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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 4th-6th, 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: 
29 January 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: August 4th — 6th, 1940

A month after the onset of WW2, HMS Barham and the other battleships of 1st Battle Squadron were taken from the Mediterranean Fleet to re-inforce the Home Fleet. By the end of 1939, the only British naval forces in the Mediterranean were three small “C” class cruisers and some Australian destroyers. En route to Scapa Flow, Barham had a disastrous collision with HMS Duchess and was later torpedoed off the west coast of Scotland. After repairs at Liverpool had been completed, she sailed to Scapa Flow for sea trials and gunnery practice before joining Vice Admiral Somerville’s “H” Force in the Western Mediterranean in late August 1940. My father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN was the Principal Medical Officer on Barham and wrote numerous letters to my mother from June 30th 1940 to November 23rd, 1941 (two days before Barham was sunk off Sollum in the Mediterranean). Extracts from his letters to my mother while Barham was at Scapa Flow give an insight to life on the ship during the months leading up to Barham’s first major action at Dakar.

4th August, 1940: Day-to-day life on board

“Life is far from being dull here. Something is always happening. Yesterday “Bartimens” came on board to collect “colour” for some broadcasts. Next Sunday, Tubby Clayton (the Toc.H. Padre) is coming on board to preach the sermon to the ship’s company. And then there is Hearson arriving to have dinner with me tonight. I wonder whether his pessimism has thinned down.

The dinner with the Warrant Officers was a distinctly good party. (Only the Captain, Commander, Chief Pay and myself were asked). After a very good dinner, we were entertained by one of the W.O.s who is a clever conjurer. He did many small tricks I had not seen before - one was especially spectacular. The Captain held a pencil before him, between his hands and the performer cut it in halves with an ordinary pound note brought down sharply on its centre. The solution eludes me.

Torp’s(1) relief has arrived. He is a young lieutenant, by name Rodwell (2). He seems a pleasant young man, despite a pocked face. Torps will probably say goodbye to us on Monday. I’ll be sorry to see the back of him. He is universally popular, and always an interesting talker, with a rich fund of reminiscences. We were due to receive yet another new arrival in the Wardroom - an R.C.Chaplain. However, at the last moment we hear he is being accommodated elsewhere.

The weather has suddenly begun to behave itself. Yesterday was beautiful and warm and today has made up its mind to follow suit. Divisions this morning on the quarter-deck was really an enjoyable experience, with bright sun gleaming on yellow brasswork and clean uniforms, while sea gulls circled lazily overhead and the marine band played in a respectfully subdued tone. Usually divisions on Sunday are performed in a keen wind which robs the ceremonial of much of its interest - at least for me. But today could not have been more delightful. I am so glad to hear that you too are having some sunny weather. The Captain’s sense of humour tickles me, even if at times, it is puzzling. I happened to pass on to him what Pay had said about Mrs Williams having to go inland from Weston-Super-Mare because she had had air raids every night for weeks and he roared with laughter. But it may have been the way I said it!

What an awful time Joy G.W must have had. Her letter was frightfully interesting. She was jolly lucky to get away from Jersey in time.”

Note: (1) Torpedo Officer (2) lost his life when HMS Barham was sunk

5th August, 1940: Comment on Dunkirk

“It was great fun meeting Hearson again. He was looking very well; his face seems to have filled out and is of better colour. Arriving on board here at 7.30 pm, we had a few drinks, then supper and cinema in the Wardroom. The cinema wasn’t too good; the big film was a gangster story bristling with tough guys getting entangled in impossible situations. “Golden Boy”, which we were expecting didn’t turn up. The “shorts” were quite amusing - one was a “Pan-American” survey of anaethesia through the ages, beginning with the primitive method of dealing a patient with a well-directed sock on the napper, and proceeding to describe in unauthentic fashion the evolution of ether by trial and error - the whole subject couched in a humourous vein. As always the exploitation of surgery as a basis for grim humour caused great merriment. The other short was a good “Popeye” cartoon about roller-skating. After the cinema, I had an opportunity to talk to Hearson more freely than had been possible before. He likes his ship. He is still pretty pessimistic about things in general and is reluctant to admit the inefficiency of the “Italians”. As for invasion, he says “Wait and see” in a rather sinister way, which doesn’t carry much conviction. He admits that Hitler made a bad blob in allowing the B.E.F. to get home from Dunkirk, and he couldn’t give a satisfactory answer to the lack of success by the Luftwaffe on that occasion. He tells me that Nick - late of the Medway in Singapore - is the Pay of his ship.

I don’t suppose you have managed to find a small burn for worm-fishing. I was almost tempted to ask you to send on your rod to me, because there are one or two likely streams ashore here, but one could not get enough leave to get much fun. I have indulged in one small extravagance - the purchase of a tweed cap. A cap is so much more convenient than a hat for going ashore, and fits into the picture so much better. I have now been ashore 6 times which is fairly good going for these days, don’t you think?”

6th August, 1940: Importance of Keeping Fit

“During the day watches yesterday, I organised a medicine ball(3) party. The original party consisted of Padre, Pitts and self, but this nucleus rapidly gained adherents anxious to reduce the bulging tum. Even the skipper joined in to give a demonstration of the correct way to swing back on the deck with extended arms clutching the ball. We played all the usual variations - a low swing, high swing, the quick pass and the Rugger game. Altogether splendid exercise - which must be repeated. I have arranged for a heavier more compact ball to be made. The one we used yesterday was rather loosely packed and did n’t give quite the necessary heel-rocking impact to the body.

The weather continues reasonably good, in spite of sudden lessening of visibility from time to time. The air is crisp enough and, on the whole, braces the body. The ship’s company keeps remarkably fit; it is really amazing that we are getting only about half the sickness we used to get in Liverpool. It probably serves to prove that busy people don’t get ill so readily. I was impressed at Sunday divisions by the high percentage of good ruddy complexions amongst the men, an attribute not to be expected in a community where ventilation must be secondary to accommodation.

Little Percy M. has been given a shore job now, after only about 9 months at sea. Jerry H. was very angry about this. Apparently, the wee chap went about saying how disgraceful it was that a specialist like himself should be wasted in a ship; and somehow he has succeeded in being relieved. This is rather funny in a lad who was almost “ploughed” on his promotion course. Still. perhaps it is as well he has been removed from a ship, for I gather that he has not been a conspicuous credit to the branch in air raids and other excitements. According to Jerry H. the number of people he has knocked down in efforts to get under cover in a hurry was getting larger every day.

No 1 asked me yesterday whether I would like to change my cabin for a two-scuttle one in the Admiral’s lobby. A general survey of cabins is taking place. I said “No”! without any hesitation. The cabins down aft are far away from the wardroom and suffer exceedingly from vibration. No, I like my present cabin very much and don’t intend to change.

Today should be one of my big days, because we have not had a proper mail since Saturday. There should be at least two letters from you, maybe three.”

Note: (3) Large leather ball swung and thrown at the body to strengthen chest and other muscles

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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 - Scapa Flow: August 4th-6th, 1940

Posted on: 29 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Graeme

Quite fascinating! Frozen moments in time, we can almost relive every second through them.

These extremely valuable letters also bring out the mundaneness of war, the boredom, tedium, and routine of everyday life - but, always, always, the uncertainty and danger of 'tomorrow'.

What makes these letters so poignant for me is that we know the dreadful end, as in a Greek drama the Fates controlling their destinies cannot be avoided, and we know the sacrifice that will be made by these ordinary men who served the Barham so well.

We have to thank you Graeme, for allowing them to be added to the national archive.



Message 2 - HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 4th-6th, 1940

Posted on: 09 February 2004 by greenhill2

Hi Peter

Regarding the surfeit of articles on HMS Barham almost daily for the last week I made comment two days ago to the Research Desks and got a rather acid response from Martin 71.I hope that some space might be found for the little 2 paragraph item I've input recently Sorley's articles may be of interest to WW2 students but surely a tighter Editing is necessary here as it seems to be taking over the site.I am a74 yrs old Korea and Egypt Veteran but I've kept my items short and sweet!!
Please accet this in the spirit in which it has been sent


Message 3 - HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: August 4th-6th, 1940

Posted on: 09 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi there

I am not a member of the WW2 Team as your post seems to suggest, like yourself I am just a contributor.

I simply volunteered as a researcher and was accepted, nothing more. My posted opinions are entirely my own.

All the best,


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