REPORT OF SINKING of STRATHALLAN – By CAPTAIN J.H.BIGGS
She was finally turned over and sunk at 4-30 on December 22nd, 1942, in a position 36 : 01.8N, 00 : 33.3 W. whilst being towed to Oran, North Africa.
I regret to have to report the loss of the “S.S.Strathallan” on December 21st from the effects of a torpedo attack followed by fire.
We had on board:
296 Military Officers
248 Nurses etc
4112 Warrant Officers & other ranks466 Crew
TOTAL = 5,122 Persons
The torpedo struck the ship at 2.25 a.m. in the engine room on the port side making a hole and damaging the bulkhead between the Engine Room and Boiler Room and also the Port After Settling Tanks. All lights failed and the ship listed 15 to port at once. The explosion was very violent, throwing a huge column of water over the ship, and blowing No 8 boat over the head of the davits, from where it could not be dislodged.
Boat Stations was sounded on the Alarm Gongs. The loud speakers to all parts of the ship failed. The amplifier in a room on “B” deck, being near the explosion, was probably wrecked. Troops & crew mustered quickly and boats were manned.
The emergency dynamo was quickly started and Emergency lighting throughout the ship switched on.
The sea being smooth and the possibility of being hit again by a second or third torpedo being probable, orders were given to lower the boats. They all got away except No 8 boat blown over the davit head by the explosion and 9b boat, which it was found impossible to launch against the list of the ship. I heard later that no 12 and 14 boats were found to have much water in them, probably thrown up by the explosion, and no 14 boat became water logged and was probably holed.
Rafts were then cleared away and some lowered over the side on their painters in readiness.
The list of the ship was 10 but gradually moved to 12 during the day.
Chief Engineer reported that after Engine Room Bulkhead was intact and the carpenter that all compartments except Engine Room & Boiler Room nearly dry.
The emergency bilge pump was started and by 8-30a.m. water was reported decreasing in Stokehold.
All remaining troops ordered to keep to starboard side to ease the list. Later feeling that ship would float for some time, I recalled many of the ships company from boats.
At 4 a.m. HMS Destroyer Leforay, Catain H.M.J.Hutton R.N. asked me if I considered ship could be towed. I replied Yes that list had remained the same and bulkheads were intact, except the damaged one, and pumps were holding their own.
Passed 6” wire over bow, but grass rope from Destroyer carried away and owing to small power on the capstans could not haul it back, so passed a 9” manilla mooring rope which was made fast, and towing commenced at about 6 a.m. the ship being steered from the bridge from emergency power. At daybreak a second 9” manilla was passed to the destroyer and towing continued at a speed of 5 knots.
At 10.30 a.m. H.M. Destroyer nosed in on the starboard quarter and embarked 1,200 troops.
I signalled to ‘Leforay’ suggesting that remainder of troops be disembarked as I still had about 3,000 on board.
At 11.15 a.m. H.M.S.Verity passed and signalled she had picked up 1,179 troops and nurses. I heard later that she had 1,300 odd on board.
At 00.30 p.m. H.M.S.Panther left full of troops.
At 00.40 p.m. H.M. Destroyer arrived and at about 2 p.m. completed disembarkation of troops.
At 1.00 p.m. it appeared very probable that the ship would get to Oran, but emergency Bilge pump which had pumped much oil over the side was failing and could not cope with the leak. Tug “Restive” approached to assist in pumping, but at 1.15 p.m. flames shot high out of the funnel and continued burning fiercely and paint on funnel and ventilators burnt and dropped off.
It appears now that oil had reached the still very hot brick work in the boilers and heated and ignited the oil fuel from the settling tanks or bunkers. Going below I examined the bulkheads in E, D, C and D decks and found them already red hot and paint and wood smouldering. It appeared hopeless, but I ordered the emergency fire pumps to be started up and fire hoses passed up from the tug “Restive” which had arrived alongside. Also the ammunition from a magazine on “A” deck to be thrown overboard.
This was done but the fire could not be tackled in so many places, and the centre of the ship was soon ablaze. It was impossible to check flow of air through accommodation owing to windows and ships side scuttles being broken.
I returned to the Bridge through dense smoke and almost immediately flames shot up through the “B” deck lounge to the officers quarters. Cadet McKibben at the wheel remained there till ordered off by me and we both had to drop over the fore side of the bridge and ran through the smoke to amidships on the starboard side of “C” deck where the tug was alongside. I then went aft and ordered abandon ship and all boarded the tug “Restive” who cast off.
H.M.S.Leforay had ceased towing about 2 p.m. and we all transferred to her, where we were all treated with great consideration.
The tug “Restive” was ordered to return to the STRATHALLAN, pick up the tow ropes and continue towing.
At Captain Huttons request I, the Chief Officer, Mr Last, and 2nd engineer Mr Lockhead, remained on the “Leforay” in case our knowledge of the ship could be of any assistance.
Towing continued till 4.00 a.m. December 22nd, when ship rolled over on her port side and sank about 12 miles from Oran.
Of the ships company the 3rd engineer, Mr Morley, and assistant engineer Knox and two engine room Indian crew were killed in the explosion, and not heard or seen. One Lascar and one other engine room Indian are missing.
All confidential Books & Codes were collected and thrown overboard.
Extracts from official report by The Master of SS Strathallan Captain JH Biggs CB
The document is four pages of text and because of it’s age is a little unclear in patches. Anyone interested in the full version can obtain details by writing to:-
The Ministry of Defence
Naval Historical Branch
3-5 Great Scotland
Tel. No. 0207 218 4865
Fax. 0207 218 8210
To acquire copy please quote ADM 199/2143. Further papers on the the passage of Convoy KM55 and the sinking of Strathallan are entitled ADM 199/562 199/727 199/1216 & 199/2100
Please click on the thumbnails to enlarge. We apologise in advance for the clarity of the documents.