HMS Duncan

HMS Duncan

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HMS Duncan

HMS Duncan was the name ship of the Duncan class of pre-dreadnought battleships. She spent most of the First World War in the Mediterranean, becoming involved in the Allied intervention in Greece. Before the war she served in the Mediterranean and with the Channel and Atlantic Fleets. Like the rest of her class, she formed the 6th Battle Squadron at the start of the war, before spending August-November 1914 with the Grand Fleet as part of the 3rd Battle Squadron. She then returned to Portland to form a new 6th Battle Squadron with the Channel Fleet.

In 1915 she was sent to the Mediterranean, but not to the Dardanelles. Instead she was one of the British battleships attached to the Italian fleet, retaining that connection into 1917. During her time in the Mediterranean she became involved in the Allied intervention in Greece. In October 1916 she was part of the fleet that seized the Greek fleet, landing troops on Lipso Island. On 1 December (with HMS Exmouth) she landed marines in Athens in a short-lived direct intervention. During 1917 she returned to Britain and was placed into the reserve to free up her crew to serve on more modern vessels.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed


Armour – deck


- belt


- bulkheads


- barbettes


- gun houses


- casemates


- conning tower





Four 12in guns
Twelve 6in quick firing guns
Ten 12pdr quick firing guns
Six 3pdr guns
Four 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement



21 March 1901


October 1903


Captain Heard

Sold for break up


Books on the First World War |Subject Index: First World War

HMS Duncan: What Capabilities Does The Warship Bring To The Gulf?

HMS Duncan will join HMS Montrose in the Gulf region as Iran threatens to disrupt shipping.

The UK Government announced it would the warship to the Gulf amid escalating tensions with Iran (Picture: MOD).

HMS Duncan, which has been diverted to the Gulf, is the sixth and final Type 45 destroyer built for the Royal Navy, being commissioned into the fleet in 2013.

The Navy describes the Type 45 as "one of the most advanced warships ever built" and they are significantly more capable than their predecessor, the Type 42 class.

Trouble In The Gulf: Everything You Need To Know

Duncan measures 500 feet in length, with a top speed of 30 knots and a 7,000-mile nautical range.

With her Royal Navy crew, she brings formidable, varied and adaptable abilities to her patrol role in the Gulf, which her adversaries will know about and respect.

Weapons and Primary Role

The Type 45 is primarily designed to be an anti-aircraft and anti-missile platform – protecting themselves and crucially the broader fleet.

In the near future, these ships will help protect the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

They are equipped with the Sea Viper Missile System, which can knock moving targets out of the sky from 70 miles away.

HMS Defender: Navy Warship Demonstrates Missile Firing Capability

This missile system uses the SAMPSON active electronically scanned array multi-function radar.

This means thousands of items, even those travelling at supersonic speeds, can be tracked at any one time and destroyed if needed.

Sea Viper can launch eight missiles in 10 seconds and simultaneously guide up to 16 missiles at a time. The Royal Navy says on its website "airborne threats don't stand a chance".

Other Roles

Aside from air defence, the Type 45 can deliver many other capabilities, including tackling pirates and providing humanitarian aid.

The ships weapons systems also equip the Type 45 with the ability to tackle the threat posed by traditional or asymmetric warfare.

The destroyer is mounted with a traditional 4.5-inch naval gun, alongside two 30mm small calibre guns and two 7.62mm miniguns.

Two Phalanx close-in weapons systems are also on board, using a radar cannon mounted on a swivel base, to counter missiles and helicopters.

Design Benefits

The Type 45 looks significantly different from her predecessors. This is all to do with radar, specifically reducing the 'signature' of the ship, making it harder to detect.

Things like lifeboats, deck equipment and life-rafts are hidden from view.

There is no 'mid-ships' passage like on the Type 42s and there are a lot of flat surfaces, giving the vessel a slab-sided appearance.

In radar parlance, this all gives the Type 45 a 'clean' appearance, making her trickier to spot and identify on radar operators' screens.

The onboard Seagnat system aids her 'stealth ship' characteristics. It is a decoy system that uses radar jamming and radar deception (projecting a false signature) to help disguise the ship and crucially fool missiles.

Snapshot: Life on a Type 45


Having an advanced warship is great, but any platform is only as good as those operating it.

One hundred and ninety-one Royal Navy sailors and officers make up the standard Type 45 crew – although they can accommodate up to 285.

Many of these crew members will have served multiple times on Type 45s as they have been in service for a decade.

They will have the training and experience to do their job as the situation demands.


There's ongoing concern about the Type 45's propulsion system. It is highly advanced, enabling a 7,000 nautical mile range.

However, it has failed on several deployments. HMS Duncan reportedly suffering propulsion failure in 2016.

It is understood the ship's intercoolers can fail in extreme temperatures and an engine replacement programme is in progress.

What Does This Mean?

Even the United States acknowledges that the Type 45 is about as good as it gets, worldwide, in air-defence destroyer terms. They are remarkably advanced and pack a punch far bigger than any predecessor or competitor.

They also come equipped with a Royal Navy crew – in short professionals respected and admired the world over.

Engines aside, it would be hard to think of a better class of ship to be protecting Britain's interests in the Gulf region, at this difficult time.

HMS Duncan buzzed by 17 Russian jets in the Black Sea

The first part of the Channel 5 documentary “Warship Life at Sea” has just been broadcast and documents HMS Duncan leading a NATO deployment to the Black Sea in the first half of 2018. There have been several TV documentaries showing life on board RN warships made in the last few years but the latest series offers a rare and close-up view of navy delivering at the operational sharp end.

Excerpt from the second part of the documentary showing the scene in the operations room as the Russian Jets buzz the ship. It should be noted this was filmed in February 2018 – some media outlets are reporting it as if it happening this week and conflating it with current events in the Kerch Strait.

The show is a great advert for the RN both as a recruitment tool and a way of showing what taxpayers money really buys. There is plenty of material in the media about the navy covering the ceremonial, charity work, honours & awards, ships returning home, aircraft carrier trials, industrial and engineering aspects etc but there is not nearly enough explanation about what the RN is for and what it can do. There have also been plenty of myths about the Type 45 destroyers supposedly broken and tied up in port. Here we see a crew with total confidence in their ship, described as “the best air defence platform in the world” operating in a high threat environment.

On arrival in the Black Sea, an elderly Russian Kashin class destroyer (Probably the Smetlivyy, built in 1969) began to shadow HMS Duncan and several Russian aircraft flew near to the ship. Later, in a significant show of strength, 17 Su-24 ‘Fencer’ and Su-35 ‘Flanker’ Fighter-Bombers approached the ship and did not respond to requests to keep their distance. Commodore Mike Utley, in command of the NATO group at the time said: “HMS Duncan is probably the only maritime asset that has seen a raid of that magnitude in the last 25 years.” The Russian consider the Black Sea ‘their lake’ and do not like lawful use of international waters, particularly by NATO warships. This was a just demonstration by the Russian air force but if they approached the ship in this manner in a combat situation, they would be easy targets for the ship’s Sea Viper missiles. If the ship was attacked for real they would be far more likely to use stand-off missiles or come in at very low level, where they are much harder to detect. The Type 45 is about the best air defence platform at sea but historical precedence suggests that aircraft attacking surface ships always have the ultimate advantage, the surest way to provide cover for any naval fleet is with its own carrier-bourne aircraft.

HMS Duncan passes under the Bosphorous bridge as she transits the Northern Straits towards the Black Sea, 31 January 2018. Commander Eleanor Stack, the charismatic captain of HMS Duncan and the unintentional star of the show. Some members of the ship’s company that the documentary focussed on. (Photo: Channel 5) HMS Duncan made two trips into the Black Sea in 2018, seen here in May 2018 as Flagship of the NATO Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2). In company with Spanish frigate ESPS Victoria, Turkish frigates TCG Gemlik and TCG Yildirim, Romanian frigate OS Regele Ferdinand, and Bulgarian frigate BGS Drazki.

Tensions in the region are currently higher than ever, on 25th November the Russians blockaded the Kerch Strait with a cargo ship moored beneath a newly constructed Russian bridge. This blocks access to the Sea Azov which is an important international trade route for Ukraine. The Russian navy fired on two small Ukrainian armed patrol vessels and special forces subsequently captured them. Ukraine is not a NATO member but there is considerable sympathy for their plight in the face of the Russian invasion and continuing aggression. However, Putin is well aware there is unlikely to be the political will in Europe or the US to send what would need to be a very substantial force to support Ukraine.

If NATO was ever to really confront the Russians in the Black Sea they would be at a major disadvantage being so close to Russian airbases and shore-based anti-ship missiles. Under the Montreux Convention, Turkey controls the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles that give access to the Black Sea. Warships are only permitted to spend 21 days in the Black Sea and warships over 15,000 tons are not permitted at all, effectively excluding aircraft carriers.

Introducing HMS Hood

This blog dealt yesterday (it feels longer ago) with Helen Duncan, medium extraordinaire, claiming, in Portsmouth in 1941, that HMS Barham had sunk before the British government had announced that ship’s demise. In that post I acknowledged that there was another case where Helen Duncan had learnt that a ship had sunk before it was generally known, and this was the Hood. HMS Hood was, as many readers will know, perhaps the best loved of all the Royal Navy’s ships. As her greatest biographer writes:

There is a special quality about the battlecruiser Hood which resists any single definition. It has to do with her beauty and her destructive power, with her gilded years of peace and then her annihilation in war, of sinuous strength and desperate fragility (Taylor).

She met her end early morning Saturday 24 May 1941 at the hands of the Bismarck: much of Britain’s subsequent hunt for the Bismarck was excited by the need to revenge Hood, something that was amply achieved, 27 May. HMS Hood did not sink. She exploded when a shell entered her magazine and only three of her crew of 1418 survived. News of her demise was given to a shocked nation on Saturday 24 May at 9 pm. Many remember it as one of the worst moments of the war.

Helen Duncan and a Battleship

This account comes from Roy C. Firebrace and was given in a discussion following a talk by Percy Wilson in 1958 on Helen Duncan, ‘Evidence for Survival’ at the College of Psychic Science at Brighton. Firebrace was… Well, perhaps it is best if he introduce himself.

During the war I was head of Intelligence in Scotland and I had the opportunity of attending a seance with Mrs. Duncan in Edinburgh. There appeared during the seance the form of a control, Albert, and he suddenly said ‘a great British battleship has just been sunk’. Well, I had no knowledge of this. After the seance I returned to my headquarters and as soon as I got back, about two hours after the sitting, I heard on the private line from the Admiralty in Scotland the news that the Hood had been sunk. And I was then able to check up that at the time of the seance the Admiralty had no knowledge whatever of the sinking of the ship. That was an instance of a materialised form, whatever you like to call it, which did give, I think at the correct time, the fact about the sinking of the battleship. So you understand from the point of view of the authorities, Mrs. Duncan was a somewhat dangerous person. It is a fact that the police from Scotland Yard did come to the International Institute while these stories were current, and consulted Mrs. Duncan there, and myself, as to how Mrs. Duncan could be prevented from giving this information out, because the authorities admitted that the information was authentic.

This evidence is much more interesting than the evidence for HMS Barham, where there is a relatively straightforward explanation at hand. All the signs are that Firebrace is a good witness. There is certainly no reason for doubting his honesty. Is there any other explanation, though, for this remarkable ‘coincidence’?

Memory Problems?

Let’s start on some minor but telling problems with Firebrace’s account. First, the Hood was blown up at 0559 or 0600 hours GMT its destruction was so rapid that by 0603 nothing but bodies were on the surface of the water, the mighty hulk had vanished into the depths. We can assume then that Albert was not relaying information broadcast simultaneously from the North Atlantic as might be suggested by Firebrace’s words: ‘he suddenly said ‘a great British battleship has just been sunk’ and something there in his ‘I think at the correct time’.

Second, Firebrace states that, when he was with Duncan, the Admiralty did not yet know that Hood had been sunk. I’m assuming that the séance could not have started earlier than 9.00 am and that Firebrace would not have been back in his office before midday let’s say that the séance lasted an hour. The Admiralty certainly knew long before 1200 on 24 May! The Hood had blown up at or just before 0600, remember. Hood fought alongside HMS Prince of Wales and the crew of the PoW watched horrified as Hood went up: she was less than a kilometer away when her magazine exploded. The PoW communicated the information immediately, not least because the PoW was not necessarily going to survive the duel with Bismarck in fact, she almost did not. HMS King George V also communicated, at 0615, the news that was picked up by many horrified British ships in the Atlantic. As noted above there is absolutely no reason for doubting Firebrace’s honesty, but his memory was demonstrably at fault on these two important points.


No one – I hope! – would suggest that Helen Duncan had contacts within the Admiralty leaking her information. The most economical explanation, not involving psychic phenomenon, would be the following. Albert announced not ‘a great British battleship has just been sunk’, but ‘a British warship has just been sunk’. In WW2 the chances of that happening, particularly in 1941 proved to be, unfortunately, relatively high: Malcolm Gaskill makes this case in his Hellish Nell. As Bismarck was drowning members of the Home Fleet in the Atlantic the Germans were raining death on Crete and many British ships would be lost in subsequent operations to evacuate British and Dominion troops there: this Mediterranean disaster in the making had been trailed in the previous days newspapers that Duncan might have read. My guess would be that Firebrace returned to work to learn that the Hood had been sunk and that a chance sentence of Albert’s ‘evolved’ in his mind from ship to ‘battleship’.

Having said this there is no question that the evidence for Duncan’s gifts are much better for HMS Hood than they are for the HMS Barham later that same year. Any other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com


Bruce Taylor, The Battlecruiser Hood

Joe writes, 29 Mar 2018: ‘It is of course possible that such a thing could occur, as the Holy League defeated the Ottomans at Lepanto, the pope in Rome turned to those in the room with him and said, “We are victorious!” In a materialist age where such events are dismissed out of hand, no such events can be acknowledged. This doesn’t mean they don’t occur, just that they can’t by tautological imperative.’

Beach replies: ‘In total sympathy with this, just in my experience the evidence doesn’t add up… More’s the shame!’

Wartime Witchcraft? – The Strange Case of Helen Duncan and the Sinking of HMS Barham

HELEN DUNCAN, 44, was hosting a séance in Portsmouth, England in November, 1941 when she stunned her audience with a disturbing announcement, one that she claimed had come to her via the spirit world. According to the Scottish-born clairvoyant and mother of six, the British battleship HMS Barham had just been sunk.

Her listeners were astounded by the news. After all, there had been no official reports of such a disaster and certainly nothing had been in the papers about an attack on the vessel. Yet amazingly the warship had in fact been destroyed on Nov. 25 in the Mediterranean following an encounter with the German submarine U-331. Moments after being torpedoed, the Barham’s powder magazine exploded, sending the stricken ship to the bottom along with more than 800 of its 1,100-man crew. The Royal Navy had kept the loss a closely guarded secret. The Admiralty feared that the information would damage civilian morale.

Duncan told her spellbound guests that the news was revealed to her by the spirit of one of the sailors who had gone down with the doomed ship.

Her revelation quickly spread, causing a stir throughout Portsmouth. It also grabbed the attention of British authorities. Not surprisingly, the government had questions. How was Duncan picking up on military secrets? Was she in contact with the enemy? Was she receiving leaked information from inside the War Office? Or was she really a witch?

Police arrested Duncan and charged her first with vagrancy (a catch-all misdemeanour in the U.K. at the time). After a more in-depth investigation, the Crown prosecuted Duncan using an obscure 200-year-old law known as the Witchcraft Act. In fact, Duncan was one of the last people in the British Isles ever to be convicted under the 1735 law.

And while the wartime news media and the spiritualist community made much of Duncan’s case, the facts of the case were far less bizarre many alleged that Duncan was little more than a run-of-the-mill huckster. In fact, at the time of her arrest she was already well known to the police as a con artist.

She and her husband Henry had been exposed numerous times in the 1930s for conjuring up bogus spirits before a vast array of high-paying customers. Duncan’s detractors claimed that the couple had used a variety of time-honoured (and rather pedestrian) techniques to glean fragments of information about their clients prior to her sittings, which would then later be fantastically ‘revealed’ to the dupes during the sessions.

Duncan was also known for her eerie ability to produce ectoplasm — goopy and malleable supernatural substance — from her mouth while entranced. The material was believed by some to be a conduit through which spirits could take shape and even communicate with the living.

During the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, a number of famous mediums claimed to be able to secrete the goop through bodily orifices. Once conjured up, the wet mucus-like element would reportedly transform into the physical manifestation of spirits and, according to some, even come to life. Probing skeptics invariably revealed that the miraculous matter was little more than a mixture of everyday items like paper-mâché, egg white or cheesecloth. The Duncans’ critics maintained as much. They believed Helen would swallow yards of moistened fabric prior to a séance and then regurgitate it while supposedly in a spellbound state.

Prosecutors also alleged that her husband would take advantage of the darkness in the room to drape the wet fabric over dolls or other shapes in order to create the impression that the ectoplasm had magically taken human form.

In 1933, Duncan was exposed as a hoax and was jailed for a month following a conviction for larceny.

By 1941, the couple had relocated to Portsmouth where Helen began providing spiritual readings to locals, many of whom were desperate for any news of their loved ones serving in uniform. Although her pronouncement of the sinking of the Barham astounded her audience, it wasn’t an entirely unknown development in military circles. Although the government hoped to prevent word of the loss from reaching the wider public, the Royal Navy had in fact informed the next of kin of all deceased crew-members. There were literally hundreds of civilians in Portsmouth alone who were aware of the sinking. It’s likely that Duncan obtained news of the disaster through other clients or some back channel, after which she eagerly disclosed it.

Even the Crown’s prosecution of Duncan on charges of witchcraft was far less dramatic than it first appeared. The 18 th Century law under which she was charged and later tried was not drafted to bring witches to justice (as one might imagine), but rather to make it an offence to claim magical powers. By 1944, prosecutors were keen to prevent Duncan from causing any more mischief and used the forgotten ordnance to do so.

Despite the ultimately underwhelming aspects of the case, the British media and public made much of the Duncan witchcraft trial. However, Prime Minister Churchill considered the fuss over the entire affair little more than “tomfoolery.”

The public commotion caused by the case eventually compelled the British government to revise and rename the Witchcraft Act to the Fraudulent Mediums Act in 1951.

Duncan was imprisoned for nine months following her conviction. She vowed upon release to cease and desist conducting séances. It was a commitment she would break. In 1956 she was again arrested for dabbling in the ‘supernatural’. She died several days later. Her supporters still claim that a police raid on her home that took place while she was entranced created a fatal physical and emotional strain on the spiritualist. Skeptics point out that Duncan was obese and in failing health at the time and more likely died of natural causes.

Despite this, the Duncan story endures. In 2010, the BBC broadcast a radio play about her entitled The Last Witch Trial and in recent years a public movement has sprung up to see her officially pardoned. The web is replete with sites that maintain Duncan was in fact a bona fide medium that was unfairly targeted by authorities who feared her powers.

HMS Duncan (D37)

HMS Duncan (viirinumero D37) on Britannian Kuninkaallisen laivaston tyypin 45 ilmatorjuntahävittäjä. HMS Duncanista on tehty Ylen kanavilla näytettävä, 2-osainen tv-jatkosarja, joka kertoo aluksella palvelleista sotilashenkilöistä. Muun ohella, aluksen komentaja on vaihtunut. Ylen esittämä jatkosarja kertoo sotilaallisista operaatiosta nimellä Sotalaiva - Elämää merellä. [1]

HMS Duncan

HMS Duncan
Aluksen vaiheet
Rakentaja BAE Systems Surface Ships
Kölinlasku 26. tammikuuta 2007
Laskettu vesille 11. lokakuuta 2010
Palveluskäyttöön 26. syyskuuta 2013
Tekniset tiedot
Uppouma 8 000 t
Pituus 152,4 m
Leveys 21,2 m
Syväys 7,4 m
Koneteho 28 800 shp
Nopeus 29 solmua (54 km/h)
Miehistöä 190
Aseistus Sea Viper-ohjusjärjestelmä (PAAMS)
Sylver A50 -laukaisualustassa MBDA Aster 15- ja 30-ohjuksia
1 x 4,5" (114 mm) Mk.8 -tykki
Infobox OK

Alus tilattiin joulukuussa 2000 BVT Surface Fleetiltä. Sen rakentaminen aloitettiin BAe Systems Naval Shipsin telakalla (vuodesta 2009 BAE Systems Surface Ships) Govanissa 26. tammikuuta 2007. Alus laskettiin vesille 11. lokakuuta 2010 kumminaan Marie Ibbotson. Alus otettiin palvelukseen 26. syyskuuta 2013.

Osat ja niiden valmistajat [2]
Nimi Telakka paino [t] yksiköt Huomautus
A Block Govan 517 1-6 -
B Block Govan 571 7-13 -
C Block Govan 494 14-19 -
D Block Govan 309 20, 22, 24 ja 26 -
E Block Portsmouth 401 21, 23, 25, 27-30 -
F Block Portsmouth 122 31-33 -
G Block Portsmouth 94 34-40 -

Painoissa on mukana ainoastaan teräksen aiheuttama massa ei kokonaismassa, johon tulee lisätä laitteet.

Royal Navy’s newest destroyer HMS Duncan conducts gunnery shoot

HMS Duncan (D37), the Royal Navy’s sixth (and final) Type 45 destroyer, conducts her first gunnery shoot. Twelve of these destroyers were originally planned (as one-for-one replacement for the Type 42). The number was cut to 8 in 2003 and to 6 in 2006.

Duncan blazes fire and steel during destroyer’s first gunnery shoot

Britain’s final Type 45 destroyer fired up her guns for the first time with sustained period of shooting off the Dorset gun.

Every one of the Portsmouth-based warship guns was fired – from her hand-held General Purpose Machine-Guns and Miniguns, through the 30mm automated cannon and the main 4.5in which can hurl a 40kg high-explosive shell more than a dozen miles.

Pictures: Lt Cdr Ryan Wallace and PO(AWT) David Lowe

With a flash of fire exploding from the muzzle, a shell leaves the main gun of new destroyer HMS Duncan for the first time.

Over the past few weeks Britain’s sixth and final Type 45 destroyer has been testing her advanced gunnery systems off the Dorset coast – the first occasion when she’s truly proven she’s a warship.

Every one of the Portsmouth-based warship’s guns was fired from her hand-held General Purpose Machine-Guns and Miniguns, through the 30mm automated cannon and the ‘crowdpleaser’, Duncan’s 4.5in main gun which can hurl a 40kg high-explosive shell more than a dozen miles.

After arriving in her home base for the first time in March and commissioning in September, Duncan – named after the Scottish admiral who decisively beat the Dutch Fleet at Camperdown in 1797 – has been preparing to join her five sisters on the front-line.

A 30mm shell casing falls away during the automated gun’s aerial target shoot

The first four Type 45s have carried out deployments – twice in the case of HMS Daring – while HMS Defender is due to sail on operations for the first time next year.

Key to any of those deployments is the ability of the guns to provide accurate and effective firepower – hence several days on the ranges in the Channel for what’s known as Sea Acceptance Trials (Gunnery).

In Duncan’s spacious, hi-tech operations room Lt Tuijo ‘TJ’ Thompson – a Royal New Zealand Navy officer on exchange – the ship’s principal warfare officer took charge, ensuring the destroyer was is in a safe position to operate the weaponry and fire it at selected targets.

ET(WE)s Richard Edge and Adam Matthews remove the 4-5in muzzle cover

In support of any firings by the 4.5in ‘Kryten’ (so named for its angular casing resembles the Red Dwarf character of the same name) PO ‘Daz’ Hickling, the captain of the turret, sat in the gunbay beneath the weapon overseeing the safe loading and operation of the main gun as it hammered away.

Duncan was making use of the ranges off Weymouth, run by 148 Battery Royal Artillery, an Army Commando unit who help to target the guns of the Fleet in times of war such as Libya and Iraq.

“They were very impressed by the ship’s display of Naval Gunfire Support, stating it was the best they had seen in years – not bad for Duncan’s first effort under the White Ensign,” said Cdr James Stride, the destroyer’s Commanding Officer.

POET(WE) Daz Hickling in the Captain of the Turret seat overseeing the 4.5in shoot

The 30mm cannon shoot proved particularly successful – Duncan became the first Type 45 destroyer to successfully engage an aerial towed target.

Just for good measure, the machine-guns and Minigun (a manually-operated Gatling Gun) were flashed up under the supervision of experienced gunner PO(AWW) Jamie Phillips.

“By proving that her various guns work as they were designed to do, Duncan will now be able to go on to support operations worldwide by providing Naval Gunfire Support to forces ashore, engaging surface targets that pose a threat, and play a part in defending the ship from air attack,” Cdr Stride added.

HMS Duncan (1859)

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HMS Duncan was the last ship that my 4x great-uncle James North (1848 – 1885) sailed on-board and he was present on the ship for only a short time between 1st July 1884 and 8 August 1884. At the time Duncan was used as a saluting ship and it’s very likely that James was placed on-board due to ill-health. He contracted Phthisis whilst serving on HMS Champion and Duncan would have been an easy commission to work on. in 1884 she retained only a small crew and based at Sheerness headed by Captain John D’arcy.

James probably deteriorated very quickly on-board and although there are no records explaining his leave he finally settled as a Beer Retailer in Landport, Portsea Island, Hampshire for the last few months of his life.

He died on the 20th February 1885 aged only 36. His sister travelled from Fulham, London to be with her brother or at least to complete arrangements for his funeral, a sad end to an incredible and adventurous life lived.

Helen Duncan, Scotland’s Last Witch

Spiritualist, medium and the last person in Britain to be tried and sentenced under the 1735 Witchcraft Act.

Born in Callander in 1897, the daughter of a cabinet-maker, Helen Duncan was a show woman who travelled throughout Britain, holding regular séances during which she would produce the form of dead people by emitting a cloud-like substance – ectoplasm – from her mouth. These spirits were said to appear, talking and actually touching their relatives.

It was during the years of the Second World War that Duncan’s activities attracted the attention of the Establishment.

In 1941, she spoke with a deceased sailor from HMS Barham and revealed that the ship had been sunk in the Mediterranean, although the War Office did not officially release this fact until several months later. The wartime government had been trying to hush up the loss of 861 British seamen when the German U-boat U331 torpedoed the ship.

On the night of 19th January 1944, one of Helen’s séances was raided by police, in her then hometown of Portsmouth where the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet was based. Officers attempted to stop the ectoplasm issuing from Helen’s mouth, but failed. After some order had been restored, Helen was formally arrested.

It has been alleged that the real reason for the raid was due to the official paranoia surrounding the forthcoming D-Day Normandy landings and the fear that she may reveal the date, location and other details.

In one of the most sensational episodes in wartime Britain, Duncan was eventually brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London and became the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which had not been used for more than a century. After a seven-day trial, she was sentenced to nine months in London’s Holloway Prison. She was even denied the right to appeal to the House of Lords.

As a result of the case, the Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in 1951. A formal Act of Parliament three years later officially recognised spiritualism as a religion.

Helen Duncan was released from prison on the 22 September 1944. However, the harassment she faced appears to have continued right up to her death. In November 1956 the police raided a private séance in Nottingham in an attempt to prove fraud. Once again the investigators failed in their objectives. Five weeks later, the woman who will always be remembered as the last witch, died.

A bronze bust of Helen Duncan, presented to the town of Callander, gives rise to controversy even today, as those with strong religious views object to its public display. As a consequence the sculpture is currently on display at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.


It is one of the most extraordinary psychic events of the twentieth century, rave some. It proves that mediums really can communicate with the dead, state others. A Scottish medium, Helen Duncan brought, in early December 1941, a relative of a crew member of HMS Barham into contact with her recently dead son (or according to other accounts a husband). Of course, meeting the dead is always comment-worthy, but this is a particularly curious episode because it was not, when Duncan gave her séance, officially known that HMS Barham had been sunk. How could Duncan have found out? Is this the proof from the other side that some have long been waiting for? Or are there other more mundane explanations?

Helen Duncan

Before getting to the crucial chronology a little background on the two protagonists: Helen Duncan and HMS Barham. Duncan (1897-1956) was from Perthshire and was, by the 1940s, one of Britain’s most famous mediums, her contact being a garrulous, bitchy spirit named ‘Albert’. She was fixed in the public imagination in 1944 when she was prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act and sent to prison for nine months. There were provisions in said act against fortune telling, and it also made for excellent wartime press copy ‘Witchcraft’ etc.

Duncan was particularly famous as a medium for materializations, which should set alarm bells ringing. Indeed, on several occasions she was ‘caught’ in the act of faking aspects of contact with the other side. In the world war she also found herself advising, with these dubious methods, family members who wanted to know whether a loved one was alive or dead. There is a vocal minority that consider Duncan to have been a genuine talent. She may have been, as many mediums, well meaning, but this photograph should dispel the idea that her act was always everything it claimed to be.

Duncan worked as a medium in various parts of the country in the early 1940s, and from December 1941 there are newspaper notices of her working in the Portsmouth area, where she frequently stayed. ‘Helen had been visiting Portsmouth from the start of the war, if not even earlier, but by the end of 1943 she had become a regular at the Master Temple, boarding for days on end with a Mrs Bettison in Milton Road’ (Gaskill, 178).

Crucially, many of the crew of Barham came from the Portsmouth area.

HMS Barham

HMS Barham (1914-1941) was, at the beginning of the Second World War, among the largest warships in the world. But by WW2 size no longer mattered. In fact, submarines and planes meant that warships has become a dangerous anachronism in a conflict where radar and aircraft carriers would decide the day. Barham served in the Mediterranean under the incomparable Admiral Cunningham and would do some good work there, taking part, for example, in the last ‘old style’ fleet action in history, the Battle of Matapan, and knocking out two Italian ships on that occasion: a destroyer and a cruiser.

However, Barham’s luck was running out. 25 November 1941 a German submarine wove through a destroyer screen – it is difficult not to admire the pluck of the German captain* – and sent four torpedoes into Barham. The ship began immediately to list. Most of the crew should have been saved. Unfortunately, though the magazines exploded killing 862 British sailors, with some 400 surviving. There is clip showing the destruction of the Barham, filmed from HMS Valiant. Be warned: it is a chilling viewing experience.


So did Duncan bring news of the Barham’s sinking before it was publicly known? Well, the first thing to establish is chronology.

25 Nov 1941 (not 24 Nov as stated in many places) HMS Barham was sunk near Malta. However, this information is immediately classified, not least because the Germans seem not have been sure that the Barham had gone down.

6 Dec 1941 The Admiralty sent out letters to relatives who were told of the destruction of the ship some weeks before the official announcement. They were asked to tell no one save close relatives for reasons of national security. (Imagine walking around with that information in your pocket).

27 Jan 1942 The British press was finally allowed to admit that Barham had been sunk.

Nov 1942 The Portsmouth press runs many in memoriams for those who died a year after the sinking. (I choked up when I read ‘still hoping’ in the screen shot below). This is a just a small cut from a horribly large acre. Barham clearly had many crew in the area.

March 1944 Helen Duncan court case

The Date of the Séance

The million dollar question is when Duncan made her predictions. If she conjured up a ghost from Barham on say 25 November then that really was an achievement. If, instead, it was mid January when the families of Barham knew, then that was a good deal less remarkable: we are talking of hundreds just conceivably thousands of people being ‘in the know’ in the Portsmouth area alone. Duncan also came into contact with bereaved people on a regular basis, adding to the odds that she would have heard. In between, those two dates the chance of information leaking out grew. It is also worth remembering that there had been about four hundred survivors from Barham and that thousands of other British and Dominion sailors had seen Barham go down: she had been at the heart of a Mediterranean convoy when the torpedoes had struck.

Our only real clue for a date for the séance comes 26 Dec 1941 when Guy Liddell, the wartime head of British counter intelligence, recorded the following in his diary.

The Barham case has come up once more [i.e. the need to keep it secret]. A medium has produced a drowned sailor called Syd who was recognised by several people present at the séance and said he was one of the crew. Edward Hinchley-Cooke and Edward Cussen are once more taking up the trail.

The medium is almost certainly Helen Duncan. Liddell was clearly worried that information had leaked into the public sphere. But again the problem is nailing down when the séance took place. Sometime, necessarily, between 25 Nov and, say, 24 Dec. Remember that any time after 8 Dec families (including many in the Portsmouth area), knew of the Barham’s loss (I’m adding two days for the news to arrive by post).

The Séance

What actually happened at this séance? The canonical description was given by Percy Wilson in 1958 in his defence of Duncan.

The story so far as I am concerned began with an invitation to me to have lunch with Maurice Barbanell. During that lunch he asked me if I had heard what had happened at a Helen Duncan seance at Portsmouth the previous evening. He told me that he had had a message that morning to say that at this seance a figure had appeared of a sailor with a capband H.M.S. Barham and the information was given that the Barham had been sunk in the Mediterranean but that the fact was not to be announced for three months because of the political and military situation. I went back to my office. I was then what you might call a senior official of the ministry of War Transport. I was in a detached building, Devonshire House, whereas the main office was in Berkeley Square House so I deliberately went along to Berkeley Square House to ask some of my senior colleagues and remember, the Ministry of Shipping was part of the Ministry of War Transport whether they had heard of the sinking of the Barham in the Mediterranean. No one had heard, but one of them said he would make an enquiry and he told me later that afternoon that it was not known in the Ministry of War Transport. That was on the day after the message had been given in Portsmouth. Well you will find, as I found, that in fact the news of the sinking of the Barham was only released three months later and the explanation was given that it was not in the public interest to reveal the fact at the time. You can imagine the consternation and feeling in Portsmouth when this piece of rather colourful information had appeared at a seance with Helen Duncan. In passing I would have you observe that although this was a physical seance, it contained evidence at the same time, rather straight evidence, of the survival of the particular boy who came back to speak to his mother.

Duncan had form in using hats (Mirror 24 Mar, 2), so the possibility that she produced a spirit ‘with a capband H.M.S. Barham’ is a real one: note, though, that in war British sailors just wore ‘HMS’ on their caps for security reasons!

Simon Edmunds claims, instead:

In fact the sitter concerned was the widow, not the mother, of a petty officer who was lost in Barham, and Mrs Duncan did not give the name of the ship, but extracted it from the sitter.

I’ve not been able to establish his source for this information: it would be important to do so.

How Did She Do It?

I assume that the séance took place in mid December. I assume that in Portsmouth the death notices had sent out ripples into the community. A grieving mother may know that she should not tell the gossipy next door neighbour that her son has just been killed, but this is a grieving mother… Let’s say that a hundred of the Barham’s dead crew were from the Porstmouth area and that each family meant five individuals in the area knowing: that is five hundred individuals walking around in a small city with information so secret that the British government did not even include it in its own executive intelligence briefings.

A key passage in the Wilson’s story is the rather strange claim that ‘the information was given [through the ghost] that the Barham had been sunk in the Mediterranean but that the fact was not to be announced for three months because of the political and military situation.’ I have real problems believing that a disembodied voice said ‘But Mum the government has said that you mustn’t tell anyone for three months’. This sounds like Wilson unconsciously making the psychic feat more impressive a decade later: the British government only decided to release the information when it was clear Germany knew about Barham.

However, I can imagine a voice saying ‘I’m dead and the government wants this kept quiet for the sake of the war’. If that was said then there is an excellent chance that Helen Duncan’s source was one of the letters sent on 6 Dec that made just this point: perhaps an earlier client had brought a letter along when requesting comfort. It might be worth adding that HD’s own son Peter was serving on HMS Formidable as a signalman: Helen likely found it particularly easy to enter into the mind of a grieving navy mother or wife because she must have lived constantly with that imaginative burden. Duncan’s Barham séance was an act of social cold reading: she’d got the information, I would guess, not from the woman before her but from the city where she was temporarily living.

Other Things

In writing this I failed in a couple of points that I throw open to others: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com I’d also be fascinated at any comments on the points offered above.

First, Maurice Barbanell wrote his The Case of Helen Duncan in 1945 and defended Duncan in this pamphlet: I have not been able to consult this rare work and it would be fundamental to copy out the passage on the Barham there. Can anyone help?

Second, I know that Helen Duncan was supposed to have predicted the sinking of the Hood: I’m doing that one tomorrow. In some respects it is more challenging for a sceptic: I’ll link it when it is up. Link here.

Third and finally, there is the allegation that the British government went after Duncan because it was feared that she would reveal other state secrets in her séances. If this was the case then I find it incredible that they waited till 1944 to try her! I suspect that this is just wishful thinking on the part of spiritualists and Helen’s other supporters. I personally find it distasteful that the powers that be sent Duncan to court and it is awful to report that she was, afterwards, sent to prison. Duncan seems to have been a fundamentally good person who brought comfort to many people she was not greedy and those who came to her seem to have wanted to see things that weren’t there. She provided that service. The idea, though, that she was a spiritualist Mata Hari and that the government was trembling does not convince!


I started with Malcolm Gaskill, Hellish Nell and then went back to original sources like the Wilson talk from 1958: my conclusions differ from MG’s in a couple of respects, though his book is a wonderful read. As noted above I’ve failed to find Barbanell’s The Case of Helen Duncan or Edmund’s source using Google Books snippets there… I also want to recommend in the highest possible terms the HMS Barham’s site.

*The single weirdest fact that I came across while researching this was that the German captain of the u-boat actually went to an HMS Barham reunion! I’d love to learn more about how that worked out…


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