HMS Barham and the Witch of Southsea

HMS Barham was sunk by U331

 

HMS-Barham

Dedication:  To Uncle Frank who never spoke about any of this

and to all the men who ever served on Barham.

Foreword

The Second World War was long and unremitting for the men who served in the Royal Navy. For them it was a global war. From the Arctic to the tropics they died.
An affidavit was presented to the Nuremberg tribunal in defence of Doenitz the German Admiral. In this affidavit signed by 67 u-boat skippers they stated: –

“The undersigned declare that the German Navy was educated by their leaders to respect the written and the unwritten laws of the sea…We have always seen it as fitting our honour to keep these laws and to conduct the combat at sea in a chivalrous manner…”!!!
It is difficult to understand what this means. Are there chivalrous as well as unchivalrous ways to cause men to be shattered and to drown? War is plain dirty and nasty and that is all.
The campaign for the Mediterranean was long costly and eventually successful.
The cost in ships was considerable. These narrative verses are a fiction based loosely upon events in this campaign and on the strange case of the “Barham Witch”. It is a little known fact that the last trial of a so-called “witch” took place in 1944.  It was more associated with state secrecy feeling the need to silence a psychic than on any real belief in witchcraft.
Relatives in Portsmouth were to find out about the sinking of HMS Barham first from a clairvoyant who was strangely accurate before the news of the tragic sinking was released to the press. On many documentaries we have seen the film a battleship rolling over with many of her crew running across the upturned hull before she sinks. This is a film taken by the Barham’s own spotter plane as her task force zigzagged to try to evade submarine attack.
There was a great loss of life and the submarine skipper got an Iron Cross for his work that day.
I heard as a child a story of a widowed mother who lost her only son on the Barham hanging herself in the late 1950s. She too and those like her who died in that campaign was also a casualty.

 

U331 – Beneath the sea

Hans Diedrich gained his iron cross
We all do what we can
Strangers to him would face a loss
Oh, how they’d hate this man

Men do what they are trained to do
They do the best they may
That periscope it showed a view
That’s with him to this day

Three plumes of white rose up midships
Upon that looming foe
With silent prayer upon his lips
He saw that deadly blow

The forward tubes stood empty now
Torpedoes were away
Hans Diedrich made a silent vow
He’d not forget this day

His boat then shuddered with each boom
That echoed through the hull
And right there in that murky gloom
His brain seemed tired and dull

 

Rude awakening

A lack of sleep can slow things down
Or weaken deep emotion
As struggling men sought not to drown
Mid terror and commotion

U331 would slink away
The battleship would sink
That was to be a fatal day
Amid an acrid stink

Beside the turret near the bow
Two seamen felt each blast
They struggled to the side somehow
But she went down so fast

Soon they were swimming in a sea
That frothed and bubbled so
There were so few that now swam free
Most had been dragged below

Below the sea beneath the waves
Dragged down there in their ship
Good friends gone to their early graves
One sailor bit his lip

For silence seemed to settle then
The sea became quite still
It chilled the bones of swimming men
These waves would slowly kill

Young Frank he wore a lifebelt though
So rested for a while
The injured first would sink below
Shock makes the soul docile

The water was not all that cold
So Death would not come quite fast
Events they could so slow unfold
Some things seemed meant to last

Now Frank and James they both could swim
James had no lifebelt so
He knew their chances would be slim
Time would drag on so slow

Frank’s lifebelt could support these two
Frank helped James take a rest
It was the natural thing to do
The sun sank to the west

A periscope then glided past
Some beasts await their prey
It turned towards the north at last
Before the break of day

Some beasts are strong and charge head on
With guile some pull prey down
Here fishes could now feed upon
Each victim who would drown

Yet all night long they drifted there
And all the next day too
The weather was quite calm and fair
The sky the clearest blue

That second night sleep nagged at them
They fought hard not to sleep
Each star seemed like a diadem
Above the hungry deep

Beneath their feet the fish swam by
Some gorged on human flesh
Though neither man would choose to die
Sleep caught them in its mesh

And James he sank below the waves
Sometime through that long night
Sailors may go to dark deep graves
James sank without a fight

Deep in his sleep within a dream
He met his dead Granddad
That old man’s face it seemed to beam
So James did not feel sad

He sank there to a fateful death
His dream made him content
He did not struggle to take breath
And soon his life was spent

Asleep Frank drifted on along
The currents of the sea
His fit young body was still strong
So death was not to be

He felt a tug upon his hair
An oarsman yanked his head
He was the last man rescued there
Now all the rest were dead

He puzzled at where James had gone
James had been in his dream
This last survivor seemed so wan
Then he began to scream

But morphine soon made him slump down
There in the rescue boat
It never was his fate to drown
Sobs whimpered in his throat

That boat it rode the gentle swells
They searched for sometime more
Long gone now were the acrid smells
That Frank had smelt before

In future years those smells would be
With him both night and day
A tortured soul is never free
Some things don’t go away

 

The Southsea ‘Witch’(i)

Speaking to women in her booth
Right there beside the shore
Poor Helen Duncan spoke her sooth
The way she’d done before

“Your James upon that battleship
Has died and gone to grace
I sense somehow he lost his grip
I see a strangers face

He and your James were in the sea
It seems their ship went down
Dear God this surely cannot be
How can so many drown?

Why did you have to come today?
Why did I seek for you?
Oh, hear this what I have to say
There’s nothing you can do

Most of the Barham lads are gone
Torpedoes sank the ship
The visions that I gazed upon
Could make me lose my grip”

She asked the women then to leave
She closed up for the day
Those sights she saw then made her grieve
Some scenes don’t go away

This time those sights came from the blue
She was not in control
Confused she knew not what to do
Her’s was a troubled soul

Each vivid sight each vivid smell
Tore right through her mind
She saw those young men put through hell
These visions were unkind

She felt each shock she felt each pain
She felt dragged to the deep
She felt she’d never breathe again
She saw sad kin folk weep

She saw herself stood in a dock
She saw a prison yard
Newspapers all would scoff and mock
And times they would be hard

She thought to close down for a while
To take a well-earned break
Inside she’d lost the will to smile
Her hands now seemed to shake…

ship25

 

The last casualty June 1955 (ii)

So Barham sank just like a stone
With eight hundred men and more
A widow woman wept alone
Though she’d been here before

Her husband Harry on the Hood
Now slept beneath the sea
Her only son’s now gone for good
A Barham lad was he

A banister was robust where
That rope stopped her dead weight
She’s left behind all worldly care
Where sorrow was her fate

In life she’d loved and did what’s right
She’d helped the poor and weak
She hanged there in some dappled light
So lonely, dead and bleak

So there behind the opening door
The agent felt cold dread
A pool of fluid on the floor
A silhouette of the dead

It mattered not how good she’d been
Fate took away her Hope
Now there’s this horror too be seen
It hung there on her rope

The hallway of the house was bleak
Where she last hugged her son
And she hung there for near a week
Once her last act was done

Her end had been so sudden though
When vertebrae were broke
She had not done a dancing show
That day she did not choke

She’d choked with tears for several years
All lonely grim and cold
Through many years she’d shed her tears
But now she’d not grow old

The state had waged its wars at sea
But not all deaths were there
More tragedies are yet to be
When sorrow’s everywhere

Just one last casualty was she
For trauma took her down
She’d hanged, she’d not died out at sea
It’s quicker than to drown

© Trevor Morgan, 2015

 

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[i] The last trial for witchcraft in England was held at the Old Bailey in 1944. Helen Duncan was convicted after she told relatives of sailors killed when HMS Barham was sunk that they were dead and the ship was sunk. At the time the sinking of the Barham was kept an official secret and it is not clear just how Helen Duncan could have known. Some still assert that she was genuine and dead sailors’ ghosts came to her and told her of the ship’s loss.

[ii] “A war widow was found hanged in the hallway of her house. The estate agent handling the sale of her house entered the property to show a potential buyer around. It was then that he found her…”News paper report in the local press.

Verdict… “she had taken her own life whilst the state of her mind was disturbed”…Coroners report, Portsmouth, England, June 1955.

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