Helen Duncan and the sinking of HMS Barham

In the winter of 1941, at 4:25pm on the 25th of November, during one of the darkest periods of the Second World War, the British battleship HMS Barham was torpedoed off Malta by U-331, the only British battleship to be sunk at sea by a U-boat in WWII. A very famous piece of film footage, lasting less than two minutes, caught the 1914 battleship, a veteran of Jutland, keeling over to port and then, quite dramatically, exploding four minutes later. It was decided by the Navy that this was to be kept secret from the crew's families for three months for operational reasons. However, soon after the sinking, on 19 January 1942, during a sitting in Portsmouth, Duncan conjured up a sailor from HMS Barham to talk to his surprised mother - who didn't know he was dead. Duncan also apparently materialised an HMS Barham hatband. The sailor is alleged to have said "My ship has sunk". Unfortunately with repetition, mythologising and selectivity, it can be said that the story has become somewhat hazy.

Many mediums were operating in the UK at that time, some more accurate than others. During the 30's and 40's Duncan, a housewife, the wife of an unemployed cabinet maker and mother of six from Dundee, acquired some celibrity in this context. Her technique was to go into a trance and produce 'ectoplasm' through her mouth and nose which would form human shape and speak, although some claim this to have been cheese-cloth. Duncan's coup represented a very real threat, some considered for example, to the secrecy of the identity of the Normandy beaches that were to be invaded by the Allies. Months before D-Day she was arrested and investigated because of what appeared to be her access to secret information.

In 1944, at the Old Bailey, Helen Duncan was prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 as a possible danger to the nation's security and morale. Former MI5 officer Ian Fleming's name (the 007 author) has been linked to attempts by Naval Intelligence to 'conspire' against Duncan.

The seven-day hearing which grabbed headlines and drew crowds who packed the public gallery even provoked an intervention by Winston Churchill who sent a note to the Home Secretary demanding a report on the Witchcraft Act under which she had been prosecuted (the last of it's kind) and the cost of the case, which he dismissed as "obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the court".

The trial made Mrs Duncan the most famous spiritualist of her time and Churchill ensured that the antiquated law was never used again. In 1951, after his return to power, the Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Duncan, who died in 1956, has an official website (apart from 30,000 others translated into several languages) which has led to a petition and supporters, including the British Society of Paranormal Studies, campaigning for a full pardon from the government.

The U-boat 331, responsible for the sinking, could be said to have had a very remarkable escape from almost certain destruction. According to a witness account, 'on November 25 Kptlt. Von Tiesenhausen, commanding the U-331 off the border of Egypt and Libya in the eastern Mediterranean, spotted a procession of three British Queen Elizabeth class battleships (Queen Elizabeth, Barham and Valiant) flanked by eight destroyers. Displaying consummate nerve, Tiesenhausen eased his boat at periscope depth (less than 75 feet / 23 metres) between two destroyers (Griffin and Servis) and, from 1,200 yards (1,100 metres), fired four torpedoes at the middle battleship in the line. He had no idea which ship it was that he had sunk, by fate or luck, it was the Barham. He was so busy trying to escape, he only heard the explosion.'

'As usual, the submarine's bow shot upward after the weight was released. Tiesenhausen could not get it down fast enough, and the conning tower erupted from the water barely 150 yards (137 metres) in front of the third battleship in line, the Valiant, whose captain immediately altered course in order to ram.'

'The U-boat's engineers moved quickly to get their boat under again as the huge ship turned in a wide arc and bore down on them. Agonizing seconds passed. Then, at the last possible moment, the U-boat slid beneath the waves, and the battleship passed harmlessly overhead.'

'Meanwhile, a fourth explosion, probably the magazine going up, disintegrated the Barham, killing 862 men.'

'Aboard the U-331, something odd was happening to the depth gauge. As the boat continued its crash dive, the needle indicating depth inexplicably slowed, then stopped at 250 feet (76.2 metres). The crew sensed that the boat was still diving, but the gauge said not. It was a dangerous situation, because the boat's maximum safe depth was judged to be 330 feet (100 metres). Tiesenhausen asked to have a second, forward depth gauge read. The report appalled the entire crew - they had reached the unprecedented depth of 820 feet (250 metres). As they frantically halted the dive and began to ascend again, the hull, which should have been crushed at that depth, did not so much as spring a leak. The U-boat had escaped from the enemy above and the lethal pressure below. "In such moments, you do not speak," wrote Tiesenhausen many years later. "You are glad to have been lucky and to be still alive."'

Although in the Pathe news reel footage of the Barham exploding a question is raised as to why the Barham exploded, it can be seen that the explosion took place after the funnel was immersed in the sea. With a sudden ingress of thousands of gallons of cold water into the boilers these doubtless would have disintegrated violently. With the attendant pressures in the confines of a strong metallic structure sending hot shrapnel into the aft magazines, an inevitable chain reaction would have swiftly followed. The 'blackness' of the initial blast cloud appears to indicate oil, the later and smaller 'bright' flame propellant. What strikes one are the sheer size and thus weight of the pieces of wreckage blown off.

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