Duci Non Trahi: The Sinking Of HMS Duchess

At the bottom of the cold and murky North Channel, off the Mull of Kintyre, lies HMS Duchess, a once splendid D-class destroyer, now nothing more than a desolate wreck that belies her former glory, as well as her proud motto, Duci non trahi’ meaning To be led but not dragged.’ As she descended into the unforgiving depths, all but 23 of her 160 crew members met their deaths, with those who had managed to escape the sinking ship quickly succumbing to the icy waters.

Built by Palmers in Jarrow, a company that collapsed soon after, HMS Duchess was commissioned in January 1933, and originally allocated to the British Mediterranean Fleet, which played an essential role in protecting the links between Britain to the rest of the Empire. In 1935, HMS Duchess had been deployed to China, joining the 8th Destroyer Flotilla before being sent to the Red Sea in response to the Abyssinian Crisis. From September 1937, HMS Duchess remained stationed in Hong Kong.

Shortly before Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, she was reinstated as part of the Mediterranean Fleet and orders were given for her immediate to return to British waters with ‘the greatest possible speed.’ Crossings seas, stopping at Singapore, Colombo and Aden, and passing though the Suez Canal, HMS Duchess finally arrived in Malta where, along with her sister ships, HMS Duncan, HMS Dainty, HMS Delight, she was instructed to sail to the River Clyde, escorting the First World War veteran battleship, HMS Barham.

It was around 4.a.m on 12th December 1939 and HMS Duchess was roughly nine nautical miles away from the Mull of Kintyre; the crew were mostly sleeping, with the handful that were awake having breakfast. Suddenly, Ernest Swinhoe, the young seaman on watch, saw a vast object cruising directly towards the destroyer; it was HMS Barham. Weighing 1375 tonnes to the battleship’s 31,000, HMS Duchess did not stand a chance; the impact of the collision was so devastating that she capsized, giving those on board little time to flee before she started to sink.

A lucky few were rescued by HMS Barham as they clung to the condemned destroyer’s hull. Ernest Swinhoe was one of the fortunate men who avoided disappearing forever into the dark and freezing expanse, along with doomed HMS Duchess. Lieutenant Commander Robin White, her commanding officer had perished along with the majority of the crew when he became trapped in his cabin. White had been a highly experienced seafarer, with an exemplary record of service to the Royal Navy and had also been a friend of the late T.E. Lawrence. In 1931, Lawrence had written to congratulate White on his elevation to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and confessed to his own nautical ineptitude, claiming, ‘I will never be a sailor, I’m afraid: born too late, though my father had yachts and used to take me with him from my fourth year: but my attempted accomplishment is motor-boating, a very different art, and as difficult. Sailing has only wind and water, and the two-party system is simply to work. With power all manner of complications enter and the art becomes exquisite, and subtler.’ 

The reason for the catastrophic accident was never adequately determined, but the war led to HMS Barham meeting a similarly terrible fate. Just over a fortnight after the HMS Duchess disaster, on 28th December, she was patrolling the Butt of Lewis along with HMS Repulse, a battlecruiser and five destroyers, HMS Fame, HMS Icarus, HMS Imogen, HMS Isis and HMS Nubian. Four torpedoes were fired at them U-30, a German submarine, and HMS Barham was hit, killing four of the crew and injuring two. Consequently, HMS Barham was withdrawn from service until April 1940.

Taking part in Operation Menace in September 1940, HMS Barham was later utilised during Operation Coat in November that same year. On 25th November 1941, she was torpedoed again by the German submarine U-331 whilst in the Mediterranean, and began sinking within minutes of the explosion. Of the 1,184 crew members, 859 lost their lives. Shockingly, the demise of HMS Barham was filmed by John Turner, a cameraman for Pathé news, who had witnessed the event from the neighbouring battleship, HMS Valiant. However, the footage remained classified until 1945, as a mark of respect for the sailors who had perished. Like HMS Duchess before her, both ships were noble leaders, tragically dragged down by the cruel sea.

Above: British Pathé footage showing HMS Barham exploding and sinking (1941)