John McGregor's (RASC) account
John & Beatrice on their wedding day 21st November 1942. John was a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps while Beatrice was an Aircraft Plotter 474th Heavy Ack Ack Regiment (Cardiff)
John McGregor is a native, born and bred, of Inverkeithing Fifeshire a stones throw from the famous Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth. He was born on 12thMay 1918 the year hostilities ended in the Great War. At the outbreak of the Second World War, John was 21, and immediately volunteered for the Territorial Army before conscription was introduced.
He never even got into serious training when he was drafted into the Royal Army Service Corps. His first action was to come quite swiftly when he joined the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force that rushed into France to halt the German advance into the low countries.
His regiment was responsible for keeping the troops in action supplied with everything, including the kitchen sink. They hauled petrol, munitions, rations, stores and every conceivable type of material necessary to maintain an army on front line duty. Said John ” Having 100 five gallon jerry cans of petrol on a military lorry was no joke delivering to the front line. We always had an eye on the sky looking for Stuka Dive Bomber ,ready to take a flying leap if they began a “strafing” run.”.
A few weeks before the Dunkirk evacuation John developed diphtheria (An infectious throat disease in which air passages become covered with a leathery membrane) he was returned to a military hospital in the UK.
“I suppose I was very lucky” remarked John “I missed the traumatic scenes on the beaches at Dunkirk and made a good recovery from my illness”. He was posted to Cardiff where he met the love of his life Beatrice Marrison (18) who was attached to the 747th Heavy Ack Ack Regiment as an “Aircraft Plotter” sending automatic fixes to the gunners firing at Luftwaffe bombers and fighters.
They married on 21st November 1942.After a fleeting honeymoon John was confined to barracks and informed he was going overseas. No communication was allowed with his new wife or family back in Scotland.
A train took him and 60 members of his regiment to Greenock on the Firth of Clyde. They immediately boarded SS Strathallan an enormous Troopship which became the Commodore Flagship.
John takes up the story “We were on two decks below the main deck. We saw thousands of troops pouring on to Strathallan. We were issued with a hammock, pillow, blanket and a life jacket We were instructed to wear the lifejacket at all times, but some didn’t do that, it was bulky for a weeks voyage.
We ate ,slept and had recreation of sorts in the same place. There was not enough room to swing a cat. When we left the Clyde the weather worsened. I remember our mess kits being thrown all over the place if we let go of them. We were told a couple of days before we entered the Mediterranean our destination was Algiers.
I will never forget the date of what happened next. It was exactly one month since my wedding day 21st December 1942. I was in my hammock in the early hours of the morning when there was an enormous explosion. I thought we had been hit by a bomb from an aircraft. All the lights went out leaving us in pitch darkness. The ship began to heel over to port( to the left) emergency lighting came on soon after. We were quite close to the upper deck. We heard the tannoy saying “This is the Captain please head for lifeboats”
It took us 10-15 minutes to reach the upper deck. I saw a lot of panic with people throwing themselves over board. A fire had started and the ship was listing badly. I thought it was going to sink at any time. A net had been thrown over the side. There were no lifeboats available but I did see nurses on a boat. There were hundred upon hundreds of soldiers milling around. A pal in the Regiment and I Jock Sim from Burnbank Hamilton clambered down the net until we reached sea level. I recall saying ” I can’t swim Jock” He replied ” Now is the time to learn ” and pushed me off the net and into the water.
The lifejacket saved my life keeping my head above water. We swam, or in my case , splashed, to a small raft that had been thrown over the side……..it was the size of a fireplace ……..but was surrounded by rope loops.
Also with us was Charlie Rotham ( RASC) my best man at our wedding, ( he died around 1990). Haifa dozen of us clung on to the rope loops for our dear lives and did not let go. If we all had gone on the raft it would have capsized being so small.
I don’t know how long we were in the water ,but daylight broke, when a destroyer HMS Pathfinder came alongside the raft and dragged us onboard. We went alongside Strathallan which was still listing badly ,and took off hundreds of soldiers. It dawned on us we didn’t have to be in the water……the ship didn’t sink.
Continued John ” We were packed like sardines onboard Pathfinder but glad to be safe and alive………it was a frightening experience. We sailed into Algiers not that far away where we were ordered onboard SS Strathmore which was moored close by”.” I remember we had a roll call and all members of our regiment answered ,we did not lose any-one as a result of the torpedo. We were indeed fortunate.”
John was soon back in action making non-stop deliveries to front line regiments. He participated in the invasion of Sicily and Italy.
Ventured John “The front line troops had a lull in fighting and were able to relax but it was non-stop for us. We were always on the move. As well as supplying fuel and munitions we delivered rations to mess tents and cook houses…….but I think we were always a welcome sight.” Beatrice had no idea where John was until 1946 when he was demobilised. She never read one word about the Strathallan Incident all through the war”.
They went on to have two sons and two daughters John…..Fred…..Beatrice…..and Joan and several grandchildren. They moved back to Johns home town of Inverkeithing Scotland where they live today in excellent health soon to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, neither of them looking anything like their age. (January 2001)