HMS Lightning – Convoy KMF5
Story Supplied by Eric Gilroy – son of the late George “Geordie” Gilroy AB LR3 aboard HMS Lightning May1941 – March 1943
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Having worked up after their refits, Lightning and Laforey left Scapa Flow on 8 December 1942 and arrived at Greenock on the Clyde the following day. At 0400 on Saturday 12th December 1942 we left Greenock and proceeded to Liverpool to pick up the Duchess of Athol to escort her to join a troop convoy. Three days later, on 15 December, we met the large fast troop convoy KMF 5, bound for North Africa. We did not realise it at the time but we were leaving northern waters for the last time.
The weather in the Bay of Biscay was foul – the Captain said that it was the worst since 1928. All of the ship’s boats were lost along with most of the guardrails. Telegraphist George Merrion remembers sending the following signal to one of the escorting destroyers “Have just seen down your funnel – fire is still burning brightly”. Shortly after, on Thursday 17th December in the Bay of Biscay, we had our second death aboard. PO Telegraphist Tom Harrison died of heart failure and was buried at sea. George Merrion remembers that at the appointed hour for Tom’s burial the storm suddenly abated and began again a few hours later. The burial at sea made a deep impression on OD Magnus Shearer and many of the other younger lads who had only recently joined this their first ship.
A few days later, and a day after leaving Gibraltar, on Monday 21 December 1942, the commodore of the convoy of troopships, the 23,722 ton Strathallan, was torpedoed by U-562 off the coast of Algeria. She had 4408 troops and 296 British and American nurses on board. Strathallan was steering an easterly course, zigzagging in bright moonlight and smooth seas, when at 0225 a torpedo struck the ship in the port engine room, making a large hole and damaging the bulkhead between the engine room and boiler room. Two engineer officers and two engine room crew were killed in the explosion. She quickly began to list 15 degrees to port. AB John Fenby remembers finding the survivors: “I was on depth charge watch with AB C. Gould, only the two of us on the quarterdeck when we thought that we heard women’s voices! We couldn’t believe our ears – thought it was seagulls – then remembered that you never hear seagulls at night. So we rang the bridge and they stopped engines and sure enough – women’s voices. They were nurses. I spent about half an hour in the water pulling them out”. Lightning with Laforey and Verity were on the scene very quickly and it was still dark when we began taking on board survivors. Scrambling nets were rigged along the ship’s side and I was one of the men who were over the side hanging on the netting with one hand whilst helping the survivors up with the other. Some of the bedraggled victims were manhandled out of the water very roughly, with much swearing and cursing from PO Dann in particular, as there was the ever present fear of a torpedo hitting us from the enemy submarine.
It was only the next day that I realised, by looking at the underwear hanging up to dry, that we had rescued women. We picked up 12 nurses and 4 soldiers. George Merrion recalls that whilst we were making a big fuss picking up the (relatively few) nurses a terse signal came from HMS Laforey “Are you aware that there are several thousand troops that also need picking up?” After dropping off the survivors we returned to the Strathallan at about mid day and rescued many more troops. When this was complete the huge liner was taken in tow towards Oran by Laforey and later the tug Restive. Magnus Shearer remember this event “I recall the Strathallan going down clearly. We were ordered to fetch our hammocks from our mess decks and spread them over the forecastle.
The Captain took Lightning up to the stern of Strathallan and there the US troops jumped down on top of them, for a soft landing. It didn’t do my hammock any good!” Arthur Chubb also remembers the American troops “… many of the Americans had too much spare clothing with them for the battle ahead, and so they gave us all manner of things like silk shirts and good quality gabardine trousers. For the next few days you could have seen all of the matelots from the Lightning walking about the ship dressed ‘up to the nines’. Eventually the Captain had us all below and pointed out that it would be nice if we would spend at least some of the time in the rig of the day”. In all we took on board many hundred troops. Some of the soldiers jumped straight from the upper deck of the Strathallan and were killed as they hit the water. We had the unenviable job of picking them up. They were taken to the sick bay flat, checked by the ship’s surgeon and sewn into canvas bags, weighted with two 4.7 inch shells and committed to the deep on our run into Oran.
Eventually a huge fire developed inside the stricken ship, got out of control and the ship rolled on to her side at about 0420 on the 22nd and was lost, just twelve miles from Oran. After a search of the area we put into Oran at 0830, where we stayed for two days. On 24 December we put to sea for manoeuvres with the fleet. During the evening we heard that we would be putting into Algiers for Christmas, but later this was cancelled owing to the assassination of the French Ambassador – Admiral Darlan, and the subsequent rioting in the town. And so our final Christmas aboard the old ship was spent at sea. As you might imagine we were pretty miserable. With the customary Navy tradition, the officers served the Christmas dinner to us. Arthur Chubb recalls that, having only just been called up, this was his first Christmas away from home and he was very homesick – to make things worse as he was eating his Christmas dinner the radio was playing ‘I’m dreaming of white Christmas’. On Boxing day 1942 we arrived at Algiers and stayed for four days before setting off for what was to become our worst nightmare.
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