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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 7th-10th, 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: 
30 January 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 7th — 10th, 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.

7th August, 1940: Family concerns

“Two letters for me yesterday, one particularly long one. Your letters are full of happiness, and long may they be so. I am so very glad that we decided to make Lledr House(1) your headquarters, and again I say that if Gable Cottage(2) can be let reasonably until next March, it would be a great comfort to me to know you are safe in a nook of Great Britain amongst pleasant people. The fuel problem at Gables would be difficult, and the necessity of keeping warm will be real during the next winter. Do try to get a let.

I am sending off the tennis racquet today (the Fred Perry one), and hope it arrives safely. It is all to the good you being able to get some tennis; keep it up. Your weather, from the descriptions, makes me get quite jealous. We have flashes of sunshine alternating with blankets of all-pervading mist. All this hampers our work and amusements quite a deal. However, we are all fit and happy, leading our own circumscribed lives.

In one of your letters yesterday, you said something about “if we win the war”. I am surprised. You ought to have said “When we win the war”. I have such faith in our race and its divine mission that I cannot have any doubts about the final issue of this battle for everything that’s precious in life.

Did you see that Arkwright (Lt. Cmd) got the D.S.C. the other day? You remember him in HMS Eagle. Also Coure-Hill was mentioned in dispatches posthumously - not much consolation for her, poor girl. No, I am not permitted to censor my own letters. No officer can do that. I do the Padre’s and he does mine.” On that cheerful note, let me close for today.

Note: (1) North Wales (2) Near Pangbourne, Berkshire

8th August, 1940: Letters and censorship

“A very short letter from you yesterday, but I quite understand that with all those other letters to write, your daily one to me must sometimes suffer. I am always ready to spring in a downward direction from the bunk at 7.15. Of course, my earlier hours are really forced on me, because the Wardroom closes at 11 p.m. and there is no point in hanging about a desolate mess; much better to get into the bunk armed with your daily letter and a novel to follow. Last night I was a little later than usual because I was censoring letters up to 11.10. We have a new system for censoring the ship’s company correspondence now. The Wardroom and certain other officers have been divided into 5 equal sections, each section taking a day in turn to do the censoring in a special office, the senior bloke of each section being responsible for the general organisation of his day - which responsibility chiefly consists of panicking about the whereabouts of essential keys to the censoring room, and rounding up dilatory members of the group. It’s astonishing how some manage to tuck themselves away (or find some duties to justify the tucking away) just about the time the deluge of letters arrives. However, by relentless C.I.D. methods one eventually tracks them down and forces them to do their stuff. On the whole the systems works very well - and is far better than the previous casual unloading of letters onto the Wardroom table, from which officers, with varying degrees of reluctance, withdraw their shares. As I said, my day was yesterday - and a particularly heavy mail, coupled with the compulsory adherence of most of my members to other duties, made the day later than usual. The P.T.I. (3) has just deposited half a dozen rubber deck quoits in my cabin. He seems to regard me as the legitimate O.C. Physical Training for Officers - why I don’t know. Probably because I was the first to pester him to provide medicine balls, officers, for the use of. He threatens to reset a deck tennis net or rope on the quarter-deck. Still, it is good to have all these things to fall back upon if one can’t get ashore, or if one is disinclined to do so.

The local amateur barber has given me a haircut. He, (a garrulous sailor of pugilistic aspect) is quite good, but he believes in making a clean sweep of one’s back locks with the result that one goes about for days feeling chilly around the nape of the neck. Perhaps, I’ve rambled enough for today”.

Note: (3) Physical Training Instructor

10th August, 1940: Exercise ashore — Resolute exhortation during difficult times

“The Captain has just asked me to go ashore this afternoon with him for a long walk. Just what I was needing, although my body has not been without exercise this week. I have had two spells of medicine ball, Last evening, I meant to play deck tennis, but rain made the quarter-deck treacherous to the feet and we gave up the idea. Today the weather is dull but so far dry and crisp. My sojourn ashore today will be my 7th since we shook the gubbins of Liverpool from our sides.

I’m sorry that you felt a vague depression for a day or two, we must not become downhearted in these times. Remember, invasion may never come. Hitler’s secret weapon maybe to keep us always on tenterhooks expecting a blitzkrieg, hoping to undermine our nerves and sow the seeds of apathy. So it is our duty to keep prepared and to realise that the dogged British endurance must be spiritual as well as physical. We must be ready for a burst of activity or for a long period of comparative inactivity. France was beaten because of Hitler’s uncanny knowledge of human psychology. He argued like this - “Get your enemy all keyed up, then leave him for a time kicking his heels; then indecision, doubts about the wisdom of having gone to war will get to work amongst them; then when this evaluation has reached a certain pitch, go for him with all your might.” We must learn from the earlier phases of this war - and be calm, resolute in the face of all temptation to “let up” on the war effort. We are a great people, because in spite of our many faults, we can adapt ourselves readily to almost any conditions - and have never lost our sense of humour (a quality which the Germans have tried hard to understand). Let us pray we’ll never lose it, even in the midst of the worst trials. The R.A.F. show two days ago was very encouraging, and a mighty fillip to morale.

Keep cheerful always, and things will come right. ” ’Tis not in Mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronuis, we’ll deserve it.”

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