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15 October 2014
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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 21st-24th, 1940

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: 
02 February 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 21st — 24th, 1940

Before joining Vice Admiral Somerville’s “H” Force in the Western Mediterranean in late August 1940, HMS Barham spent two months at Scapa Flow. 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 letters to my mother 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.

21st August, 1940: Reaction to Churchill’s Speech: Battle of Britain Pilots

“To come to more serious topics, did you hear the broadcast report of Churchill’s speech in Parliament? It was really magnificent, I though, and most encouraging. Hitherto, his speeches have been fine, but with a tone of gravity running under the spirit of resolution. But yesterday’s, if the account was correct, was characterized by optimism - reasoned optimism. His remark that our output of aircraft is now above that of Germany was very reassuring. One can imagine Chamberlain or Kingsley Wood saying that without having verified his facts, but not Winston Churchill. He is a realist, and everything he says is based on common sense and truth, even if his phrases bear the stamp of real oratory to which nobody else can aspire.

Yes, I agree that the wives and parents of the R.A.F. lads must be going through a terrible time now. The spirit of the R.A.F. is terrific; these youngsters are fighting and dying with an unselfishness that leaves one silent in searching for words to describe them. I was very impressed and touched by the obituary notice of a R.A.F. pilot in the Times a few days ago. The printed epitaph was simply; “One of our aircraft failed to return”. So very dignified, and much better than reams of verse. Don’t you think so?

I must go soon and throw a medicine ball around. The new mammoth ball has just arrived in my cabin, and we are keen to try it out.”

22nd August 1940: Soon to join “H” Force

“The grey-blue mist has dissipated today, although the weather is cold and cloudless. We were all very busy this forenoon, (possibly readying to sail for the Western Mediterranean) and as a result I am very pleased with the medical organisation. I cannot very well say more, or the censor will be stealing in upon me for a serious interview.

I’m so glad to know that you are reconciled to going back to Basildon (1). I feel that the danger there will be greater, but as you say, one cannot think of spending the whole war in Wales, and you can take steps to reduce the danger to a minimum. Barchand told me yesterday that his wife was well and truly bombed in Sussex by the bombers loosing off their eggs on the way back from Croydon. She was rushing along when a bomb landed a few hundred yards away. She got out of the car and lay down at the side of the road. Barchand’s aunt was just about to enter her air raid shelter when a bomb burst fairly near and she was blown down into the shelter in one cut. I think that the people of Britain are showing grand spirit amidst this turmoil. Hitler must think out something better to have any hope of cracking our morale. We are pretty tough. I was much interested to hear Churchill say again in his speech that victory might come much sooner than we expected, but that we should not bank on it. That is twice at least that responsible statements to that effect have been made. Do the powers that be have some secret information? I dare to hope so, but also dare to doubt it. I have heard it said that the Nazis themselves consider their position now as “splendid but not hopeless”, but I don’t place too much credence upon what I hear or read.

I must finish for today. My censoring spell has come round again. I must go and wade through hundreds of letters dot them with crosses and ending with the mystic letters S.W.A.L.K., all calculated to bring romance into my lonely life!”

Note: (1) Near Pangbourne, Berkshire

24th August, 1940: Concern for Family in England

“You know that I would prefer your and the childrens’ safety above all things, yet I feel that you would be happier in Basildon. On the whole, as safety is the main consideration, I incline towards your staying in Wales. There is no hope of leave before Christmas, I’m sure. There I must leave the problem.

Excuse me one moment, while I go off to see if the mail has arrived. Yes. Joy! it has - a long hand-written letter from you, and a copy of the “Listener”. Yes, we do get this paper in the Mess, but I haven’t read this particular copy, and I have it all to myself instead of having to scramble for it with the other blokes. You seem so thrilled at the idea of going back to Basildon that perhaps my remarks at the beginning of this letter are superfluous. Anyway, may God guard you and my dear children wherever you are.”

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