Winston Churchill was rather fond of Oliver Cromwell. While he was First Sea Lord, Churchill repeatedly tried to recognize Cromwell by naming a battleship in his honor. Churchill settled on one of the Queen Elizabeth class, a squadron of powerful new fast battleships that would be commissioned in 1915. King George V didn’t like the idea of having one of his most powerful ships named after Britain’s most famous regicide, and prevailed upon Churchill to choose a more suitable name. The names finally decided upon for the class were Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Warspite, Barham, and Malaya.
The five ships of this class were the finest battleships ever built for the Royal Navy, correcting for time period. Each carried 8 15″ guns, the heaviest armament of the day. More importantly, each of the ships could reach 24 knots, making them nearly as fast as contemporary battlecruisers. Their 28000 ton displacement meant that they did not need to sacrifice protection in exchange for this speed and firepower. A sixth ship was planned for the Royal Navy, but cancelled at the start of the war in favor of smaller, simpler ships. Most interesting, the Royal Canadian Navy seriously considered ordering three of the ships in 1913. The ships would have been assigned to the Royal Navy, but crewed with Canadians and flying under a Canadian flag. Needless to say, this would have made Canada a player in naval affairs of similar stature to Austria-Hungary, Italy, and even France. However, cooler and angrier heads prevailed. Churchill thought the notion of a Canadian squadron serving in the Royal Navy on a permanent basis absurd, although he wanted the ships. The Canadian Parliament turned the proposal down, making Canada virtually the only country of its size to sensibly eschew the fantasy of a Mahanian navy.
Barham and her sisters were attached as a fast battleship squadron to Admiral David Beatty’s battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland. Beatty’s six battlecruisers fared poorly against Admiral Franz Hipper’s five German battlecruisers. British battlecruisers tended to explode when hit, and the Germans took advantage of this tendency by sinking two of Beatty’s ships shortly after the beginning of the battle. Barham and three of her sisters closed with the engaged German battlecruisers and covered the retreat of Beatty’s remaining ships. They chased off Hipper’s ships, but in doing so became engaged with the vanguard of the High Seas Fleet. All of the ships took hits, but all dealt a great deal of damage, and all four made it back to port.
The rest of the war passed uneventfully for Barham, as the German High Seas Fleet never sortied again. Barham was one of the fifteen battleships retained by the Royal Navy under the conditions of the 1921 Washington Treaty and the 1930 London Naval Treaty, and was modernized between 1930 and 1933. Battleships that could make a decent speed were at a premium in World War II, so Barham proved very useful in the Mediterranean, where she tangled with the Italian fleet at the Battle of Cape Matapan.
On November 25, 1941, U-331 happened upon a Royal Navy squadron on its way to attack Italian convoys to Libya. The German captain fired four torpedoes at the center ship in the British line, then dove to 820 feet, roughly 2.5 times the recommended maximum depth for a submarine of that class. The Germans heard, but did not see, three torpedoes hit Barham, which sank in eight minutes with about 800 men.
U-331 was sunk by British aircraft a year later. Its captain, Freiherr Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, managed to survive and lived the rest of the war in a prison camp. In 1951 he moved to Vancouver, Canada, where he became an interior designer and nature photographer before passing away in August 2000. Winston Churchill finally worked out his obsession with Oliver Cromwell by naming a tank after him.