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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 17th-18th, 1940icon for Recommended story

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley,RN
Location of story: 
Scapa Flow
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2251711
Contributed on: 
01 February 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 17th — 18th, 1940

A month after the onset of WW2, HMS Barham and the other battleships of 1st Battle Squadron were taken from the Mediterranean Fleet to re-inforce the Home Fleet. En route to Scapa Flow, Barham had a disastrous collision with HMS Duchess and was later torpedoed off the west coast of Scotland. After repairs at Liverpool had been completed, she sailed to Scapa Flow for sea trials and gunnery practice before joining Vice Admiral Somerville’s “H” Force in the Western Mediterranean in late August 1940. My father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN was the Principal Medical Officer on Barham and wrote numerous letters to my mother from June 30th 1940 to November 23rd, 1941 (two days before Barham was sunk off Sollum in the Mediterranean). Extracts from his letters to my mother while Barham was at Scapa Flow give an insight to life on the ship during the months leading up to Barham’s first major action at Dakar. The Battle of Britain was in progress when these letters were written.

17th August, 1940: Comment on Battle of Britain

“The war in the air is getting pretty fruity now, isn’t it? The R.A.F. are coming through a terrific trial with flying colours. I don’t know how long the Luftwaffe can afford to cast away hundreds of trained men per day, but there must come a time when a series of bad jolts such as they are meeting will undermine their courage and morale. I certainly wouldn’t pay any attention to the wishful optimists who say the war will be over in our favour in three weeks. Sherwell (1), whose wife works at something connected with the Air Ministry, tells me she says the current gossip is something to this effect. Impossible, to my mind - nor can we win in three months; a hundred weeks is more like it. This is my censoring day-on, so I must away and scan the latest batch.”

Note: (1) Surgeon-Lieutenant Sherwell

18th August, 1940: Visit to Toc H run Convalescent Home

“I had a fairly busy day with my censoring racket yesterday. As payment to the men had preceded my spell, the flow of registered letters was considerable. What dear stupid people the sailors are! They send off their hardly earned pounds to sweethearts and friends without much thought for their own needs and comfort. The goodness of their hearts under (in many cases) a rude exterior always continues to amaze me. As you know, I’ve ever been a great admirer of the British bluejacket.

I am writing now to the accompaniment of loud squeaks and pom-pom-poms from the ship’s band just outside my cabin - doing their Sunday forenoon lung exercises. I must go and join the merry throng in the Wardroom. By the way, I think I told you that the Bandmaster was Bandmaster of the “Danae” in the West Indies during our Bermuda spell, and we heard him more than once. My marine servant, May, was in the “Durban” when we were out in the same part of the world, and actually appeared in the marine detachment of that jolly good tattoo the ship gave in the dockyard - you will remember.”

“My trip ashore yesterday was the most enjoyable and memorable that I have had for a long time. Sherwell and I left the ship at about 1 o’clock, and got ashore at about 3 pm. We were met by “Tubby” Clayton and along with three visitors clambered into a large Ford V.8 shooting car, which carried us to the convalescent home which the spirit of Toc H (forever stimulated by the restless “Tubby”) has brought to life here. This real home from home surprised us all by its appearance of comfort, efficiency and (in these days) by its permanent atmosphere of peace. It is intended primarily for the use of sailors whose health has been undermined by the stress of war, and it is a tribute to this remarkable man, Tubby Clayton, that such a centre has come into being - mushroom like - in a quiet corner of the world. He is indeed remarkable - this Tubby - a plump little man (although not so plump as his nickname suggests) with an extraordinary power of weaving a spell upon everybody with whom he holds converse, so that he appears to get everything he asks for. I have never felt the pressure of personal charm so much before; strong enough this - personality - call it what you will - cannot be experienced until one talks to him. I told you how I was rather disappointed with his address to the ship’s company on Sunday last. It seems that the magic of his personality depends upon direct contact.

To proceed with a description of our visit, we were given and enormous tea consisting mainly of excellent home-made scones and cakes of all kinds, and afterwards were taken on a Tubby-conducted tour of the vicinity before returning to catch our boat. Our guide possesses a profound knowledge of the archaeological relics with which this place abounds, and his vivid word-pictures of a bygone age were intensely interesting, so that we scarcely noticed the passage of time and almost missed our boat - the last for the night. With about 15 minutes left to cover 3 or 4 miles, our car got a puncture in the rear port wheel - and we thought we were in the soup properly. However, a car with two ladies in it was observed coming in our direction (in the opposite direction to that to which we were proceeding) and with an astounding absence of embarrassment, Tubby held the ladies up and said (or words to this effect) “Would you please take these three officers back to their boat. It would be a great act of kindness. Thank you - thank you, thank you very - very much.” So the ladies, looking rather dazed, had turned the car and were going rapidly in the opposite direction with us on board almost before they knew what was happening. Such is the power of a magnetic personality! We got back on board Barham at 7.45 pm, both voting that the day had been “big stuff”.

Land and houses here are very cheap. T.C. told us one could rent a bothing (that is a crofter’s cottage), with 40 acres of land for ₤24 a year. By the way, I saw in the Times the other day a cottage near Basingstoke going for ₤600 - 3 sitting rooms, 3 bedrooms, with 1 acre, including a small spinney. Sounds interesting, but, of course, one would have to see it before thinking of buying.

I should say that Hitler is just about packing his portmanteau now if he means to be in London by the 15th. Two more days and the prediction of this spurious wizard is blown to the winds - and, let us hope his spell is broken. The R.A.F. continues to take heavy toll of the Luftwaffe. It must be shattering to the horde of the “German” airmen to have to face a succession of losing battles.”

To be Continued

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