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HMS Barham - Month Before Matapan, 1941icon for Recommended story

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
07 February 2004

HMS Barham — Month Before Matapan, 1941

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN a month or so prior to Matapan. They give an insight to life on the ship during a period of “Exigencies of the Service” which translates into time at sea with Cunningham’s Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria.

3rd February, 1941:

“I was relieved and delighted to get a cable form you two days ago, saying “all very well.” I had been worrying a little because I had not heard of you since your last cable of 1st December, while almost all the other officers had had messages from their wives at Christmas or New Year. Some in fact had had at least two cables at that time. So on the 28th of January, I sent off a cable to you registering a strong protest - and it seems that our messages have crossed. We must have been writing cables to each other on about the same day. Just before I got your cable, we received a small mail from England, and this included two letters for me, one dated 20th November, the other 23rd November.

About Graeme’s birthday, I do hope he was not hurt because I did not arrange a specific present for him. Circumstances made that very difficult indeed. Change in our geographic position made our mails home very irregular and infrequent, so I thought it better just to send you some money to cover the Christmas and birthday parties which cluster around December and January. The dropping of incendiary bombs in Pangbourne rather alarms me. What on earth do the Huns think they can do towards winning the war by way of attacking a peaceful riverside town like Pangbourne? I can only pray - and I do - that some spark of pity is left in the hearts of the German airmen who fly over you all; or if this is impossible, that their aim is faulty enough to keep the bombs clear of innocent people.

I hope you liked my letter in French. My lessons are going quite well, but they are punctuated irregularly by “exigencies of the Service.” I can now hold reasonable conversations with my teacher, although it is necessary for her to talk “tres lentement.” I still maintain that French people are apt to gabble their words in the ordinary way of talking, but perhaps we do too.

I often count up my days in this ship, and am amazed to see how the time goes, even although I am away from you dear presence, I have done well over 10 months now - and soon I shall be in my second year. The war has certainly gone well with us recently - the Greek victories, the smashing blows at Italy in Libya - and now the promise of a quick Italian defeat in Abyssinia and Somaliland. Yet the real test has to come, with the monstrously armed Nazi God of War girding up his loins for further battles. But I have no doubt of the final issue. I hear that American aid has already reached great proportions, and it seems certain that any big assault on the shores of our island will be smashed, and the seas will be littered with the bodies of “those inferior beings.” I am glad that Mr. Wendell Wilkie is getting a “good hand” from us. He is obviously a bit of a showman, but a showman with personality and a sincere admiration for us and for democracy. His words on his return to the States should do much to sweep American sympathy even closer to us. I admire him for the way he took his defeat by Roosevelt, and for his dynamic support of his late opponent. Of course, it is quite on the cards that the election and the result and its sequel has all been “framed” to work up the Americans to a sense of their duty to those who hold the front line. As a diplomat, there are no flies on Roosevelt. He and Churchill are the two greatest men of their age.”

Later in the day:

“I have just been for a walk on the deck with Pay, but the skies are grey and unkind and the sea is leaden, and a spattering of rain has driven us in. The wind is cold today, but I am sure nothing like the weather you are reported to be having at home. The children must have loved the snowfall, which by all accounts was unusually heavy for England. How I should love to be back with you. This war is such a waste of time for everyone, although I being in the Service should not say that. It is for occasions like this that we owe our existence.

Did Mrs Cooke write to you and hint or say that the ship was coming home for Christmas 1941? Mrs Williams had a letter to that effect apparently. Actually, there was good reason to believe that we should come home about November. It is touch and go, I believe. But our luck on that occasion was out. Our good fortune on the whole has been remarkable up to now - touching wood - we do indeed seem to have a charmed life. Never mind about our not getting home for Christmas - maybe next Christmas or before that, we may be on the way home. The sailors are forever full of “buzzes” - and often we hear from the lower deck that we’re off to Scapa or somewhere even more homelike. Yet there is nothing so unreliable as sailors’ rumours.”

7th February, 1941:

“Today is fine again with bright sunshine and crisp air. Yesterday saw us surrounded by clouds of yellow whirling sand through which the light filtered as in a London fog. I had meant to go ashore to immerse myself in the peaceful atmosphere of the club reading room, and continue Ludwig's Napoleon but the conditions were so unattractive that I preferred to sit on board. I had already been ashore in the forenoon - to visit two of the officers in Hospital, and was caught in this sandstorm coming off. I was in the jolly boat or "skimming dish", and it broke down halfway to the ship, and what with the storm and the effect of drifting aimlessly around the harbour, I feared we might capsize. However, the engine contrived to splutter with sufficient energy to bring me home and all was well.

This morning in the local newspaper, I read an article by Bartimeus(1) - a very interesting article in which he emphasised the fact that all naval officers and men are entitled to 14 days leave per year in war time. He talked about meeting his wife again after six months (!) separation, and having another honeymoon.

I have more or less stopped sending you a weekly letter by sea mail. It seems so futile telling you news which will be four months out of date when it arrives. I think it is better to slip in an occasional airmail into the week. One gets better value that way.

The war news is everywhere interesting. The big question now is the Franco-German question. How far can old man Petain afford to hold off Hitler's grab of the French Fleet and the Mediterranean ports? - and how will Weygand and other Vichy adherents react to a refusal by Petain to concede anymore to Germany? Hitler must play his cards well or his position will be sticky. If he uses brute force, he may well drive all the Vichyites into close co-operation with us; if he doesn't he is left dangling whilst we and the Americans get stronger. The answer is bound to come soon. What is obvious is that France sees now the hopes of a British victory getting stronger and wants to be on the right side, but does n't quite know what to do about it.”

(1) non-de-plume for Naval author

To be continued

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