On 25 November 1941, HMS Barham was tragically sunk by the German submarine U-331 in the Mediterranean Sea, near the coast of Egypt, during World War II.

The submarine’s torpedoes struck Barham, causing a massive explosion when her magazine detonated, leading to the battleship capsizing and sinking in just a few minutes.

The catastrophic event resulted in the loss of 862 lives from her crew, with the harrowing moment of the explosion and sinking captured on film, marking a somber chapter in naval history.


Historical Context

Commissioned in 1915, during the First World War, HMS Barham was part of the Queen Elizabeth-class of battleships, a group that represented the cutting edge of naval power at the time. These ships were designed to combine speed, heavy armament, and substantial armor in a way that previous battleships had not. This combination allowed them to operate across the vast expanses of the world’s oceans, projecting British naval power globally.

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During the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, HMS Barham, as part of the 5th Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, played a significant role in the largest naval engagement of World War I. She engaged German battlecruisers and battleships with her powerful 15-inch guns, contributing to the British efforts to inflict damage on the German High Seas Fleet.

HMS Barham at Scapa Flow in 1917.

Despite the intense combat, HMS Barham emerged from the battle relatively unscathed, having demonstrated the capabilities and resilience of the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships in the heat of battle.

The interwar period saw further developments in naval strategy and technology, with battleships like the Barham undergoing modifications and upgrades to keep pace with new threats and changing military doctrines.

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By the outbreak of World War II, HMS Barham was an integral part of the Royal Navy’s efforts to control sea lanes, protect convoys, and engage enemy forces. Her role in the Mediterranean, where she eventually met her fate, was part of a larger strategic effort by the Allies to secure a critical lifeline to the East and to support ground operations in North Africa. The Mediterranean was a contested arena where naval power, air superiority, and control of strategic islands and ports could influence the outcome of campaigns in North Africa and the wider war effort.

The Sinking of HMS Barham

The Mediterranean Sea was a focal point of naval operations during World War II, with the British and their allies striving to maintain open sea lanes for supply and military support to North Africa, where British Commonwealth forces were locked in combat with the German Afrika Korps and Italian forces. Control of the Mediterranean was vital for strategic mobility and supply lines. The Royal Navy’s presence aimed to thwart Axis supply convoys to North Africa and to assert dominance over the sea.

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On 25 November 1941, HMS Barham was operating as part of a larger squadron in the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt, near Sidi Barrani. The squadron’s mission was to intercept and disrupt Axis naval movements, a task fraught with danger due to the ever-present threat of German U-boats in the region.

The German submarine U-331, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, managed a daring approach towards the British squadron. Capitalizing on the element of surprise and the challenging conditions that favored a stealthy approach.

Initially, the presence of U-331 was detected by one of the destroyers present in the convoy, but the warnings were disgarded. Thus, the submarine was now in a prime position to attack.

The leading battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, passed by U-331, but Barham was close behind. The U-Boat commander ordered a salvo of four torpedoes to be launched directly at HMS Barham at a range of 375 metres (490 ft).

Three torpedoes struck Barham amidship with devastating effect. Witnesses and subsequent reports describe a single violent explosion that rocked the vessel and she rapidly began capsizing to her port side. Just four minutes after, a fire on board ignited the ships magazine, culminating in a massive detonation.

The moment the magazine on board HMS Barham ignited.

The entire tragic event was captured on film by a cameraman aboard an accompanying vessel, creating a haunting visual record of the disaster.

After the attack, the conning tower of U-331 accidentally pierced the surface and became visible, leading to a ferocious attack from one of the battleships in the convoy. The panicked submarine quickly dove but reached a depth of 265 metres, around 115 metres deeper than her designed depth rating of 150 metres.

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Despite this, U-331 remianed undamaged, although, the confusion and panic meant that Commander Tiesenhausen was unsure of the results of his attack.

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the focus turned to rescue operations. The waters around the site of the sinking were chaotic, filled with debris and survivors struggling for life. The ships accompanying Barham, despite the ongoing threat of further submarine attacks, moved quickly to rescue as many men as possible from the sea.

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These efforts resulted in the rescue of 395 sailors. However, the speed of the attack and the subsequent explosion caused by the magazine igniting, resulted in a very high death toll. In total, 862 lives were lost, including the captain of the ship.

HMS Barham pictured from the deck of HMS Rodney in the late 1920s.

The sinking of HMS Barham was initially hidden from public knowledge. The British Admiralty’s decision to delay public acknowledgment of the sinking was driven by several considerations. Firstly, there was a desire to maintain home front morale during a critical phase of the war. News of the loss of a capital ship could have had a demoralizing effect on the British public and on Allied nations.

Secondly, there was a strategic imperative to prevent the Axis powers from exploiting the incident for propaganda purposes and to deny them concrete information about the disposition and losses of British naval forces in the Mediterranean.

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This secrecy extended to the point where families of the lost crew were informed several weeks after the attack. Even then, the families were informed to keep the news secret.

In the years following the war, the memory of HMS Barham and those who perished with her has been honored through memorials and remembrance services, ensuring that the sacrifice of the crew is not forgotten.