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15 October 2014
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A Young Boy's War: Chapter 1

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Graeme Sorley
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Contributed on: 
12 December 2003



I never got the chance to know my father. The last time I saw him I was in June 1940. After all these years, I feel I have got to know him through many of the letters he wrote to my mother, both before he was married, and during the year before he lost his life on active service. He was one of the 862 Officers and Men who were killed when a German U-boat sank HMS Barham in the Mediterranean on November 25, 1941.

We were living in Singapore when war was declared. My father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN was Principal Medical Officer at the HM Naval Base, an appointment he had held for three years. I was almost seven years old, my sister not quite four. We were too young to understand what was happening but everyone was talking of war. We did not have a radio but my parents went over to neighbours to listen to an announcement that war had been declared. This was followed by a Naval Message from the Admiralty, copied to my father; (receipt dated September 4, 1939), which stated:




The war had officially begun. The next cable instructed my father to stay in Singapore for the duration of the war. The family went up to Fraser's Hill, a holiday resort in what was then Malaya, for a short holiday. It was cool at night at Fraser's Hill, with often a light mist; a relief after the suffocating heat of Singapore.

Shortly after returning to Singapore, the plans were changed. The Admiralty ordered my father to return to England on the next boat. We had only a few days to pack up and leave. My uncle invited the rest of the family to spend the war in Australia, but there was no way that my mother would not return to England given the circumstances. Most of the family belongings were hurriedly packed into a large wooden crate but some things had to be left behind in the rush. We left the house and took a taxi to embark on the S.S.Narkunda, a 16,000-ton Pacific and Orient ship. As soon as we were aboard, she sailed. We left Singapore on January 8, 1940, my seventh birthday. The Narkunda was later sunk in the war while operating as a troopship.

The change in plan was a result of my father’s sudden appointment as Principal Medical officer of the Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship HMS Barham, which was being refitted at Liverpool after having been torpedoed in December 1939. Thus began an eventful trip back to an England suffering from one of the coldest winters for many years. The war had started but nothing much had yet happened on land.

Shortly after sailing, the Admiralty sent a message that there was ammunition on board the Narkunda. The boat was to put into port as soon as possible and Mrs. Sorley and the children were to take the first available flight home. I am glad I was too young to realize the significance of this, particularly when we saw a submarine surface off the port bow. The alarm was sounded but fortunately it was British. We had to put cotton wool in our ears during the one gun drill. A six-pounder gun had been mounted on the stern of the ship and the crew blasted away at orange crates which were dropped overboard. I do not believe they hit any.

We disembarked at Colombo, Ceylon but could not a get a flight so we had to re-embark. It was very hot as we sailed through the Indian Ocean. Swimming in the ship's pool was not much relief because the water was so hot and salty. After Colombo it was Bombay, where we were met by Uncle Herbert Sorley who worked for the Indian Civil Service. He wore a white suit and straw hat and led us down the street where we were pestered for baksheesh (money). There were no flights from Bombay nor from Aden. Finally, a few days later the Narkunda anchored after dark in the Port Said roads. There was a message from the Admiralty for my father that the three of us were to find our way to Alexandria and fly thence to England. My father was to remain on the boat for the rest of the voyage to Liverpool.

It was midnight and my sister and I were asleep. My mother rushed into our cabin, woke us and quickly dressed us in our Singaporean sunsuits. Soon the family was in an Admiral's launch heading for Port Said and a hotel. My father saw us children into bed, said good-bye and returned to the Narkunda. It was then that my mother realized that he had the keys to the one suitcase. Panic. The porter arranged for another boat to rush back to the Narkunda, yelled out and got the attention of my father who dropped the keys over the side. They landed safely in the porter's boat and he brought them back to the hotel.

Next morning, my mother's nightmare began with the trip from Port Said to Alexandria in an Egyptian train full of badly behaved men. A one-legged Englishman restored some form of order by threatening an overly amorous Egyptian with his wooden leg!

It was dark when we arrived at the station in Alexandria. Fortunately, my mother was greeted by two Thomas Cook representatives calling out "Mrs Sorley, Mrs Sorley, we are here to look after you". They took us to the Hotel Cecil, which had nice rooms and comfy beds. Next morning there was a message for us to take a taxi to the airport, which we did. We walked out to the Imperial Airways' Lockheed Hudson and waited on the tarmac. The sand, blown by a khamsin, (sandstorm) painfully stung the backs of my sister’s and my bare legs. We had left the Narkunda in such a rush that we had no other clothes than our sunsuits. A uniformed Imperial Airways' (forerunner of British Airways) pilot told us that they could not fly because of the khamsin and to come back at the same time the next day. The next day we had the same experience and the backs of our legs were doubly sore. Those who have not been in a khamsin cannot know how much blown sand can hurt. On the fourth day we finally took off, supposedly for England. The plane had to refuel at Sollum, Tunis and Malta before landing in Marseilles. Between Tunis and Malta we flew over the Narkunda. My mother was told that we would have to continue by train across France and cross-channel ferry as all the civilian airports in England were snowed in. On landing in Marseilles, we were given rail and ferry ticket vouchers by Imperial Airways. This was during the “phony” war; the months after the war had started but before the “blitzkrieg”. The carriage was not crowded. There was an RAF officer, a French Army officer, and the three of us. An argument started, the Frenchman spat in the Englishman’s face and all hell broke loose. My mother put us children up on the luggage racks to keep us out of harm’s way. Finally, the conductor restored an uneasy peace.

We arrived in Paris and my mother, whose French was anything but fluent, rushed out onto the platform shouting "chocolat, chocolat" and came back with a small but tasty haul. We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel for three or four days - the only other guest none other than the Englishman with the fearsome but useful wooden leg. The trains to Dieppe were crowded with French soldiers, presumably heading for the front. Finally, we got on a train and had to stand in the corridor with soldiers continually pushing past us. It was an uncomfortable journey. My sister, although very shy, was able to sit on a soldier's knee. At Dieppe it was dark as my mother struggled along with our luggage and us children, tripping into and over bollards before she found the gangplank to board the cross Channel ferry. We had a stinking little cabin for the three of us made even more unpleasant by the fact the vessel was battened down, blacked out and zigzagged its way across to Newhaven because of the U-boat menace.

Soon we were on our way to Victoria Station. It was bitterly cold as my sister and I still had on our sunsuits. Fortunately, my mother had a fur coat, gathered us together and warmed us like a hen with chicks. On very short notice, my grandmother had rented a cottage for us in Basildon Park, Berkshire but my mother had not been able to contact her. We caught the train from Paddington to Goring-on-Thames and my mother desperately tried phoning from the station, but the ground was covered with snow and the telephone lines were down. We were still freezing in our sunsuits. There was no welcoming committee to meet us so we took a taxi to the rented cottage. It was locked and empty. The taxi then took us to my grandmother’s cottage, but there was no one there either. My mother decided that we would spend the night in a hotel in Pangbourne. On the way there she saw her mother walking down the street, so we picked her up and all went back to Basildon to spend the night. It was very cold. Grandmother had just returned from Bristol by train, where she had been visiting my aunt who was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Both were totally unaware of our impending arrival.

As it turned out, even though they did have a hair-raising few days with constant alarms of one sort and another and many disturbed sleeps, the Narkunda came through the Mediterranean unscathed and my father arrived in Liverpool a week or so before we arrived in England. He did not know what had happened to us or where we were until my mother was finally able to make contact with him.

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