Remembrance Day: Lest We Forget

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A personal story for Remembrance Day.

Lest We Forget

HMS Barham

Photo credit: HMS Barham Association. Used by kind permission.

My mother’s cousin was born in 1922 and joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman in 1936. In May 1940 he was serving onboard HMS Effingham, a heavy cruiser, escorting transports off the coast of Norway, when it struck a submerged rock. The whole crew were rescued by escorting ships with no losses – in spite of this the incident ultimately cost Alan his life, as he was transferred to the Mediterranean to serve on the battleship HMS Barham.

Barham was not a lucky ship launched in 1914, she collided with her sister ship HMS Warspite in 1915, was hit twelve times during the Battle of Jutland, collided with and sank the destroyer HMS Duchess in September 1939, was torpedo by the German submarine U30 in December of the same year and was torpedoed by a Vichy French submarine off the coast of Senegal in September 1940. In 1941 she played a critical role in the Mediterranean, protecting vital allied convoys and the strategically important island of Malta from the powerful Italian fleet, and harassing Axis convoys attempting to supply Italian forces and the German Africa Corps in North Africa.

On the afternoon of 25 November 1941, while steaming to cover an attack on an Italian convey, with her sister ships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, she was struck by three torpedoes fired by the U-boat U331. As she rolled to port her magazines exploded, and she quickly sank taking the lives of 841 mariners, including Alan Harding, from her crew of 1, 184.The tragedy was filmed by a news cameraman onboard Valiant and can be viewed on YouTube.

Shocking as this film is, it was not the worst loss at sea of the Second World War. When Bismarck sank the battle-cruiser HMS Hood, only three men survived from a crew of 1, 418, and when the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her escorts were sunk by the German battleship Scharnhorst, 1, 500 men were left to die in the icy waters off of the Norwegian coast. The greatest single loss was when the converted Cunard liner Lancastria was bombed, and sank while evacuating troops and civilians following the fall of France. Over 4, 000 people perished – more than all those who died on both Titanic and Lusitania. In all, more than 50, 000 Royal Navy personnel and 30, 000 British merchant seamen died in the Second World War.

The losses were not just on one side. When the Royal Navy hunted down the Bismarck, only 114 of her crew of 2, 200 survived; when HMS Duke of York sank Scharnhorst on a bitterly cold night in the Arctic Ocean, 1, 968 of her sailors shared the fate of the crew of Glorious; and when the RAF sank U331 in 1942, most of her crew joined the 28, 000 U-boat men who died (out of a total force of 40, 000)

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was the sinking of the German prison ship SS Cap Arcona (like Lancastria, a former liner) in the Baltic on the last full day of the war in Europe. Believing she was carrying SS officers escaping to make a last stand in occupied Norway, the RAF attacked and sank her – unaware she was actually crowded with concentration camp prisoners. Oover 5, 000 died.

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