December 12, 1939: Yet Another Naval Blunder (HMS Barnham Sinks HMS Duchess In Spectacular Display of Explosions)

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A Brief History

On December 12, 1939, an all too familiar scenario developed when 2 British warships collided, resulting in the sinking of the smaller vessel including considerable loss of life.  While escorting the battleship HMS Barnham from the Mediterranean Sea back to Britain, the destroyer HMS Duchess was accidentally rammed by the huge warship in a dense fog off the Southwest coast of Scotland, knocking the destroyer upside down (capsized) which triggered the depth charges the destroyer carried to explode, destroying the smaller ship and sinking her in short order, taking many of her crew with her.  Ship collisions are nothing new and have occurred just about as long as ships have sailed the seas, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.  Too often the ships involved are from the same navy, in this case, the British Royal Navy, one of the most storied and accomplished navies in the history of military sailing.

Digging Deeper

Of the 145 officers and men aboard the Duchess, a total of 124 men perished in the incident, including the captain who had been trapped in his cabin by a jammed sliding door.  Bad enough when a ship capsizes, as you can imagine the terror of the crew when their ship suddenly is upside down, but the subsequent explosions of the depth charges adds a tremendous extra dose of sickening terror to the experience.  One can imagine the sick feeling on the bridge of the Barnham when the collision occurred, and then the sinking feeling when the depth charges started exploding!

Barham underway at low speed, mid-1930s

The ill fated Duchess was a D-Class destroyer that entered service in 1933, thus relatively new at the time of her demise.  Spanning 329 feet in length with a  33 foot beam, the destroyer displaced nearly 2000 short tons when fully loaded.  Capable of the high speed of 36 knots (41 mph), she boasted a main armament of 4 X 4.7 inch guns and an additional 76.2 mm (12 pounder) anti-aircraft gun.  Also armed with 2 X Quad-.50 caliber machine gun mounts and 2 X 4-tube torpedo launchers, the destroyer was also equipped for anti-submarine warfare with 20 depth charges loaded on rails and launchers.  Duchess had agility to go with her high speed, courtesy of twin shaft propulsion from her 36,000 total horsepower steam turbine engines.  The small warship packed an enormous punch and great performance.

The battleship HMS Barnham was an older vessel, a World War I era Queen Elizabeth-class battleship commissioned in 1915.  Her claim to fame in the Great War was participating in the Battle of Jutland on July 5, 1916, firing 337 main gun rounds with at least a dozen reported hits, making her one of the most accurate battleships of that epic engagement.  The mighty ship was sunk during World War II by a U-boat in 1941 of the coast of Egypt with the massive loss of 862 of her crew.  As an older style battleship, Barnham was not built for speed, as her 24 knot top speed suggests.  She was heavily armored, with a waterline belt of armor 13 inches thick, and another 13 inches of steel protecting her turrets and bridge.  Barnham was built to duke it out with other heavy ships, boasting a powerful main battery of 4 X twin 15 inch gun turrets supplemented by 16 single mounted 6 inch guns and given an anti-aircraft battery of 2 single 3 inch guns.  The mighty battleship also sported 4 torpedo tubes in the unlikely event torpedoes would be needed.  She could sail for 5000 nautical miles before needing refueling, powered by 4 propeller shafts.  Her crew numbered over 1000 men.  (Later modifications swapped the anti-aircraft battery with more 4 inch rapid fire guns and an increased number of crewmen as well as adding 40mm “pom-pom” anti-aircraft guns and some .50 caliber machine guns, as well as a suite of rocket launchers on top of the B turret.  The forward torpedo tubes were deleted.)

Aerial view of Barham in Scapa Flow, 1917

(Note: We have previously discussed naval disasters in our articles that include “September 8, 1923: The Honda Point Disaster,” “August 10, 1628: Most Powerful Warship Sinks on Maiden Voyage,” “HMS Curacoa, Yet Another Naval ‘Oops’ Moment!” “Another Naval “Oops” Moment, Battleship Kawachi Blows Up,”  “10 “Oops!” Moments in Naval History,” “5 Infamous Ship Collisions,”  and “British Battleship Sinks British Battleship Without Firing a Shot!” We also have numerous other articles related to maritime events and warfare, as well as other military subjects.)

Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever heard of the Barnham and Duchess collision? What other famous or dramatic ship collisions can you think of?  Would you want to serve on a warship, especially in time of war?  Have you ever been to sea on a ship?  What do you think is the worst ship vs. ship collision ever?

Duchess at anchor

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fawcett, Bill. How to Lose a War at Sea: Foolish Plans and Great Naval Blunders (How to Lose Series). William Morrow Paperbacks, 2013.

Jackson, Robert. Royal Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Regan, Geoffrey. Brassey’s Book of Naval Blunders (Military Blunders). Brassey’s, 2000.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by a Royal Navy official photographer of Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duchess at a buoy in 1933, is photograph FL 10926 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29).  This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domainbecause it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was published prior to 1968; or
  3. It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1968.

HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
More information.

See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.