Following is a report from Lt Commander Geoff B Mason RN (Rtd)
Lt Commander Mason has accumulated an archive record of over 800 warships and is considered to be a foremost authority of World War 2 Naval actions and ships.
On October 23rd 1942 the Eighth Army under the command of General Montgomery ,commenced an almighty barrage of artillery on positions of the Afrika Korps, which led to the first Allied victory of the Second World War. 41,000 British, Australian ,New Zealand and Canadian troops, who became known as the famous “Desert Rats”, inflicted a resounding defeat on Field Marshall Erwin Rommel Panzer Divisions at the historic Battle of El Alemein.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was quoted as saying ” It can be said before El Alemein we never had a victory …….after El Alemein we were never defeated.
The Allies had tried incursions into mainland Europe such as St Nazaire and Dieppe, the latter ending in disaster for the Canadians, influencing Churchill and the War Cabinet to follow up the success of El Alemein and pour troops and equipment into the North African theatre of war in preparation for an invasion into the “Soft under belly of Europe”.
At various locations throughout the UK masses of shipping were on full alert loading every conceivable piece of equipment that could sustain an army in the field. A new First Army was formed ,charged with the responsibility of clearing the North African theatre of war of Axis forces and to prepare for the invasion of Lampedusa, Sicily, Crete, other German held islands, and the Italian mainland itself. The code name for this massive build up of Allied strength was “Operation Torch”
A giant convoy code named “KMF5” marshalled at the Tail of the Bank on the Firth of Clyde around Greenock, Port Glasgow and Gourock destined for North Africa, although, thanks to strident security, only Commanding Officers of the huge convoy knew the destination. The personnel were only informed a couple of days from final disembarkation.
Several troopships were at Greenock including The Queen Elizabeth the famous Cunard Liner and the SS Dunotter Castle of the Union Castle Line. Prior to the sailing date of December 12th the Clyde Coast was one almighty military base with Troops, Tanks. Vehicles, Stores, Field Hospitals and every conceivable paraphernalia of war, embarking on dozens of merchant ships.
SS Strathallan a passenger liner owned by the P&O Shipping Line was the largest ship in the convoy and became the Commodore Flag Ship. This office was responsible for efficient execution of orders affecting the safety of merchant ships as required by the senior officer of escorting warships.
4,408 military personnel, 296 nurses of Queen Alexandra Army Nursing Corps and a crew of 430 embarked on SS Strathallan making a full complement of 5,134 which included many Lascar seamen.
It was a cold dark December morning at 4.30 am on 12th December, when Strathallan slipped her moorings and sailed into the River Clyde escorted by a destroyer, and followed by dozens of ships of all shape and size. To the brave souls who braved the cold morning watching as the land disappeared behind them, they were treated to the sight of the Queen Mary passing travelling alone, taking advantage of her superior turn of speed to avoid submarine action.
Once away from the lee of the land the weather deteriorated causing ships to roll and pitch violently. This aspect of the voyage to the Mediterranean Sea, especially crossing the Bay of Biscay, was remarked on by all survivors. Many were sea-sick the whole voyage. However in one way it was a boon. While there were reported sounding by sonar detection devices and depth charges activated against real or imagined targets, Convoy KMF5 reached Gibraltar without any loss. They had been under passage 12th to 20th December.
However several destroyers sustained significant structural damage as a result of the bad weather. On entering the Mediterranean Sea weather abated so much that nurses were able to have a dance on the uppermost desk.
The 4000 troops below, packed like sardines,24 to a table, eating sleeping and having recreation in the same confined area, had fared very badly. Eye-Witness reports later in this narrative describe in detail the hardship suffered by these gallant men.
During passage from Gibraltar to Oran ,Algeria the convoy came under submarine attack and Strathallan was struck by a torpedo from U562 at 0225hrs or 2.25 am GMT ( This time is recorded in naval records) approx 18 hours from her destination Oran.
Kapitanleutnant Horst Hamm, commander of U562 had planned his attack well. Not for him was prowling in the stormy Atlantic Ocean, where he would have had to remain submerged to avoid the mountainous waves, instead he lay in wait knowing the convoy would have to come to him. Two torpedoes were fired the first one passed across the bows while the second struck the port side in the engine room and damaged the bulkheads of neighbouring compartments causing extensive flooding with a 15% list to port Fires broke out with billowing smoke emanating from the ship. According to the log of of U Boat Commander, two hits were heard and it was believed the vessel may also have been under attack from German Aircraft and suffered a hit from an airborne torpedo.
An unconfirmed article in an American magazine, according to Mr. Thomas Wishart of Greenock, stated that Kapitanleutnant Hamm ,11562 commander, thought the Strathallan was only a cargo vessel after viewing the ship through his periscope. Had he realised it was a troopship he would have loosened more torpedoes into the hull of the stricken ship, possibly causing the greatest loss of life in one incident with over 4000 troops below struggling to make their way to the upper decks.
We leave readers of the Web Site to judge for themselves on causalities according to eye witness reports. What is certain there would be a black out on information from the war-time High Command to everyone in the interests of security and not supplying the enemy with details that could be detrimental to the Allied cause.
Note: We are indebted to Mr. Jim Queen of the Clyde Diving Centre, Kip Marina, Inverkip Renfrewshire Scotland PA16OAS tel/fax 01475 521281 for supplying the photograph of Strathallan ablaze off Or an Algeria on 22nd December 1942 and other information which corroborated completely other sources.
Remembering it was in the early hours of the morning, torpedoed, listing 15% to port, on fire, with water coming in and following an announcement by Strathallan’s Captain Biggs for personnel to make their way to lifeboat stations, all can be forgiven for thinking they were on a sinking ship. Over 5000 souls, obviously in fear of their lives began launching lifeboats and throwing rafts over the side. Eye witnesses saw countless men jumping overboard, many in underwear. With 4000 troops below most fast asleep getting their first decent nights rest after the stormy Atlantic Ocean voyage ,there was a bottleneck as troops attempted to reach the upper decks from the very bowels of the ship. ( We are fortunate to have graphic eye witness accounts of the struggle to gain access to the lifeboat decks….. …subsequent narratives will record the actual words of survivors).
But as fate would have it Strathallan did not sink and remained afloat allowing escort ships to come alongside and take off thousands of personnel who chose to stay onboard. According to the publication Britain’s Sea War—A Diary of Ship Losses (1939-45) by John M Young only 4 crew members were lost in this incident
However Recording to another publication Boat Operations of the Second World War: Volume 2by Kenneth Wynn, six crew members, along with two Army Officers, perished in the incident so from three different sources we figures of casualties that do not “Stack Up” against reports of survivors.
Read on with renewed interest