P Henstock Army unit, the 542 Electtical and Mechanical Company, Royal Engineers
Reading some, of your computer information regarding the sinking of the Strathallan I noted that you have invited survivors and dependents to write their accounts of that fateful December 2Ist I942, morning, so I would like to add my remembrances, of the torpedoing of Strathallan.
My Army unit, the 542 Elect and Mech Company, Royal Engineers had arrived at the Scottish port of Gourock on the Clyde about midday on the I1th December 1942. We were then taken out on small craft to the waiting troopship, the S.S. Strathallan. I think we may have been amongst the last of the troops to board the ship as I remember being told to bed down on the ships passage way. We assumed there was no room below.
The weather was typical of a December day cloudy, grey and sombre. In the fading light we, could barely make out the opposite shores of the Clyde.
The Strathallan crew lifted the anchor to begin our journey down the Clyde and we then skirted the Northern Irish coast before emerging into the wide waters of the Atlantic. We soon felt the surging swell of the Atlantic. In a short while many of the troops were struggling with the effects of seasickness, myself included. In my case the seasickness lasted a full three days. I tried queuing up for meals, but as soon as I reached the kitchen counter, I was forced to hang my head over the side of the ship and throw up. However I had no further bouts of the malady. A few days later we met some tempestuous weather, which threw the ship about like a cork. I heard over the ships tannoy system an appeal go out for joiners to go immediately to the bridge to repair damage inflicted by the wind. I remember once during the height of the gale looking up at the. Mountainous waves and the next moment looking down into the depths of the sea. Soma of the crew said it was the worst weather they had experienced for years.
When the weather abated we saw the aircraft carrier, HMS. Argus. Patrolling on our starboard stern and keeping the ships crew busy with anti-aircraft practice. On board Strathallan we had daily lifeboat drill at our allotted stations on an open deck. We passed our time on board by playing cards, usually pontoon, where occasionally sums, of money would be played for by the troops.
The weather was becoming noticeably warmer and shortly we entered the Straits of Gibraltar. On the port side, we could make out the snow-capped, Sierra Madre range of mountains in Southern Spain. The weather was, quite warm and the sea calm. During this period the nights were moonlit in a Cloudless sky.
We were wondering where our destination would be? Either the Far East or the North African shores, where a landing by Allied armies had been successful. As we prepared our kit for nights sleep we were pondering this question.
We couldn’t halve been asleep long when at two-thirty on the morning of the twenty-first of December, I942, a tremendous, explosion shook the ship.
As we made our way upwards towards the open decks we thought at first we were being bombed from the air, but as we reached the open deck the noise we heard was coming from depth charges exploding as they searched for the submarine. We had been hit in the engine-room on our port side, killing four crew as we heard later. An earlier order from the bridge to ‘abandon ship’ was later changed. We were told that it was possible that the ‘Strathallan’ might reach the nearest North African port as the fires were being kept under control. The situation looked to be improving but as the morning progressed it became clear that earlier. Optimism was unfounded A Destroyer, the H.M.S. ‘Laforey’ took up the task of towing the ship. Some time later the tug, ‘Restive’ replaced the ‘Laforey’. Meanwhile an aircraft kept circling us to give protection we, thought.
We were given a mid-morning snack of -bread and pilchards’. The ship’s list to port had not increased but just after midday the situation had worsened. The remainder of the troops aboard were ordered to leave’ the ship. A destroyer, the ‘HMS.Panther’ came alongside and we proceeded, to jump down on to her bow where piles of life rafts had been placed to cushion our fall. We were given great hospitality by the ‘Panther’s crew as we sped towards the port of’ Oran. We heard much later that the ‘Strathallan’ had sunk at four a.m. the, following morning. When we reached Oran we boarded another troopship, the ‘Duchess of Richmond’ where .we spent the night. The next day we were on the move again and we arrived at Algiers on the twenty-third of December. We were given telegrams to inform our dependents back in U.K. to tell or our safe arrival. We were not permitted to mention that ‘Strathallan’ sinking because of” security reasons”.
It wasn’t till a few years after the war that I realised that there had been aboard; the Headquarters section of an American and British Hospital and that some nurses had drowned when the first order, “Abandon Ship” had been issued.
The destroyer HMS Laforey that took up the towing of the ‘Strathallan’ was herself sunk by a U-Boat near the Isle of Capri, off Naples some 11 months later in unusual circumstances.