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HMS Barham - Churchill's Inspiration

by Graeme Sorley

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

HMS Barham — Churchill’s Inspiration

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. The effect of Winston Churchill’s speeches on the ship’s complement was powerfully inspirational.

10th February, 1941 - Reactions to Churchill’s “This was their Finest Hour” Speech:

“I thought of you very frequently when I was listening to Winston Churchill's broadcast last night. It came through to us exceedingly well and as it co-incided with our weekly cinema show special arrangements were made to have the address relayed through the cinema amplifier between parts of the film. Believe me, a very novel and interesting entr'acte; all of us, including Admiral and Captain, listened with craning ears, and laughed with the Prime Minister as he scourged the Dictators with his tongue. Thank God for Winston Churchill at this time. I think that was the predominant feeling amongst us at the end of his most moving speech. There is no other man on earth, I believe, who can inspire us with the spirit of dogged resolution and fierce desire to strike our enemies; who can so combine the art of moving oratory with the bite of ferocious justified invective. There is something of the boy in Winston Churchill; he loves to tease and anger his opponents; one can almost see him chuckling and licking his lips as he rolls out his blistering phrases about the Nazis and the "black-hearted" Mussolini. Yet none of his opponents can compete with him in reply; even if they could, he would be quite unmoved.

How Hitler and Mussolini must hate him. Last night's oration was a masterpiece and to my mind should take a place in history alongside his inspired words after France had fallen. You remember "Let us brace ourselves to our duty .... if the British Commonwealth shall last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour." The continuance of the cinema film after the broadcast came as a bit of an anti-climax. To be translated from the atmosphere of an inspired Churchill to that of Mickey Rooney portraying the adventures of the boy Edison detracted from the entertainment value of the latter.

I hope my writing is legible today, because if it is not, there is an excuse. My hands are jolly cold. The last few days have been quite sharp. Service on the quarter-deck yesterday made me feel like stumping my feet, and of course we had to have the cinema in the Wardroom at night.

I had Marshal Sherwell over as a guest. The ship he is now in has a keen snipe-shooting clique, and one day this week, I have been promised a chance to join them. The snipe in the neighbourhood are plentiful, I hear, but strong on the wing. I sometimes regret having given up my gun to the parashots(1), especially as, by this time, they are probably supplied with service rifles, and my gun may be neglected. I wonder if it would be worthwhile your writing to the Liverpool Police Station and asking if the gun is still required, and if not, if it could be returned.

Note: (1) 12-bore Handed to Lancashire Constabulary for possible use by Home Guard against invasion.

12th February, 1941: Alexandria; Diversions ashore

“Before me, as I write is the significant message-cable saying "All well - Sorley. The authorities make the wording less and less intimate as time goes on but they have reached their limit now.
Life has been fairly quiet and unwarlike for the last 10 days or so, but I expect things will warm up soon. The gentle rumours of the ship flow around us as always, and keep us amused, or at least keep me amused. I must tell you about my snipe-shooting expedition, to which Marshall Sherwell invited me on Wednesday. The party numbered four and our destination was the mud flats near a local lake of some dimensions. We squelched about in malodorous mud for three hours and contrived to mow down 15 birds, 13 snipe and 2 quail. I got 4 snipe out of 12 to 15 cartridges. It was magnificent fun and I was very grateful to Marshall for having arranged the party. The guns, fowling pieces or what you will were provided by blokes in Marshall's ship. While I was changing for tennis at the club, some time ago, I was standing alongside Nigel Willmott(2), my companion in that Kilimanjaro adventure.

Today I am going ashore to visit the local hospital with the skipper - a command performance, more or less. The old man is in good form, but slightly irked by not being allowed to run his own show; he is flag captain, you see, and has not the last word in the administration of the ship.”

Note: (2) My father led a team from HMS Enterprise in an attempt on Kilimanjaro in May 1931. He wrote an account which was published in the British Medical Journal. Willmott reached 19,500 feet, Sorley 18,500 feet.

23rd February, 1941: Presumably at Sea

“As our spell of "mucking about" has lasted maybe one day less that we anticipated, I hasten to have this letter ready for the mail when we come back into port. This trip has had its interesting moments, but I cannot go into any details, of course.

On our excursions from time to time we are accompanied by one or two (currently two) press correspondents. They are usually very interesting people; the couple who are with us now are perhaps the most entertaining we have had. One is R.C.Lyle, in normal days the racing corespondent of "The Times", and now concerned with a more serious topic. He was also the sporting editor of "The Times", and in that capacity has met some of the sporting celebrities of the day. Last night, he gave a broadcast throughout the ship on "Sport" - a racy address which included reminiscences of the turf, rugger, soccer, billiards, boxing, rowing and cricket.

In the absence of letters from you I have to rely upon my imagination and, on the whole, the picture that it paints is a happy one. I am apt to forget, though, how the children must be growing, especially Dansie. It is now eight months since I saw you and then, I wonder, how many more must pass before I can see the figments of my imagination in the flesh.

Tell Graeme that I couldn't arrange a birthday present for him. I am trying to buy a real sailor's knife to send him - you know, the kind of folding knife that every seaman carries at his belt for splicing and doing odd jobs. It has a hook by which it may be attached to the waist. I might manage to get his name inscribed on the nameplate which every service knife carries. But Graeme will have to be patient, as you know the time that a parcel takes to reach you from this part of the globe.

I have n't had my Christmas mail yet - nothing beyond 23rd November - exactly three months to a day since your last letter to reach me was written. It is just too bad, and I feel it can't be so bad at your end. I've noticed the Captain has received one or two airmail letters recently from Mrs Cooke - I believe the latest date was the 2nd of December or thereabouts. I'm afraid the mail question will never be solved until the war is over or until we come home, because the submarine warfare will be intensified as this year goes on. But, never fear, we'll get those "inferior" beings down in the end.”

1st March, 1941: Alexandria; More on Churchill

“I sent Graeme's knife off Wednesday. I managed to get the Engine room's workshop to inscribe the name - Graeme Sorley - on the tally; and altogether I think that G. should be very pleased when the knife arrives - if it does(3). There is always the gloomy prospect some filthy Nazi raider or U-Boat coming between Graeme and this small gift. Be sure to tell him that he must wear it at his waist like a true sailor, and if you can make a lanyard (similar to the one you once made me for my keys) so very much the better. We had two days as Duty battleship, which means that shore leave is stopped. This, however, is not a great hardship at present because the weather is very unattractive. Casting my eye to the sea and heavens this morning, I felt we might as well be in Scapa Flow, apart from the temperature - grey mist and drizzle over a choppy sea makes the idea of shore-going unpleasant.

Today, I have read a short biography of Winston Churchill by a journalist called Hugh Martin. It is entitled "Battle", and it is most interesting reading. After having read the life of Napoleon, there is for me a real pleasure in hearing something of another great man and his struggles. If this book is true, and there seems to be no reason to cast doubt upon its veracity, Winston Churchill is definitely one of the greatest men of all time. He was an exceedingly ugly baby - with a large head, red hair and a snub-nose, and as a schoolboy he was as unpopular as he could be, because of his pugnacity and continued desire for combat. He was never happy unless he was doing something mischievous or daring, a characteristic which has remained with him all his life. On one occasion when he was aged 18, he was (during a game of some kind) chased by two friends, and finally cornered by them on a viaduct - bridge, each blocking his means of escape. Without hesitating, he leaped for the top of a fir tree below the bridge, and missing it crashed 30 feet to the ground, rupturing his right kidney in the process, and being laid up for 6 weeks. Throughout his life he has taken risks, and for the most part, he's come away unscathed. After being shut up for over an hour in a troop-train during the Boer war, he was taken prisoner - but made a daring escape, and after many adventures contrived to get home. His history is so remarkable that it does seem that he is our man of destiny - guarded by Providence to lead us in our greatest battle. He is only really happy when he is fighting something or somebody; the book tells of his disappointment when the last war finished in 1918, as he had made plans for a great offensive in 1919. In the years of peace which followed, his restless mind was so insistent for work that he took lessons in oil-painting from Lavery and achieved landscapes which, exhibited under an assumed name, fetched as much as ₤30 a time. Apparently, he has reached the peak of his life's enjoyment by being granted the leadership in this war. It is a remarkable story indeed - of this zestful, mischievous boyish man, the son of an English aristocrat and an American beauty (his mother was the daughter of a New York journalist, co-editor of the New York Times). In view of the importance of American interest in this conflict, can anybody deny that the hour has produced this man?

I have taken up almost the entire letter with talk of Winston Churchill, but I have no doubt you will be interested - and for my part I like to write of him whilst the biography is fresh in my mind.”

Note: (3) It never did

To be continued

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