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Mighty Barham

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Last Moments

Dead Navy Sailor Disclosed War Secrets To Scottish Psychic

By James Donahue

The sinking of the British battleship Barham by a German submarine and the loss of 861 seamen on November 25, 1941, was a top secret affair for several months. It was early in the war and the British Admiralty, when it realized the Germans did not know the Barham was lost, saw it as an opportunity to mislead the enemy and protect British morale.

Thus it was that all news of the disaster was censored. News reporters were told of the event but ordered not to use the story. Families were notified of the lost sailors, but advised because of the war effort not to speak of it.

What the Admiralty didn’t count on was Spiritualist Hellen Duncan of Callander, Scotland, who conducted a sťance in Portsmouth and said she talked to a dead sailor that told her all about the sinking of the Barham. She inadvertently made news when she passed on the information given to her by the dead sailor within hours after the sinking.

This event touched off one of the strangest cases of a witchcraft conviction in Scottish courts in modern history. Duncan was arrested in 1944 and convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and sentenced to nine months in prison because she had given away vital war secrets. Calls for a pardon by friends and family members have gone ignored.

HMS Barham was built at Clydebank, Scotland, in 1914, in time to participate in World War I. The 31,100-ton battleship carried a compliment of up to 1,258 sailors. It participated in numerous major battles of World Wars I and II, including the famous Battle of Jutland. The ship sustained shell and torpedo damage on various occasions and was damaged by a bomb off Crete in May, 1941, so spent weeks during the wars in port undergoing extensive repair.

Her final destruction occurred off Soloum while steaming to cover an attack on Italian convoys. She was accompanied by the battleships Warspite and Valiant and a screen of eight destroyers, sailing from Alexandria to Benghazi in Libya, North Africa.

Unbeknown to the squadron, the German submarine U-331, under the command of Captitanleutenant Freiherr Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, was right in their path. The sub managed to slip through the British destroyer screen and get in a close firing position as the middle battleship, Barham, passed. Three torpedoes were fired from 1,200 yards. They hit close together at almost the same instant on the port side of the battleship, just aft of the funnel.

The old battleship exploded in a spectacular ball of flame and smoke, her stored armament blew up, and the big ship rolled on its side, broke apart and sank so quickly only 396 of the crew survived.

It was all over in about two and a half minutes, witnesses said.