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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 19th-20th, 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: 
01 February 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 19th — 20th, 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. 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. The Battle of Britain was in full swing when these letters were written.

19th August, 1940: Wardroom Entertainment: Battle of Britain

“The weather has just taken a turn for the better today. The skies are clear and the air crisp - all very bracing. I feel very energetic, as if I wanted to run a mile or two. Perhaps I’d better not say that, at least not make public (amongst the blokes) or they’ll be roping me in to run in the cross-country race. Cobham is organizing this cruel form of exercise and hopes to make it a success, as no doubt he will. You may rest assured that Robert will not be a starter - I have reached the real age of discretion now, so far as violent games are concerned, and besides, loping around a countryside with one’s tongue hanging out was never one of my favourite pastimes. Fairly regular medicine ball and an occasional walk is all I ask under present circumstances, and I feel superlatively fit. I now smoke 4 cigarettes a day and have, on an average, one sherry or gin per day. I never touch whisky, and brandy is quite off the map.

The weekly cinema show of last night was extremely entertaining. Firstly, we had the newsreels pretty well up to date, and then the big film was a life-story of Paul Ehlich, one of the big names in the history of medicine. He was a German bacteriologist - a pupil of Robert Koch - who first demonstrated selective storing methods for tissues and bacteria and later in life made his mighty discovery - the specific drug against the spirochete pallida, or cause of syphilis. His work, undertaken under difficulty and scepticism, saved the lives and happiness of millions, and he is forever established in the hall of fame with Pasteur, Lister, Ross and the other supreme figures. Of course, nowadays, he would be a refugee from the Nazi madness, because he was of Jewish parentage. Happily his life’s work was over before his countrymen were poisoned by the lust of “racial purity”. He died in 1915. The film, although American in origin was well and reverently done and adhered closely to the facts - with an occasional lapse into “producer’s licence”; the officers liked it; the reactions of the sailors to this romance of science will be interesting. Either they’ll like it very much, or it will be a complete flop. Edward G Robinson (whom we saw in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”) was the star. He acted well, and if the film ever comes your way, it is worth seeing from the educative point of view. It is called “Dr. Erlich and his Magic Bullets”.

I am in the midst of a short First Aid Course to the snotties(1) at present. I gave them their first lecture on Friday last - on fractures - and will give the second today - on haemorrage. They are good listeners, and it is my hope that they enjoy the talks as much as I enjoy giving them.

I still think that I am very fortunate in my lieutenants. Roberts and Sherwell are both extremely popular in the Mess, indeed, I think, all over the ship. They are both keen and in every way uphold the best traditions of the branch. It is always distressing for me that I have to hand over all the clinical work (apart from consultations) over to them, because, as you know, I love dealing with cases, but there is nothing else for it. They would have practically nothing to do at all, if I did not keep in the background, grasping the doubtful comfort of administration. However, if we got into any rough stuff, there may be enough work for us all, and to spare.

The news of the Battle of Britain today is even better than we could have hoped in our most optimistic moments. The destruction or capture of 300 odd German personnel to our 6 seems too good to be true, but the great thing is that it is true. I definitely think now that successful invasion is an impossibility - I always thought so, but now I am convinced. I’ve no doubt that much serious damage will be done to our cities and people yet, but the tails of the R.A.F. chaps must be as far up as those of their opponents are down. Lord Trenchard, I feel, is the man we have to praise for this happy state of affairs. He all along insisted we must first of all concentrate on the peerless quality of our ‘planes before considering quantity. He wrote to the Times the other day, urging now on the concentration of bombers in large numbers in preference to Hurricanes and Spitfires which he says can never win a war; they can only pave the way by keeping our ports and production centres free of serious molestation.”

Note: (1) Midshipmen

20th August, 1940: Blackout Preparations: Unforeseen Circumstances - Censored

“Today the weather is dismal again - a blanket of damp clinging mist all around us. Depressing for some, but not for me, happily, because I feel too well and energetic to be at all sorry for myself. We didn’t get a full whack of sleep last night, for reasons I cannot enter, yet I feel very wide awake. I’ve had no letters since Saturday, so I am holding my breath until the mail comes this evening.

I saw in the British Medical Journal yesterday that Willie Tucker, Major, R.A.M.C. is a prisoner of war. I suppose he was captured at Dunkirk or thereabouts. All of us in the mess were very glad to receive news recently that little Scott, the Lieutenant of Marines, is also a prisoner. You remember him. He was in the defence of Calais, and it was later concluded that he had been killed.

About the windows at Gable Cottage, if you go back there in September why not consider using “Protectablast?” This preparation, I saw advertised in the Telegraph a few days ago. It says that it is much superior to brown paper or any trellis arrangement, and can be simply painted on to the window. It does not apparently interfere with the lighting. Reports are that in recent raids it has prevented splintering altogether. It sounds worth looking into. The full name is Fleetwood Protectablast? or Preventablast?, and it can be obtained at all ironmongers. No doubt, you have read all about it yourself.

I’m interested to know that you have been reading again. I grab all I can, as usual. Barchard has promised to lend me: “Fanny by Gaslight” which is the latest best-seller. The author is Michael Sadleir - the story being concerned with the Naughty Nineties period.

Tubby Clayton came aboard again the other day and in his hectic way involved about half a dozen people in half an hour or so. He button-holed me all right, about some medical arrangements at the convalescent home and later gave me a small brochure upon the archaeological discoveries of these parts. This book, he assured me was one of two still extant, so I hastened to send it back to him after having digested the contents.

The news informed me the other day that bombers had been over North Wales, but I imagine they kept pretty well to the coast. There seems no object for their penetration inland at that point. The attacks on London were well dealt with, weren’t they? London must be simply bristling with A.A.defences, and any further attacks will be very costly for Goring’s fleets.

I was afraid we were going to miss one mail today after all owing to unforeseen circumstances, but I hear that arrangements have been made, so I am all impatience to snatch my two or three letters when they arrive. It is raining now, and the decks are wet; so I’ll have to do without my medicine ball this evening. I’ve played a lot recently and my chest and tummy are as firm as a drum.”

To be Continued

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