David Brooks (Parachute Regiment)
Strathallan Survivor David Brooks tells of how a “Rookie ” battalion of trained Paratroopers were drawn from various regiments. Obviously the High Command saw value in sending
Para’s into North Africa in case they were required to drop behind enemy lines in some operation or other. They scanned The East Surrey’s, Kings Royal Rifles, The Devon’s, The Dorset’s, The Norfolk’s and his original regiment The Royal West Kent’s and creamed off the best men able to shut their eyes and jump out of an aircraft.
The new Battalion was under the command of Lt Colonel Gofton Salmond.
They finished high intensity training just to be sent from Hardwick by rail to the Clyde Estuary. There they boarded a tender at Gourock and joined SS Strathallan lying at anchor offshore in the beautiful “Tail O’ the Bank”….where the River Clyde flows into the sea. David takes up the story of his 1942 Strathallan and after adventures .
We took a wide sweep round the north of Ireland to avoid U Boats . The ship was an ex P&O Passenger Liner probably quite luxurious in the past but a different “Kettle of Fish” while carrying 5000 troops. We were in a large convoy and did not know our destination on leaving. It was an uneventful voyage except for the rough seas in the early stages but as we neared the Bay of Biscay the weather got really bad with many seasick. Standing on deck with the Strathallan heaving and rolling you could see other ships doing all sorts of crazy things disappearing into giant troughs then shooting into the air at various angles.
It was a novelty to see land lights of Spain and Morocco when we entered the Mediterranean.
The weather had abated and we began to enjoy the voyage.
On the morning of 21st December 42 not long after midnight there was a terrific roaring crash. The poor Strathallan seemed to be shivering and shaking for what seemed to be minutes. We realised we had been torpedoed and in pitch darkness at that time but emergency lighting was quickly taken from their glass cases.
I don’t remember any panic, in fact I am sure the transition from below decks to boat stations was very orderly by all units who were onboard. Nevertheless I was very happy to see the sky when we emerged on to our boat deck high up on the liner. By the time we got to our boat station all lifeboats were away, only those on one side could be used anyhow due to the steep list to port. We knew there was not enough lifeboats for 5000. A certain amount of confusion took place on deck which was soon sorted out by the Captain.
“ Get those F**”*”….lifeboats away from my ship” “ All of you shut your F**””*”” mouth, you are making enough noise to waken Davy Jones”….” Get those people out of the water….who ordered them in anyhow?”
No doubt the wise words of the officer brought some control to the mass of bodies milling around. My first realisation on our boat station was that we were completely alone the rest of the company had gone. Next thought was “ What do I do if I go into the drink” Next thought was “ What do I do if I end up in the drink?” I did not think much of these Kapok Mae West’s or of the sea although it was calm enough. I spotted wooded dining chairs in a dining saloon. “ One of these will do “ I thought. Just then I saw a large life belt hanging on the rail and again arguing with myself “ That’s bloody better” and commandeered the float.
A mate beside watched as I got the life belt so I agreed to share it with him. Many of my unit were around who saw a funny side to this. I was not allowed to forget about this for months to come…..I think they were just jealous and were sorry they did not get to it first. But I was not waiting around for someone to tell me what to do. I was in survival mode.
Nothing else happened during the darkness hours. The silence was eerie, broken every now and again by the Captain on the tannoy. I recall he asked for volunteers from a Royal Engineers Unit to attend the engine room especially those who had knowledge of engines.
When dawn broke we were joined by an ocean going tug and a couple of destroyers. They managed to get hawsers onboard but once the strain was taken they snapped quite easily.
Strathallan must have been a dead weight. A RAF flying boat passed low. One of the crew was trying to give a comforting V sign but someone should have told him the V for Victory sign was the palm facing outward. I know he did not mean it but we would have expected the V sign palm inward signifying “ UP YOU” from the Luftwaffe.
A small but enduring and endearing memory. We were more than happy to see him.
By this time all lifeboats had disappeared. Word filtered through that a lifeboat full of Queen Alexandra Nurses had overturned by panic stricken Lascars causing loss of life.
The crew of Strathallan were predominately Lascars and apparently their contracts gave them prior use of lifeboats in situations like this. Only five or six Lascar’s were onboard in the morning at daylight. I remember one was very helpful and did his best to obtain food. He asked that small detachments went with him to the galley
To Be Continued…