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HMS Barham - Last Month

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: 
13 February 2004

HMS Barham — Last Month

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN. These letters were written the month before the loss of the ship.

Airgraph - 9th October, 1942: Still worrying about the mail

“I have just got your post-card of 5th September, whereas your airgraphs of 5th September and 11th September fetched up here on 1st and 5th October respectively. There is no doubt that the airgraph is quicker, so I would advise you to use one at least every week as I am doing. Along with this I have sent off a letter card; do compare the dates of arrival and let me know. No sign of the birthday presents you talk of: I fear the worst may have happened to them, and to the pullover you mention.”

Airgraph 18th October 1941:

“Many thanks for your air mail letter of 7th September, which came to-day - the first news of you for over a week. Your airgraphs are beautifully typed, and I can read them easily, capitals or no capitals. Carry on the good work. Some are taking only 3 weeks, and are miles better than the post-cards, which are rapidly declining in popularity. Your description of Peter Glason’s visit was very interesting. He sounds pretty fit now. So sorry the dressing case was damaged - not badly, I hope. I wish I could have come to church that day you mention - and introduced some colour into the grey party. I’m sure I will like your grey ensemble. Pay and I are going ashore this evening - my first “night out” since Durban - two and a half months without an evening binge is good going, isn’t it? Still, there aren’t many attractions, and I am happy to stay on board, and barely fail to find something to stimulate the old brain. I continue to be very well, having when possible, my thrice-weekly out bursts of energy on the tennis courts.”

Airgraph - 23rd October, 1941:

“I had two airgraphs from you today; at least one was from Graeme, and one from you written in your good hand, and not typed. You could have afforded to write very much smaller; I can read your typewritten efforts with perfect ease, and no eyestrain. The dates of the messages which came to-day, were 4th and 6th October, so you see what an advantage these airgraphs are. I am glad the Durban sweets arrived safely; I have been incredibly lucky in the delivery of my little gifts. May it be always so! The weather here has turned colder, but we are still in whites, and likely to be so for a few more weeks yet. I am exceedingly fit, and continue to bully people into playing medicine ball. I took Craske in hand two days ago, and he insists I have dislocated his neck, an exaggeration belied by his brisker appearance. During the last few days, I have been writing a treatise on the singular leg malady which afflicted me off and on for over two years. I have treated two similar cases recently and I feel the time has come to bring forward the condition as “clinical entity”. Anyway, I have had some amusement describing my symptoms; I feel that you ought to read the proofs, as long-suffering wife, although to give me my due, I don’t think my temper was gravely affected.

Home for Christmas would be grand, but is not likely to materialise worse luck .”

Airgraph - 26th October, 1941:

“After a long voyage - over three months - the very nice blue pullover came yesterday. Thank you very, very much. It is a perfect fit, and most handsome, Jessie’s one is also sleeveless, but that is a small matter. My chest ought to be well protected against cold blasts, only I wish I were in a certain place to receive them. A few colds would be a small price to pay. On the day before yesterday, I had two of your airgraphs, which took only 13 and 17 days in transit. Do let me know how long my airgraphs are taking - about 3 weeks to a month, I believe. I was very mystified to find one of your airgraphs addressed (in printing like yours) to “E.R.Fawley”. Two theories suggested themselves (a) you had temporarily gone balmy or (b) you had forgotten to address, and had to ‘phone through to the post office to do so. I incline to the latter school of thought. Glad to hear that my letter-cards and Airgraphs are rolling in to you. The offensive will be maintained.”

28th October, 1941: Alexandria

“To talk of the present day - I have had no reply yet, of course from Surg.Capt Malone about my relief - and frankly I won't be surprised if he does not answer. However, there is always the chance. I could accept a home Hospital job now with a very clear conscience. I was considering the other day that, with the exception of Beaton perhaps, I have seen more war and action than any other Surg. Cdr. in the Service. Five actions, many bombings and torpedo attacks. Keevil maybe has a more intensive experience than I, but this ship has been in the thick of things since last September, excluding of course our holiday in that delectable place, Durban. No! I shall not feel like a slug if they choose to give me a nice shore billet; where I can be with my dear wife and children. And I think you will agree with me on that! I must rush off in a few minutes to give Uncle Geoffrey(1) an injection of anti-cold vaccine. He feels he needs it with the colder weather coming along. Of course, some of us think that his talk of colds and cold weather in the near future means we are coming your way, but that is only idle rumour, of which there is so much about now. My marine servant keeps me constantly posted with lower deck "buzzes", which give me great entertainment, but not real belief. I hope you are well, as I am. I am looking forward to more airgraphs from you soon. They come at all sorts of odd times, and all of a sudden I may see the virgin emptiness of my letter rack transfigured by one or two little envelopes. To parody Wordsworth, I might say: "My heart leaps when I behold a letter in my rack.”

Note: (1) Captain G.C.Cooke, RN

29th October, 1941- first use of plasma in Royal Navy, at Battle for Crete:

“You are being pampered aren’t you? Letter-cards on successive days do not come to every naval wife. However, this uses up my reserve supply, and henceforth, unless I can manage a “wangle”, it will be strictly one per week. Now, having seated myself, am I at a loss for something to say? Surely not. Let us talk about plasma transfusion. A lecture on the subject is being given this week in the Hospital ship by Clegg, who runs the “plasma bank” there, and with whom I have been co-operating frequently on this vital question. By a fortunate chance taken in Liverpool in 1940, I was the means of introducing the first plasma service in an H.M. ship in the Mediterranean, and ours was the first ship to use the stuff in casualties immediately after action. As I said, this latter fact has been commented on by old Gleeson, (Surgeon-Captain C.E.Gleeson, Fleet Medical Officer) and forwarded to the proper authorities in a report. The plasma bank has made great strides in the past few months and almost all the ships are well supplied with plasma saline. I think you know the rationale, but maybe I could go over it again without boring you. When the human body is gravely wounded and much blood is lost, shock sets in chiefly because the stream (and the body) loses so much fluid that the blood in the vessels is converted into a concentrated sticky mass which the heart finds difficult to push around, and circulatory collapse follows. In the same way, if (as happened in my cases) the body is widely burned, the burned parts throw out great amounts of plasma which are lost to the blood stream, and there again we have a sticky blood flow and collapse.

Originally, attempts were made to combat this collapse by transfusion by whole blood - all very sound - but that meant -, as you know, the loss of much time by grouping the blood of both the giver and the receiver. The advent of plasma, which is blood minus red cells, meant the scrapping of all lost time and a simplification of the whole business. The early giving of plasma to a burned man or a badly bleeding man brings his blood stream back to something approaching normal and by countering collapse tends to save his life. And one can go straight ahead immediately after the injury with no need to match about with grouping or searching for a donor, because all one has to do is to defreeze one or two plasma bottles (they are kept in refrigerators) and carry on. All the plasma we have now has been collected from volunteers in this ship. After our May “episode”, I applied for 50 volunteers and had the required number in less than 24 hours. The process was held up by our necessary trip to Durban, but I got on with it when we got back, and now I have enough to give at least early immediate transfusions to over a score of cases if the need should arise.

You remember, I wrote an article to the “Guffer’s Gazette” in August 1940, stressing the advantages of plasma and advising its widespread use in the Fleet at home and abroad. I think my suggestion is bearing fruit; but maybe, of course, plans had been made before I “shot a line” about it. I hope I have not bored you by my lengthy dissertation on P.T., but you are usually interested in my professional ideas, and you have the faculty of picking up the gist of things. I have put the explanation in as simple a manner as possible. It can all be summed up by saying: “Bad burning or bleeding causes shock by thickening the blood, and plasma gives the patient a chance of thinning it again.” I only disseminate the idea of others - so don ‘t expect me to be given an O.B.E. or anything like that. I can only say I was prompt to see the significance of plasma in fighting ships, and to help to prove it, by example.”

To be continued

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