Extract from the Daily Express – 13th JANUARY 1943
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R.M.S. STRATHALLAN 1938 – 1942 NURSES STAY IN SINKING TROOPSHIP – REFUSE TO GO.
From James Wellard – now reporting the Tunisian fighting. On his way out his ship was torpedoed. This dramatic cable describing his experience was filed three weeks ago and received last night. ALGIERS I want you to meet five brave women, three English, two American. I want you to meet them as I saw them tonight – aboard a crippled transport torpedoed in the bright moonlight. As I write this we are sinking. Fire has broken out below decks.
The crump of a torpedo smacking the side of a big ship when you are fast asleep in your berth is a sound you don’t want to hear more than once in your life. We, the nurses and soldiers, American and British, heard it in the night. When 29 year old Olive Stewardson from Yorkshire and 26 year old Julie Kerr, who is Irish, heard it they knew they had a duty to perform. They are Queen Alexandra nurses. That duty was in the troops’ hospital deep down in the bowels of the ship. The rest of us stumbled up the dark stairs to our boat stations. We stood, some of us frightened, some of us singing, all of us calm and disciplined as befits soldiers. Sisters Stewardson and Kerr went down below decks while we went up. In the ship’s hospital were five stretcher cases.
The two sisters got them ready and saw them carried to safety. By this time the crowded lifeboats were away from the ship. There was no chance now for the nurses to leave except on rafts. Floating on a raft in a sea covered with fuel oil is the last resort, but the nurses had no thought of leaving. There was more work to do. Casualties were coming into that little hospital below decks. Sailors and soldiers covered in fuel oil and exhausted were being brought in every minute. Sisters Stewardson and Kerr carried on. They cut off the men’s clothing, massaged them, out hot water bottles at their feet. Late the next day the sisters came on deck, their work done. They found the sun shining bright and warm.
The ship was listing 20 degrees. All the other nurses had left except 39 year old Sister Judith Baskett and two American WAAC’s. Sister Baskett told me – “I came up on deck with another sister and when we got to the lifeboat there was room for one only. I told the other sister to get in. The sisters wished me good-luck, and then they were gone”. For 32 year old Loise Anderson of Denver and 33 year old A. Dregmal of Wisconsin there was no room either. Sitting on the deck of the doomed ship they were cheerful, trim and becomingly powered and rouged.
Well. Here is the story Sisters Stewardson and Kerr told me – “When the torpedo hit we got dressed, put on our tin hats, collected our greatcoats and went to the troops’ hospital on the lower deck. We found the medical officer and orderlies already there, strapping patients to the stretchers. Two of the men had broken legs. As soon as we had taken care of the stretcher cases we went upstairs. Then the casualties from the lifeboats and rafts were brought in. We were asked to go down to the hospital and take care of them. They were the soldiers and sailors who had jumped to the rafts; they were covered in fuel oil.
Most of them were exhausted from exposure. We took off their clothes and rubbed them, and did what we could. It was late next day – five hours later, when we came up on the top deck. They wrapped us in warm blankets. And here we are.” And here we are, five women and hundreds of men a little anxious but confident the Royal Navy will not forget us. The ship is listing heavily. Fire has broken out. It is dangerous now to return below decks. But there is no sign of panic aboard. There never has been since we were torpedoed. Lifeboats of American and British nurses can be seen still bobbing on the horizon. I heard later from Sister Lorna Parker of Wiltshire this amazing story:- “When our boat touched the water, it flooded almost immediately because someone had forgotten to put in the plug. We found ourselves in the water, so some of the other girls and I began to swim. A girl behind me shouted “Where are you going?” I said “I’m going to such-and-such a place, just take the third wave to the right.” The 12 of us swam off together, striking out for the rafts. We clung on to these for three hours. I had many bad moments. No one can imagine how lonely it is swimming around in the ocean in the middle of the night. Once I felt something clinging to my legs. I put down my hand to feel, and fond an octopus wrapped around them. Several destroyers passed us in the night, but could not see us. Finally a destroyer came towards us. We all shouted together. It must have been a horrible noise, but the crew heard us. Soon we were safe on board. Sailors took off our clothes, which were covered in grease and oil, and washed them for us. We found them hanging on a line when we reached port.” A sailor in the destroyer which picked up the 12 nurses told me the rest of the story:- “I’ve seen and heard some strange things at sea,” he said, “but the cries of those girls and the sight of them hanging to the raft as we bore down on them at 23 knots made my heart come into my mouth. I can’t forget it.” All of us saw sights we shall never forget. There was the moment when lifeboats, with nurses aboard, swung down from the davits and bobbed about in the moonlight water. There was the spectacle of Tommies and Doughboys standing on the listing ship singing; “You are my sunshine” to the accompaniment of a mouth organ. There was that dry sandpaper feeling in the mouth and throat as you stood around for hours, waiting and wondering. There was the relief of sunrise, which had never seemed so beautiful before. There was the tense moment when you went over the side of the ship, dangling on a rope and praying for strength to hang on until you were dropped on the decks of a destroyer 40 feet below. There was the final tragic spectacle of your good ship, burning like a funeral pyre until she was just a smudge on the horizon. (Ken Chambers, Brighton – contributed through Tom Samuel, RAF Regt. Comrades)