Crew member of Strathallan returning home onboard H.M.T. Duchess of Richmond 22nd December 1942
“On the morning of Sunday, 20th December, 1942,. the convoy had reached Gibraltar and we were all reforming into new positions according to our respective ports of destination and also being augmented by more supply craft already waiting at Gibraltar. At approximately 9.30 a.m. the escort ship V.88 came alongside to fire a line aboard with a small round black disc that apparently were orders, we were already under way. The weather was glorious, sunshine, slight breeze and the sea in a lazy swell. So, the convoy proceeded.
The day was spent extra busily, for all departments on board were making preparation in order for a quick debarkation that was to take place the following afternoon at Algiers. The officers, nurses and troops all had their kits packed, and in general people were beginning to talk in a “departing” manner. One usually strikes acquaintance during a sea journey hence the good-byes, farewell instructions, words of advice, when next we’ll meet etc. that all makes up the atmosphere of departure.
A fter a little off-watch chatter and conversation and our usual phonograph record or two that was a familiar procedure and much looked forward to diversion in our cabin, I retired somewhere around 10.30 p.m. Due to hard and long hours of work I had no difficulty in falling asleep, and a deep and sound one at that, which I may include can be said of all the men, for all were very busy this particular trip. Anyhow I fancy I was so enjoying my deep and sound sleep that the next thing I knew was finding my face splattered on the bunk above me and in less than half a second I was on the deck. I calmly got up to sit on my bunk. Although all lights had failed, the noise of confusion told me everyone else was in the same predicament. The ship was shaking so violently that all bottles, boxes, cases and loose articles etc. went haywire. Some had rushed on deck to return almost immediately. There were exclamations by all kinds of people that had awakened sufficiently to allow their minds to infer what might have happened. Something seemed to tell me, since the ship had taken a sharp list immediately the shaking had subsided, that we had been hit by a torpedo. I made a movement to go out on deck but that was overruled by the thought that this means stations, so why not grab what gear I can lay my hands on. Accordingly, due to continuous training, I grabbed my bundle, lifejacket, trousers, shoes and my uniform coat and cap that happened to be near at hand. I arrived on deck just as a red distress flare was fired from the bridge. I knew then it was serious. By this time all were pouring on deck, and I made way to my boat station. The ship had now a list of about 10-12 degrees.
At our boat we awaited the arrival of all our crew, and by the time they came I turned to find our boat crammed full of soldiers along with a few natives. As yet no alarm gongs or bells had sounded. We thought they must be out of commission until probably an emergency dynamo could be got functioning. There was only one thing to do, since we could not embark any more, we crew took up positions in the boat, gave out everything. that was correct, and our lowerer lowered away.
As we were on the high side, the starboard side, going down we hit the edges of A. B and C decks and scraped along the ship’s side all the way. Once I thought we were either going to be tipped out or that our falls would snap through so heavy a strain, but we reached the water safely. made quick work in casting off as to be out the way of other boats, and swung clear and away.
The soldiers in our boat were highly excited, some showing signs of fear. I thought we had better keep a sharp eye in case they panicked and tried to take charge. As it was we could hardly do a thing for a time, for they were all sitting on gear that was needed for immediate use. It took quite a lot of ordering and shuffling that almost bordered on manhandling but we eventually got our handles, tiller etc. into position and soon had the boat under way.
At the time we were hit it must have been 2.31 a.m. for that was when the clocks, as all other electrical power, stopped. And from the time we were hit to the time we launched our boat was around 6-8 minutes.
We manoeuvred round to the after end and by this time we were able to think more clearly. I happened to have awoken with a dry throat and even now I was only beginning to get the first signs of saliva back. I’d have given anything for a drink of water. The soldiers were imploring us to get well away from the ship in case she turned over sinking and taking everything else under with the suction. But no, we had a job to do. Although our boat was fully loaded, we might have been able to pick up one or two from the water that were desperate. We paraded up and down the starboard side close on two hours.
All the boats had been launched, except two. No.8 had been flung and jammed upside down on her davit heads by the blast and No.14 had been absolutely filled with water by the same. Consequently, when it was lowered and people embarked, they sat in water up to their chests, on reaching the water below it sank to gunwale level although not sinking. Its occupants just swam out and as they were situated where we had been hit everyone was literally soaked in crude oil.
We ourselves could do no more. We layoff and just propelled our way backwards and forwards from forward to aft and it was then we had time to reflect back on the life of the old ship, all she had done and also our lives aboard her. All of which would take far too long to state here, but it brought a lump to our throats at the realisation of what her end had come to.
The night itself, or rather early morning, was brilliantly moonlight, which helped us a deal in the task of abandoning ship. Possibly we would never have had to experience this had there been no moon, but still – there it was. The most thrilling moment I think was when the ships life- boats were laying around her, soldiers slinging rafts overboard and jumping in after them or shinning down nets, ropes, ladders or falls, the ship listing over more and the rest of personnel on board – nurses and soldiers – were all lined up more or less to attention on the starboard side open decks singing, “You are my Sunshine”, and the nurses voices harmonizing with their higher pitch above the others, reverberating over the water in the moonlight. That was terrific.
The other thing that struck me was it seemed such a perfect film setting. With the brilliant moon, lifeboats, small fairy lights twinkling with people on rafts or in the water, the most modern and colossal things in destroyers that were standing by, and their commanders, issuing through their loud speakers, occasional cheery, calm, rescue orders. The old ship listing over and flying one red light over her bridge, the rippling sea.
The bottom of our boat, as with all the others, was continually clanging with the dropping of depth-charges. There were literally dozens dropped and I thought once or twice when we caught a near one that our bottom would be holed. About 3.30 the destroyer “Laflouer” (LEFOREY) came alongside and arrangements were made to take her in tow. They managed to get tow lines in shape and I believe for a time they had her going at a steady five knots. Anyhow we had orders to keep clear so we boats moved off in one pack, keeping together as much as possible. One or two had already drifted away.
The sea, now we were in close contact with it, had more of a swell than we imagined. Our boats continually rolling and pitching at a fast rate. I believe there was hardly a man or woman that wasn’t sick. I for one felt terrible by then because the soldiers had jammed me into a twisted position, and not being able to move either way, the sea was just using my stomach for an egg scrambler. Forcing myself to get it over with I tried to get a little sleep but it was impossible owing to the movement on the boat, also we had a job keeping her head-on.
There were four of the ships crew in our boat including myself. We had approximately a hundred soldiers and they all seemed to pour on me all kinds of funny questions, now that their fear had subsided somewhat it seemed to make them so darned curious. Occasionally they would all burst into a spot of community singing so that relieved me of being brains trust for a while. I happened to be thinking more of the ship, for as then no one knew how serious things were and if she decided to turn over, there still three thousand left aboard her including Charlie and rest of crew. It made me feel very uncomfortable. The troops happened to be all parachute men, and how they all wished they were back in a plane! I was informed in more ways than one how sooner they’d make hundreds of jumps sooner than go through this again.
The lifeboats visited each other in course of time to exchange the welfare of each but mainly for the crew to see who was missing. It was then I found that Charlie and others were still on board. We could just faintly see the ship a long way off. At any rate they intended making for Oran.
8 a.m. and it was now daylight. It didn’t seem quite so cold now but we still pulled on the handles now and then to keep up circulation. Soon Catalina and Hudson aircraft began to circle over us and at 8.30, a destroyer hove in sight. She skirted us for a while but eventually began picking us up. My!, what a race for her. It took I think about an hour and a half to rescue us all and what a motley crowd we were, nurses that were still in pyjamas, men with what odd gear they could put on, some soaking wet, some soaked in oil and some injured. We were all so thankful to be aboard the destroyer (by now we had learned her name – 1.63. Verity) and their crew gave all consideration (there were around two thousand of us). At 10 a.m. we began to move picking our way out of the now empty and forlorn looking lifeboats, soon reaching a speed of 30 knots.
After lining up for about an hour and half, we all eventually got a hot cup of tea and though everyone borrowed each others cups, some of which were covered in oil, it was what we needed most. They informed us we would arrive at Oran by 1.30 p.m. and so made ourselves comfortable the best way we could, taking turns to sit down. I satisfied my curiosity as to why she skirted us before picking us up and found they, as the rest of destroyers, were continually at action stations. We kept making way for them to get at their guns etc. while on the way.
Among us survivors on board were a lot of American women forces and including one of “Life’s” reporters, who had been lent to the R.A.F. There was also a whole journalistic staff on the old ship coming out. But this American woman had managed to save her camera and films so of course had marvellous scope. She snapped us all in groups, in fact there was hardly a rescue episode she missed. I must keep my eyes open for “Life” because it’s bound to be in one issue.
11.15 a.m. finds us nearing the old ship, we pass by. It still has the same list on and there is more smoke issuing from her funnel. They still have her in tow so everyone is praying and in hopes of them bringing her in. But we must wait and see.
We arrive at Mek harbour, the other side of Oran, at 2 p.m. and have to stay on board until they find somewhere for us to go. The rest of the convoy are in here that had departed from us one hour before we were hit, they are the 2 Duchess boats, Empress of Canada and cargo packets. We are lined up on the quay and everyone stares at us like it was a side-show. They knew what had happened. Anyhow, were all numbered off and we move on to the Duchess of Richmond as she debarks the last of her troops.
What we now need most is a good meal, hot bath and a long, long sleep. The good meal we got and a makeshift wash and also while on the quay this ships crew threw down tins of cigarettes to share among us. They were welcomed for all had been heavily smoking since the rescue, that is, all we had managed to salvage. Everyone shared what-ever they had.
Now that we had been accommodated and fed etc. on board here, with all our weariness we found sleep impossible. Some had flaked out with fatigue but most of us had too much on our minds – we were anxious about those left aboard and of the old ship. After a few hours the second destroyer load came in and landed its rescued crowd, all troops. From them all we gathered was mainly false rumours, we were then told through this ship’s loud speakers that we should be informed as soon as the correct and definite news was available.
Meanwhile, during the course of time up to about 11.30 p.m. more destroyers had landed the last of survivors. In the last boat I was relieved to find my friend Charlie, from whom, and others in that batch, I learned a hurried exit had to be made – around 3 p.m. Apparently the sea had floated the oil up to the level of the last remaining and unquenchable boiler, so had started the fire that gained so much fierceness and was the ultimate end of the ship. The most peculiar thing was it became so hot she showed up all her original peace-time colours! As the last crowd left her the funnel collapsed and she was aflame almost totally. All the ammunition too was beginning to explode, what guns crew remained had thrown all they could get to overboard.
The last man to leave the ship was the Commander – or so he thought he was. But actually it was the Chief Engineer and “Dizzy”, the dispenser. They appeared, luckily for them just as the destroyer was about to pull away. Capt. Biggs had looked around before he stepped off and thought everyone had gone, but these two must have been down below. The Captain was given a mighty cheer and they sang, “For, He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. There were tears in his eyes as he watched the old ship, and he thanked us for all our help. I regret to think he had to lose her for he was a tremendously popular and good skipper, there isn’t a man who would say otherwise.
Early the next morning the Skipper carne aboard this ship and we were given the remaining news. She blew up, turned over on her side, and sank at 4 a.m. that morning. So we were now shipwrecked, D.B.S.,(Distressed British Seamen) and everything else besides and we then resigned ourselves to making the best of a hoped for uneventful voyage home.
To sum up briefly, I think we were fortunate in getting everyone off, all but approximately 25. There were 5,000 troops, 270 nurses, and crew. 2 nurses were lost, 6 crew, 2 engineers and 4 natives; the rest soldiers. I believe we lost most of them, the troops, by the soldiers on deck dropping heavy rafts on top of those already in the water. Probably killing them outright or knocking them unconscious. Of panic, there was very little, generally speaking most were considerably calm although the morale of the natives was very low. A few soldiers died with heart failure and shock, and our crew barman, Mr. Barnes, with whom I’d sailed in a previous ship, broke his leg in getting away. He kept up marvellous strength to help row his boat until rescue. Of what happened to all the desolated and drifting lifeboats remains to be learnt, either they were towed in or sunk. They had towed the old ship in to almost horizon distance of Oran, but, we were beaten by fire, and that was where she went down. It is only now that we can sit and laugh and relate on the amusing incidents – there were many – but it is an experience of which one is quite sufficient, and I only hope our future lies more pleasant and more uneventful.”
G.W. FRY MEMBER OF CREW OF STRATHALLAN RETURNING HOME ON BOARD H.M.T. DUCHESS OF RiTCHMOND 22ND DECEMBER, 1942