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HMS Barham - Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940: Part 4

by Graeme Sorley

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

HMS Barham — Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, 1940 (4)

After the Force “H” action at Dakar in September 1940, Barham joined Cunningham’s Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, exactly when is unsure. 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 during the period October 1940 to November 23rd, 1941.

18th November, 1940: Mail; Weather; Comments on the War

“The mail question could not very well be worse; letters by air take about 6 weeks, we are told and letters by sea about 4 months! So, I am going to try a weekly airmail letter to you as the only reasonable method of keeping in touch.

We have been having quite an interesting time. I called on old Gleeson (1) the other day, and found him very friendly. He asked me to have lunch with him, which unfortunately I was unable to do, as I had to get back on board my ship. Then Daisy Hearson asked me to have dinner ashore at a local club. I was looking forward to this, and then suddenly, as so often happens nowadays, the “exigencies of the service” came in the way. But we should have another chance to get together soon.

We are wearing whites at the moment, but at odd times we pop back into blues. Personally, I feel the weather is warm enough for whites all the time, but the blokes who have to keep watch sometimes feel the pinch of colder conditions.

This is the eve of Dansie’s birthday. I do hope so much that the little present has arrived safely and in time. This letter will reach you about Christmas or the New Year, I imagine; by that time, you should have received the ₤5, which I am sure you will use wisely for presents - and mostly for your dear self, please.

The war news makes more cheerful sounding nowadays. The Greeks are doing splendidly against the “…..Italians”, who seem to be showing the first signs of wobbling. The “…….Italians” certainly have not got their hearts in this war, at least so long as they have to fight for their gains. They are a craven crew. The great Taranto (2) episode has given them a nasty jolt just at the right time, and now I feel that we should strike them hard and as often as we can. I have just listened to a resume of Mussolini’s speech to his people - a most depressing address it sounded - for the Italians. His warning and exhortations to the Fascist brigade on the discouragement of pacifism in their ranks seems to me very hopeful and may well be the beginning of the end, if events do not occur to restore Italian confidence. That is why we must go on hitting them. Every good boxer knows that the time to go all out for the knock-out blow is when his opponent is showing signs of getting “groggy”. Keep ever cheerful; I always pray for your safety and for my dear children. My fondest love.

P.S. I forgot to mention it, but I am entitled to say that we are now near the place (3) from which you and Graeme and Dans flew to England in February last.”

Notes: (1) Surgeon-Captain Gleeson, RN — Senior Medical Officer in Eastern Mediterranean
(2) On November 11, 1940, Admiral Cunningham launched an attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto with the Barham, two cruisers (HMS Berwick and Glasgow), two destroyers and aircraft off the carrier HMS Illustrious. This action decisively altered the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Half of the Italian battle fleet was disabled for six months.
(3) Tripoli

25th November, 1940: Strong Feelings about the Enemy

“To-night, we have our cinema on board - in the Wardroom, not on the quarter-deck, as the weather is now pretty cold, especially in the evenings. I had asked Toby McD. to come over but his ship has gone out again, so that party is postponed.

10.45 p.m. I have just returned from the cinema and feel that I should finish this letter tonight. The cinema show this week was a tough quick shooting wild west film called “The Oklahoma Kid”, just the kind of stuff the sailors will love, and to anybody with good red blood, a source of entertainment. On the whole the films we get are pretty good, although we had two Bing Crosbys almost in succession. He is rather in the nature of a pain in the neck to the Wardroom Officers. I hope we manage to get “The Great Dictator” - Charlie Chaplin’s skit on Hitler and Mussolini. That film may do a great deal of good if it gets sufficient publicity, even if old Musso. scarcely needs any more de-bunking. His own people are beginning to see where he has led them. I have heard from authoritative sources that the Italian prisoners captured in the Western desert are for the most part badly fed and poorly equipped, and that literally, for courage and fighting qualities, one of our men is worth about five of Mussolini’s. The Italians seem to have been bolstered up with stories of the decadence of our people, and their gullibility is incredible. The same, of course, applies to the Germans, but they are magnificently equipped, still fairly well-fed and full of tough fighting qualities, even if those qualities are based on fanaticism. We’ll have to get to grip with them somewhere on land before this war can be over, and 1941 should bring us nearer that day. 1941 should see our mastery of the air and the overcoming of the submarine menace; then the stage will be set for the last scene - the atrophy of the Nazi organism, the dissolution of that foul protoplasm which grew from the slime of greed and corruption and persecution. Hitler will be thrown back into the gutter where the slime lies.”

28th November, 1940: Mail; Time Ashore; More comments on War

“This is by sea mail, and in all probability will take 5 months to reach you. However, if I now write once a week by air mail, and twice a week by sea you should be getting three letters a week in the fullness of time; which won’t be so bad, once the initial time-lag is over. Of course, all arrangements may have to be altered by the end of 4 or 5 months. Many things can happen during that time. But that is no reason why an ordered routine should not be brought into play.

Life here continues to be quite pleasant. “Marshall” Sherwell and I had an excellent day on Tuesday. We landed at 1.30 pm and proceeded to the local sporting club, and spent the afternoon bathing (open-air bath) and wallowing in bright but not blistering sunshine. Not bad for November. The water wasn’t so warm as that at Tanglin or Swimming Club - in fact, one had a considerable shock and a mighty spasm of gasping on the first dive, but one got used to it, and the sun-bathing in between times was grand. Marshall and I lay on very decorative long chairs with rubber cushions supporting the under sides of our respective bodies, and fell into discussions on many topics. Marshall’s a most amusing commentator on current events, and has a pretty wit. After bathing, we had tea and proceeded back on board at 6.15 pm. We came ashore again at 7:00 and had a quiet but most pleasant dinner at a small French restaurant. More discussions under the stimulus of the wassail bowl, and returned to the ship at 11 o’clock. A very satisfactory day.

Today, I am getting some tennis. I hope to work up my tennis again, and to rope in some regular singles partners so that I may get a game twice or thrice a week. I think you would love the life here (4); the clubs are excellent and the prices reasonable. There are only one or two service wives in residence here, and their husbands have shore jobs. In the former days of peace, this place must have been very gay and amusing. The climate is delightful. We have just gone into blues again today, for the mornings are just a trifle crisp for whites.

The news continues to be encouraging, despite the cruel attacks on Coventry, Birmingham and Bristol. The Italian reverses at Taranto and in Albania have given a great fillip to the Allied cause. The next few weeks or months will show whether Hitler is prepared to let his partner slide, or whether his intention is to extend his frontiers and bolster up the “….. Italians”. I think they’ll need a good bit of bolstering, unless they are prepared to show more “guts” than they have up to date.”

Note: (4) Alexandria

To be continued

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