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HMS Barham - Battle of Matapan

by Graeme Sorley

Left to Right- Paymaster-Commander Williams and Surgeon-Commander Sorley on the Quarterdeck

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Mediterranean
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2274013
Contributed on: 
07 February 2004

HMS Barham — Battle of Matapan

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN. after the Battle of Matapan.

23rd March, 1941:

“It is just a year today since I joined this ship - that is why I have written Sunday at the head of the letter. You will remember that I was appointed to repair on board 26th March 1940, and in consequence had to travel on the Saturday. I hope that my second year in the old ship will be as happy and fortunate, and that I may be permitted to return to you, even if my spell is brief.

We had a whacking great mail a few days ago, and on the same day as this very welcome cascade descended, a cable arrived saying: "Lease extended - all well — Joan." So, I felt very happy and content. The latest letter from you was dated February 2nd (airmail); the others ran from 15th December to 25th January. I will discuss their contents presently. For the moment, let me talk of recent events here.

24th March, 1941 - A few days before the Battle of Matapan:

“I hope you have n't been listening to the Rome Radio broadcasts. You remember that in my last letter I said something about a spot of excitement from which we emerged quite unscathed. It seems that I can now reveal that this was an attack by torpedo bombers at dusk, and we did not think much about it until Rome announced triumphantly that it was definitely known that the Barham had been hit by two torpedoes. Take it from me, this, like most of the Axis claims, is complete "baloney." I sometimes listen to the Rome broadcasts, but soon get fed up, as the material and delivery is really pathetic. They usually start off with fantastic claims (such as the one I have mentioned) and end up something like this: "on the Albanian front artillery duels have been in progress; on the African front, the Italian troops have been fighting with great gallantry and have inflicted losses on the enemy. Now as my time is running close, I must stop - We shall be broadcasting tomorrow on wavelength so and so”.

On 30th March, 1941: Account of Battle of Matapan:

“Here we are safely back in harbour after having taken part in what has been rightly described as "the greatest naval battle of the war.” At last our forces managed to bring the scurrying “Italians” to action, although needless to say we would not have done so unless we had taken them by surprise, so that their well-known speed did not avail them so much as usual. The whole action was quite thrilling, the duration of our firing being very short, but devastatingly effective. We scored a direct 15-inch hit on a cruiser - the Fiume, I think - and the wretched ship was seen soon after to be ablaze and subsequently blew up with a shattering explosion and a mighty flame that lit the night sky. This took place at about 11.30 p.m. constituted our contribution to the victory, although we were attacked by aircraft. Naturally, I saw nothing of the spectacular side of the scrap, as I was at my action station. On the following morning, however, we all saw in the distance a dot upon the ocean which we assumed was a float with Italian survivors. Our destroyers were busy rescuing the poor wretches. Altogether, in the action 1500 “Italians” must have lost their lives as the prisoners amounted to only 900. When you consider the "score", you will agree that the victory will go down in history as one of the most decisive of all time. 3 enemy cruisers, 2 large destroyers sunk and one battleship damaged, about 1,500 “Italians” written off - and on our side not one single ship damaged and not one man with so much as a scratch.

The name which has been bestowed on the battle by the C.in.C. is Matapan, Cape Matapan being the nearest land to the site of the action. Cape Matapan is the most southerly point of the Greek mainland. Be sure to look it up and point it out to Graeme. The whole episode is very heartening and yesterday morning when the total enemy damage was announced to us by the C.in.C., the sense of jubilation amongst our officers and men was good to see. One felt that one had been privileged to be in a force that had struck a great blow at the enemies of the King, and one was flushed with the knowledge of our naval power and courage. For remember that the whole Italian force was numerically superior to ours, but as we expected, their ships preferred to run away, but not before we could inflict terrible blows. If their force had stayed to fight, this would have been another Trafalgar; as it is, we doubt if the Italian Fleet will dare to challenge us again.

You have no doubt heard all about this glorious happening, in the press and on the radio. I feel that Winston Churchill will do full justice to the story in the House tomorrow. I can imagine his pungent and gleeful sentences, like those of a small boy who has punched his adversary well and truly on the nose.

Matapan is our third action of the war, apart from numerous air attacks; that of Dakar of rather doleful memory; then Bardia into which we poured shells and engaged the shore batteries. The veil of secrecy can be lifted now, I think. We have been given permission to tell the story of Matapan; but I will not say more, except to say that I am naturally proud to have taken some part in one of big the days in Naval history, although happily I had no actual work to do. The organisation was there, however, and I don't feel that the medical side would have been found wanting.

5th April, 1941: Another extract on Matapan:

“The Battle of Cape Matapan, although only a week ago, has dropped into history. There is a deal of humming and hawing about the naming of the engagement. First it was Matapan; then the battle of the Ionian Sea - and now, and I believe the final name, Cape Matapan. It was more a victory than a battle - a shattering of Italian ships which we so caught herding that they could make little reply; still that is their fault, not ours. My recollection of the night action will always be vivid for the reason that I was blown about 3 feet by the blast of our 15-inch guns. I did n't tell you this last week as I thought it might scare you, but there is now no harm in giving you the facts. You see, our meeting with the Italian cruisers at night was more or less by accident, luck or providence - call it what you will. We were searching for the damaged Vittoria Venetto (battleship) hoping to be able to finish her off, but not thinking there was much chance of finding her in the darkness. A damaged ship had been reported some way ahead of us, and the battle Fleet was ambling along at action stations (second degree of readiness), which means that those in action stations below decks are permitted to leave their stations so long as they are within ready access.

I was in the Wardroom with several others including Bert Moncrieff and the Pay when we heard the sound of gunfire seemingly far off. The Pay and I made for the boat deck, hoping to see what was happening, I was leading, and just as I pushed open the bulkhead door leading to the boat deck, our port after 15-inch guns opened fire. I was blasted back into the Pay's arms - quite unhurt - and firstly with the impression that the half deck had sustained a hit. The padre was actually on the boat deck near the guns; he was blown off his feet and almost went over the side. It was his first exposure to gunfire let alone gunfire at night, so you can imagine what a shock he got. Naturally, we all proceeded to our stations after this.

It transpired that what had happened was this: the alleged damaged ship was the cruiser "Pola" which (we heard later) had been torpedoed by one of our destroyers. The Italian cruisers "Zara" and "Fiume", not having any knowledge of our presence had been detached to come back to give assistance, and came - glorious chance - brought this all of a sudden within 3,000 yards of us. They actually challenged us quite happily probably thinking that our ships in the darkness belonged to some more of their own Fleet, and our reply to the challenge was immediate - a 15-inch salvo from Warspite, Valiant, Barham - which shattered them as a shotgun would a piece of cardboard. The “Italians” were taken completely by surprise, their guns being trained fore and aft so that they had no hope of answering our attack. Their only response was a torpedo attack from a destroyer which was quite ineffective. Barham got the Fiume, as I told you before.

That is the story of the night action so far as we were concerned, and our success was due to (a) an extraordinary piece of good fortune in coming close enough to the enemy in the dark (b) the “Italians” ignorance of our whereabouts and (c) our very prompt seizing of the opportunity before the enemy could escape. The engagement is unique in history as the only night action at close range. The range was so close that if the Italians had had time to open fire, we might have received considerable damage, too. However, all was well. The following day was engaged in searching the ocean for “Italian” survivors, and our destroyers picked up a goodly number even if their efforts were hampered by the danger of German dive-bombers.”

To be continued

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