On this day in history : 12th December 1939 – HMS Duchess sinks after colliding with HMS Barham off the coast of Scotland; 136 lives are lost….

HMS Duchess – Public domain

HMS Duchess, a D-class destroyer, had been built in the 1930s…. In December 1939 she was ordered, along with her sister ships, HMS Delight, HMS Duncan and HMS Dainty, to escort HMS Barham back to the UK from Gibraltar…. Barham was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship that had been built in the early 1910s…. She had served in World War One and then after a major refit in the 1920s was to serve in World War Two…. She had been part of the Mediterranean fleet but as of the 1st of December 1939 had become a private ship and so was heading to join the home fleet…. The convoy departed on the 6th of December….

The voyage went well but arrived off the coast of Scotland on the morning of the 12th of December in dense fog…. Nine miles west of the Mull of Kintyre HMS Barham accidentally rammed HMS Duchess due to the poor visibility…. Duchess capsized and her depth charges exploded…. 136 of her crew were lost, including her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Robert C.M. White – who was trapped in his cabin as his sliding door had jammed….

HMS Barham – Public domain

HMS Barham herself was to sink two years later, on the 25th of November 1941 – after being torpedoed…. At the time her sinking was censored from the news by the Board of Admiralty, in an effort to conceal the sinking from the Germans – but also to protect the British morale…. It was several weeks before the next of kin of the 862 crew who had died onboard Barham were informed…. Even then they were requested to keep it secret….

The sinking was officially announced on the 27th of January 1942…. The explanation for the delay was given as…. ‘It was clear at that time that the enemy did not know that she had been sunk, and it was important to make certain dispositions before the loss of this ship was made public’….

The sinking of Barham was caught on film by a cameraman from Pathe News who had been onboard HMS Valiant….

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