Centenarian recalls escape from sinking ship
By Jenn Watt
Published Nov. 6, 2018
At 100 years old, Archie Ross is one the few survivors of the sinking of the Royal Navy’s battleship HMS Barham, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Egypt on Nov. 25, 1941.
Ross, who today lives in Haliburton, was aboard the ship working as a stoker, tending to the inner workings of the vessel such as the boiler and engine.
He doesn’t go into much detail as he remembers the day his ship sank, killing some 862 men. He had little time to escape, he said.
“It gets so much damage you have to get off. When you get off it’s too quick to sum it up. You’re in there [in the ship] and bingo, you’re in the water,” he said. “It wasn’t a great thing being in the water too.”
As he explained his escape, he held a photocopy of the front page of the Daily Mirror in his hand, its front page depicting a massive explosion minutes before the ship was submerged.
Ross found himself in the ocean with only a life jacket keeping him afloat. The force of the ship’s descent churned the water around him, making it hard to keep his head above water.
“You’re in the water, you try to get up but you can’t get up because the weight of that ship takes it down,” he said.
“Just by luck we made it. Swallowed a lot of water. Not very good water. A lot of oil and fuel in that.”
Fewer than 400 survivors were rescued by two destroyers.
The whole event was captured on film at the time and can be viewed on YouTube.
According to several accounts, the British kept the loss as quiet as possible to keep morale up.
The loss of the ship was revealed on Jan. 27, 1942.
Ross was born in Scotland and joined the navy in February of 1940.
He was involved in several campaigns throughout the Second World War, including as part of a convoy to Malta, defending the besieged island in the Mediterranean.
For his efforts, in 1992 he was awarded the Malta George Cross 50th anniversary medal, given to those who served in the air force, army, navy and merchant navy in defence of Malta.
Aboard the HMS Sirius cruiser, Ross assisted in delivering supplies to Malta, then a British colony.
His convoy was attacked by Stuka dive bombers and submarines in August of 1942. An aircraft carrier and two cruisers were lost.
How did it feel to be working in the belly of a ship, unaware of what was happening around you?
Ross said mostly he focused on the work.
“You’ve got to watch what you’re doing. ... I wouldn’t say nervous, but I would say you were taking a lot in hand. You knew what was going on, you know?”
A stoker’s job was largely maintenance.
“We were watching machines. If you’re looking after an engine you had to make sure you were oiling that machine. If you were in the boiler room you had to keep the jets, you had to turn one off and clean it and keep them clean and things like that.”
Although some people were worried about making it back home, Ross said others focused on the day-to-day.
“I wasn’t worried about going home, I was worried about where we could get a few beers. You know what I mean?”
After the war was over, Ross worked construction in London. In 1956, a Canadian delegation came to England looking for workers. Their selling point was property and the opportunity to own a home – something uncommon at the time in London, which was still being rebuilt.
He made the move to Canada, where he continued to work construction in Toronto, started a family and began travelling to the Haliburton Highlands to visit a friend’s cottage.
When time came for retirement, he knew where he wanted to move.
Ross has lived in the Highlands since the 1980s and has been active in the Haliburton Legion. He has also received assistance from the Minden Legion branch.
On March 18 of this year he turned 100 and celebrated with a party in Haliburton.
How does it feel to be 100?
“I don’t feel any different,” he said. “To me it doesn’t mean a thing.”