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HMS Barham - Tripoli and Crete, 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: 
09 February 2004

HMS Barham under attack, 1941. Probably Battle for Crete

HMS Barham — Tripoli and Crete

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN. These cover the bombardment of Tripoli and serious damage to Barham from aircraft operating out of Scarpanto during the Battle for Crete, May 1941.

19th April, 1941: Mediterranean War News

“Here is the second edition of the Overseas Air Mail Service. Useful, isn’t it? Do let me know when you have received the first. No more letters from you, but we have learned to be patient, we old sea dogs.

I am feeling particularly full of beans today, I don’t quite know why, because the war news is fairly moldy. It must be the rising of the sap for the Spring. But truth to tell, I find myself always possessed of a considerable joie de vivre. Life in this battlewagon seems to depress many but I think I have sufficient facets to my nature to carry me through without complaint - nay - actually with enjoyment. What irks me most is the lack of work, and I have to fall back upon my ingenuity to get the most out of myself. In the end, I find that the simplest things give the greatest savour to life - my almost continued feeling of well-being, my power of detachment by which I can laugh at myself and others, and my small creature comforts - such as cigarettes and pipe. I ration myself to 5 or 6 cigarettes per day, and I do enjoy them, especially the first of the day, and the first pipe.

You heard of the loss of the “Bonaventure”(1) on the wireless, no doubt. That was the ship in which Tollemache and Hayter lost their lives. You heard too, of the Malaya being in New York refitting after a torpedo attack.”

Note: (1) HMS Bonaventure sunk in vicinity of Barham sinking.

24th April, 1941, Bombardment of Tripoli:

“I was pleasantly amazed to get a postcard from you yesterday sent off from Newbury on April 8th. 15 days in transit is a great improvement on two or three months. Is this a new scheme for Service's next-of-kin? If so, it is a lollapaloosa. I'm thinking of sending you a cable tomorrow acknowledging receipt so that you can get busy with this new idea, say, once a week, and use the airmail letter just as you think fit. The airmail letter takes from 6 weeks to two months to fetch up. For instance, yesterday, I got 3 airmail bulletins dated respectively 14th, 17th and 23 February. Our letter card scheme is great; please let me know how long the first one takes to arrive. The last one I wrote was dispatched only yesterday, although I had written it many days before, thinking there was a good chance of getting it away. However, the Gods of War and strategy decreed otherwise and we were engaged upon a big operation (2), of which you have doubtless heard in the press and the radio. Our fourth action in a little over 6 months! We have been pretty busy, have n't we? I think that, excluding one other ship, we have seen more active service in this war than any other naval unit. And up to now, touching wood hard, we have emerged unscathed and as tough as ever. Of course I am not counting the torpedoing in December '39, which was before I came upon the Barham scene.

I loved your letters of yesterday. Tell both Graeme and Dans that I am very sorry they can't have more than one egg per month. It seems so unfair, when we here can get all we want of eggs and
butter and nearly everything.”

Note: (2) Bombardment of Tripoli

24th May, 1941: “Our good fortune may not hold”

“The number of these letter cards is no longer restricted to one per week; the number one can send depends only on how many are available for each officer. On hearing that I could send one a day if the cards were there to send, I made a hasty opportunist grab, and collected five, which I propose to use wisely. At any rate I should be able to ensure your getting two per week. Tell me, in what sort of condition do they arrive?

I am rather worried at the moment about the safety of Ronnie Dingwall. His ship has met with trouble and I fear that Ronnie may not have got away with it. However, he may be all right. I am not a morbid person, as you know, but there is no use in denying that the Mediterranean battle is becoming very tough indeed. So far, Barham has been tremendously fortunate, but our good fortune may not hold. Heigh ho! One must be philosophical. I am not genuinely afraid to die - because I have had a wonderful life already - splendid parents - health - a full sight of much of God’s world has been mine - and the love of quite the nicest, dearest woman I ever met, who gave me two of the nicest children; but I have a horrible fear sometimes of your being left to grieve, and having to explain things to the children, who of course think that this war is something thrilling from which their Daddy is bound to return one day - and that your having to strive to educate them. Please don’t be depressed at what I have said - but one must face facts - and remember I have a very good chance (touching wood) of coming through safely. There is no doubt about that - a much better chance than people in cruisers and destroyers. Dash it! I almost wish I hadn’t written the last twenty lines or so, but I’ll leave it there - and please keep cheerful. We’re all in this futile war racket anyway and have to see it through.”

29th May, 1941: Direct hit on “Y” Turret by Bomb causing loss of life and serious damage

“I had two postcards from you today, and one cable - quite a good bag for one day, even if the mails have been more than usually unsatisfactory of late. The cable I received whilst I was shaving the remnants of soap from my chin at 0745. It said laconically - Cheques received 7th May - Joan which means, I suppose, that the transit has taken about three weeks.

Since I wrote last, we have had a real spot of excitement (3). I can’t give details, but when I say that I have had some grim and grisly work to do, you will understand. The experience was instructive, although naturally I don’t want to have it again; yet I still maintain that in the circumstances, we are a lucky ship so far (touch wood). Anyway, I and all the officers are safe and well, so that there is no need to worry. I hope to meet Hearson on Saturday next and he has asked me to dinner at the Club and I think that with luck we’ll be able to fit it in. I have n’t seen him for months - our harbour times have not co-incided, and as his ship has also had a spot of bother, will be able to swap experiences. No news yet of Ronnie Dingwall. There is no secrecy about the fate of the Gloucester (4) now - but there is no record of survivors as yet. The P.M.O. of the Fiji was lost and I hear that the doctors of all the four destroyers sunk near Crete went west excepting the one in the Juno (5). The sinking of the Hood came as a depressing shock to all of us - Henry Hurst P.M.O., Padre Beardmore and several others I knew - all in a puff of smoke and a flash of flame - and then just after our little trouble, came the grand news of the revenge - the sinking of the Bismarck; when the news came to me I was in my action station, sweating and doing plasma saline “transfusions”, and you may be sure that we all worked with a happier heart after that. I felt dog-tired at the end of the day, and relaxed my teetotalism. Then I slept like a log, and awoke feeling chirpy. More of that at a later date.

Notes: (3) Enemy aircraft from Scarpanto attacked Barham and one bomb fell between the barrels of “x” turret and landed on “y” turret causing loss of life and a fire which lasted for 2 hours. Several sailors were burned and were treated in the Medical Station with plasma, (4) HMS Gloucester — sunk by dive-bombers (5) HMS Juno sunk off S.Coast of Crete.

To be continued

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - HMS Barham 1941

Posted on: 18 December 2005 by Richard Hayter

In the quote from the letter from Surg. Cdr. Sorley there is a mention of my father Capt. J.O.G.Hayter RM who lost his life when Bonaventure was torpedoed.
Presumably Cdr. Sorley must have known my father and it would be good to hear if there is any more information about him

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