On this day in history….12th December 1939

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….

On this day in history….2nd October 1942

On this day in history : 2nd October 1942 – British cruiser HMS Curacao sinks after colliding with the liner RMS Queen Mary off the coast of Donegal…. 337 lives are lost….

HMS Curacao – Public domain

HMS Curacao was part of a convoy escorting the RMS Queen Mary – which was carrying 10,000 American troops of the 29th Infantry Division…. The liner was travelling at a speed of around 26 knots on a zig-zag course – to avoid attack from German submarines…. HMS Curacao, an elderly cruiser built during WW1, was travelling on a straight course (to make it easier to defend the liner against enemy aircraft attack) and was moving at around 25 knots….

Problems began to arise as both Captains believed that they had right of way…. Commodore Sir Cyril Gordon Illingworth of the Queen Mary expected Curacao to give way as the liner crossed its path…. Whereas Captain John Wilfred Boutwood kept Curacao on its straight path believing the Queen Mary would accommodate it….

At 13.32pm it became obvious that the two ships were going to come too close…. Queen Mary’s watch officer began to alter course but Illingworth intervened, saying : “Carry on with the zig-zag. These chaps are used to escorting; they will keep out of your way and won’t interfere with you”….

RMS Queen Mary, New York Harbour, June 1945, carrying US troops from Europe – Public domain

At 14.04pm Queen Mary started a starboard turn, she was around 366m behind the cruiser…. Too late it was realised that a collision was inevitable and there was no time to do anything about it…. The Queen Mary hit Curacao amidships at full speed – the cruiser was cut clean in half…. The rear section sank immediately, followed by the front end a few minutes later….

The Queen Mary continued on with a damaged bow to avoid the risk of a U-boat attack – but reported the collision to the rest of the escort group who were about eight miles away…. HMS Bramham and another ship arrived at the scene an hour or so later and picked up 101 survivors, including Captain Boutwood…. 337 officers and crew were lost….

Those who witnessed the illusion were sworn to secrecy due to national security…. The incident was not made public until after the War had ended….

On this day in history….26th September 1938

On this day in history : 26th September 1938 – The first gas masks are issued to British citizens as concerns over the prospect of war with Germany grow….

The government issued some 35 million ‘General Civilian respirators’…. During World War One chlorine gas and then mustard gas had been used for the first time…. It is estimated some 88,000 were killed by gas and 1,200,000 injured….

As World War Two loomed the UK government planned for tens of thousands of deaths in London alone…. They had been advised to expect 250,000 deaths from gas in Britain in the first week of the war….

Masks were issued in a cardboard box, with the instructions printed inside the lid…. Adults had ones made of plain black rubber; children had ‘Mickey Mouse’ masks – in an attempt to make them seem a little less scary…. Babies had a mask ‘suit’ which completely enclosed them, leaving only their legs exposed….

AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS ON THE BRITISH HOME FRONT: MOTHER AND BABY IN GAS MASKS, C 1941 (D 3918) Copyright: � IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205198677

People were instructed to carry their masks with them at all times – and to practice putting them on and wearing them…. Many found the masks awkward and cumbersome whilst others found the small of the rubber made them nauseous….

British couple wearing their gas masks at home in 1941 – Image : Ministry of Information – Public domain

It was to be almost a year before war eventually broke out…. Whilst the government had prepared the public for what it feared would be Hitler’s secret weapon thankfully the masks were never needed….

On this day in history….15th August 1941

On this day in history : 15th August 1941 – The execution by firing squad, at the Tower of London, of Corporal Josef Jakobs…. It is to be the last ever execution at the Tower….

The Miniature Firing Range, Tower of London – ‘The Shed of Death’ – Photograph from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

Jakobs, born in Luxembourg in 1898, was a German spy – who during World War Two worked for the Abwehr, the German Army’s intelligence department….

On the 31st of January he was flown into Ramsay, Huntingdonshire from Schipol Airport, Holland…. He parachuted from the aircraft and landed in a field but broke his ankle in the process…. The following morning, to get the attention of two farmers, Charles Baldock and Harry Coulson, who were working nearby, he fired his pistol into the air….

The Home Guard were notified and Jakobs, still wearing his flying suit, was arrested…. He was carrying £500 in British currency, a radio transmitter, forged identity papers – and a German sausage! He also carried a photograph of German singer and actress Clara Bauerle, who was his lover and also a spy…. She was already in England and the idea was for him to join her….

Josef Jakobs – Fair use

Jakobs was transferred to Cannon Row Police Station in London, where he gave a voluntary statement to MI5…. He was then taken to Brixton Prison Infirmary where his ankle was treated before being held at Dulwich Hospital for the next two months….

His court martial took place on the 4th and 5th of August 1941 at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in Chelsea…. The British had been aware that he was coming to England as they had been informed by a double agent, Welsh Nationalist Arthur Owens…. Jakobs was found guilty and sentenced to death….

The execution took place ten days later at the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London…. Jakobs was tied blindfolded to a Windsor chair…. Eight soldiers of the Holding Battalion Scots Guards took aim with their 303 Lee-Enfields at a white cotton target pinned above his heart…. At 7.12am a silent signal was given by Lieutenant-Colonel C.R. Gerard…. Jakobs died instantly; five bullets hit him, three of the soldiers had been issued with blanks…. Jakobs was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London….

The Windsor chair on which Jakobs was executed – Image credit : Hu Nhu – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

On this day in history….23rd July 1940

On this day in history : 23rd July 1940 – Winston Churchill changes the name of the Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard….

From the collections of the Imperial War Museums

The LDV had been set up in May 1940; Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, called for men between the ages of 17 and 65 to sign up for the new force…. Very often they were in fact men above and below this age, or those deemed unfit for active service…. In the beginning it was very much a ‘make-do’ organisation, with improvised uniforms and weapons….

However, it evolved into a well-equipped and trained army of some 1.7 million men – not only ready for a possible invasion but also involved with bomb disposal and manning coastal artillery and anti-aircraft guns….

The Home Guard was stood down on the 23d of December 1944 – during its existence 1,206 men lost their lives through serving it….

From the collections of the Imperial War Museums