HMS Barham Explodes


This vid clip is one minute and twelve seconds long. It is shocking. You will probably watch it more than once. In this brief moment, the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Barham, rolls over on her beam ends, explodes, and sinks. At the end of the vid clip, the ship is gone, disappeared beneath the sea. The vid clip didn’t transfer from the original blog post a year ago so I am re-posting it with the vid clip re-attached.

Incredibly, the sinking and explosion was caught on film by a news reel cameraman from Gaumont News, which was then, and continues to be, one of the largest French film studios (and the first and oldest continuously operating film company in the world). The cameraman who caught the sinking and explosion, John Turner, was standing on the deck of the nearby Royal Navy battleship, HMS Valiant, which was in station just astern of Barham.

HMS Valiant (British battleship, 1916) – Photographed following her 1929-30 refit. She is carrying a Fairey III-F floatplane on her fantail catapult. This catapult was only carried during 1930-33. US Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Those of us who have an interest in World War Two, watch lots of vid clips similar to this. Although there really isn’t any other vid clip like this one which I have ever seen. In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six men died. So often we see war in the comfort of a movie theater or in news footage but we feel a distance from it. Somehow this vid clip doesn’t create much distance. I would recommend listening it to at least once with the sound off once you know the context and it will have a powerful effect.

HMS Barham (British battleship, 1915) – At Scapa Flow, 1917, with other battleships and cruisers of the Grand Fleet. Note triangular fabric pieces fitted to her masts and funnels as anti-rangefinding camouflage. US Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Writes Admiral Cunningham, C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, who heard the torpedoes strike Barham as he was sitting down to tea, while sitting in his sea cabin on the Admiral’s bridge:

I saw the Barham immediately astern of us, stopped and listing heavily over the port… 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 (actually maybe forty-five seconds) there came the dull rumble of a terrific explosion as one of her main magazines blew up.

HMS Barham was old and slow, originally commissioned in 1915. (You will note the photo above was taken in 1917.) When commissioned, she could barely make her design speed of twenty-five knots when steaming “full ahead together” — the Royal Navy engine order for maximum speed. As years passed, she never came close to that speed again. Old propulsion machinery, turbines, shafts, boilers long out of date, united with more weight added in the form of deck armour, anti-aircraft guns, and a scout plane, all contributed to slow her down even more.

HMS Barham (British battleship, 1915) – In heavy seas, while participating in exercises of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets near the Balearic Islands, circa the later 1920s, as seen from HMS Rodney. Barham is followed by the battleship Malaya and the aircraft carrier Argus. US Naval Historical Center Photograph.

“In Time of Peace Prepare for War,” said Roman historian Vegetius. A popular quote you will have read many times, I am certain. Unfortunately, the British Empire ignored this in the short interval between the First World War and the Second World War, conflicts British historians usually refer to as the “1914-1918 War” and the “1939-1945 War”. To most, if not all, professional historians as well as amateur historians like you and me, the Second World War in Europe was simply a continuation of the First. (One difference, BTW, was the in World War One, the Japanese were on the side of the Allies and the Japanese Navy even sent a half dozen destroyers to help patrol the Mediterranean under British command.)

But as for the HMS Barham, the British Government let her slip through the cracks. She had been modernized a bit before World War Two but had not been completely reconstructed like the other battleships of her class such as HMS Warspite. As the navel budget of “estimates” as the Brits call them were slashed after World War One, battleships like HMS Barham were kept in harness long after their design life. In fact, during the entire era between the wars the Royal Navy only launched two new battleships, both of them in the 1920s: HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney. These two had all three turrets mounted forward of the bridge and are the strangest looking battleships you ever saw. I will write about them later.

HMS Barham should have been scrapped or completely rebuilt yet somehow the money could never be found just as it could never be found for HMS Hood to have her deck amour strengthened. What HMS Barham needed so desperately was more speed. Even though rated at twenty-five knots when first commissioned, she rarely made that speed even when new because of additional weight added to her.

The faster a ship went, the more difficult it was for a U-Boat to set up for a torpedo shot, since the German U-Boats themselves could not make more than 16 or 17 knots on the surface. Once rebuilt, HMS Queen Elizabeth, name ship for the class of battleships Barham belonged to, could make at least 24 to 25 knots as could the completely rebuilt HMS Warspite. HMS Barham was lucky to maintain even twenty-knots for brief periods during her service in World War Two and that was straining every sinew. In fact, she was a danger to the fleet because she was so slow.


Approximately 430 pm on the afternoon of 25 November 1940, steaming in line ahead are the Royal Navy battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Barham, HMS Valiant. They are being screened from U-Boat attack by eight Royal Navy destroyers. The fleet has put to sea to provide distant cover to various Royal Navy task forces striking Italian supply convoys. Should heavy units of the Italian fleet sortie to attack the smaller British units, the three battleships would come up in support. This would have been a standard tactical arrangement in the era.

A German U-Boat slips through the destroyer screen and fires three torpedoes at HMS Barham. In what seems to witnesses but a split second she lists to port and explodes.

Writes Admiral Cunningham:

The ship became completely hidden in a great cloud of yellowish-black smoke… 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… I saw many of the rescued later in hospital. Some of them had sustained horrible injuries through sliding down the ship’s bottom as she rolled over. The Barham had been out of dock for six months and barnacles had grown to an enormous size in the warm water of Alexandria.

HMS Barham, Queen Elizabeth Class battleship in the Mediterranean Sea, early 1940s.

[Source: Youtube, Sailor’s Odyssey: Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope by Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, KT, GCB, OM, DSO and two Bars (7 January 1883 – 12 June 1963). Images courtesy of Department of the US Navy – Naval Historical Center, Department of the US Navy – Naval Historical Center, Department of the US Navy – Naval Historical Center, and Wikipedia.]