Welshman Selwyn Jones of Cardiff was “surfing the web” during January 2003 and by chance came across www.thestrathallan.com He reported a feeling of excitement…….a long dead memory suddenly came to life. Selwyn said he was absolutely delighted. Little wonder.
Along with thousands of soldiers nurses and crew he sailed out of The Tail o’the Bank at the Clyde estuary onboard the ill-fated Strathallan with the convoy to North Africa charged with chasing the German Army from whence they came.
Selwyn Jones was a Signalman with Tel/Op Section….. 2nd Air Formation Signals when a lighter took him and members of his regiment from Gourock out to a massive passenger liner lying at anchor around 10th December 1942. Selwyn gives a very graphic account of “The Strathallan Story” as seen through his eyes. He also confirmed fatalities among soldiers ……….when there was no official causality list of troops onboard killed as a result of the torpedo and aftermath. We have long suspected Troops were dispersed once they reached ashore and any losses may have been put down as “Missing in action presumed dead”. Selwyn gives eye witness evidence to this theory.
This is the Selwyn Jones Story…
“When we went up the companionways of the giant liner Strathallan lying at anchor off Gourock we were herded (quote) into “E” Deck which must have been a storage hold in peace-time. There were no portholes…we could not even look out into the Clyde.
There were dozens of long mess tables and benches. Hundreds of hammocks were slung everywhere from the ceiling. I remember cracking a joke to a pal “ We will be safe down here lower than any submarine” But was I wrong as events were to show”
On 12th December the convoy sailed out of the Clyde Estuary and with everyone who told his or her story… the weather was atrocious with Strathallan bucking and dipping at alarming rate.
Continues Selwyn “ 80% of the section was seasick and retreated into various bolt holes in an attempt to find some comfort away from the horrible feeling.. After several days with the weather reaching a peak in the Bay of Biscay it calmed enough for my colleagues to go on deck I can vividly remember sitting on deck thinking of the Tabernacle Welsh Chapel in Cardiff. They would always sing “ For those in peril on the sea” at 9pm…It gave me some comfort and was a nice memory of home”
Selwyn reported the ablutions or toilets were diabolical. We can well appreciate with hundreds of men trying to simultaneously use the facility it would not have been Buckingham Palace standard.
Selwyn went on “I got into the habit of having a shave and a wash in the early hours while most of the troops were sleeping. I would also go up on deck for fresh air and a look at the sea. I remember like yesterday I was on my way up the companionway to the upper decks around 2am (The torpedo struck at 2.30am Selwyn) when I heard this enormous explosion. The ship gave a shudder and seemed to shiver (quote). I was about to continue up on deck but my training took over. Firstly I did not have my Mae West with me and I knew I would probably need it and also to be with my section in case anyone needed help.
Here we have Selwyn near the upper deck when the torpedo struck yet rather than make the upper decks on his own he chose to go back to his Section on “E” Deck a tribute to the military discipline and concern for members of his section. A small story but it en-captures the spirit of British troops. Selwyn reports the lights went out and he was left in pitch darkness …….not a pleasant situation by any means but thankfully emergency lighting was quickly turned on… obviously from independent generators out with of the Engine Room which took the full blast of the torpedo killing the engineers and stokers on duty.
Continued Selwyn “We heard the Captain on the tannoy ordering everyone to head for the Life Boats. As we queued up to reach the upper decks the ship gave a lurch to port and began listing. I remember there was no panic with everyone calm. My sections lifeboat station was at the stern starboard side under a lifeboat. But, when we arrived there was no sign of the life boat until looking over the ships rail we spotted it about half a mile away in the gloom. We stood around waiting for orders cracking jokes when a Scots lad threw a handful of coins into the water shouting “ I wont be needing this lot”. I recall that small act made me think how serious the situation was. Then came the order over the ships tannoy from the Captain “Abandon Ship”. My best mate and I Ken climbed over the rail and began descending a rope ladder. We jumped the last few feet into the water. We had agreed to head for a small raft that had rope loops around the sides, which was a couple of hundred yards away.
Selwyn was in the water for several hours both Ken and himself clinging to rope loops on the raft. All around were soldiers on hanging on for their lives to these small but effective lifesavers. Several times some soldier would try and heave himself on to the raft rather than cling on to the ropes causing the raft to upend. They were meant to give buoyancy not for clambering on board. John McGregor of the RASC reported these life rafts were the size of fireplaces with 8 loops on them. Strathallan had hundreds of them on deck. Jim Gormley reported he was more frightened of the water because he could not swim and saw hundreds of these rafts being thrown overboard even landing on heads of hapless men in the water.
Selwyn continues with the story..” We were in the water for several hours and it was getting cold. It became very monotonous and was broken by “Clump” of depth charges as destroyers tried to find the submarine. Editors note…………( We now know that U562 made good its escape which was probably a blessing in disguise……….If Captain Horst Hamm knew there were over 5000 souls onboard Strathallan he may well have hung around to give a killer blow with a second torpedo)
We spotted a lifeboat approaching so I let go of the rope loop and began swimming towards the craft.. Some Queens Alexandra Military Nurses who were indeed like angels pulled me out of the water. They gave me a blanket to keep me warm. After another spell in the crowded life boat which was infinitely better than hanging on to rope loops in the water HMS Verity came alongside and we all clambered up ladders to safety.
We were all very thankful to be rescued. I went below and had a hot drink and change of clothes, which was given to me by one of the Destroyers Engineers who was also a Welshman from Tenby in Pembrokeshire. I will never forget that pair of trousers and a shirt he gave me. Wouldn’t it be tremendous if somehow he could read this article in the Strathallan Web Site?
Just in case………..” Taffy…I will never forget you…. thanks again”
HMS Verity took the survivors to Oran. Six of Selwyn’s Section was taken to The American 77th Evacuation Field Hospital for check ups. Many others could not get away from the listing Strathallan that was gushing oil and were pulled round the stern into the oil on the port side. They were dragged back onboard Strathallan to be “De Oiled”.
Continues Selwyn “ The Field Hospital staff came from Kansas USA and treated us exceptionally well. Four days after the Torpedo struck it was Christmas Day and everyone had a superb celebration. On Christmas Eve our section joined the American Staff and went around the wards singing Christmas Carols. There were dozens of wounded soldiers who enjoyed our efforts… “ O Come all ye Faithful………. The first Noel……….Once in Royal David’s City. We were actually wearing American uniforms made to measure by US Army tailors who made them up in hours. We never ever had that in the British Army.
It is one Christmas that sticks out in my memories more than any other..
A few days later before New Year 1942/43 Selwyn and his colleagues were transferred to Algiers then on to Maison Carree where they met up with the remainder of the 2nd Air Formation Signals. Selwyn arrived amazingly during a Service Of Remembrance for absent friend. There were all overjoyed to meet up again as they did not know who had survived or not. A few drinks were downed at a local hostelry to celebrate.
However says Selwyn “ A member of our Group Scotsman Signalman “Jock Irons” who came from Paisley Renfrewshire as I recall was never heard of again. We all presumed he was lost during the Torpedo attack. I can’t understand why he is not mentioned in the casualty list on your Web Site”
Editors note………..Selwyn………We do not have the official numbers of fatalities that occurred during the torpedo. Eric Smith of Polperro Cornwall is the Expert on Deaths at Sea during World War 2 but could not shed any light on Strathallan Servicemen Fatalities.
We assume the 5000 troops from many regiments got ashore and had roll calls. They would have had their own Regimental Musters and missing men would have been treated as “ Missing in Action Presumed Dead”. Your information confirms that. There may have been countless deaths but not officially revealed because of censorship. I will put a letter in the Paisley Local Newspaper to see if any relatives can shed light on the fate of Jock Irons. (Watch Forum Page for any news)
Selwyn concludes his story “ We were unable to write home due to censorship or could not reveal where we were or what we were doing. Our section took up duties as Ground Communications for Allied Mediterranean Air Forces in and around Algeria.
I asked a nurse to send a cable to my mother telling her I was safely on dry land. But that cable must have found its way to Cardiff in Canada. My mother received a telegram on 23rd January 1943 from the War Office Signals records in Reading advising her I had been slightly wounded and suffering from shock. Fortunately on the same day she received a letter from me (Censored…could not say where I was} dated Boxing Day 1942 telling her I was safe and sound and not to worry. You can imagine how my Mum felt about this confusion. She wrote to Records Office for clarification and did not get a reply for a month by that time I had also wrote and told her “ I’m okay Mum”
As a further interest… among the passengers was Margaret Bourke-White who was assigned to the US Air Force for Life Magazine. Apparently she was the first ever Female Photographer so accredited.. Margaret became famous later as taking historic photographs of Mahatma Ghandi. Her experiences onboard Strathallan and being in a Life Boat appeared in Life Magazine with photographs during 1943 entitled “ Women in Lifeboats”
She mentioned among the Strathallan passengers was Kate Summersby. General Eisenhower’s Secretary and erstwhile mistress if wartime gossip is to be believed.
Another notable name onboard Strathallan was David Herbert son of The Earl of Pembroke.
Margaret’s version of events tallies with most survivor reports. She was in a cabin with three other women. She wrote that the piano and sofas in the Officers Ward Room were smashed during the violent storms en route to the Mediterranean. All lifeboats had remained in the lowering position swung out during the voyage. However a couple of boats capsized leading to the deaths of four nurses. Margaret claimed she had seen the bodies of two soldiers being hauled out of the water by a destroyer.
I often thank God we were not torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean. There were 17 lifeboats capable of carrying a maximum of 1000 persons but there were 5000 of us.
And finally I am still waiting for compensation for personal belongings. An Ingersoll 5 shilling watch…a pair of shoes…books and, writing paper. But I am not holding my breath!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
We at the Web Site are delighted to publish Selwyn Jones superb article. While everyone went through exactly the same trauma when U562 struck it is amazing how different snippets shed new light on a poignant and fascinating story.