: Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope
"In the early hours of November 24th two enemy convoys were reported at sea making for Benghazi. Force 'B' , consisting of the Ajax, Neptune, Naiad, Euryalus, Galatea and four destroyers, the whole under Rear-Admiral Rawlings in the Ajax, sailed at 4a.m to intercept. Force 'K', in the Central Mediterranean, returned to Malta, refuelled and went to sea again.
At 4pm the same day I sailed from Alexandria with the Queen Elizabeth, Barham, Valiant and eight destroyers to be within call if enemy heavy ships put in an appearance. At about 430pm next afternoon, November 25th, when the battle-fleet was patrolling between Crete and Cyrenaica, I was sitting in my bridge cabin in the Queen Elizabeth having tea.
I suddenly heard and half-felt the door give three distinct rattles and thought we had opened fire with our anti aircraft guns. I went quickly up the one ladder to the bridge and then I saw the Barham, immediately astern of us, stopped and listing heavily over toe port. The thuds I had heard were three torpedoes striking her. She had been torpedoed by a U-boat. The poor ship rolled nearly over on to her beam ends, and we saw the men massing on her upturned side. A minute or two later there came the dull rumble of a terrific explosion as one of her main magazines blew up.
The ship became completely hidden in a great cloud of yellowish black smoke, which went wreathing and eddying high into the sky. When it cleared away the Barham had disappeared. There was nothing but a bubbling, oily-looking patch on the calm surface of the sea, dotted with wreckage and the heads of swimmers. It was ghastly to look at, a horrible and awe-inspiring spectacle when one realized what it meant. The destroyers were quickly on the scene, some to hunt the submarine, others to pick up the survivors.
But though the U boat had broken surface after firing, and passed so close down the side of the Vlaiant that the guns not be sufficiently depressed to hit, contact was never made. About four hundred and fifty survivors were rescued, including Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, but Captain G.C. Cooke, fifty-five other officers and eight hundred and six men their lives. It was a most distressing calamity.
I saw many of the rescued later in hospital. Some of them had sustained horrible injuries through sliding down the dip's bottom as she rolled over.
The Barham had been out of dock for six months, and the barnacles had grown to an enormous size in the warm water of Alexandria. The first Sea Lord sent us a message of condolence, and when next I wrote to him I said: "We very much appreciated your signal about the Barham. She is indeed a heavy loss. We blundered straight onto the submarine. There was no necessity for us to be there any more than anywhere else….
It was a most daring and brilliant performance on behalf of the U-boat, which fired from a position about two hundred yards ahead of the Valiant. If there is anything to be learnt from it, it is that our anti-submarine vessels are sadly out of practice. I am withdrawing the Otus (submarine) from operational duty to run her as a 'clockwork mouse'." In other words, for the instruction of anti-submarine ratings.
| last updated:
13 July 2013