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The name 'Barham' came from Admiral Charles Middleton who was Lord Barham. He became the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time of Trafalger 1762-1813. He also worked with Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Battle of Cape Matapan 27th-29th March 1941
HMS Barham in Action - the significance of the battle of Matapan
The months between Dakar and the sinking of HMS Barham marked the time when Britain (helped by the Commonwealth) still stood virtually alone. Despite the actions at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran having prevented the Vichy Fleet from falling into German hands, the Italian fleet was still a potent force in the Mediterranean as was Rommel's Africa Korps in North Africa. The Axis and their sympathisers ringed almost the whole of the Mediterranean Sea. Vichy France controlled southern France, Algeria, Syria and the Lebanon, and Italy, who had entered on the side of Germany, controlled large parts of the Dalmatian Coast. Nine months later, after stiff and valiant resistance, Greece and the Greek Islands were overrun by the Germans. Most of North Africa from Oran to El Alamein - only some 80 miles from Alexandria - was controlled by the Axis. Had the Africa Korps succeeded in breaking the 8th Army and taking control of the Suez Canal, which they nearly did, Britain would have lost her main base in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Germans would have controlled the lifeline to the Persian Gulf and Far East.
It was not until December 7th, 1941 that the US came into the war and not until November 1942, a year after the Barham was sunk, that the victory of El Alamein turned the tide in North Africa. Arguably, El Alamein was one of the pivotal events of WWII. Admiral Cunningham's Eastern Mediterranean Fleet played an important and vital part in paving the way for this victory.
Having completed her refit in Liverpool in June, the Barham left to join the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow to undergo sea and gunnery trials and (probably) as a precaution against German invasion. A few months later, she sailed for Freetown, Sierra Leone to take part in the action at Dakar.
After Dakar, the Barham joined the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. During the next twelve months she was involved in four major actions before her tragic sinking in November forever visually etched in the memory of those who have seen the video of the Barham, having been hit by three torpedoes, listing to port and sinking within four minutes after one of the magazines blew up. Towards the end of 1940, she joined in the attack on Taranto after having survived an attempt by Italian frogmen to torpedo her.
In early 1941, the Barham saw action in the bombardment of Bardia, followed soon after by the Battle of Matapan. The Italian Navy was never of much account after Matapan. Fought in the waters off southwest Greece, Matapan was pivotal for command of the Mediterranean Sea. "Mare Nostrum" was no longer Italian. It made the evacuation of Crete possible and minimised interference in the effort to disrupt the re-supply of materiel for Rommel's Army. It set the scene for the battle of El Alamein. It was the first fleet action of the WWII, the first since the Battle of Jutland, the first in the Mediterranean since the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and the first fought at night. It was the first time that carrier-borne aircraft played a vital and indispensable role and radar-equipped ships were used in a fleet action.
It was a remarkable British victory in that the Italians combined fleet strength was considerably greater than Cunningham's. It was larger, faster, had greater armament, and was more modern. For example, the Vittorio Veneto, which had been launched in 1937, had a maximum speed of 30.5 knots and carried nine 15 inch guns. By comparison, the Barham with eight 15 inch guns, could only achieve about 22 knots. Both the Barham and HMS Warspite had been damaged by air raids in Alexandria and Warspite was only capable of 20 knots. However, in addition to the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, the British had two more battleships than the Italians.
The result of the battle was that the Italians lost three modern cruisers, and two destroyers. The Vittorio Veneto was damaged and played no significant further part in the war. Many Italian sailors were killed or captured. No British ship was damaged and no man hurt by enemy action. The Italians were surprised, unprepared, confused, did not fire a shot. After Matapan, their naval successes were limited to midget submarine attacks. Matapan ended Italian naval effectiveness in the Mediterranean. In this sense it was of vital importance to the British war effort in a theatre fraught with danger.
Shortly after Matapan, the Barham was involved in the bombardment of Tripoli. In mid April 1941, the War Cabinet was determined to prevent the Germans from re-inforcing the Africa Korps with materiel through the port of Tripoli. The Admiralty decided on a combined blocking and bombardment, the latter being carried out by blocking ships at point blank range as they approached the harbour. They informed Cunningham that after careful consideration it had been decided that the Barham and a 'C' class cruiser should be used for this purpose.
Although contrary to all naval protocol Cunningham protested against the suggestion that he should sacrifice a battleship like the Barham. The signal was received when the Mediterranean Fleet was protecting the transport of the Army to Greece, and its maintenance. Even then there was the possibility of an eventual evacuation from the Balkans. The Italian fleet might interfere in these operations, and Cunningham could not willingly agree to the certainly of losing one of his three battleships. There was also the maintenance of Malta, upon which all depended, and supplying the Tobruk garrison. After several messages to and fro, the Admiralty accepted Cunningham's recommendation of a fleet bombardment without the sacrifice of a block ship.
In his book "The Grand Alliance" Churchill says, "It was not without relief that we received the news that the Fleet would bombard Tripoli, and the Admiralty hastened to concur and share from a distance the burden of responsibility."
Along with the Warspite, Valiant, the cruiser Gloucester and destroyers, the Barham bombarded the town for some 40 minutes and did much damage both to shipping and port installations. Like at the Battle of Matapan, not a British ship was hit and the fleet withdrew without loss.
A letter from Surgeon-Commander Sorley after the Tripoli action was rather prophetic "…we were engaged upon a big operation, of which you have doubtless heard in the press and the radio. Our fourth action in a little over 6 months! We have been pretty busy, have n't we? I think that, excluding one other ship, we have seen more active service in this war than any other naval unit. And up to now, touching wood hard, we have emerged unscathed and as tough as ever. Of course I am not counting the torpedoing in December '39, which was before I came upon the Barham scene."
The Barham was in action during the battle for Crete during the latter part of May 1941. She was damaged on the 27th when attacked by enemy aircraft which appeared from the direction of the sun. A direct hit by a bomb on 'Y' turret started a fire which was not extinguished for two hours. Several sailors were killed and many horribly burned. The casualties in the sick bay were treated with plasma, the first time that it had been used in a battle at sea.
After this, the Barham sailed through the Suez Canal for South Africa for repairs and a hard-earned rest for the ship's company which had seen six major actions during the previous ten months or so. In early August 1941, she was back in the Mediterranean. Three months later while steaming to cover an attack on Italian convoys, she was torpedoed by a German submarine off Sollum, blew up and sank within four minutes. 862 officers and men were lost with the ship. Their names are memorialised in the Royal Naval & Royal Marine Memorial at Southsea, the Book of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, and in Cyberspace in the Barham Association Website.
It was the third worst loss of life of any British warship in WWII, after HMS Hood, and HMS Glorious. The Barham was the largest British ship to be sunk by submarine.
Cunningham's commentary in "A Sailor's Odysssey": "It was a most daring and brilliant performance on the part 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."
"The great battleship disappeared in cloud of smoke after a cataclysmic explosion that makes for one of the most dramatic and tragically awe inspiring film sequences of the Second World War. She was sunk 55 miles North West of Sidi Barani, the explosion being seen ashore by units of the 8th Army, who within a week knew that the ship had been sunk, although the loss was only officially announced at the end of January 1942".
Officers on the "Queen Elizabeth" watched the tragedy. They saw Captain G.C.Cooke, at attention with one hand on a rail saluting with the other as the proud ship went down. Pridham-Wippell survived the Barham sinking. He was on the bridge and managed to swim away when the ship was on her beam-ends. He is reputed to have given his life jacket to a rating but managed to keep afloat before being rescued. From Frank Wade's "A Midshipman's War. "Nearby an older man, probably an officer seemed to be trying to take charge, giving orders and encouraging and assisting men to swim to the cushion. Then this man, with a crazy dramatic flourish and summoning up some unexpected reserve of energy, started singing, of all things, in a fairly strong voice which could be heard for some distance over the water. "There'll always be an England."
This was not the end of the tragic drama. Firstly, the loss of a battleship was a serious blow to the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. The Admiralty delayed notifying next-of-kin by two weeks and even then required that only family members be told the news. The official announcement of the sinking finally came out on January 27th 1942, about forty-five days after the event.
After the last torpedo had been fired the German U-Boat surfaced as a result of the loss of weigh of three torpedoes. The captain had to fight to submerge his U-Boat as the HMS Valiant tried to ram her. A malfunctioning depth gauge resulted in the U-Boat diving far below its design capability. Miraculously, the U-Boat surfaced and the captain was able to send an Enigma-coded signal that they had torpedoed a battleship but did not know which one or the extent of the damage. He was unaware that the British were de-coding the signal at the same time as his superiors in Germany were. This was the reason for the delay in releasing the news of the sinking to next-of-kin.
copyright G.R.T. Sorley 2003
Royal Navy Forces Battleships
HMS Warspite, Flagship of the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham Captain D.B. Fisher.
HMS Formidable, Flagship Rear-Admiral(Air), Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd Captain A.W. La T. Bisset.
HMS Orion, Flagship of Vice-Admiral Light Forces (VALF), Vice-Admiral H.D.Pridham-Whippell; Captain G.R.B. Back.
14th Destroyer Flotilla
10th Destroyer Flotilla.
HMAS Stuart, Captain H.M.L. Waller, RAN. HMS Greyhound, Commander W.R. Marshall-A’Deane.
2nd Destroyer Flotilla.
HMS Ilex, Captain H.St.L. Nicholson.
Italian Forces Battleships
Vittorio Veneto, Flagship of Commander-in-Chief
| last updated:
13 July 2013