Article by Thomas Wishart of Greenock
We are indebted to Thomas Wishart of Greenock for making an excellent contribution from a booklet by Flight Sergeant Coyler of the RAF Regiment entitled “What did you do in the war Grand-Dad”.
It includes graphic war descriptions of the SS Strathallan Incident and in the battlefield, which has been edited to concentrate on the torpedoing and aftermath. We are only sorry we cannot publish the full content of the document, which traces Alf, Charlie and George’s adventures through the remainder of the war including the Invasion of Italy.
(All credit to Flight Sgt Coyler for the article)
Three children were born in January 1921. Alf Blackett (6th), Charlie Allen (9th) and George Bull (15th). Born under the sign of Capricorn, they were fated to share experiences during the Second World War, all serving with the RAF Regiment, which came into being in February 1942. Prior to that they served with various units around the UK learning all about artillery and guns and had the unusual name of Ground Gunners which changed to The Royal Air Force Regiment undergoing similar training to Infantry Regiments and Commandos with many of them parachutists.
“On December 10th 1942, the three Air Force soldiers, after being issued with tropical uniforms, received the usual overseas inoculations, and joined the Troopship Strathallan a former high-class passenger liner of 23,000 tons. Below decks they found room for hammocks but little room for their kit bags. Food onboard was better than expected, so in company of several thousand servicemen and a number of Queen Alexandra’s Military Nurses everyone was quite cheerful.
At 4.30 am in the early hours of the morning of 12th December 1942 SS Strathallan moved slowly away from the shore and headed into the Irish Sea accompanied by an escort destroyer and other convoy ships. For those on deck after several hours was the unforgettable sight of the majestic Queen Elizabeth passenger liner also acting as a troopship. Both ships saluted each other with siren blasts.
The weather deteriorated until the weaker stomachs were in upheaval. Apart from the terrible weather and persistent motion of the pitching and rolling ship, escort vessels dropping occasional depth charges at real or imagined submarines the voyage was uneventful until they reached the Bay of Biscay, when the fury of the gales increased and waves constantly rose above the decks of the giant ship. The NAAFI on the top deck was completely wrecked.”
It was a voyage never to be forgotten.
“All aboard were told for the first time where the destination was…North Africa. Gibraltar came and went they were informed landing would be made at Algiers the following day. The sea had calmed considerably and everyone was enjoying the best nights sleep since leaving the Firth of Clyde, when, at 2.30 am on the morning of 21st December, a colossal explosion rocked the ship which almost immediately started to list to starboard. The Strathallan was hit on the port side and actually listed to port according to official reports, but Flight Sergeant Coyler is to be completely forgiven for such a minor error). George was to recall his hammock seemed to completely somersault before he and everyone on that deck clambered hastily from their own hammocks. Came a voice over the intercom ” This is the Captain speaking. Please make your way to Lifeboat Stations- Do not delay- Make your way to Lifeboat Stations at once”. This was again repeated.
The ship shuddered and appeared to be slipping sideways. There was a strong smell of oily smoke and the rushing sound of water. Nearly all the men, sleeping in their underwear , grabbed their clothing and made their way to the companionways. Alf remarked ” It’s like climbing out of a bloody mine” Charlie without his boots, and also in underwear ,grabbed his greatcoat while George was astounded at the calmness of everyone making their way steadily to the lifeboat stations, and all thanked God for the lifeboat drill they had found a nuisance. At the top of the steps Charlie saw a Padre kneeling beside an injured man and placed his coat beneath his head before moving on. Smoke and flames were lifting from below. With the continual creaking and rocking of the ship , everyone expected anything to happen.”
Thomas Wishart cont’
“It was noticeable a number of Lascar seamen had launched a lifeboat and were making way rowing from the ship. Oil was being discharged to calm the movement of the sea and ship. A number of men were jumping into the sea rather than stay onboard the ship and a lifeboat full of nurses started to lower but with winds and violent movement of the ship George was horrified to see the boat crash against the side of the ship, and almost certainly the girls perished.
Several naval ships appeared. Amazingly with all the terror and upheaval, someone began singing “You are my sunshine …..my only sunshine” with a lot of men joining in. News travelled two torpedoes had been released from a U Boat, the first crossing the bows of the troopship ,but the second exploding below the engine room.
A line was fixed by a cruiser with the intention of taking the large ship in tow, but this was abandoned. At approx., 12.30 pm almost 10 hours after the torpedo struck, destroyers arrived from Oran to take onboard all those who could be rescued. George ,Alf and Charlie were almost the last people to be taken onboard HMS Panther, then to the town of Oran on the North African Coast.
Nearly everyone wore underwear and were told to throw their footwear overboard. Fortunately ,men of the Panther and other ships, supplied blankets and served cocoa and sandwiches for which the survivors were indeed thankful. During the next day the stricken ship was sunk by Naval gunfire. (Others say Strathallan capsized while under tow by HMS Restive…… Eye Witness Report).
Sometime later the CO of the Regiment Squadron passed sad news to his men HMS Panther was lost, with all hands having been dive-bombed by a Stuka. Many of the lads were grieved to learn this following the crews treatment of the survivors in their hour of need.
Many lives were lost from Strathallan (this bears out assumptions that true troop casualty list were never issued under state security – ed.Robert Kennedy) and survivors taken to Oran or nearby ports where squadrons took their roll calls and reformed. George, Alf and Charlie were placed onboard the Duchess of York to eat and recover, and next day transferred to Duchess of Richmond, which sailed for Algiers the next day. On arrival the trio were taken by lorry to Maison Carrie a small suburb of Algiers and billeted in a small school………exhausted, but thankful to be alive.
On 26th February 1985 Alf Blackett received a letter from crewmember of Strathallan. Len Humphrey who wrote. ” The Strathallan …you are the only person, apart from the Deputy Purser Mr. Hare, with whom I have made any contact since the time she went down in the “Med” on that ill-fated day in 1942.”
And so the war continued in North Africa for months ahead with the RAF Regiment Squadrons carrying out their duties, many times in the front lines with other Allied soldiers. A large number were wounded in various theatres and others were decorated for gallantry; in fact to use Alf Blackett’s words, ” I’d like the public to know the RAF Regiment was a fighting unit, mate, not just blokes in blue strutting around the cities and living it up.”
(George, Charlie and Alf went on to various locations on routine assignment and in battle as follows. Readers may recognise the names……… Tingley Aerodrome… Tunisia… Pressenzano… Cassino… Inferno… Benedictine Monastery…. …Naples………Rome)
George, Charlie and Alf survived the war, all returning home safely. They remained firm friends. George and Charlie live close by each other today near Bristol while Alf is in retirement in Vienna.
Copyright. – Flight Sergeant Coyler/ What did you do in the war Grand-Dad…. Abridged by Robert Kennedy 13th Jan 2001