The sudden loss of HMS Barham

HMS Barham was a battleship built for World War I but had had an extensive refit in the 1930s.

The moment when HMS Barham's magazine exploded after being torpedoed in the Mediterranean.

Captain C. E. Morgan commanding HMS Valiant described the final moments of the Battleship:

Our battleships were proceeding westwards line ahead, with the Valiant immediately astern the Barham and with a destroyer screen thrown out ahead of the battlefleet. At 4.23 p.m., carrying out a normal zigzag, we turned to port together, thus bringing the ships into echelon formation.

Suddenly, at 4.25, I heard a loud explosion, followed by two further explosions a couple of seconds later. Fountains of water and two enormous columns of smoke shot skywards. The smoke formed an enormous mushroom, gradually enveloping the whole of the Barham, except the after part, which was subsequently also blotted out as the ship slid into a vast pall of smoke.

As the explosions occurred the officer on watch gave the command “ Hard to port,” to keep clear of the Barham.

Fifteen seconds later I saw a submarine break the surface, possibly forced there by the explosion. Passing from left to right, the submarine was apparently making to cross the Valiant’s bows between us and the Barham. He was only about seven degrees off my starboard bow and 150 yards away, though he must have fired his torpedoes from about 700 yards.

As the periscope and then the conning tower appeared I ordered “ Full speed ahead, hard starboard.” But, with the helm already hard to port, I was unable to turn quickly enough to ram him before he crash-dived only 40 yards away on our starboard side. The submarine was visible for about 45 seconds, and, simultaneously with our ramming efforts, we opened fire with our starboard pom-poms. He was so close, however, that we were unable to depress the guns sufficiently and the shells passed over the conning-tower.

I then gave the order “Amidships” again to avoid turning into the Barham, which was still under way with her engines running but listing heavily to port. As we came up on her beam she heeled further about 20 or 30 degrees, and through the smoke I could see all her quarter-deck and forecastle. Men were jumping into the water and running up on the forecastle.

The Barham was rolling on a perfectly even keel with neither bows nor stern sticking into the air. For one minute she seemed to hang in this position; then, at 4.28, she suddenly rolled violently, her mainmast striking the’ surface of the sea sharply a few seconds later.

I saw water pouring into her funnels. There followed a big explosion amidships, from which belched black and brown smoke intermingled with flames. Pieces of wreckage, Hung high into the air, were scattered far and wide, the largest piece being about the size of my writing-desk.

I immediately ordered “ Take cover ” as the wreckage started flying, and that was the last we saw of the Barham, which had run almost’ a mile since the moment she was hit. When the smoke cleared the only signs left were a mass of floating wreckage.

The 35,000-ton ship disappeared with unbelievable suddenness; it was only 4 minutes 35 seconds exactly from the moment the torpedoes struck until she had completely disappeared.

There is much more material relating to the ship at HMS Barham.

HMS Barham was a Queen Elizabeth class battleship – the same as the historic HMS Warspite – for many great images of the Warspite and background to the Queen Elizabeth class see

It was not until much later in the war that film of the loss of the Barham was made available publicly:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Harry Watts November 9, 2015 at 5:35 pm

My Dad was on HMS Valiant at the time of HMS Barham, Marine R. Watts, He said that normally it was the Valiant out front, but that day the Barham took the lead. He was thrown across his station hitting the bulkhead and hurting his shoulder at the force of the explosion, I think all film footage was taken from the Valiant.
We would not have been here today, that’s my three other brothers and sister if the Valiant had taken the hit, as my Dad was below decks.
But many other families took the blow, and we all feel that loss of our brave servicemen, and the Merchant Navy on their convoy work, they were all in it together for our freedom, God rest their souls. I watch the sinking of the Barham and remember my Father who has passed on many years ago now, when we asked him to tell us about his War Stories, as kids it was exciting, as an older man now (65 yrs old) I find it so sad for all Wars, but never forget our history and freedom, that is why we need a strong deterrent to keep the peace.

Barbara Livie October 11, 2015 at 12:11 am

My dad Ray Whale died when HMS Barham was sunk, he knew I was born but did not see me before he was killed, I was 6 months old..

stephen evans July 18, 2015 at 10:31 pm

I was told my dad and grand dad were on this they both were save but my nan was told by telegram that they were both lost at sea .

Mark Bolam April 2, 2015 at 8:19 pm

My great uncle was Leading Seaman (Torpedoes) William ‘Pop’ Bolam. I never knew the man, but the footage sends a shiver down my back.

Margaret Walker June 5, 2014 at 2:23 pm

My grandfather Leslie Arthur Taylor was a Seargent in the Royal Marines on board HMS Barham. Tragically he was killed with the boat was sunk leaving a widow and three daughters. My mother was only 10 months old when this happened and never met her father.

Liz Crosland November 11, 2013 at 12:07 pm

My cousin Marine Samuel Gordon Travis was killed on this ship. I was only 3 months old at the time. My father Squadron Leader J W W Whitehead knew about the sinking but due to security could not tell my aunt and uncle, Dorothy and Cyril Travis, that Gordon was dead. Gordon was 19 years old.

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