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HMS Barham - Christmas 1940icon for Recommended story

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
05 February 2004

HMS Barham — Christmas 1940

December 1940, Barham was with Cunningham’s Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria. 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 during the early years of WW2.

26th December, 1940: Christmas on the Barham

“More microscopic writing! The powers that be are being rather generous about mails home; following up their special Christmas air mail concession they are permitting us to send two New Year letters by air at a much reduced rate, the letters to be posted by 30th December, with the anticipated date of arrival in the U.K. as 8th January 1941. I do hope that regular arrangements on these lines are being made, for it makes such a difference to know that our letters are getting home quickly. And if only a scheme could be managed from home outwards we should have nothing to complain of. As it is, we cast forth words into a void, from which no voice replies. 5th November is still my last letter from you. The airmail outward seems pretty ineffectual. The skipper was telling me last night that Mrs Cooke sends one airmail letter per day, and the latest he has had is only 10th November. So airmail outwards has no advantage over sea mail or very little, or at most is poor value for money. We heard yesterday that our Christmas letters got home on the 21st December, so you ought to have got mine by the 23rd or 24th. This news was very cheering. It is grand to know that you are not being cut off from news from me.

Let me tell you about my Christmas. It has been a fairly quiet one because besides other things, I can’t really afford to run ashore much except for exercise. This is a pretty expensive place for parties. However, on Christmas Eve, I met with Hearson ashore and we had a quiet evening enjoying good food and drink (not too much of that). We patronised a little Soho-like restaurant which Hearson had discovered, and, as usual, he with the enthusiasm of an epicure chose the meal and its trimmings.

We came off early - by the 11 o’clock boat, despite the fact that for once late leave was being given - and I got back on board at 11.15 p.m. to find a fairly noisy party in progress in the Wardroom. On Christmas Day, we had the time-honoured routine - divisions and Service on the quarter-deck, succeeded by mess deck rounds with the Admiral and Captain, and later the reciprocal entertainment of Gun Room and Warrant Officers. I ended up in the W.O.s mess where a hilarious sing-song party was proceeding. Then lunch and a spot of “head-down”. I recruited a rather reluctant medicine-ball party at 4.45, and kept them (and myself) at “it”, until the respective bodies had recovered some of their natural metabolic balance.

In the evening, we - the officers - had our Christmas dinner (with the Admiral amongst us) - a rather subdued meal, as many were feeling the strain of the day. We had a whacking great accumulation of “eats” - soup - fish - sweetbreads - turkey or goose - plum-pudding, and the customary re-inforcement of crackers and so on. And so to bed, at about 11.30 p.m. to the accompaniment of discordant sounds from a bugle in the hands of some riotous die-hard in the half-deck outside my cabin. Altogether, quite a cheery Christmas. Marshall Sherwell had a big night on Christmas Eve and he awoke to Christmas morn with only one species of headgear in his cabin. His service cap had been replaced by a paper or cardboard top hat of festive appearance. He is a great favourite in the Mess, as is Roberts. Toothie came in for a great deal of leg-pulling over Christmas. Our festive occasions people like to make a deadset to the unfortunate Toothwright. The leaders of this innocent persecution are usually Marshall and Roberts (the Medical Churls), although I don’t think they were responsible for the removal of the dental trousers on Christmas Eve. Enough has been said to show you that a reasonably “good time was had by all”.

Did you listen in to Winston Churchill’s pungent address to the Italian people? It was good ripe stuff, with the spirit of victory behind every word. By the way, Hearson - believe it or not - has become almost optimistic. He admits that Italy is finished, and even thinks that our victory over Hitler is just a matter of time. Can you beat that?”

30th December, 1940: Medical Staffing Troubles

“A sore blow fell upon me and on the ship generally two days ago. Thing upon thing, calamity upon calamity; in fact bloody! - as Robertson Hare said. Marshall Sherwell has been relieved to make way for a young R.N. doctor who has misbehaved himself; and the young gentleman has presumably been sent to this ship so that a sterner eye can be kept on him. I hope he won’t give any trouble because I detest becoming the heavy Service officer. The latest news is that he will stay with us for only three months, and then we’ll get our dear Marshall back again. It is really remarkable how Marshall has got into the hearts of everybody with whom he has come in contact. His popularity was exemplified by the minor storm of protests which broke out when the news came that he must leave us. The breaking up of such a fine medical team (though I say it shouldn’t) was felt keenly, quite apart from the sadness of losing an exceedingly popular messmate. The thrill of us having got so fond of one another - Roberts, Sherwell and I - that we were cast into gloom, and Roberts and Marshall came near to breaking down.”

31st December 1940 (cont) “However, as I have said there is a prospect of getting Marshall back; but one does not know where his ship and ours will be three months hence. The new arrival seems quite a nice lad to talk to, and is by no means a hardened tough or anything like that. I hope we can make him happy on board, for he is coming to a very friendly pleasant mess. Incidentally, he was a student with Roberts, so there is a bond between my confreres.

As this is New Year’s Eve, I cannot close without wishing you again and again and again all the best of all possible wishes for 1941, the year of our re-union let us pray.”

To be continued

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Message 1 - Xmas on ship

Posted on: 01 December 2005 by SDA

My Grandfather Cyril Ernest Andre was on a ship from Glasgow 15/11/40 HMT L13. to Alexandria 1941.

E Div sigs. royal Coups signals. trying to trace ship.

any help appreciated.

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