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A Young Boy's War: Chapter 3

by Graeme Sorley

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Graeme Sorley
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Graeme Sorley
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12 December 2003

A YOUNG BOY’S WAR — 1940-1945


My sister and I would receive reduced one-page “aerograms” from our father with clever drawings and printed messages. It seemed that more of his letters got through to us than vice-versa which was upsetting to him. It may have been that he had more time to write than my mother did, busy at home as a single mother caring for us two children. We received his Christmas aerogram but my letter of November 6th wishing him a Happy Christmas was “returned to sender” because he went down with the ship which blew up and was gone almost without trace in four minutes when torpedoed by U-boat U-331 off Sollum at 4.30 pm on November 25th. After listing rapidly, she exploded violently - an incident which provided one of the most awe inspiring film sequences shot in the whole war. It was the third worst single-ship loss of life in the Royal Navy during the Second World War after HMS Hood, and HMS Glorious and more than HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse combined.

I will always remember the postman walking up the walled-in path to the front door and handing my mother the dreaded buff OHMS envelope with the cold typewritten message dated December 6th, 1941, two weeks after the sinking telling her that my father was “presumed to have lost his life as the result of enemy action”. The letter advised her “not to communicate this sad news to any but your immediate relatives, who should also regard it as highly confidential”. She, naturally in great distress, had to make the emotional telephone calls to her mother and sister. It brought the war home in a devastating way. It was a terrible moment in our lives. She also received a letter of sympathy from Buckingham Palace.

The Barham’s loss was not officially announced until 27th January 1942, as it was important to keep the news as quiet as possible while re-organizing fleet dispositions in the Mediterranean and to protect “Enigma”. For weeks afterwards, my mother received letters to my father which were “returned to sender” and a cheque for £3.3.0 from the magazine Men Only for his humourous article “A Tangled Web”, about the Barham’s Bearded Torpedo Officer. It was not until June 1st, 1950 that she received fifteen guineas as Naval Prize money for his War medals.

Shortly after the sinking of HMS Barham, the widow of the Captain, Captain Cooke, RN organized a benevolent association to help other widows. Largely through her efforts, two candlesticks were dedicated in Westminster Abbey on Wednesday, February 10th, 1943:


HMS Barham


I have visited the Abbey on several occasions and have been treated with great courtesy whenever I have asked to see my father's name in the Book of Remembrance. For many years, one page was turned every day, but this has since lapsed with the passing of time. There is still an annual Service of Remembrance at the Abbey around November 25th although the number of survivors and family members who attend gets less and less. A couple of years ago my niece Sara Wrigley, who designed the HMS Barham Association Website, arranged for my mother and sister to attend the Service. Afterwards, she met a survivor, Commander Wolfe, who remembered playing tennis with my father and commented on what a good writer he was. Mrs Cooke commissioned Leslie Kent, R.B.A. to paint the Barham, which he did from a photo his son took from a destroyer immediately astern of the Barham as she was about to enter Suda Bay before the battle for Crete. The picture shows the Barham turning to starboard, and is featured in the book “Britain and Greece”. My mother arranged for the artist to do a smaller oil for me, as a twenty-first birthday present, based on a reproduction of Mrs Cooke’s painting and the artist’s notes.

After the war, the names of all those lost at sea were added to the RN Memorial at Portsmouth. The Register includes:

HMS Barham on 25th November, 1941. Age 40.
Son of John Tower Sorley and Anne Sorley;
husband of Joan A.Sorley, of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Ch.B., M.D., D.P.H.

Several years ago, I was visiting Edinburgh Castle and was disappointed to find that my father's name was not included in the Memorial Book of Scotland. Why I do not know as there were several obituary notices in Scottish papers. I have managed to have this omission rectified.

The most complete account of the sinking of the Barham is in Frank Wade’s book “A Midshipman’s War”. My mother was visiting me in Victoria for Christmas 1994 when I took her into the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. While browsing in the museum shop before leaving, I noticed a book which had a drawing of what looked like the Barham on the cover. I picked it up and turned to the index to see if Barham was mentioned. There was a whole chapter devoted to the tragedy. After discovering that Frank Wade lived in Vancouver and that he had signed the book, we immediately bought several copies for members of the family. Later, I spoke to Wade on the phone. He told me that Oberleutnant Hans von Tiesenhausen, who was captain of U-331, was a regular officer who had served in the light cruiser Karlsruhe off Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Ironically, his ship was acting in co-operation with the Royal Navy. Equally ironically, my father had been on board the Karlsruhe when both she and HMS Enterprise were at Mombasa in August 1930. Tiesenhausen had transferred to the submarine command and at the beginning of the war. His mentor had been the U-boat ace Kapitan-Leutnant Otto Kretschmer who was credited with having sunk 44 ships totaling 266,629 tons. Tiesenhausen was awarded the Iron Cross for sinking the Barham. A year after sinking the Barham, U-331 was surprised on the surface by planes from HMS Formidable and Tiesenhausen was captured and became a prisoner-of-war in Canada. He emigrated to Canada in the 1950’s and died in 2000, a month before my mother.

My father’s Obituaries include the following: in the British Medical Journal;


Surgeon Commander ERNEST ROBERT SORLEY, who is presumed to have been killed in HMS Barham on November 25, 1941 was the youngest son of the late John Tower Sorley, M.A., and was educated at the University of Aberdeen, where he graduated M.B., Ch.B, in 1923. He proceeded M.D. in 1935 having taken the D.P.H. in 1928. He entered the Royal Navy as surgeon lieutenant in 1925, and served in HMS Malaya in the Mediterranean and in the Centurion until 1928, when he was appointed to Plymouth Hospital. From 1929 to 1932 he was in the Enterprise in the East Indies, and for the next three years at the naval hospital in Bermuda. After a year at Chatham barracks he was appointed to Singapore in November 1936. He was promoted to surgeon-commander in March 1936, and joined the British Medical Association in 1937.

And in “The Scotsman”:

Went Down on
HMS Barham
Surgeon-Commander Ernest
R.Sorley, who lost his life
when HMS Barham was
sunk. He was the third son
of the late Mr. John T. Sorley,
city chamberlain, Aberdeen,
and Mrs Sorley, Milltimber

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