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HMS Barham - With Force "H": Part 3

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 February 2004

HMS Barham — With Force “H”, Oct 1940 (3)

Following a two-month spell at Scapa Flow during the summer of 1940, HMS Barham sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Towards the end of September she was involved in her first major action - Dakar. My father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN was the Principal Medical Officer and during this period wrote numerous letters to my mother. Extracts from these give an insight to life on the ship up to, during and after Dakar.

1st October, 1940: Probably back in Freetown, Sierra Leone

“A letter for the new month, although I do not know when it will leave this place, much less arrive at your end. Life is comparatively peaceful at the moment. The weather is and has been very hot, and during the last two or three days I have seized the opportunity on two occasions to have a natural cooling shower-bath. As the “cold“ water in the bathroom is always rather more tepid, the chance of feeling cold water again on the body is too good to miss. On turning out at 7.15 am three days ago I heard the rattle of tropical rain on the decks, and the flash of a fantastic tropical lightning. So I hastily donned my pair of blue knickers (having no bathing costume) and walked out to God’s good air and the cooling cleansing steam of the heavens. Quite delicious! I lay on my face in the scuppers and let it patter on my back. Yesterday evening, too, we had a sudden cloudburst and along with many others, I paraded the quarterdeck reveling in the storm. We splashed each other from the miniature lakes in the scuppers, and a jolly good time was had by all.

Do take care of yourself, and don’t worry too much about me. I am still very very fit and happy, and looking forward to happier days to come. I send my very warmest and enduring love to you and the children. Tell Graeme that I’ll tell him some special stories (true ones) when I see him; and I can imagine him sitting listening with eyes popping out.”

3rd October, 1940:

“Sunday again. We had divisions and quarter-deck church very early this morning for a change - at 0815. We appeared on deck with empty tums and went through the usual routine although the Captain did not go round the divisions. The Sunday routine is always a tremendous source of interest to me. I delight in marking the expressions and demeanours of the various officers as they make their appearances, or do their stuff. The Captain unperturbed and usually with a twinkle in his eye walks up from below with his characteristic rolling gait indicative of a wide pelvis. The Pay arrives to present his weekly chit with a dreary morning face, having the air of a man who expects a raspberry to be administered at any moment. The Chief, as befits a lover of the theatre, generally makes a good entrance to this little plank-built stage. His most common pose reminds me of a naughty boy who has been dragged to a function much against his will, but having been obliged to toe the line, must see to it that he gets all the fun he can out of the situation. He excels in more or less sotto voce jest about life in general and sometimes messmates in particular. Not infrequently he twits the Padre, who takes it all in good part. For myself, I hope that I present an attitude of un-ebullient cheerfulness and balance, but of course I cannot say how I seem to other people. I believe the poet Burns said something on this topic many years ago when his attention was inadvertently drawn to a louse crawling on a lady’s hat in church. “Oh, wud some power the giftie gie us” - and soon.

Yesterday afternoon I had a grand walk with the skipper; we went at least 6 miles at a healthy pace. The weather was lovely, a full mead of sunshine and a delicious cooling breeze. From where I stood after walking an hour or so, we had a perfect view of the surrounding land and sea. We landed and came on board again in the Captain’s galley; the motive power being oars not sails. Thereafter, a long whisky and soda and tea accompanied by hot toast and cake. All very matey and nice! I was so sorry to think of you and the children far away in cold threatened England, while I basked in summer-like warmth. Both the skipper and I wore shorts and shirts.

The wireless news was very cheering last night, I thought. The Greeks seem to be holding their own so far against the “Italians”, and the air war over Britain seems quieter, whereas the war over Berlin and Gelsenkirken, Magdeburg and the rest is going full blast. The loss of 2,400 German planes since the Blitz began is good news, and must make Goring scratch his fat pate a bit. Turkey’s firm attitude, too, is heartening.

Much love to Graeme and Dansie, and may God keep you all safe. The news is coming along soon, and as one of its strongest patrons, I must drag myself away."

10th October, 1940:

“It is over six weeks since I had a letter from you - a maddening hiatus in our communion which I have hopes may soon be broken. One lives on hopes nowadays - hopes for your safety and happiness, hopes for some news of you. I feel sure that some of my sporadic letters have got home to you; at least the cables cannot well have gone astray. At one moment, I imagine you as having stayed on in Wales, at the next I convince myself that you have moved to Gable Cottage. It’s all so difficult. Still everybody here is in the same position and I cannot complain.

There is very little that I can tell you. For myself, I keep in rude health and feel extraordinarily fit. The weather still being rather steamy, my scant tropical training is standing me in good stead and whilst others complain of discomfort for the heat, I can say with truth that I positively enjoy it. But despite all trials of warm weather, the ship’s company and officers are keeping well, and there is a continual tonic of cheerfulness. The Wardroom Mess really is a very happy one, and life flows along without any serious friction. The latest craze is dicing for drinks, the Chief being the head priest of this ritual. The dice have come to be used not only for the surrender of a round of drinks but for the price of packets of soap, shaving cream, razor blades and so on. At gin time, the Mess rings with the triumphant bellows of the victors and the anguished cries of the fallen. Apart from one occasion, I have so far remained outside the arena, confining myself to writing snatches of doggerel in the book where winnings or losings are recorded.

I will close down for today; and write a few notes tomorrow. Good-bye for today.”

11th October, 1940: Comments on the News

“Have you been following the wireless closely? About Japan and the Burma road question, and De Gaulle and his adventures and most of all, Winston Churchill’s last statement in the House. The last-named was very encouraging, despite its grimness. We have definitely settled down to the process of “taking it” to await the happy day when the R.A.F. gets the upper hand in numbers as well as in efficiency. London’s demeanour is grand. I hear that Messrs Gieves, Bond Street, have had their premises reduced to a hole in the road.

I shouldn’t think that Singapore is going to be such a health resort in the days to come. I can imagine all these wretched “Japanese” at the Island Club feeling pretty sick about their chances of being kicked out of Singapore. Well, there won’t be so many comforts now, although I have no doubt that Tanglin Club flourishes on Saturday nights as usual, if on a lesser scale.”

To be continued

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Message 1 - HMS Barham - With Force "H"

Posted on: 03 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Graeme

This entire contribution in three instalments is of great interest and high historical value. It is most kind of you to make these letters available to us all.

All I can say is thank you.



Message 2 - HMS Barham - With Force "H"

Posted on: 04 February 2004 by Graeme Sorley

Peter, Thanks for the encouragement. The next batch will include the last couple of months after Barham joins Cunningham's E.Med Fleet and is involved in various actions, and then noteably Bardia, Matapan, Tripoli, Crete - repairs at Durban, back to the Med until Nov 25, 1941. My Dad's last letter is dated Nov 23rd, 1941!


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