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HMS Barham - Bombardment of Bardia, 1941

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: 
06 February 2004

HMS Barham — Bombardment of Bardia, January 1941

By the end of 1940, the North African Campaign was going well. The Italians were in retreat before Rommel came to their rescue. HMS Barham was in Cunningham’s battle fleet which bombarded Bardia in very early January, 1941. The purpose of this was to soften up the well-fortified and defended garrison before the assault by the 8th Army. 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, frustrations about delivery and censorship of mail, feelings about the progress of WW2 and the cost of going ashore.

Early January, 1941:

“The Italians are being hammered now in the Western desert as well as in Albania, and it seems that the Fascist regime is drawing closer and closer to the brink of its inevitable precipice. It appears that the Egyptian campaign has been fairly well planned, and that we have awaited the right moment to strike. The latest news is of the capture of 20,000 prisoners, and the “Italians” are hareing away for home over the desert, outdoing even sandstorms in their velocity, or as P.G.Wodehouse might say - with the celerity of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. The capture of 20,000 “Italians” must be a complication for the commissariat. My fancy conjures up a pretty picture of our Pay's (Paymaster) opposite number in the Libyan desert wearing a strained look worrying whether there will be enough macaroni to go round, or whether the spaghetti has been dried up by the tropical sun.

1941 has had two big events for me so far; firstly the arrival of Wodehouse's "Quick Service" - my birthday present, and secondly the coming of four letters from you dated respectively 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th November, good fat juicy letters, too, which I seized upon as a hungry man would a crust of bread. Thank you very much for the P.G.Wodehouse; actually it arrived on New Year's Eve; but I didn't start reading it until 1941. It is grand fun and quite in the Master's best style. It will interest you to know that I read quite a considerable part of it just before and even during an action we were concerned in - quite a change in literary taste from my choice at Dakar, which you remember was "The History of the World.” I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that we have been doing our stuff in a smallish way. All is well, so don't get worried at all.

The war is going fairly well for us at the moment. The “Italians” are beginning to wish they had never heard of Mussolini. The Western desert campaign has almost culminated in the capture of Bardia by the Australians. Just imagine the Aussies up against the “Italians”. They'll go through them like a knife through butter, and won't stand on ceremony. I like a story I saw in the paper today. Graziani(1) sent a message to Mussolini by telegram: "What do you know about these Australians, Musso?” Musso said, "Well, I don't know much about them", and Graziani replied " Well, somebody told me that 11 of them beat all England - and there are thousands coming at me now.

Yes, the guys in charge of the cables and telegrams are a hard-hearted non-sentimental lot of stiffs. They purposely left out the "darling" from your message - and all I got was "all’s well, Joan" - and I thought that was pretty good, too. You talk as if you had been sending shoals of telegrams, but honestly (fingers crossed and all that) I've had two only - very officially cold messages with the love motif rigidly excluded - one at our last place and one at this. So the communications are n't so hot, are they?

I shall have to economise at this end - life ashore here is expensive, but I can't for the sake of my health and peace of mind stay on board all the time. However, I'll try to cut out evening outbursts except on rare occasions. My tennis is too health giving to give up, and besides it doesn't come to so much. I think I'll just take the light French lessons and pack up, and try to supplement by reading. I have four more lessons to come, but I am awaiting the return of my French teacher - who has taken herself off to a holiday resort not far away to make whoopee on what passes for whoopee with the French.”

Note: (1) Italian General in North Africa

To be continued

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Posted on: 06 February 2004 by greenhill2

Enough is enough do you have a monopoly of this site? I'm still awaiting two of my recent inputs coming off the Editorial desk.

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