The 23,722 Ton Liner the SS Strathallan was built at Barrow-in-Furnes and owned by the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company Ltd and requisition at the war office as a troopship during the war. Its last captain was J.H. Biggs CBE.
On the 10th April 1942 I was called up to the army and reported to the Royal Armoured Corp at Tidworth Hants. Following 6 weeks of general military training, our party of about 80 men were transferred to Catterick Camp, North Yorkshire. For the next 4 months we were trained in our respected duties in tanks.
Following embarkation leave we spent a few weeks with the Northants Yeomanry at Marlborough, Wiltshire. We were told that the regiment was moving somewhere in the north. A few days later we boarded a train late in the afternoon and travelled through the night. After passing through Carlisle it dawned on us that we were heading for the Clyde.
It was mid afternoon when we reached our destination on a damp and depressing day. There was a multitude of ships in the dock. With what seemed like undue haste, we were ferried out to the largest of them.
On boarding, what we later learned was the Strathallan, we were led down several decks to “E” deck which was to be our quarters for the ensuing journey. Bulkheads had been removed, and several long tables with benches each side occupied the room. On taking our positions, that was to be our space for the journey. Hammocks hung above the tables. Seasickness became rife and in that claustrophobic atmosphere the smell from vomit became overpowering.
Early that evening, the 11 December 1942, the engines started up and we knew we were on our way to God knows where. With being in a strange environment, trying to sleep in a hammock for the first time in that confined space, wondering what the future held was a perfect recipe for a restless night. A rota was drawn up for the collection of food from the galley, with one man allocated to each table. It was rather an indifferent breakfast of greasy bacon and fried bread, and lunch was hardly any better. After breakfast, we made our way up the broad staircase to the deck. This gave us the opportunity to explore our surroundings, and to enjoy the fresh air.
It was a greyish overcast day, with a stiff breeze, and the sea matched it in colour. Visibility was rather poor, but a number of ships were visible on either side of us. Gradually the ship developed a pronounced roll as we approached the open sea, which at first was quite invigorating, but as the day wore on the weather gradually deteriorated. By late afternoon, the sea had become very rough indeed, and in the huge waves that developed the ship was being thrown about in all directions. Conditions became so bad that it was almost impossible to walk on the deck. Seasickness became rife, and as a result, there was vomit everywhere from men failing to reach the toilets in time. Between the claustrophobic atmosphere and the smell, it became almost intolerable below deck. I realised at that point that I could no longer face sleeping under those conditions, and looked for a place on deck. Finally, I found a sheltered spot alongside one of the openings to a cargo hold and was able to wedge myself in. Armed with a couple of small packets of biscuits, I settled in for the voyage.
The only time I left that spot was to attend boat stations. So bad did the conditions become that an aircraft carrier on the starboard side of our ship kept disappearing below the waves. A number of years later, I read a book in my local library about a Canadian destroyer being in difficulties at that very same time, and it was said to be the worst Atlantic storm in seven years.
Due to the lack of nourishment, I gradually became weaker as the days passed, and on one of the parades at boat stations, I collapsed and ended up in hospital. I had become so weak that during the voyage, I was admitted to hospital on two occasions and was given a liquid diet. It took 10 days to reach Gibraltar and must have sailed well out in to the Atlantic, to avoid submarines. I heard someone say “We’re passing Gibraltar”, and on hearing that left the hospital, and rushed up on deck. We passed through the Strait of Gibraltar at about 7 am and what a remarkable sight. By complete contrast, the Mediterranean was so calm and a beautiful blue, unlike the grey of the Atlantic.
I spent most of the day on deck, leaning on the rails, enjoying the scenery. For the first time I was able to see the full extent of the Convoy. There were ships of all kinds almost as far as one could see. During the afternoon, I saw a couple of destroyers racing off to the edge of the Convoy, and then dropping depth charges, but gave it little thought.
That night, I slept in my quarters for the first of many nights, with a feeling of contentment. Unfortunately; it was not long after falling asleep that a loud explosion, followed by a shudder, awakened me. Almost immediately, an officer came running through our quarters, ordering us to form an orderly queue to go on deck. As we waited patiently in line, the ship began to list, but even then, there was no sign of panic. By the time we finally reached the deck, we found men lining the rails several deep. There were no signs of any lifeboats or rafts, and we just stood there waiting for orders. I overheard someone saying that all the lifeboats and rafts had already been launched. We stood there in our Mae West’s, not realising the full extent of the peril of our position. It appears that the nurses occupied the lifeboats and that a number of the Lascar crew had taken to the rafts.
One of the destroyers crossed our stern and a voice came over the megaphone, “Don’t panic boys, everything is under control.” That certainly fetched a response from the men. The list became so bad that we were told to move over to the starboard side, to try to counter balance the ship. We stayed in that position for the rest of the night.
It was many years later, on reading a book in my local library, that I discovered that we had been torpedoed by U-562 commanded by Horst Hamm. He in turn was sunk on the 19th February 1943 about 70 miles northeast of Benghazi. Two torpedoes had been fired at what was thought to be a 14,000-ton cargo vessel. Had both struck the consequences would have been unthinkable. Aboard were 5,122 persons comprising of 296 Army officers, 4,112 soldiers, 248 nurses and General Eisenhower’s secretary and staff. In the book U Boat Aces by Geoffrey Jones, it mentions that the Strathallan carried four motor boats, sixteen lifeboats and enough rafts to take the remainder with some to spare. I question that statement, because by the time our party arrived on deck there was no sign of any lifeboats or rafts. All we were left with were our Mae West’s.
During the morning, an announcement that there was some bread and fish available and a queue began to form. I did not particularly fancy the sound of that, and my mind turned to the fact that there were a couple of tins of fruit in my haversack below deck. Despite the fact that no one was permitted to go below, the temptation was too great. I crept down the wide staircase, and then a further two flights to my quarters. Water was lapping the top of the stairwell immediately below. That combined with the stillness, gave me a very uneasy feeling, and I wasted no time in reaching my quarters. I quickly located my haversack and Smith and Wesson pistol and as I was leaving, I noticed a soldier looting. Neither of us spoke as I left hurriedly to get back on deck as quickly as possible.
For the next few hours, I languished on deck in the pleasant sunshine calmly pondering my future. About 10.30am, I happened to look over the side and saw a destroyer alongside taking troops on board.
Several of us decided to make our way down to the deck alongside, to board it. We formed a queue, and when it came to my turn, I hesitated as I looked down at the shifting gulf between the two ships. As I did so, a naval rating grabbed hold of me and virtually lifted me across. An Army officer standing behind me passed several pieces of luggage across, and as the rating took them a Naval officer tossed them over the side, with the comment “its lives were saving, not kit”.
I managed to get a position near the bridge, and had an excellent view all around. As we pulled away, I could see that the destroyer HMS Laforay had taken the Strathallan in tow. There were about a thousand of us on HMS Panther, and I remember one of the naval ratings saying to me that submarines were moving around in packs, and should they pick on us, we would have little chance. As the Strathallan gradually receded, a large flame suddenly shot out of its funnel. I never realised that she had been on fire, and I was more than a little concerned for those left aboard. It was years after the war finished that I discovered the fate of the Strathallan. The destroyer that towed the Strathallan was later replaced by a tug called Restive. She towed her to within 12 miles of Oran, when on the 22nd December she turned over on her port side and sank.
We disembarked at Oran in the middle of an air raid and the noise from the anti-aircraft guns of the naval ships was deafening. The battleship HMS Rodney was in port, and its guns were creating the most noise, with the sound echoing from the surrounding hills. We were then lined up on the quayside and counted. When the officers were satisfied that all of us were accounted for, we were marched to the other side of the dock, where another troop transport awaited us. It was the Duchess of Richmond, a much older and inferior ship to the Strathallan.
We left port that evening, escorted by two destroyers. As we left we were presented with toiletries, cigarettes, cigars and chocolate; a gift from the American Red Cross. This generous gesture was gratefully received. The journey was uneventful and we arrived in Algiers at about 7 o’clock the next morning. We must have presented a strange sight to the soldiers on the quayside, with many of us smoking cigars.
As we looked down, we noticed a British soldier standing on the dockside talking to someone through a porthole, when suddenly; a loaf of bread was passed through. He immediately hid it under his jacket and made off. Our immediate impression was- they must have been starving. We were soon to learn that bread was unavailable, and in future, we would be living on biscuits, commonly known as hard tack. These came in packets of five, in different varieties, the hardest of which was called “Breezy Blackpool”, and were to be avoided if possible.
As soon as we had disembarked, we were taken in trucks around Algiers Bay for about 6 miles, to a small fishing village called La Perouse. There, we were to stay for the next 6 weeks. During that time, we were kept occupied guarding the British Consulate in Algiers, the food dump, which was lying in the open near the quayside, and taken on one or two short route marches. Permission was on occasion given to visit Algiers but we had to make our own way there and back.
There were air raids on Algiers almost every night, and watching the tracer shells climbing slowly to the sky from anti aircraft guns was akin to a firework display. Fruit was cheap and plentiful and so was the wine. For the last couple of years back home, fruit was very scarce, especially the varieties that were imported. We took full advantage of these new luxuries and despite warnings, all too often paid the penalty when taken to excess. We were gradually kitted up during our stay, and this was completed by the middle of February. This rather enjoyable period came to an abrupt end all too soon.
With just a couple of days warning, we were taken to Algiers where we boarded a goods train, and about a dozen of us were allocated to each wagon. Although we were not told our destination, it was obvious that we were heading for somewhere in Tunisia. For the next two days, the train plodded along through flat monotonous countryside. Occasionally the train would stop for no apparent reason, and each time it did so, Arabs would appear as if from nowhere. They tried to barter grapes, and strangely, knives for cigarettes.
As darkness fell on the third and final night of our journey, it became painfully obvious that we were approaching our destination by the distant flashes of gunfire. Finally, the train came to a halt and out of the total darkness came voices ordering us to dismount. It was so dark, that we had to hold on to one another. We just stumbled along for what seemed an eternity, and at the end of the journey, we were allocated to some tents. Hot tins were thrust into our hands as we entered the tent.
This was the first time for any of us to taste tinned steak and kidney pie, but it fully met with our approval. After unrolling our bedding, we settled down for the night, but I doubt that anyone of us was able to sleep not knowing exactly where we were or what awaited us.
As dawn broke, we found that we were in a rather large camp that was under canvas. We soon learned when we gathered at the trestle tables for our breakfast, that we were in Le Kef. This was where the headquarters of the first Army was based. Suddenly, most of those in the queue forgot their breakfast and headed for the nearest slit trench. It did not take us newcomers long to realise what was happening, and we joined them hurriedly. We were under attack by Stukas, one of the most frightening of experiences. The sound made by the planes as they seemed to go on endlessly and one had the feeling that one was the target. Finally, they let their bombs go, and they just whistled over our heads landing a short distance away. We were soon to learn that they could hit their target with deadly accuracy.
At this time, there was a bitter battle going on to the south of us, hence the reason for the flashes at night. It was to be Rommel’s last effort in Tunisia. His intention was to drive through the Kasserine Pass, take Thala and then head north for the coast, outflanking the 1st Army. This had to be achieved before the 8th Army, which was advancing from the south, linked up with the 1st Army. The only available force to confront him was a depleted 26th Armoured Brigade supported by a battalion of the Royal Artillery armed with 25pounder guns. The 26th Armoured Brigade comprised of the 16/5th Lancers, the 17/21st Lancers and the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse. The 16/5th Lancers had been withdrawn for re-equipping with Sherman tanks, leaving just two regiments with obsolete Valentine tanks armed with ineffective 2pounder guns.
The battle raged for 2 days with both regiments taking heavy casualties, and if it had not been for the 26 pounders, the Germans might well have broken through. Suddenly the Germans withdrew back through the Pass convinced that our Force was stronger than it really was.
Two days later, we travelled south and met up with both regiments, and were allocated to the regiments as replacements for the casualties they had sustained. I was allocated to the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse, and exchanged my cap badge from that of the Northants Yeomanry for a plain wheat sheaf.
The two regiments were immediately withdrawn from the Line, and travelled through the night to a wooded hillside near Ebb Sour, near the Algerian border. Gradually, the whole of the 6th Armoured Division, of which the 26th Armoured Brigade was the armoured section, settled down in the area.
Sherman tanks began to arrive almost immediately, and they looked very impressive armed with their 75mm guns. What an improvement to those obsolete Valentine tanks with their miserable two-pounder guns. The 75mm guns looked so impressive that they gave us the confidence that we could meet the Germans on equal terms.