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HMS Barham - With Force "H": Part 2

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Freetown, Sierra and Dakar
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2260612
Contributed on: 
03 February 2004

HMS Barham — With Force “H”, Sept 1940 (2)

Following a two-month spell at Scapa Flow during the summer of 1940, HMS Barham sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Towards the end of September she was involved in her first major action - Dakar. 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 up to and during Dakar.

September 13th, 1940: Freetown, Sierra Leone

“Very hot last night. My cabin temperature must have been over ninety, I think. Pay’s cabin which is close to mine was 92 degrees, so mine must be very much the same. He and I had a long walk on the deck after the 10 o’clock news; a good breeze was blowing and this was a pleasant preliminary to returning to the cabin warmth.

Even in this weather, everyone keeps cheerful and well. Last evening we had some medicine ball on the quarterdeck - very hectic making, of course, but good for the body. Somebody in a moment of violent enthusiasm chucked the ball down the muzzle of one of the big guns, and it was only recovered after some difficulty. I have seen quite a lot of flying fish. The sailors have caught many of them to add to the larder. They often “fly” near enough on board to be caught.”

September 20th, 1940: Freetown — Letter obviously censored

“I am taking a chance on there being a mailout today, so here goes. It is very difficult to talk to you properly in these days of mystery and strict censorship; all I can say is; we have been mucking about to no little extent.

I have just bought a pair of dark glasses. The glare yesterday was rather fierce and gave me a slight headache and a suspicion of bleariness about the conjunctivitis, so the glasses are indicated for the upper deck. The bookstore sells them at 1/3 a pair. It is extraordinary how one forgets to bring dark glasses; whites, shoulder straps and so on readily spring to the mind, but I forgot the glasses.

The weather is fairly hot here, but the health of the ship remains very good on the whole. I think my broadcast did something to make the lads health-minded, although the average sailor is an imaginative bloke; if he were n’t he might not be so cheerful in adversity, and amidst discomfort.

I wonder if they have moved themselves from Hell’s row in the South of England. The more I hear of the news, the more I feel that we’ll sink these Nazis good and heartily in the fullness of time. But we must all dig our toes in for a goodly time yet..”

September 29th, 1940: After Dakar action - Sept 23-25

“There is another chance of a mail getting away tomorrow, and although I cannot let the opportunity pass. About our movements, I am not allowed to say anything more than that we have been pretty busy, and that I shall have some interesting stories to tell you and Graeme when we meet. Also, I am absolutely safe and well and actively reveling still in the warm weather.

I wonder many things - if my letters have been getting through to you; if you are still in North Wales; above all if you are safe from all the murderous attacks of the German bombers. It is rotten being out of touch with you.

I am going to be busy today with my Nosological returns, so I had better leave you and love you. That’s what you used to write to me in the old day’s, isn’t it?”

P.S. Please type out accompanying poem and keep it”.

“MEN OF VICHY, MEN OF VICHY,
SYMBOLS OF A NATION’S SHAME.
NOT FOR YOU THE TORCH OF HEROES.
NOT FOR YOU THAT SACRED FLAME.

BREATHES THE SPIRIT OF CLEMENCEAU
IN THE LAND THAT WAS HIS SOUL?
MARK HIS VALUE AS IT SURGES
IN THE BODY OF DE GAULLE.

MEN OF VICHY, MEN OF VICHY,
SEE THE COURSE OF FREEDOM SET.
BE THEE STRONG OR BE THEE CRAVEN,
FRANCE SHALL STAND IN GLORY YET.” ERS.

To Be continued

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