Mrs D Asher Queen Alexandra's Military Nursing Service
“After the outbreak of the Second World War I volunteered for service with the Queen Alexander’s Military Nursing Service. I was a period in life where we could not just do nothing. We all heard of the miracle of Dunkirk and hundreds of us young ladies of call-up age flocked to the colours wanting to do our bit for the wounded soldiers in the field.
I was sent to Edinburgh Castle where hundreds of us were enlisted and processed. Many of us were transferred to Peebles Hydro where the 95* Field Hospital were mobilising for overseas duty. We undertook military nursing training. We had a few casualties…mostly men who had injured themselves rather than go abroad to fight an enemy.
The male medical staff in our unit left sometime during 1942. We later discovered they sailed on the Strathallan Troopship to North Africa. There was a great secrecy about everything. We did not know anything about our future. Obviously it was in the interests of security. We were surrounded by posters that said, ” Loose talk costs lives ”
Early December 1942 we were ordered to travel to Greenock and join a military convoy setting out for North Africa. It was all very “Hush Hush” with no leave allowed. All our mail was censored. We could not even tell our families where we were or where we were going. We were ordered to board this enormous passenger liner the SS Strathallan.
Our accommodation was quite good. We were in cabins and could have meals in the dining saloon. It was quite an exciting experience for most of us, being no more than teenagers.
There were dozens of ships in the convoy including all sorts of warships. As we sailed out of the Firth of Clyde into the Irish Sea the weather deteriorated into violent storms with Strathallan pitching and rolling all the time. I am a poor sailor and was seasick for most of the voyage. Indeed it was so bad I was convinced the ship was going to sink the way it was keeling over.
However when we finally reached the Mediterranean Sea things began to lookup. The sea calmed down and we were able to enjoy the lovely meals served to us in the dining saloon. We saw hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers and knew there were thousands below decks.
On the evening of 20th December we had been dancing on the top deck and having great fun. We were due in port next day and were all very excited. Most of the nurses had never been abroad before so it was a superb adventure. I retired to my cabin around 10pm to enjoy a night’s sleep.
I was woken up with an enormous explosion. We had action stations and lifeboat drill during the voyage, which had been a bit chaotic, but I remember that early morning there was no panic. We made our way to our lifeboat stations.
We learned very quickly we had been struck with a torpedo. Strathallan began to list to port, as I know now to the left, dozens of nurses clambered into the lifeboat, which was lowered into the water by the ships crewmembers. My greatest fear was the ship would sink before we were clear. It was a very calm and clear morning. This was around two o’clock. We were scarcely away from the ship when I felt water lapping around my feet. The lifeboat was full of nurses all who were aghast. Looking back, amazingly the sailors had forgot to put in the plug. In the heat of the moment simple things were forgotten. I know with hindsight it appears to be the height of incompetence but recalling the disaster of The Herald of Free Enterprise they forgot to close the bow doors and set sail causing the ship to capsize. Human error is with us as long as we have human beings. The lifeboat I was in proved that point again.
The water rose quite rapidly and filled the lifeboat soon we had to take to the water. My first thought was the water was quite warm but after a couple of hours it became very cold. My life belt undoubtedly saved my life. I saw a life raft close by which appeared to be unoccupied and swam toward it. I tried to lift myself out of the water on to the raft but was unable to do so owing to the weight of my sodden greatcoat I was exhausted. I put my arms through the rope loops on the raft and drifted into unconsciousness. I vaguely remember being picked up by the crew of one of the convoy ships and do recall how kind they were to me. The rescuers were from HMS Folkstone. I was covered in grease and oil, was totally frozen and exhausted and remember with great delight getting into a hot bath. I have never forgotten to this day, crewmembers that saved my life. If any of them happen to read this I again pass on my eternal thanks …you all were magnificent and gentlemen to the last man.
HMS Folkstone took me and many survivors to Algiers and, after a few days rest to recover from our ordeal, we were on duty in a field hospital caring for hundreds of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen……….there was no counselling or psychiatrists in those days …we just had to get on with it.
I would be delighted to hear from any of the Queen Alexander’s Military Nursing Service personnel who were on the Strathallan or subsequently served in North Africa. It was a poignant and unforgettable period in my life, as I am sure it was for everyone, who flocked to the colours in these dark days of World War 2.
We were exceedingly proud to be there, doing all we could for our brave men at arms. In fact it would be superb if a re-union could be organised of the wartime nurses of North Africa.”