History is full of mysterious people, who for whatever reasons have made their enigmatic marks. One category of such individuals are the seers and psychics of the world, who have long been attributed with amazing powers of precognition and the ability to glean secret knowledge from thin air, their means of doing this often left to the mists of time. One such person was a colorful and rather controversial psychic in the war-torn era of the 1940s, who seemed to know about things before anyone else, including top-secret classified information in World War II that the government was trying to sweep under the carpet.
In its day the colossal British Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Barham was considered to be one of the largest and most formidable warships in the world. On the battle lashed seas of World War I the ship had proven her mettle in such engagements as the Battle of Jutland, and played an important role in World War II as well, still ready for battle despite by that time being rather obsolete. The ship was very active in the Mediterranean, going into battle during the Battle of Dakar in mid-1940 and the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941, during which it sank an Italian cruiser and destroyer, and the battleship had a big part to play in the evacuation of Crete. During its years of service, the HMS Barham managed to somehow avoid destruction at the hands of the enemy on several occasions, but this luck was destined to run out.
On the afternoon of November 25, 1941, HMS Barham was with a fleet of 12 other ships from the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, patrolling Egyptian waters on a mission to provide fire support for the 7th and 15th Cruiser Squadrons and their mission to hunt down Italian warships, as well as to protect friendly vessels en route to North Africa. On this day things had been very quiet, and the lack of enemy action and the calm seas were enough to conspire to lull the crew of 1,350 to lapse into a sense of complacency. What they did not suspect was that the German submarine U-331 had picked up their scent and was closing in. Despite the fact that there was a heavy destroyer screen on the lookout for subs around the fleet, through a combination of luck, skill, and an error of the part of the British destroyers that caused them to fail to recognize the threat, U-331 was able to weave through the defense screen to plant three of its four fired torpedoes directly into HMS Barham, which immediately listed to the side.
The scene on HMS Barham was one of complete chaos, smoke spewing into the air and fire spreading rapidly through it as it continued to roll to the side like a wounded beast. At this point there was a good chance that most of the crew could be saved, but it was no one’s lucky day on this afternoon. The flames managed to reach the ship’s ammunition magazines, which resulted in a catastrophic explosion that sent the vessel into the cold sea and ended with the deaths of 862 British sailors. Only 400 of the crew would survive, and it was a vicious slap to the face for the Royal Navy. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, the British knew that they had to make a decision. The German sub that had sank the ship had escaped the area so quickly that its crew would not have been aware the effect of their sneak attack, and since the government wanted to protect British morale and deny the Germans a sense of victory, the decision was made to keep the sinking of HMS Barham completely top secret. This meant that all news on it was blocked and no one at all was notified. There was no official announcement made on the sinking, with not even the dead sailors’ own families told about it for several weeks, and even when they were finally told they were sworn to absolute secrecy. The sinking of the HMS Barham was under the highest level of secrecy, with official acknowledgment of the sinking not made public until January 27, 1942, yet word would indeed leak out nevertheless, and it came from a rather unusual source.
As the war was going on there was a movement going on in the background beyond all of the death and fighting, and this was the Spiritualist movement. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of great interest in the idea of contacting the spirits of the dead through séances and mediumship, and with the war claiming so many lives some were desperate to reach out into the other side to make contact with their lost loved ones. Spirit mediums and psychics were all the rage, with one seemingly on every street corner and séances being held all over the place in spiritualist churches, private homes, and even aboard warships and on military bases. In the 1940s the Spiritualist movement and interest in ghosts and spirits were in fashion, and one of the most famous of all of the mediums was a woman called Helen Duncan.
Born in Callander Scotland in 1897, Duncan was from a family of psychics and claimed to have been visited by the dead since the tender age of seven. In her later life, a series of hardships and tragedies led her into dire financial straits. Her and her husband Henry both had recurring health issues which prevented them from any sort of long term employment, and when Henry was left bedridden by a heart attack she was left as the only one able to provide for them and their six children. She went about parlaying her psychic talents into an amazing act to cash in on the Spiritualist movement, and she was very, very good at it.
Duncan became well-known for her flamboyant, theatrical flair and use of various props, costumes, and lighting effects, and her main act usually involved her regurgitating a supposedly mystical substance from the other side referred to as “ectoplasm.” She became well-known for her ectoplasmic exploits, and although this would be thoroughly debunked by skeptics as nothing more than a disgusting magic trick, it was one of her most popular shows, and helped launch her career into the stratosphere. She also utilized many colorful “spirit guides,” which were personalities she would channel from the other side to give her information from the land of the dead, and these guides often appeared as glowing floating apparitions or heads. Duncan’s séances were almost like a theatrical production more than anything else, and people loved it, making her one of the most famous spirit mediums England had ever seen. Yet although her act was more and more exposed as trickery and smoke and mirrors, she sometimes managed to baffle even the most hardened skeptics.
One of these times happened during a séance in 1941 not long after the HMS Barham had gone down, and before the Royal Navy had officially disclosed any news of it to anyone at all. It was at this time of tight confidentiality that Duncan would hold a séance in Portsmouth, during which she claimed to be channeling a sailor who said he had died on the battleship and wanted to speak to his mother to tell her. The poor woman was indeed sitting there in the audience, and according to reports even she had not yet heard that the ship had gone down. No one knew anything about the sinking, and so the rumors started to spread that the Royal Navy was enacting a cover-up, which they were, but how did this psychic medium know about it at all? Interestingly, it would turn out that Duncan had made another such prediction just a few months previously, when she had apparently told a séance about the sinking of another battleship, the HMS Hood, which at the time was similarly being suppressed. One of the attendees at that particular séance was a Brigadier Roy C. Firebrace, who did not himself even know about the sinking at the time. Firebrace was quite intrigued by all of this, and would say of it:
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.
It is not known exactly how Duncan knew about either one of these tragic sinkings, whether she really had gleaned the information from the spirit world or had somehow heard it from someone who somehow knew about it and couldn’t keep their mouth shut, but whatever the reason was, the Royal Navy Admiralty did not like this one bit. No matter that she was a psychic medium increasingly seen as a crank and a faker, top secret information was top secret information, and they could not afford leaks like that, no matter who they came from. And so it was that in 1944, right as planning for D-Day was going on, that the military would infiltrate a séance held by Duncan, where she would first be arrested under a general, ill-defined misdemeanor charge of vagrancy. This would later be upgraded when the government invoked an archaic and little used law called the Witchcraft Act, which had been installed in 1735 and basically made it illegal for one to claim they had magical or supernatural powers. It was a strange move as the law had not been used in a very long time, and it was known as one of the last real “witchcraft trials” of the modern age. It would ultimately get Duncan 9 months in prison, of which she would serve 6, and she would die not long after in 1956 at the age of 59, leaving questions, the answers of which she took to the grave with her.
To this day it is not known how Helen Duncan knew about these battleships going down, or from who she might have gotten her information from. It is certainly possible that she might have gleaned it from some informant, but the times that she gave these revelations coincide with times when this was top-secret information that not even the families of the victims knew about? How did she do it? It has been much debated and discussed, but still remains a conundrum in the life of a famous psychic full of such conundrums. Real or fake, Helen Duncan certainly left her indelible mark on the history of psychic phenomena.