Gwladys M.Rees Aikens

Queen Alexandra Military Nursing Reserve

We have the honour to record the second QAMNS Strathallan survivor story on our web site in addition to Mrs Mary Asher of Dunoon Scotland. Gwladys Aikens born in Wales recalls her early nursing training was at Peebles Hydro Scotland where Mrs Asher was also posted from Edinburgh Castle. Both these extra ordinary ladies will have much in common.

Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Reserve cape badge of Staff Nurse May Palmer

Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Reserve cape badge of Staff Nurse May Palmer

Gwladys married a Canadian Army doctor who served at Tobruk and El Alemein on loan to the 8th Army and after the war moved to Canada where she brought up a family of three sons and a daughter. Gwladys has six grandchildren and currently resides in Halifax Nova Scotia Canada. Sadly her husband passed away following a third heart attack in 1972.
They had often discussed writing a joint book about their war time exploits but his untimely death put that project on hold. However to her everlasting credit Gwladys began writing a manuscript entitled “ Nurses in Battledress” and succeeded in getting the book on to the market in Canada.

Stan Hambrey (RAF) Strathallan survivor…..story featured in the web site…was telephoned by his Police Officer Daughter in Law in London advising him there was notification on the internet about a Canadian author with a book on the market alluding to Strathallan and the U Boat attack. Stan wrote to Gwladys who was absolutely delighted . He was the first survivor off Strathallan she had been in communication with in 58 years. They are now in correspondence and looking forward to meeting at the forth coming Strathallan Reunion at the Maritime Museum 2nd August 2003. Gwladys is travelling from Canada with family members.

We publish extracts from “Nurses in Battledress” which in no way does the story justice.

Gwladys has proven to be a very professional and prolific writer. Her book is an absolute credit to her , published when she was 84 years of age which speaks for itself. Certainly we at the Web Site recommended the book to all.

This is the Gwladys Aiken account of The Strathallan Incident 12th December 1942.

Only the War Office knew our destination .At least the lot of us from the Peebles Hydro would still be together so friendships at the Hydro would see us through difficult times. Nora Wells did not return after her last leave and I didn’t know why although we met up some years later . Onboard Strathallan no one slept. We were too curious and talkative. We knew there was no turning back now and kept running backwards and forwards to the portholes peering out. We thought we could discern ships in the distance surreal and ghostly looming through the fog. Our hospital group from Peebles was not the only unit onboard but we soon got to know others from different mobilisation centres.. Together we compromised of over 4000 troops ,mostly British plus 250 QAMNS 431 crew 35 passengers and 296 military officers.

It was rumoured one of the ships officers was a relative of King George V1 and that Margaret Bourke-White a war photographer for the American Life Magazine was also a passenger We were certain we see nothing of them. However we in fact did see Margaret arm in arm with a handsome stranger.

Even in war time there were shipboard romances.

By our third day at sea from the Clyde the weather turned black and turbulent. Our ship was travelling in convoy or so we were told…..we hardly saw any other ships. Approaching the Bay of Biscay the storm increased and we were advised to stay below.
I spotted an aircraft carrier as it bobbed up and down way ahead of us. It gave us a sense of security but it looked a big target. We heard if a ship was hit we had to keep going no stopping to pick anyone up unless ordered to. What a horrible thought for both the disabled ship and onlookers.

Between lifeboat drills….three to four a day… I picked up a new skill, the game of bridge. It was far more difficult to play than whist which I played at home but it gave mental aerobics that took your mind off the war. One of the girls who was in the know said a German Submarine was spotted and was keeping a close watch on us. We had been constantly warned not to do anything to give away our presence like throwing orange peels overboard
Going down to the hospital we would pass by holds that contained the 4000 troops. It was dark and cramped and wasn’t a pleasant situation for the men.

After an eventful turbulent voyage we passed Gibraltar. I looked out of my port hole and there was the massive famous Rock. We learned two ships that had strayed off course had caught up with us and some escort destroyers had turned round and headed back to the UK.
Then came the torpedo explosion in the early hours of 21st December 1942. Never to be forgotten.

Unfortunately the drills simply couldn’t have prepared us for the many things we encountered that night.. We were all in bed asleep when the torpedo struck and around 4000 were thronging the routes to the upper decks . Drill conditions had included daylight or artificial light. This time there was no light. All power was off. I was just one of a huge apprehensive exodus shuffling along deck corridors.

As we passed empty cabins door ajar, I was shocked to see some of my fellow passengers quietly walk into a room and snatch up belongings which another passenger had left behind in their hurry to get on deck. I could not believe that at a time of disaster like this people could think of anything else but get off a sinking ship. It was the first time I had even heard of the word “looting” or knew what it meant. I was shocked and disappointed.

We had just about reached the upper deck and I could smell the familiar salt spray mingled with a burning smell…….or was it my over active imagination. From behind some one called for volunteers nurses to go down with the patients in the ships hospital. They could not be moved…..they were too sick….there wasn’t time…there wasn’t room for them on the lifeboats and smaller rafts.

“Go Down” I thought. The ship was actually going down-this was no day dream. How could I run away and leave those people helpless, probably to die slowly without a chance of survival. How would they go? Just sink below the water as it quickly flooded the floors rising higher and higher swallowing everything in sight. I just couldn’t go back. I felt so guilty and knew there were others behind me who would go back to the hospital and hold hands and weep with patients. I wished I had not heard that call but I hoped God would forgive me and understand my strong desire to live. I was not ready to die yet. If that happened in battle so be it but not now not yet. I finally reached the deck. There were hundreds of voices were heard . High low shouting ,talking, crying ,questioning ,louder and louder. A shot rang out and voices subsided.

We heard later word had got about there was insufficient rafts and lifeboats and some troops were going to jump overboard. An officer fired a shot to prevent panic. But panic was minimal and confusion prevalent. We were on deck for an hour when another explosion rocked the ship. We watched as two white rockets were fired….distress signals for the rest of the convoy. I had been assigned to Boat No 12. While making my way there I heard ghastly screams and splashing. I couldn’t see a thing but heard two boats had capsized as they were being lowered with occupants thrown into the water. It was horrible. I heard these screams for weeks afterwards. I climbed into my lifeboat to join 60-100 others where we were safely lowered into the choppy sea. In our boat the water came up to our knees. As we were being lowered another boat above us was splashing water all over us. It seemed as if I was in some else’s nightmare.

“Am I really floating here in the middle of the Mediterranean in a small wooden boat watching our beautiful huge until now safe ship go down” I wondered. I had no capacity to be scared; the whole predicament was so unreal.

To my surprise Margaret Bourke White was in my lifeboat. She was at the other end flanked by two nurses and an officer. She had saved some photographic material and at first light she was taking all sorts of photographs. Bourke-Whites story of the torpedoing with photographs later appeared in Life Magazine somewhat embellished ( as though embellishment was needed). I had a tiny silver flask of brandy in my satchel, a gift I received while on leave from Peebles. I offered it to the injured on the lifeboat but eventually never got it returned. I missed the flask as sentimental value.

Then it was over. From nowhere a miraculous sight of a destroyer bore down on us. I squinted at the name on the bow ….one I would never forget . Verity. I watched the huge destroyer slow its pace and silently smoothly nose its way until it could safely move toward us no further. Rope ladders were heaved over the side and eventually all in the lifeboat were safely onboard,
It is just not possible to describe accurately the sheer joy of being rescued after accepting earlier that this was probably the end The exceedingly handsome crew of the destroyer seemed thrilled to see this tangled oily group of survivors in their midst. Stories abounded on the ship and although weary we talked and listened for hours.

I felt very safe and completely in love with the whole Royal navy sipping a hot cup of Ovaltine.

We were a dishevelled dust covered bunch when we finally set foot on Algiers a day or so before Christmas. We couldn’t see much of the city as it was completely blacked out but our thoughts were only about sleep. We were met with a small air raid but were all too tired to care. We were soon to be reorganised and posted to various field hospitals to commence the real work in hand…. the nursing and tending of our valiant comrades in arms who had the misfortune to be wounded in action. And……. there were always plenty of them.
By Gwladys M Rees Aitken Extracts from Nurses in Battledress Published 1998.

Note……….This extract from Gwladys’s book is merely a very small part of her overall story which follows the author through the North African Campaign. Her Gloucester “pen friend” survivor Stan Hambrey reported when he started the book he could not put in down until completed such was the riveting interest.

Abridged by Robert Kennedy May 2003 Web Site Editor. We express our sincere thanks to Gwladys for giving permission to publish extracts onto The Strathallan Story Web Site.