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HMS Barham - With Force "H": Part 1

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 February 2004

HMS Barham — With Force “H”, Sept 1940 (1)

Following a two-month spell at Scapa Flow during the summer of 1940, HMS Barham sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Towards the end of September she was involved in her first major action - Dakar. 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 up to and during Dakar.

September 1st, 1940: Letter writing interrupted by sailing from Scapa Flow to Freetown

“It was a tragedy that I had to give up my daily bulletin to you, but, of course, you know well that it was quite unavoidable. I don’t know when this letter will reach you; it really distresses me to think of you waiting and waiting for the letter that never comes. It must all be blamed on Adolf, curse him.

Where I am now I am not permitted to say, but you may rest assured that I am very well and enjoying life. One factor which contributes to my comfort is the change to tropical rig which occurred today, and you know the delight that lounging about in shirt and shorts can bring me. I am so grateful to you for washing all my white uniform so nicely, or causing it to be washed.

You can’t conceive how disturbed I am at having to leave you behind like this. However, there is no good repining; there is a job to be done, and no matter where it may carry us or what it may cost us, we must see it through with all the spirit we can muster.

We have been fairly busy recently, with here and there a minimum excitement. I have finished that small article on blood plasma transfusion, and I hope to get it away by the mail, although when it will reach its destination, Heaven alone knows. Good-bye; it is difficult to write much more at present.”

September 4th, 1940:

“Probably this will reach you before my last letter; at least I’m hoping so. One has to take one’s chance with mails nowadays and hope for the best. Rest assured that I am very well and happy, so that you need not worry a scrap. I am terribly disappointed that the days of regular communion between us are finished for the present, but this was only to be expected and we must be grateful for what we have had. I cannot tell you anything about my whereabouts, but as I have said in my other letter, I am delighted to be in tropical rig again; and deeply grateful to you for insisting that all my soiled whites must be washed and ready. The problem of laundry is always with us now - and there are other difficulties. However, it doesn’t worry us too much.

J.C. told me that Col was promoted last month after having been more or less passed over. I think the reason for his promotion was the fact that he was in the “Hardy” at the first battle of Narvik and “got away” with it by swimming ashore. That was all news to me of course. His wife is at Esher with the children. She has persuaded them to look upon air raids as a rare adventure. She has procured sand bags from somewhere, and placed them up against the house, and has set aside an alcove under the stairs as a real shelter, with which the children dive like rabbits with great enthusiasm from time to time.

Yesterday afternoon, I was involved in a good tennis four, and had a grand spot of exercise. We played seven sets, and came back aboard feeling pleasantly tired. I could have had a game of cricket today, but having asked J.C. to lunch, I felt I could not put him off. But No 1. is getting up a team to play somebody or other on Friday, so I’ll get a crack at a cricket ball then, I hope. The warmer weather has led me to reduce my breakfasts to the old Singapore level - cornflakes, toast and marmalade and a cup of coffee - and I feel all the better for it. One needs much less food in this weather.

The war news is definitely better. The turning over of the American destroyers is a splendid step-forward, and the trouble in Rumania is all to the good. I really believe the tide is beginning to tell. I hear that the Italians are fed to the teeth with the mess old Musso has led them into, and that when an Italian city is bombed, the shelters are never available for the general public because the air-raid wardens and AA gun crews have got there first! Typical.

Privilege envelopes are now taboo, so that I cannot open out my heart as I could wish”.

September 11th, 1940: Freetown, Sierra Leone

“Such a hiatus since my last letter! - but quite unavoidable. My position now as regards communication with you is rather like that of a man on a desert island, who coils his letter into a bottle and chucks it into the bosom of the sea, hoping it will find a haven. The ship is very hot now. You know how supremely comfortable I am feeling then. The freedom of shirts and shorts, the boon (to me) of almost everlasting warmth. The lengthening of my day so that I rarely turn in until an early hour, the occasional sinking into a languor after lunch (I’ve abstained from saying tiffin). There you are, the old picture on a new canvas.

I can’t, of course, say anything about where we are, but I think I am entitles to say that soon I shall not be so very far from brother John and sister-in-law Jessie (in Lagos) - at least, as distances go in this region of the globe.

I hope the cable turned up all right. I meditated a long time before sending it off. Thinking it might scare you, which I trust it did not. Then, hearing that George Pitts was also using the cable method, I was tempted and fell. After all; two arriving together, I told myself, should set all unpleasant thoughts at rest. Did they put it in a greetings envelope? I meant to arrange this, but there was a terrific rush at the last and maybe this was omitted. I wonder if the air mail letter turned up all right.

I went “on the air” the other day for the first time in my life. The captain asked me to talk to the troops on Hot Weather Hygiene and suggested I should broadcast my advice throughout the ship. This I did last Monday - a short talk lasting about 10 minutes, pretty sound advice interspersed with an occasional flippancy. I was just a wee bit nervous before the event, but once I started I found myself quite self-possessed and spouting with great gusto. The microphone was, of course, rigged up in my cabin and all I had to do was to sit at my ease and read the tripe I had written, in a slow clear voice. I think it came through very well, and some at least appreciated it. A few officers have asked me if I can give them a private copy of my remarks.

I am so anxious to know what decision you have made about returning to Gable Cottage (1). The attacks on London are pretty terrific at the moment. However, I feel that the great mother city can “take it” - and I think more than ever that Hitler has sealed his fate. The Londoners love their city with a fierce love, and there is no doubt that the irrepressible Cockneys will never rest - will never refuse the denying of themselves anything on earth - until Nazi Germany has paid the price. I do hope we are beginning to plaster Berlin properly. Being hurt is the only thing the Nazis understand.

I’ll write again tomorrow, good-bye for today.”

Note: (1) Near Pangbourne, Berkshire

September 12th, 1940: Freetown, Sierra Leone

“The weather is more humid today, and as I write I have a fair roaring behind me. The upper deck is pleasant enough with a breeze which has just a hint of moisture; but the heart of the ship is becoming rather furnace-like. However, the general health of the ship’s company is excellent, and good spirits abound everywhere.

Most of us were very heartened by Winston Churchill’s speech yesterday. It came through poorly in the afternoon, but the recorded transmission at 9.15 p.m. was very good. He is a grand chap - and a mighty leader. Every word he spoke breathed the spirit of confident defiance; here and there an inflection revealed his bitter just hatred of our enemies. He knows just how to kindle the fire of dogged resolution that is always smouldering in our people. I am sure it is aflame now, and as Winston said, will burn steadily and strongly to the end of this nightmare.

I will leave you now, and add a little more tomorrow. Au revoir.”

To be continued

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