Captain R S Lawrie

Story provided by Caroline Goldsack (Mrs) Granddaughter of Rex Lawrie

I am currently writing up my grandfather’s memoirs, and find that some of the material is about how he entered the war by virtue of a voyage on the Strathallan, which I infer was part of Operation Torch.  He was Captain Reginald (Rex) Seymour Lawrie MB BS MD FRCS FRCP (He lived to the age of 93 and his dates were 1917-.2011)

Grandpa Rex was a surgeon, and after joining the Royal Army Medical Corps for wartime service, he was posted to Algiers as part of 95th General Hospital and voyaged there on the Strathallan.  He then worked with the pioneering 4th Maxillofacial Surgery Unit.  They treated many complex injuries, including burns, during the North African and Italian campaigns (notably the bloody battles of Monte Cassino), using innovative techniques and careful data collection, which were of great help in developing that type of surgery.  For his outstanding work he was mentioned in dispatches in November 1945.

His voyage into North Africa on the Strathallan was his starting-off point.  He was 25 years old at the time.

In case it is of interest, here is the relevant portion of his account and a little bit extra as I thought you might find it diverting:

In late 1942 I was posted to the 95th General Hospital, which was forming up in Peebles.  Everyone knew that the hospitals forming up in Peebles and some other centres were destined to go overseas, but we did not know where we might be sent.  Some said Norway, others Africa and so on.

I was general duties surgeon, early one morning we all embarked, with some difficulty, onto a train with the blinds drawn to conceal our identity.  We trundled all through Scotland round to Greenock on the Clyde.  Thence we embarked in a passenger ship in the convoy.  Ours was the Strathallan, a beautiful vessel, one of a series of cruise ships with the name ‘Strath’ something or other.  Three of us officers shared a first class cabin, so it wasn’t exactly luxury, but the hospital company of 328  were slept in hammocks in the bowels of the ship somewhere and were all battened down and released for compulsory exercise at certain times of day, so they were far from comfortable.  There was a lovely saloon with a grand piano and a dining room with white tablecloths and Oriental waiters in uniform.  For the first time in years we had plenty of white bread and butter and we felt rather luxurious.

We spent a week in the Clyde moored at a spot from which I could see I think three houses I had lived in – Largs, Helenburgh and somewhere else – whilst more and more vessels joined the convoy.  By this time, we were fairly certain that we were going to North Africa.  Eventually we set off, taking a circuitous route to the Northwest, away out into the Atlantic, with a view to avoiding the nests of U-boats.  As we sat in the luxurious lounge of the cruise liner, the radio kept telling us that there were large bands of them waiting in the Straits of Gibraltar to sink us all.  A hollow laugh would go up every time this was announced.  [pullquote align=left]
We went across to Newfoundland, down the East Coast of the United States and then crossed over to Dakar.
[/pullquote]We crept up the West Coast of Africa, apparently unnoticed.  The convoy was slow-moving because it had to go at the rate of the slowest of the vessels, and we were constantly watched by a destroyer or frigate, which circled round us, occasionally firing off a depth charge and keeping an eye open for submarines.  We passed through the narrow Straits, with Gibraltar in darkness and Tangier on the South brilliantly lit.  Then after a lovely crossing, as we sailed through the smooth Mediterranean, we had a farewell party in the light of the full moon and came into Algiers harbour.

In contrast to our own journey, the following convoy a month later was very different.  The authorities had decided that it was safe to bring out nursing sisters, and they and all their luggage were on the Strathallan.  They had a terrible crossing of the Bay of Biscay, with the piano breaking its moorings and careering about the saloon, and then reached the shelter of the Mediterranean.  They too had a grand farewell/thanksgiving ball in the moonlight.  The Strathallan had been placed for safety in the centre of the convoy, but a stray torpedo found its way through the ships and struck her near the waterline.  There were one or two casualties.  The brave men lined up on deck and stood at attention singing patriotic songs while the nurses were all herded into little boats under the eye of Matron and eventually reached land safely, with only what they stood up in.  The following morning, as I understand it, the brave men were taken off by a destroyer with all their luggage, whilst, as it was considered a danger to shipping, for safety reasons the Strathallan was sunk by the Navy with all the nurses’ luggage in it.  This was very unfair, particularly as they all had to be provided with battledress – the only available clothes – which they wore, with Army boots, for several months.

But after the successful crossing which I was fortunately part of, we anchored in Algiers harbour and spent one or two nights there, being constantly dive-bombed by the German air force, and of course responding with vigorous anti-aircraft fire, which I don’t suppose ever hit anything.  [pullquote]
Tracer bullets were flying about and made an impressive display.
[/pullquote] Then we were told that the Army had been so successful that they urgently needed more maps, as they had run off the edge of the maps they had with them into Tunisia.  So we had to unload 20 tons of maps and send them up post-haste to the Front.

After another noisy night, we were told that accommodation had been arranged for us seven miles along the road in a place called Maison Carree, where there was already a hospital, the 96th General. So later in the afternoon, we formed up our hospital company of 328 with as much as they could carry of their kit, and set off, marching.  We had no maps.  I was told to lead the company eastwards along a certain road, and did so.  We had frequent stops as many of the company were rather elderly and all were out of training and not accustomed to walking any distance.  We really had expected to be met by a fleet of coaches and driven there.  There were plenty of rumours of people being stabbed and knifed and we were somewhat alarmed as dense darkness fell and our chances of finding our destination seemed slim.  Eventually we spied a lit cigarette and accosted a man – otherwise invisible in the darkness – who turned out to be an English soldier.  He knew the way and we marched on, led by the light of his cigarette.

By the middle of the night we had reached a splendid building, which however we found was already occupied by the longstanding sworn enemy of the Commanding Officer of our own hospital, Col. King, and he refused point blank to allow us to enter it.  We were therefore forced to camp down in the field opposite, without tents or sleeping bags or anything like that.  We decided we would make a go of the whole thing and make the best of it.  We had a fine view of the raid on Algiers harbour and the tracer fire in response to it for a little while.  But as were sharing out all available capes, overcoats, mackintoshes and so on, the clouds came up and there was a torrential tropical thunderstorm, which converted the entire field – recently ploughed – into a mass of very sticky clay.  So much stuck to your boots that it was almost impossible to walk.  By the time that we were all completely drenched, we decided that this was not good enough, and that we would go into the enemy’s hospital whatever he said.  [pullquote]
Somebody broke into the basement, and we all trudged in there, all 300 of us,
[/pullquote] with our boots carrying great chunks of clay, sopping wet clothing and pretty bad tempers.  We spent the night trying to get warm and dry ourselves by ‘mock fighting’, and someone discovered a source of orange brandy in the nearest village, of which we consumed large amounts.  So in the morning, when the Commanding Officer woke up, he had an unexpected amount of mud in his basement and a great many unexpected visitors.  I never heard precisely what he said when he saw us all there in such an awful mess, but I think it was unprintable.

Eventually things got straight and we stayed there for a week or so, gradually drying off.  A detachment of our officers went to reconnoitre an alternative site for our hospital.  Getting the company there involved another 10-mile march, this time in lovely autumnal sunny weather, to a village called Ben Aknoun, where there was a huge grammar school, which we occupied.  Ben Aknoun, they say, is now a huge heavily built-up area, but it was a charming leafy environment at that time.  We set up a tented camp to live in whilst we awaited the arrival of our kit, which was on a schedule called G1098.

When our equipment arrived on the next convoy, we had the fun of unpacking it all and setting up the appearance of a hospital.  The G108 had everything a hospital needs: splints, beds, blankets, pillows, instruments, every kind of thing, and we assembled it all ready to receive patients.  It was surprising how well our odd job lot of coal miners and postmen worked as nursing orderlies, made beds and produced quite a trim-looking ward in some of the school dormitories.  The Sappers put up some partitions and plumbing to make us an operating theatre suite.  Quite soon we began to receive casualties on hospital trains that would come down from the Front in Tunisia, who were delivered to us in ambulance convoys.  This all worked pretty smoothly, and before lond Algiers had no fewer than five 2,000-bed hospitals functioning.  They all had a nominal size of 1,200 beds, so they were fairly well filled, and additional beds were always accommodated in extra tents without difficulty.

To begin with, we were fed on something called Compo rations, which were, I think, invented by Lyons the caterer and put in wooden packing cases, each of which carried enough supplies for seven men for a day.  This worked awfully well.  They had biscuits, tins of puddings and stews, lavatory paper, cigarettes, matches, everything you could wish for.  There were, I think, something like six or seven different varieties, including one specially designed for Christmas, and these arrived and we did very well with them.  [pullquote align=left]
Shortly before Christmas they got the bakery going in Algiers, an Army mobile-bakery unit, where they could produce fresh bread for all the hospitals and all the people involved.
[/pullquote] It was a wonderful achievement.  They took over the racecourse and set up shop there.  As a matter of fact, we preferred the biscuits and Compo rations.

I was what was called a general duties officer, like a house surgeon, to a ward.  Our patients were, as I remember it, mostly limb injuries and for months I was in charge of 90 fractured femurs, all supported on strings and weights and pulleys or with splints to keep their legs straight and give them a chance to mend.  The policy was that they all had to stay with us in Algiers until they were considered stable enough for evacuation to Britain on the occasional hospital ship without special care.  In addition to these large numbers of casualties, we did a certain amount of routine surgery, so one way or another we were all quite busy.