- Contributed by
- Graeme Sorley
- People in story:
- Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
- Location of story:
- Offshore Dakar Sep 23-25, 1940
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 January 2004
HMS Barham at Dakar
The darkest period of WWII was the four-month period prior to the action at Dakar. After the evacuation at Dunkirk in May/June 1940, Italy entered the war. Britain faced the danger of invasion, endured concentrated bombing raids, and fought the Battle of Britain. In the Mediterranean, Mussolini’s “Mare Nostrum”, there was the threat to the vital sea link to the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf and the Far East. The Germans had overrun the Low Countries and Norway and France had capitulated. The coastline from Tromso in the north of Norway to Biarritz in Atlantic France was effectively under Nazi control. There was a Fascist regime in Spain and the danger of U-boat bases being established in Southern Ireland. Britain was almost surrounded. The USSR had signed a Friendship Treaty with Hitler and the United States did not enter the war until December 1941.
By the autumn of 1940 the situation had improved somewhat. The Battle of Britain had been won and the danger of invasion had receded. The newly formed Free French were anxious to get into action as soon as possible. It was decided to test the loyalty of the French population in Colonial French West Africa, and attempt to secure a strategically placed port on the West Coast of Africa by landing a force of Free French under De Gaulle at Dakar, Senegal. On September 23rd, the Anglo-French fleet — which included HMS Barham - approached Dakar in the hope that the local population could be persuaded to turn against the Vichy. After Mers-el-Kebir, this was an unrealistic hope and the shore batteries and battleship Richelieu, opened fire. The British Fleet then bombarded the town and the French warships from September 23-25th before breaking off the action.
Barham was actively involved in bombarding the shore batteries and engaging Richelieu and other smaller warships. She was hit four times but not seriously damaged. From the time he joined the ship up to the day she was torpedoed, my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN wrote numerous letters home. All were censored and most arrived safely. His personal feelings about Dakar, De Gaulle and Vichy France and WW2 are reflected in the following extracts from this correspondence:
“It gives me a thrill to recall that we were in action at Dakar. We were in action throughout a spell of 3 days - from 23rd to 25th Sept, fighting four actions in all. We put up a pretty good show in difficult conditions, and having been assailed by every method known to naval warfare, we live to fight another day”.
“I have just been reading a recent article in the Spectator, in which the writer says that all competent observers are convinced that Hitler’s chances of victory are receding every day, and the end of 1940 will see the disappearance of his last hope. I hope we are not becoming too complacent; that is the danger. But I think we can trust our leaders now to keep us on our toes, while “the springs of our offensive are being compressed”.
“It seems that, as some reports of our activities on the West African coast have appeared in the newspapers, the censorship ban can be lifted very slightly………... I suppose I am entitled to say that this ship went through a very long sustained action - indeed, I believe the longest of the war so far.”
“The various actions in which we were engaged lasted, off and on, through three days. They took place in perfectly frightful climatic conditions, but everyone in the ship behaved with great enthusiasm and cheerfulness. The temperature in my Medical Station was between 120 and 140 degrees all the time. We wore next to nothing and sweated pints for hours on end. Although the ship received several hits, there was no serious damage and no casualties, except a minor one”.
After Dakar he wrote the following poem, which was enclosed with a letter to my mother:
“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.”
Following the action, Barham joined Admiral Cunningham’s Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria. My father decided to take French lessons while the ship was in port. It is possible that De Gaulle was invited on board as a courtesy or for a planning meeting with his British counterparts. If so, it is possible that my father met him in the Wardroom and was frustrated in not being able to converse in French, hence the lessons. His letters being censored he would not have been able to mention anything about the encounter.
After Dakar and before the end of 1940, the Barham survived an attack by Italian frogmen and joined in the raid on Taranto. She was in several actions in 1941 starting with the bombardments of Bardia and later Tripoli, the Battle of Matapan, and the evacuation of Crete before her sinking in November. This tragic event is forever visually etched in the memory of those who have seen the video of the great battleship, having been hit by three torpedoes, listing to port and sinking within four minutes after one of the magazines blew up.
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