The sudden loss of HMS Barham

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

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.




Force H departs Gibraltar with convoy

Loading a 16" shell on board HMS Rodney

On the evening of the 24th Admiral Somerville’s flag was raised on HMS Rodney and the band played on the quayside as if the battleship were departing for home. She then sailed westward with an escort of destroyers. Admiral Somerville had in fact remained on HMS Nelson and would lead the main force into the Mediterranean after dark. Those watching from Spain and Algeciras in North Africa were duped for a time.




The Lutzow torpedoed by Coastal Command

Flight Sergeant Ray Loveitt, second from left, flew the only aircraft to locate the Lutzow and torpedo her. This subsequent publicity shot shows his crew - from left Flight Sergeants C.T. Downing, A.H. Morris and P. Wallace-Pannell.

Twenty aircraft of the Command were despatched to attack this force, which consisted of one pocket battleship (possibly the Lutzow) and five destroyers with air escort. One aircraft scored a hit with a torpedo amidships on the battleship, and a second aircraft claimed a hit, though the result of its attack was not seen owing to the smoke which surrounded the target.




The end of the Bismarck

Out of a total complement of 2,200 men on Bismarck, around 800 are believed to have made it into the sea. 115 were saved by HMS Dorsetshire before a U-boat scare ended the rescue.

Finally the probability of explosion became so acute that rescue work was abandoned. Orders were given to flood and the imprisoned men were drowned. In the forward canteen 200 men also became trapped under jammed hatches. At the very moment when a hatch to the upper deck became freed, a direct hit crashed through the deck, transforming the canteen into a charnel house. According to one prisoner, not one man of this group of 200 strong survived, and in making his own escape he was forced to pick his way between “mountains of flesh and bone.”




Torpedo attack on the Bismarck

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo

Some torpedoes were avoided by turning the ship, but as a surviving officer explained, whichever way the “Bismarck” turned to evade one torpedo, she was constantly exposed to others. Another prisoner stated that the aircraft came down to the attack at an angle of approximately 50° and darted through the barrage like flashes of lightening, and the courage displayed by the pilots in pressing home their attacks in this fashion was beyond praise. This prisoner added ruefully: “If only Germany actually had sunk the ‘Ark Royal’.”




HMS Hood sunk

The 'Mighty Hood' was the pride of the Royal Navy

As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck.




Hitler inspects the Bismarck

Hitler on an inspection tour of the Bismarck, 5th May 1941, with Captain Lindemann on his right  and Admiral Lutjens behind.

He considered it an advantage that in the Bismaick, which was more powerful than the Scharnhorst class, he would no longer be forced to avoid well protected convoys. This, however, did not solve his most difficult problem: getting his force out into the Atlantic without being spotted by the enemy.




Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sighted

The battle cruiser "Scharnhorst" pictured before the war.

The German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were reported as having been sighted by an aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal during the evening of the 20th in a position 600 miles W.N.W. from Cape Einisterre, steering to the northward. Subsequent shadowing by aircraft was prevented by low visibility.




Ferocious Luftwaffe attack on HMS Illustrious

HMS Illustrious under attack on the 10th January 1941. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.




Celebrations on “The Mighty Hood”

HMS Hood at anchor in Scapa Flow, seen from another British battleship of the Home Fleet.

We all drank a toast to 1941 – Peace and Victory. One of the midshipmen from the gunroom came in with a bagpipe and played Scotch tunes. Everyone started to dance the various Scotch dances from the Admiral down to the lowest midshipman. The Wardroom tables were cleared away and a regular party was in full swing. It was a very unusual sight to see the Admiral, Captain, staff, Wardroom, gunroom, and Warrant officers dancing.