Leonard Shuttleworth - 26th Armoured Brigade
I was called up on April 2nd 1942 and travelled by train to the 64th Training Regiment RAC, Perham Down, Salisbury Plain, where I was given six weeks basic training, as a tank driver. Then I was moved to Barnard Castle, County Durham, for further training until October 1942 when we were moved back to Salisbury Plain to the North Hants Yeomanry, where we were kitted out and inoculated for embarkation overseas, destination unknown.
We travelled to the Greenock by train. The train stopped in Burton on Trent for signals, my home town. I managed to get to the door and lower the window, hoping to be able to see someone who could take a message to my parents, but there was not a single person on the entire platform. It was to be three years before I returned. We continued to Greenock, arriving just before dawn and were taken by tender out to the troop ship “Strathallan”.
Officially there were 4000 troops, British and American, 240 nurses who were QANS and 850 crew, over 5000 in all, but it seemed to be very overcrowded. We were taken below decks to the bowels of the ship, where there were long tables and benches which were to be our quarters for the journey.
Unknown to us, this was to be the largest convoy ever to leave these shores, over a thousand ships and we sailed at dawn the next day. We proceeded quite steadily, but when we reached the Bay of Biscay the weather changed to gales and very rough seas. We were on the deck and I was almost blown off my feet but hung on to the rail.
It transpired that in the main ballroom there were long tables and benches and it had been converted into a Naffi, but the ship was rolling so badly that the heavy tables broke away, trapping some men and breaking limbs. After that the Naffi was closed and we were not allowed on deck.Just about everyone was seasick and conditions got worse, especially in the toilets where water was swilling everywhere, and we were all slipping about on the vomit. The stench was terrible and it was very hot.
We had no idea where we were going but when we passed Gibralter and Tangiers which was all lit up the weather was much better, we were told that the following day we should be arriving in Algiers and we could take our boots off, which was previously banned. We slept on the floor, on the benches and on the tables it was so crowded.
The torpedo hit the ship either 12.30am or 1.30 am December 21st , as some clocks had been put on an hour, but there was a tremendous explosion, the lights went out and for a few moments we were in the dark, then the emergency lights came on. These were blue and very dim. Some men had taken off their trousers and almost all had taken off their boots. I groped around under the table and located a pair of boots, later to be found odd ones.
The NCO called out orders and I saw no panic at all. We were told to make our way up the spiral metal staircase. The torpedo had blown an enormous hole below the waterline
and the ship took in a very large amount of water and was listing to 25 degrees very quickly so that going up a spiral staircase that was leaning sideways was quite difficult, so that the men waiting at the bottom were instructing those higher up “Please hurry up!” in quite fruity language.
We eventually arrived on deck to find the most beautiful bright moonlit sky and a calm sea, we must have been about the last to come up, there was just one destroyer circling the ship. It was quite nerve-wracking to think that under the water was a submarine. There was no one in the water although I did see about a dozen men laid out on the deck being attended to, as they were covered in oil and in quite a bad way. By now we could see how badly the ship was listing so with regard to the lifeboats, there were six on each side, each one could take a hundred people, making twelve hundred in all. The peacetime number would be just over 1100 with crew.
It transpired that as the ship began to list as soon as the torpedo struck only a small number of lifeboats were able to be launched because those on the low side were swing away from the davits, whilst those on the high side were fouling the side of the ship.
Our small group was allocated a number of rafts to be used if the ship should sink and it was decided that we lower these into the water and tie the rope holding them to the rail to be released at the last minute. We saw our rafts strung out in a line joined together in the moonlight. We then saw something happening down by the waterline, some twenty to thirty feet below. Apparently a small door had been opened and a boat was launched into which several of the crew climbed, they seemed to be Arabs by their dress, our rope was in their way, so they cut it, and we watched our precious rafts floating gently away down the Med.
All the nurses had been taken off, although there were reports of bungs not being put in and the lifeboat sinking as soon as it was launched. Also reports that due to the terrible weather and waves lashing the ship, some of the lifeboats were half-full of water.
At first light everything was quiet, the question of our rafts was being discussed when the NCO in charge saw that on the aft end of the ship there was a 3.5 inch gun, so we tore down the wooden steps to the gun platform and we pulled up the decking which we piled by the rail, hoping that if the ship sunk, then the wood would float and we would have something to hold onto. An attempt was made for one of the destroyers to tow the ship and we had to form a crocodile around the ship, carrying this huge towrope which was at least 6 or 8 inches thick, but after some time that was aborted and we took the rope back in again.
We had not had anything to eat or drink since about 6pm the previous day but when it was about midday an announcement was made that there would be a slice of bread and a pickled herring given out. It has been estimated that after the nurses and other people had jumped into the water after the torpedo, there were about 3000 men left on the ship, so the queue for the food was substantial, going around several decks. Our group was approaching the feeding point when a loud hailer announced that a destroyer was alongside. Mattresses were piled in the bows and unite were told to jump into these mattresses when their unit was called. One of the men in front of a pal of mine dropped his steel helmet and my friend jumped on it, breaking his ankle. The destroyer was absolutely packed on the deck with men said to be a thousand, at least, standing shoulder to shoulder. I think it was 40 or 50 miles to Oran. After a while we were taken down below and given a meal, corned beef, piccalilli and white bread, which I often refer to when I am asked, which was my most memorable meal.
On arrival at Oran speed was of the essence as the ship HMS Panther had to return to the Strathallan to pick up more survivors. We arrived upon the quay for a roll call, then as the destroyer drew away the RSM called for three cheers for the Navy , who saved our lives, it was a close call for when we left our stricken ship it was on fire. The funnel was glowing red hot and we could smell the paint burning. Apparently it sunk at 4am the next morning, some say the Navy sank it whilst others say that when the fire reached its cargo of ammunition, it simply blew up and sank.
We were put aboard The Duchess of York a troop ship just in from the USA and we learnt from the crew that it would be returning to England, but the following morning our hopes were dashed because we were put on the Duchess of Richmond and on to Algiers, without any equipment which was issued piecemeal over the next few months.
In closing this story I have always been amazed that no mention has ever been made of this incident in any war records or on radio or TV until 2002 when a survivor bythe name of Joe Gormley started a website 60 years after the event, because as he said he had never seen it reported either. (The website is called the Strathallan Story). And so this website continues to grow.
A few months ago my daughter telephoned me one day to say, listen to Radio 4, it was Sue Cooke, who has a programme called “Making History” . She had a survivor with her who was on the Strathallan and told his story which was very similar to mine, but only lasted a few minutes.