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HMS Barham: Return to Actionicon for Recommended story

by Graeme Sorley

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

HMS Barham — Return to Action

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN. After two months undergoing repairs in Durban, South Africa, Barham sailed on July 31st, 1941 to re-join the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. She arrived back in Alexandria on August 16.

13th August, 1941: En route back to Alexandria

“The weather is terribly hot now. As I write this, I am dressed in only a pair of shorts; that is a pair of shorts too much. Even the winds of heaven have the breath of a furnace - the mess-decks are centres of steaming humanity, where, the sailors cast their thoughts back longingly to the Durban that gave them as warm a welcome as the climate here does now.

But - to complete my story of South Africa. We sailed from Durban on 31st July - six weeks to a day since we arrived. We slipped away unobtrusively on a morning tide, but early as we were, the fluttering of handkerchiefs from the Point as we passed out told the tale of friendships made and valued. Since leaving, the sailors have written hundreds and hundreds of letters to the generous lasses of Durban - some of them too generous, I fear, as I know from compiling records of those who loved not wisely but too well. I think that the ship was popular in Durban with all classes; the bluejackets behaved very well and the letters are filled with glowing tributes to South African hospitality.

South Africa is a magnificent country, healthy and prosperous. We saw little of any anti-British feeling, although there is undoubtedly a dangerous undercurrent which is ably controlled as yet by Smuts and his followers. The Boer and Hollander element is apparently the source of the trouble. The average South African is very loyal. Durban is of course a predominantly British city - indeed from the familiar accents heard on all sides, very largely Scotch. I think that South Africa would be a very pleasant and prosperous place into which to retire - a splendid climate, income tax at 1/- in the £, cheap food and service. The only expensive item is clothes and one doesn’t need so many perhaps as in England. If promotion does not come my way, we might do worse that take our chance of life in South Africa, rather than in post-war England. However, that is looking far ahead.

The war is boiling up in the Far East, and it seems as if the “Japanese” are determined to test the strength of their teeth. I wonder if we will find ourselves at Singapore - the ship is full of rumours. Personally, I think it is unlikely. I’m not sure if I’d like to visit Singapore in a ship. I have so many pleasant tender memories of it which the semi-detached life of a ship’s officer might tend to destroy or dim.

My last news of you is cable sent 15th July; the latest letter being 24th June. Delighted to hear you are all well. I am, as usual, full of beans.”

1st September, 1941 - Alexandria

“Here we are into the autumn of 1941, and all alive and kicking. I can only hope you are as fit as I am, and remember - in a little over a month I shall be 40. Tempus fugit - it fuges like Hell! But I don’t feel any older than in those dear early days when I used to write you long letters from one of H.M.Ships (1). Yesterday, we were paid an official visit by the C-in-C - the now famous Sir Andrew Cunningham. When we shook hands, it was the first time I had seen him at close quarters. I was much impressed. Under medium height - with a good face, the mouth firm, the chin strong and clear, courageous, humourous blue eyes - in short the best type of Scot. Isn’t it extraordinary that all the Service chiefs in the Middle East are Scots - Cunningham, Auchinlech, and our old Singaporean Tedder? But I should say, like a good Scotsman, that it is just the natural course of events. The’s father, as you probably know, was the famous professor of anatomy at Edinburgh University - from whose test-book generations of medical students learned about muscles and bones and nerves. One of my first books (2) was “Cunningham’s Anatomy”. Sir Andrew spoke to us all on the quarter-deck in clear direct sentences, and left us with the impression of a great leader. He told us we were undergoing a lull at the moment, and that we should get ashore as much as possible to keep ourselves fit for the future. I have been taking his advice already. I go ashore every day when I can - inexpensively - playing tennis or cricket or lying back in the silence room of the Club.

I feel that .................... all is right with my world, no matter what is happening to the poor world in general. “But Westward, look, the land is bright”. I am happy in the possession of good health in a world where many of my friends have been stricken down by war or illness, - and in the promise of happier times to come. I shall probably go ashore earlier today and buy some more silk stockings for you. I plan to send two lots of 3 pairs - and hope that at least one parcel will evade the submarines.”

Note: (1) From HMS Enterprise (2) At Aberdeen University

To be continued

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