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HMS Barham — Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940: Part 3

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Mediterranean
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2264005
Contributed on: 
04 February 2004

HMS Barham — Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940 (3)

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.

4th November, 1940: Concern regarding mail from those at sea

“Still no mail, and no news of any in the offing. We have to be very patient these days. I feel fairly confident that my letters are rolling in to you. No.1 was telling me that he has had a reply by cable from his wife in answer to a letter of his written since we came here. Mrs Barchand has moved her home again, as Sussex became too hot. The noise of bombs was rather disturbing to the children. I think she has chosen Warwickshire for her new retreat.

A few days ago, I had my photograph taken on board for inclusion on my identity card. It had to be in uniform with cap on front face - so that the “Narkunda”(1) snapshots were no good. Practically all the Wardroom officers has photographs taken at the same time, and some amusement was to be gained by glaring over the results which were sent round for the appending of signatures. I thought mine looked pretty awful, somebody saying something about “Scarface Al Sorley”, but from the criminal dossier point of view, it wasn’t a patch on some. One in particular reminded me of Public Enemy No.1 just before sampling the electric chair. There has been rather an epidemic of beard-growing in the mess, and indeed, I think, throughout the Navy. We have several recruits to the hairy brigade. Marshall Sherwell as Beaver-in-chief (of pre-war vintage) has a smooth tuft to which few can aspire as yet. Phillips has a hearty growth suggestive of Elizabethan days, but the others are tramp-like, the shrubbery being sparse, straggling and not too pleasant to the eye. I should hate to be encumbered by a patch of undergrowth, and I’m sure that you share the same opinion.

I am forever thinking of you and the children, and I pray for your safety. All my best love - keep well and fit until I come home.”

Note: (1) P and O Liner Sorley family embarked from Singapore Jan 1940 for voyage back to UK.

6th November, 1940:

“I had a splendid mail this afternoon, with five letters from your dear hand, and two telegrams. My birthday telegram sent off by you on 8th October was one, and the other was in reply to one of mine and was dispatched on 15th October (the post-mark is indistinct, and the real date may be the 10th). You see all telegrams sent to H.M.Ships except by the concession method come by sea and are of less value than letters. That is not to say that I wasn’t terribly glad to get them, but you see the point.

I am so terribly relieved to hear that you are all so well and happy at Basildon and that the bombings are merely distant noises. I pray that they may remain so always, and that you may be kept safe. The Cottage sounds just as jolly as before and there is nothing more I could wish of life than to be back there with you; but I am afraid that is not to be for some little while yet, so we must be cheerful and bide our time. I am writing this second letter today because I am rather afraid that it may be the last for several days. Our future is uncertain, but I think we all view it in a spirit of joyous adventure.

Today’s letters coming after a spell of silence made me feel more poignantly how much I love and miss you and the children. May God keep you under his protection.

Don’t worry about me, I am very well. I had some strenuous medicine ball today again, and I’m full of all possible beans.”

6th November, 1940: On or around this date Barham sailed to Malta along with HMS Berwick, and HMS Glasgow and joined the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet.

“Just a hurried note, which may or may not catch the post. I’m taking a chance on it. It is fairly likely that a spell of silence from me will follow this letter, so that there will be no need for you to be alarmed.

I had another grand walk ashore yesterday - with the Padre this time. The day was glorious again, and the briskness of our walking brought the honest persp. to the b. as Wodehouse might say. Walking with the Padre means brisker movement than a perambulation with the Skipper who believes in economic speed. What with walking and medicine ball, I am getting reasonable exercise these days, so there is little chance of my becoming a spherical doctor as yet.

Did you hear the gist of Churchill’s speech on the wireless yesterday? Quite optimistic, but facing the facts as always and looking ahead to a gradual paralysis of our enemies’ effort. I wish I could discover a Germans-tropic and Italo-tropic organism to scatter widespread amongst foes; with a particularly nasty strain of the bug for Goebbels, causing complete paralysis of speech. Aren’t I vindictive? By the way, a “tropic” means “having a special affinity for” - as Neurotropic - having effect only on nerves, Germanstropic - having effect only on “….. Germans”.

I am looking forward to the news today. We’ll hear all about the American Presidential Election. I hear that Roosevelt has been returned for the third time, or at least, the results to come won’t affect his preponderance. A good show, although the other bloke seemed sympathetic to us, too. Still, better the tired and proven Roosie than the unproven Wee Willie Willkie.

I had a chance of bathing the other day, but two factors dissuaded me (a) no costume and (b) from inspection of the concerns of those who immersed themselves, the water seemed too ruddy cold for an ex-Singaporean. I’ll think I’ll wait for a better warmer chance. It’s always possible. Marshall Sherwell plunged in and emerged looking like a refrigerated bearded sea-lion. He climbed laboriously into a boat, thereby raising the suspicion in a member of the ship’s company that the junior Medical Officer has contracted cramp.”

10th November, 1940:

“An unexpected chance of catching a hurried mail, so I am writing this to wish you and my very dear children, all the finest wishes for Christmas. I do hope that the ₤5 reaches you all right, and that you spent it happily and wisely.

Don’t think me pessimistic because I am making vague references to a spell of silence between us until Christmas. I am only taking every chance that letter with Christmas wishes should reach you; after all, Christmas is not so very far away now.

May the New Year see a happier world come to pass. I must hurry away.”

Historical Note:

On November 11, 1940, Admiral Cunningham launched an attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto with the Barham, two cruisers (HMS Berwick and Glasgow), two destroyers and aircraft off the carrier HMS Illustrious. This action decisively altered the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Half of the Italian battle fleet was disabled for six months.

To be continued

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