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HMS Barham - Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940: Part 2

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: 
04 February 2004

HMS Barham — Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940 (2)

After the Force “H” action at Dakar in September 1940, Barham joined Cunningham’s Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, exactly when is unsure. 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 during the period October 1940 to November 23rd, 1941.

October, 1940: Alexandria

“There are prospects of a mail soon from what I hear, but I never believe until I actually see mail bags being humped on board. One becomes very skeptical of rumours or “buzzes” in a ship. The average sailor is a great theorist on the possible movements of his ship, and the variety of destinations to which lively minds are consigning us always keeps mounting up.

The weather is misty today, but the sun is struggling valiantly to break through, and looks as if it might succeed before very long. Tell the children that I saw a bunny on Saturday while I was walking ashore. They are common enough where you are, but not nearly so common here. I had some medicine ball yesterday in the dog watches and so today, I am full of rude health.”

28th October, 1940: Ashore in Alexandria

“I haven’t had your telegram yet, but I’m not worrying too much because I hear many stories of delay, sometimes for weeks. We had a surprise mail yesterday, but there was only one from you and that was written long before your latest of 3rd October, which came last week; but needless to say, it was eagerly seized upon and read and re-read.

Life has been more eventful recently, I mean from the social and recreational point of view. I have had one tennis four, in which I played exceedingly badly - really badly. I went again to the amateur performance of “Rope”, taking the Pay, who surprisingly enough has burst out into (for him) an orgy of rapid laughing. He has been ashore at least 6 times since we arrived here. The Padre and I are beginning to take a grave view of this restless craving for the bright lights on the part of one staid messmate. Last night, I had dinner with the skipper - a high-up party including the Admiral (1). Afterwards we attended the cinema on board, the main film being one we saw in Medway about a year ago in Singapore.”

Note: (1) Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippel — Admiral Cunningham’s Second-in-Command

29th October, 1940: Air Raids at Home

“J.C. came to lunch yesterday and had may interesting things to say amongst them the story of how a bomb (high explosive) and an incendiary fell in the garden of his wife’s house at Esher, and she and a friend spent the night doing their stuff with stirrup pumps. The children never woke and spent the excitement in their specially prepared caboosh under the stairs. John was saying that Liverpool is not nearly so badly damaged as we have been led to believe, at least from the military and organisation aspect. Also, I heard indirectly yesterday that although London is badly damaged in parts, the destruction is largely of no military importance. The churches and hospitals have taken a severe knock. The informant was an army officer who had been in London two days ago! and had flown out. He said that the morale of the Londoners was almost unbelievable, and that the attack on Buckingham Palace was a mighty stimulant to the people - perhaps the worst mistake the Nazis have made. There is no doubt that the German Air Force has sustained a major defeat - their first - or as one writer put it, “this foul beast has taken a hard blow across it’s eyes and snout”. The new developments in Greece are disturbing, but some advice more to maintain the stimulating of their followers was inevitable, and it is too early as yet to speak of the position.”

30th October, 1940: Comments on the War

“I had a cheery evening ashore yesterday with John C. and to make the party perfect I found your cable awaiting me at last when I returned on board. Its laconic message cheered me so much that I had perforce to go to the Wardroom and stand drinks to the nearest available inhabitants. Astonishing what three words - “All well - Joan” can do. I do not yet know when you sent it off - the time of origin written on the form was 1115/28/10 but whether this was the England time or that of its re-transmission here, I cannot say. Perhaps you could let me know the date of your handing it in, because nobody seems to be certain about how long these telegrams take to arrive. Anyway, I am more than relieved to hear that you are all right. It renews my interest in everything that goes on around me.

About my evening with John C. I went to his ship first of all for a drink, and then we proceeded ashore to the best local hotel and had a reasonably good meal washed down by the wine of the country.

John says that Noreen has trained the children very well about air raids. She blows a whistle at the right moment and the children dive like rabbits into their below stairs shelter, there to scramble for a box of ginger biscuits or sweets. Both the kids were bitterly disappointed because they were not awakened during the night to deal with the incendiary bomb which fell in the garden. They wanted nothing more than to squirt away with a stirrup pump at the Nazi bonfire. He is very optimistic about the war. He thinks that if we can hit the Italians a crack soon, they’ll collapse - and Germany won’t be long in collapsing too, once the rot sets in. I can’t say that I share his glowing views, although an end to this futility is possible - just possible - some time next year. I should say that the end of the war is more likely to be delayed into 1943 or 1944, when the Nazis will be so harried by their victims that a mighty Continental revolution will put an end to their system. But my views, like everybody else’s, are so many puffs of air in the course of history - and mean nothing.”

Historical Note: November 1940 — During November Italian frogmen made an attempt to torpedo Barham at Detached Mole, Gibraltar.

2nd November, 1940: Sporadic Mails; Further comments on the War

“I hope you have been getting my letters regularly now. I have tried to write every day where possible, using the ordinary mail, and at least once a week I use the Air route. The airmail from here is relatively satisfactory, but the reverse process is not. Mostly the airmail letters received on board have taken up to 23 days to arrive. There have been a few instances of receipt in 4 or 5 days from posting, but there are so few and far between that the air mail from home cannot be recommended. I feel that my letters to you should now be beginning to flow in. Yours to me, of course, are most capricious - my last from you is dated 3rd October, so that I have had no news of you for almost a month, except for that dear telegram. It is inevitable that mail deliveries to us should be sporadic, so please understand that I attach no blame to you.

Well, here we are into November. Who would ever have dared to predict three months ago that on 2nd November, the British Empire would stand stronger than ever against the blasts of Hitler’s war? But I am convinced it is so. Hitler seems much less sure of himself than in June or July and the mere fact that he has had to go “cap in hand” to representatives of France and Spain is significant. It seems that Spain is not to be forced into war against us, nor does she wish to give support to Hitler or Mussolini in any thrust at Gibraltar. Now, I feel the time has come for us to strike hard, relentlessly and often at the “………..Italians” - to bomb and bombard them, day in day out, until they cry for mercy, and decide that war against the British Empire is “not a good thing”. I feel that their fighting spirit is so low that hard blows now would not increase their resistance as it has ours, but would make them afraid, and lower their morale to the breaking point. I was delighted to hear that we have bombed Naples. That’s what we want now - offensive spirit and more offensive spirit. So far we have been too much on the defensive - waiting for others to attack. This is perhaps not true of the Navy - but all over our forces I would like to see a spreading of Nelson’s gospel - “Believe in the righteousness of our cause, and go for them”. Another famous dictum was Jackie Fisher’s: “Hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting”. Isn’t it just by that method that Hitler has achieved all his successes so far? We have to remember that wars are won by making things so hot for our enemies that they are forced to admit, “they can’t take it”. We must get going soon.

I had a T.A.B. inoculation on the day before yesterday, and I have had a fairly brisk general reaction. It is unusual for me to be worried at all by injections as you know, but yesterday, although outwardly full of the joys of spring, I felt as if some big stiff hand had been beating me around the ship with a knuckle-duster. However, I’m all right today.”

To be continued

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