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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 11th-15th, 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: 
Contributed on: 
31 January 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 11th — 15th, 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. By the end of 1939, the only British naval forces in the Mediterranean were three small “C” class cruisers and some Australian destroyers. 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.

11th August, 1940: Toc H — Tubby Clayton

“The cottagers in these parts we find very reserved and uncommunicative. The Captain (1) had an urge to buy some fresh eggs and as we approached and old man on the moorland road, the Captain smiled pleasantly at him and asked: “Nice day. Have you any eggs to sell?” Without moving a muscle of his face - not ever taking his eyes from the ground, the man answered: “None, None.” - and trudged onwards. “Extraordinary” said the Captain to me.” He didn’t even move his shoulders.

Today we had an address at morning service from Tubby Clayton of Toc H. fame. He looks a very nice man, but I was not especially impressed by his delivery and discourse. His subject matter was not so clear cut as I could have wished and although he exuded an atmosphere of sympathy and good fellowship, I feel he did not quite get to the hearts of his hearers. Still. I’ve no doubt that his reputation was his disadvantage; if he had come to us as an unknown, I might have been more stimulated.

The ship’s band is blaring away outside my cabin. It is cocktail time, but I have no immediate desire to go and knock back gimletts or sherries. Hearson has asked me to supper and cinema tonight. I have accepted, but fear that the transport may be difficult. The sea is rather turbulent so far; however, it may moderate. I hope so.”

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

12th August, 1940:

“I am writing this fairly hurriedly because, in addition to this being my censoring day, I have accepted an invitation from “Tubby” Clayton to visit a convalescent home ashore, and I must leave the ship at about 12.30 pm. I am taking Sherwell (2) with me. We shall probably be ashore for 2 hours or so. Quite apart from the professional interest attached to the trip, it is good to get away from the familiar surroundings of grey bulkheads and the intermittent clamour of bugles and pipes.

The news about the loss of the “Odin” was sad. The Captain was young Woods - you recall him - the curly headed lad whom we entertained a little in Singapore. No matter how hardened one becomes to war and its news, one cannot avoid receiving a shock when a casualty is a friend or acquaintance. The medicine ball routine is now going strong, so there is not lack of physical exercise. The postman has just reported the arrival of many letters to censor so I must flee.”

Note: (2) Surgeon-Lieutenant Commander Sherwell

15th August, 1940:

“I absolutely agree with you, it is unnecessary extravagance to strive to use up all one’s petrol coupons just because one is entitled to them. To be close with money nowadays is a national virtue rather than a fault.

I was very interested about the news of the cottage being let for two weeks at 5 gns a week. I hope it’s true. About your moving to Basildon (3) in September, I agree you could make yourself very comfortable there, but you must do something about the cellar. I think that with a little ingenuity with lighting and heating and supply of emergency stores, the place could be converted into quite a good cubby-hole. At the same time, the windows would have to be “taped” properly. One can buy special material nowadays for pasting on wholesale. Meanwhile the prospects of widespread havoc, in rural areas at any rate, seems very remote, when one considers the astounding success which the R.A.F. boys are having in their contact with the enemy. About the heating at Gable Cottage during the winter - you will be unlucky if the season is so severe as last year, but please do all you can to keep cozy and warm. This cutting about peat fuel I took from the Spectator. It might be worth thinking of, or if you cannot get wood or coal, because peat burns very strongly and gives wonderful heat. It is just right for a country cottage, too. Keep the advertisement. It might be very useful.

P.S. No signs of Hitler keeping his appointment at the Savoy to-night, is there?”

Note: (3) Near Pangbourne, Berkshire

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