The Strathallan's First Run on Operation Torch arriving off Oran 8th November! - Story provided by Andrew Bennett - Son of Frederick Arthur Bennett.
For Ben, my father (Frederick Arthur Bennett), and other members of RAF 500 Squadron like George Fletcher, it was an amazing experience as they found themselves far more in the forefront of Operation Torch, N. Africa than they had thought. George Fletcher, another member of the squadron, showed me the information that many of 500 Sqdn ground crew were in the first wave of operation torch on 8th-9th Nov, 1942 as an advance support party for the early planes and troops flying into local airfields (Later they were also far more in the forefront with air support for the invasion of Italy and Corsica).
These men of RAF County of Kent 500 Squadron sailed from UK on The SS Strathallan
[/pullquote], a P & O cruise ship converted for troop carrying. Not many record this voyage on Operation Torch but George still has the berthing card with the dinner table number written on it. Not exactly spacious with so many troops crammed at each table! When they got to just off the coast, they then transferred to invasion barges and onto the beach at Arzeu, east of Oran. About 700 500 Sqdn men in all clambered up the sandy beach amongst first line troops being shot at!
Due to French snipers holding out, 500 Squadron came under attack and had to camp on the nearby quay-side with all their equipment for the first two nights. The photo of Ben making the tea below was taken here. George can also be seen in the picture! One NCO ?? posing as a French dock official, had apparently obtained a 100 gallon cask of wine to ‘help with the cold night’. Air support for operation torch included 14 Sqdn’s fighters plus 233 and 500 Sdn Hudsons + others. In October, the Hudsons ( of 500 ) flew down to Portreath in Cornwall for the original camouflage to be covered with white paint (desert operation colours. 500 Sdn’s Lockheed Hudson air support had then flown down from the UK to Gibraltar first in preparation for Operation Torch. (The Strathallan of course was eventually torpedoed by a German sub in Oran harbour on a later run also with some men from 500 Sqdn plus other Squadrons.
Tafaraouri ‘ was a large well-constructed base, with at this time, two good runways each about 1,200 yards long. Some of the living quarters were chalets, built of masonry and more suited to the North African climate than the black Nissan huts of Gibraltar. Half of this squadron’s ( 500 Sqdn ) ground crews had landed at Arzeu beach from invasion barges on the night of the 8th. They experienced French opposition.’ (Seek and Strike, Andrew Hendrie, William Kimber & co Ltd. 1983).
During the next eighteen months we travelled to many countries, including the Middle East , carrying passengers and military personnel, until early in 1941 when the ship was converted into a troop ship able to carry a large number of troops.
In November 1942, at the commencement of the North Africa campaign, we made our first trip to Algiers with a full complement of troops. Whilst there, we came under heavy bombing by German aircraft and it was a great relief to leave Algiers for home.
The following journey to North Africa as Commodore ship of the convoy, was to be much more eventful for all on board Strathallan. My recollection of what happened is detailed below.
On the night of 21 st December 1942 , I was in my upper bunk, Port side in the forward part of the ship, when an explosion occurred which nearly shook me from my berth. [pullquote align=right] The ship was in darkness until the emergency lighting came on later.
[/pullquote] We quickly got dressed and I went up onto the well deck to see what had happened. Looking over the port side I could see a huge hole amidships and realised we were in great trouble. Ships near us were moving away from our ship and destroyers were dropping depth charges.
I went back to my cabin and put on my top coat and collected a few personal items. I then made my way up to a boat station. All those people allocated to my lifeboat were forming up in front of the boat. After a while the staff commander ordered abandon ship and everyone got into the lifeboat and we bumped our way down the Starboard side into the water. Immediately we hit the water soldiers started to slide down the ropes onto us and it was necessary to pull away quickly to avoid being capsized.