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HMS Barham - Last Posticon for Recommended story

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: 
13 February 2004

HMS Barham — Last Post

The following are extracts from censored letters written from the Barham by my father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN. These last letters were written during the three weeks before Barham was torpedoed and, 4 ½ minutes later, sunk after a cataclysmic explosion. A Unit of the Eight Army, on a bluff at Sidi Barani some 55 miles away, saw the cloud of the explosion.

Airgraph — 9th November 1941:

“I had a post-card from you yesterday; it took one day short of a month to come. The P.C.s. seem to be improving, but the airgraphs are still the most reliable. The letter airmail is rotten; we haven’t had one for about a month. The weather here has been very warm for over a week, but there are signs of a change now. Last Sunday I had lunch ashore with Hearson. As usual he was a good, if insistent, host, and a little reluctantly I was obliged to fill my tummy as tight as a drum. That would be my third meal ashore since Durban days. I loved getting the children’s reports, and laughed again at the thought of “physically indolent” Dansie. I am in good form, but bored, as ever, at being so far away from you, darling. My ever dearest love to you and to the chicks. I hope the Christmas airgraphs turn up all right.”

Airgraph — 11th November 1941: Remembrance Day

“Three messages from you to-day, 2 airgraphs of 14th and 17th October, and an air-mail letter of 22nd September - not a bad haul for one day. Very glad you have settled on the school. Glad to hear news of Donald; I wonder if you’ll go to Ireland. You have my sanction, but, of course, if you were marooned there and I happened to come home, (of which incidentally there is no sign), it would be just too sickening. I am full of beans; we are all cheerful at the news of the large “Italian” convoy having been beaten up last Sunday. The weather here is cooler, but we are still in whites. I wish I could be in the cold damp Thames Valley, though. My fondest love now and forever. Pip-Pip! Keep happy.”

Airgraph - 14th November, 1941:

“As I said in appendix to yesterday’s airgraph, I got your two messages of 20th October. I agree that the best plan for you is to send at least two airgraphs per week, and one (or more) letters by sea mail. The airmail letters do not have sufficient advantage over the sea route to make their regular use justified and the postcards, although now coming more speedily, have no real advantage over the airgraphs; in fact less, I plump for 2 airgs. a week and a sea-mail letter. You have the better of the bargain, with the regular weekly air letter card from me, as well as the airgs. - but that can’t be helped. To-day, I am going to a cocktail party to be given at a local restaurant by Henry Barnes. He sent an elaborate invitation to his guests, bidding them “Come (Hitler and Mussolini permitting) to Henry’s Party”. - and to bring “The Girl friend”. I replied to the effect that I would be obliged to arrive minus girl-friend, owing to scarcity of that commodity. I’ll personally have to stay ashore this evening after the party - not that I want to particularly, but a boat back to the ship in time for dinner will be difficult.”

Airgraph — 22nd November 1941:

“I hasten to send you an airgraph today, as opportunities might not be so frequent in the weeks to come. I am looking forward to some more airgraphs from you; my last from you was 28th October, received 4 days ago. I was very pleased to hear that my air letter cards are getting through so well - 18 days home is good work nowadays. I never seem to get real letters from you now, but I’m sure they will arrive in a bunch. I am very well; on Thursday, I had 6 very violent sets of tennis in much cooler weather, and felt as fresh as paint at the end. We are in blues now, although the weather is warm enough. Tomorrow evening we are promised a very good film on board - “Kipps” - the H.G.Wells story.”

23rd November, 1941: Alexandria - written 2 days before Barham was torpedoed

“How do you like this idea of writing along the three available pages? Some of the sailors’ letters I have censored have had this plan so I thought I would try it too. It is a change anyway, and if you don’t like it, you have only to say so. The weather now is rather chilly, with a hint of rain in a cloudy sky. We had our first “blues” Sunday divisions today although I love the hot weather, I am glad we are wearing blues again, for nowadays draughts are apt to find their way up short trousers and make one huddle in a corner. The funny thing is - I don’t seem to get many colds these days and they last only a few days - and don’t leave that beastly catarrh which used to blight me. I’ve had only four since I said good-bye to you at Liverpool on that grey Sunday - one at Scapa, one last winter, one after Johannesburg and one last week (which has quite gone). I was going to play tennis with old Morse today, but we cancelled it by mutual consent, as the weather looked grim. I’ll go to the Club instead and pool our books.

I make a habit of going ashore every day I can - and in plain clothes; then mere changing from uniform to grey flannel bags and sports coat is exhilarating, and a change of scene is even better than a change of clothes. People who stay too much on board are apt to become bad-tempered and nervy; it is inevitable, I think. One gets to know all the habitual noises of routine on board - “Up Spirits” - “Men under Punishment fall in”, “First Dog-Watchmen to Tea” “Low Angle Defence watch close up”, and so on, until one craves a freedom away from service noise.

That is why I make so much use of the silence room of the Club. There, in peace, one can settle down with a book and a pipe and spend many quiet absorbed hours. I am sure you can picture me - and the charm of it all; it doesn’t cost a penny, apart from a monthly subscription of 3/- a month. The band has just started up “The Belle of New York”, so I think I will be social and go Wardroom wards to drink a sherry. I’ll come back later - Pip! Pip! Back again at 6.30 p.m. after having heard the news - pretty good news, too the Huns in Libya seem to be in a bad way and there is a good chance of our forces scoring their first big land success against the real enemy. The news mentioned us - as housing Reuter’s correspondent, Massy Anderson, but we haven’t had any big spots of excitement yet. During the last six weeks or so, we have had only two episodes, the first being a torpedo-bombing attack which almost came off, the second being a bombing effort which was a little further from success. No doubt you heard that the "Italians" claimed us as a victim of the torpedo bombers, and the B.B.C. disclaimed their new success. There is no harm in telling you that now, I suppose. Actually, the attack was on the day after my birthday. I was on the bridge with the Skipper talking of Service matters when the enemy torpedo-bombers came over and I saw quite a lot before descending to my action station amid a terrific barrage from our A.A. guns. Seeing the enemy bombers come over, I fancied they were dive-bombers at first, and took a very grave view - but as it turned out, all was well. I don’t think I have been indiscreet by mentioning these facts, now that the episodes are well over.

To go back to the prospects of the war, I wouldn’t pay any attention to talk of German collapse next spring or any such nonsense; for I’m sure it is nonsense - dangerous nonsense. I am very strongly of the opinion that the war will last at least 2 years yet, probably three. After all, even though the Huns have not got Moscow or Leningrad, they have got a great part of industrial Russia and they may get more - enough maybe to ensure that supplies of war material cannot easily reach the Russians. Then think of the immense manufacturing power of Germany, France, Austria, Poland, Rumania and so on - all centrally situated and not thousands of miles away from the main battle fronts, as the powers of America are to us.

Talk of victory in the end - that is certain - but the time will not be 1942; all logic is against it. Still, I hope that logic can be wrong. All I am saying is - face facts and no wishful thinking - one of our worst enemies. My talk is not meant to be depressing, my darling, only frank - let us talk of happier things. I wonder if this letter card will reach you before Christmas; it well may do, if the mails home are as good as you say. What a Christmas present you would be to me or I to you! - better than all the pullovers or silk stockings or chocolate truffles put together.”

Two days later HMS Barham was torpedoed by U-331 at 4.15 pm on November 25th, 1941 some 55 miles NNE of Sidi Barani. My father lost his life along with 862 of his shipmates. There were 396 survivors many badly burned and lacerated by barnacles having slid down the sides of the listing ship.

The End — Information on HMS Barham can be accessed on the HMS Barham Association Website links

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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 - Barham

Posted on: 23 November 2004 by Conal O'Donnell

What a wonderful detailed account ur father's letters give -all the small touches, the affection , the pleasure of wearing civies, the talk of moving to Ireland and the realistic optimism-the knocking on the head of any idea of victory in 1942 but the ultimate faith-then the end which virtually everyone interested in history has seen on the newsreel footage of Barham going over so quickly.Its great to read his words -tks for sharing them!

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