Peter Privett

Peter Privett. L.A.C. in 2721 Squadron RAFR.

My name is Peter Privett. I was an L.A.C. in 2721 Squadron RAFR.

We travelled to West Kirby from Kenley, after a few days there we boarded a train and travelled through the night to Greenock. We arrived some time in the morning. The weather was very murky, more like a fog. We formed up and waited until a tender picked us up and took us to the Strathallan. As we boarded her we were given a small pink card with our mess deck on it which was H deck P25 section. It turned out to be the lowest deck and close to the stern. As it was below the waterline the lights were on all the time.

Operation TORCH: Squadron Leader R "Raz" Berry (third from left), the Commanding Officer of No. 81 Squadron RAF, with some of his pilots at Maison Blanche, Algeria, after flying in from Gibraltar to commence operations on the first day of the invasion.

Operation TORCH: Squadron Leader R “Raz” Berry (third from left), the Commanding Officer of No. 81 Squadron RAF, with some of his pilots at Maison Blanche, Algeria, after flying in from Gibraltar to commence operations on the first day of the invasion.

The mess deck wasn’t very big. But if it had been twice the size, it would still have been crowded as at night men slept on tables, forms, the deck and, those who were lucky, in hammocks. I was one of the lucky ones. On our mess deck was a row of cubicles, which were the toilets, and a row of wash basins. The rest was tables and forms fastened to the deck.

Our boat station was on D deck. Our instructions were: when the alarm bell went, we were to queue up and await orders to climb the staircase. The MPs had orders to shoot if anybody rushed the stairs before the decks above had cleared the staircase. It made good sense really, but some didn’t go much on it.

We sailed from The Clyde some time in the night and when I woke up the weather was very rough as we were going round the north coast of Ireland. There were quite a few seasick already, so I had quite a big breakfast. I went on deck and when the canteen opened I bought a tin of fruit salad which I had not seen in ages and even though it was very rough I felt fine. Later on somebody said dinner was up and I went down a rickety staircase which threw me about all over the place. When I reached our mess deck, I saw what the dinner was (a slimy looking whiting). I just rushed to the seasick bin. I grabbed a chunk of bread and went up to the deck again. While I sat on the deck I felt alright. But the only food I ate for the next 10 days was chunks of bread.

I remember the day before we reached the Straits of Gibralter a Fockewolf Condor passed over the convoy. Nobody could do anything about it as the weather was so bad. There was an aircraft carrier behind us and it was right on the top of a massive great wave with the whole of her flight deck visible and then the next minute, it was gone – very large waves.

We passed through Gibralter in the evening and saw the lights of Tangiers, also we went through a lot of fishing boats. It was a lovely warm evening – just like a summer cruise. Later I went down to the mess deck and got into my hammock and so to sleep.

There was a terrific explosion and I sat up and thought we were being bombed and as there was nothing we could do about it, I laid back. But my mate Claude started to shake me and was shouting in no uncertain language “Get up. The toilets are overflowing”. When I looked round the water was gushing out the cubicles. The same time the alarm bells started ringing and all the lights went out.

In the darkness we did our best to queue up, what with the darkness and the sound of water it seemed that everything was closing in on us, which was not a very nice feeling. Very tense. Then a voice came out of the darkness “Would anybody like to buy a watch?” and as if by magic the tension was broken. A few minutes after that the emerregncy lights came on. After that  we had the order to move out. On reaching D deck – our boat station – the list was so bad that I went straight up in the air and landed on my backside. The order came round to throw our boots over the side.

We just stood around awaiting for orders. Claude got his mouth organ out. I think he played his favourite song first, which was “I’m in love with the girl I left behind me”. Then, when he got warmed up, he played “You are my sunshine” and we were all singing away as if it was a party. The Commodore sent down his compliments and thanks, but asked us to stop singing as any orders might not be heard. He said we could light one cigarette but only one match was to be lit. It only took a couple of minutes before we were all smoking.

My mates real name was Alf Rains, but I always called him Claude (after the American actor). If it had not been for him there would not have been any singing at all.

Once or twice I thought she was going to go down. Once when they tried to take us in tow it listed dangerously and another time when I saw flames coming out of the funnel (“They are cooking our breakfasts” someone said) and I knew she was well ablaze. About midday, an Albacore of the Fleet Air Arm flew around us for a while.

From the time we were torpedoed, to the time I jumped to the deck of the destroyer Panther must have been about 10 hours, but what I did in that time I can’t remember.

I know that just before they tried to take us in tow I said to Claude I was going to try to get a bit of sleep in the canteen. I got as far as the canteen but the shutters were closed. Close by there was an axe in a glass case. I only glanced at it but the MP said “You touch that. I will shoot you.” And I remember saying “You are the right sort of bastard that would.”

I just moved around. I don’t know what I was looking for in anything at all. There were lots of bit of uniform and I came across a Majors battle dress blouse and as mine was below the water I put it on and became a Major overnight. Not bad for a bloke who was only 21 years old. I came across a couple of squaddies playing cards so I just joined them. It was not for money as we didn’t have any. A young officer came over and looked at us and said “Put the cards away.” I looked up at him and just touched the crown on my shoulder. He gave a great big grin and walked away. He was one of the good ones.

I didn’t even know when the Panther came alongside. So when I found out I joined the crowd. I think I was one of the last to jump on the mattresses that made the landing easier. The Matlow who steadied me when I landed said the Strathallen was expected to go up at anytime and after about 10 minutes we moved off.

They said there was 1200 on a ship the size of the Panther. It was very low in the water.

And so to docking at Oran and a march round to the Duchess of Richmond and sleep.

Peter Privett
New Southgate, London.
October 2008.

Les