Ken Hillier – Tanks Corps

Ken Hillier Tanks Corps kindly supplied by James Crouch Banstead History

Ken Hillier. Ken, who has now passed away, was with the Tank Corps and reminisced about his voyage on the Strathallan in a book called “What did you do in YOUR war?”, which collected the stories of the Banstead (Surrey) & District Branch of the Royal British Legion, in 2010.

Ken drove from the age of 14 and was working in Europe’s biggest ordnance depot, driving lorries, when he joined the Tank Corps in 1941. He described driving tanks as “different but great fun.” Ken was made a corporal and became a wireless telegraphy instructor at Catterick. We pick up his story in late 1942…

Suddenly, ten days leave, ominous? On my return I had to take twenty trained ‘Tankees’ by train to Swindon, where we were joined by a 1st Lieutenant, S/Sgt and posted to a holding unit. I spent three weeks odd jobbing, getting bored, finally overnight train to the Clyde, where a convoy was gathered in the straights. We boarded what was the Commodore ship, the ‘S.S. Strathallan,’ 25,000 tons, ex P&O Liner, built in 1939. Altogether there were some twelve more liners with an escort of destroyers, frigates, and a converted aircraft carrier with eight planes strapped down on deck.

The Strathallan was a big ship, carrying some 4,000 troops, plus crew. We were down on the fifth deck, some 150 ‘Tankees’ in one smallish room. Roof completely filled with hammocks, I slept on one of the tables with seven others, more all over the floor. It was grim! Two days out, we hit the worst storm in years, rolling then pitching. I was not quite sick, but 96 were, no hot food for four days so bad was the weather. You couldn’t see the escorts, they went virtually under. We thought 8th Army, but after eight days we passed through the Straights of Gibraltar, leaving the carrier for repairs.

We were joined by two Tankers, bound for Malta, with fuel on board, much needed. At about 10pm, I was on deck, when the first tanker was torpedoed, half an hour later the second tanker went. Some 60 odd men gone in seconds, plus boats. “Bless the Merchant Navy.” What a ghastly job. Then at about 2am we were torpedoed, listing to port some 30 to 40 degrees, fortunately the bulkheads held. There was no light, bodies lying everywhere on the floor, finally we proceeded to make our way upwards, along the passage ways, pitch black, Lieutenant, Staff Sgt, myself following, hands on shoulders, the remainder following. No panic, but I prayed, believe me! Frightening!

Some 25-30 minutes later we got on top, a very clear night, felt okay. My job, with twelve other bods, was to put ‘Carley’ Floats over the side, and then scramble down nets onto the floats. Into the water some 30-40 minutes before a Destroyer picked us up. Other escorts were circling around doing the same. Lifeboats had been manually lowered on the port side, unable on starboard due to listing. Some 60 crew men were lost mainly in the engine room where the torpedo hit. Once on board the destroyer, we were given blankets, plus mugs of real Navy Cocoa. “This saved our souls.”

The Strathallan was eventually sunk by gun fire – any scuba divers holidaying in the Med, some 150 miles off Oran, please find my kit bag. Reward offered!

Ken went on to Algiers and joined the Lothian and Border Horse, in 6th Armoured Division, 1st Army. He fought in Algeria and Tunisia, then on to Italy, where he was serving when the war ended.

Ken Hillier - Tanks Corps

Ken Hillier – Tanks Corps

Now, all aboard were notified their destination was North Africa. At 8 am on the 20th December Gibraltar was passed. Charlie and Alt found a diversion in chatting to the ship’s gunners on occasions, who were delighted to pass the word that soon the voyage would be calmer as they proceeded through the Mediterranean Sea. It was a source of amusement to the gunners when Charlie told them his six brothers were all in the Navy and Merchant Navy, and how pleased he was to be an airman.

That night on hearing the ship was to dock at Algiers, everyone felt happier knowing it would not be too long before the ghastly rolling and pitching would lessen, and turned into their hammocks, wondering if they would ever want to go to sea again. At 2.30 am in the morning of the 21st December, when even the most uncomfortable persons were in a deep sleep, there was a most colossal explosion rocking the whole ship which almost immediately started to list to starboard. George recalled his hammock seemed to completely somersault before he and everyone else on that deck were clambering hastily from their hammocks.

Still the ship rolled with the heavy sea, and mixed now with sounds of sirens and rushing water through fractured pipes, everyone shouting, the tannoy speakers crackled before the Captain’s voice spoke in those terrible moments of awakening from deep sleep with the shock of disaster. ‘This is the Captain speaking. Please make your way to lifeboat stations immediately – do not delay – make you way to Lifeboat Stations at once!” This was again repeated. The large ship shuddered again and appeared to be slipping sideways and now there was a strong smell of oily smoke, and the rushing of water louder. Nearly all the men, sleeping in underwear, grabbed their clothing, and made their way, as Alf remarked, when he climbed the steps from the lower deck. “It’s like climbing out of a bloody mine”. Charlie, without boots, also in underwear, grabbed his greatcoat, and George was astounded at the calmness of everyone making their way steadily to the lifeboat stations, and thanked God for the drill they all had found a nuisance.

At the top of the steps, Charlie saw a padre kneeling beside an injured man and placed his coat under his head before moving on. Smoke and flames were lifting from below, and with the continuous creaking and rocking of the ship. Everyone expected anything at all might happen any second. It was noticeable that a number of Lascar seamen had already lowered a lifeboat and were making way. Oil was being discharged in an effort to calm the movement of the ship, and a number of men were already jumping in to the sea rather than stay aboard. A lifeboat filled with nurses started to lower but with the winds and violent movement of the ship. George was horrified and helpless to see the boat crash against the side of the Strathallan. Almost certainly all the girls perished.

Several Naval ships appeared. Amazingly, with all the terror and upheaval, someone started to sing. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine”, a lot of men joined in. News traveled that two torpedoes had been released from a ‘U’ boat, the first crossing the bows of the troopship, but the second exploding below the engine rooms. A line was fixed by a cruiser, with intention of taking the large ship in tow, but this was abandoned. At approximately 12.30 pm destroyers arrived from Oran to take aboard all those who could be rescued. George. Alf and Charlie were almost the last people to be taken aboard HMS Panther, then to Oran on the North African coast. Nearly everyone wore only underwear and was told to throw their footwear overboard. Fortunately, men of the Panther and other ships supplied blankets and served survivors with cocoa and sandwiches for which they were indeed thankful. During the next day the stricken ship was sunk by Naval gunfire.

Sometime later, the CO of the Regiment Squadron passed the sad news to his men that Panther was lost with all hands, having been dive bombed by Stukas. Many of the lads were very grieved to hear this following the crew’s treatment in their hour of need.

On the 26th February. 1985, Alt Blackett received a letter from Len Humphrey, who wrote. The. Strathallan. “You are the only person, apart from the Deputy Purser. Mr. Hare with whom I’ve made any contact since the time she went down in the Med” that ill fated day in 1942, but we of the crew fared little better where accommodation was concerned. I can understand how all you chaps felt, bottled up on the troop decks. After all, it was our permanent home and we were used to her. We were picked up by HMS Verity, a frigate, and dropped off along the coast near Oran, at a place called Mers-el-Kabir where we stayed beached for three or four days, bumming lifts on the American negro troops transport into Oran where we managed to get K rations from the Red Cross. No one else wanted to know about us. The Duchess of Richmond came back to Oran from Algiers, and the Captain signed us on as distressed British seamen. We worked our passage back doing gun watches.

My next vessel was MV Aorangi to Palermo Sicily, then on to Taranto and Bari in Italy 1943. Our paths must have crossed again without us being aware of it, who knows? What we missed most of all after the war was the comradeship. Friendships were very close, and we relied on each other more. It’s not quite the same in Clwy.

Many lives were lost from the Strathallan and the survivors were taken to Oran or ports nearby, and Squadrons took their roll calls and reformed. George, Charlie and All were first placed aboard the Duchess of York to eat and recover, but still without additional clothing or kit and the next day, transferred to the Duchess of Richmond, (mentioned by Len Humphrey) which sailed for Algiers where they arrived on the 23rd December 1942.

The men, tired out after their ordeal, but thankful to be alive, were taken by lorries to Maison Carrie, a small suburb of Algiers, and billeted in a school. They were kitted out with clothes temporarily in time for Christmas, but relied on the Adjutant to advance cash in lieu of pay to allow them to take a drink at Christmas. Maison Carrie was a very small place, which contained just a few shops and cafes. Whilst that Christmas was not one any of the men enjoyed very much, they were relieved to be on solid ground again in a warmer climate, where fruit was in abundance and oranges particularly, could be picked at random. During a short stay at Maison Carrie, Charlie Allen was leaning against the school wall talking to several friends, when a Junkers plane appeared, guns blazing. All men fell flat on the ground while bullets raked the wall. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Several months were spent in North Africa with various duties. George Bull was sent with his Squadron to Tingley aerodrome, near Bone in Algeria where they carried out guard duties for a period, including a Spitfire plane, which had crashed, this was followed with an uncomfortable trip to Tabarka, which proved to be quite nerve-wracking. Messerschmitt Valley was a five-mile stretch of road, named such by servicemen who had travelled along it previously, due to German fighters’ habit of patrolling and straffing any vehicle, which passed. The Squadron was provided with a number of lorries, each of which contained eighteen men. These lorries would take to the road at half hourly intervals.

The purpose of the operation was to join up and support Free French troops in defending the line. In the event, not one Messerschmitt appeared. Alighting from lorries, which now returned. Flight Lieutenant Dodd in charge, detailed three men to stay and guard blankets and other equipment, whilst the rest marched the six or so miles to the expected positions. Marching along in single file, using an old cart track, the officer noticed artillery way across a field in an unexpected place. Deciding to investigate, he spread his men into arrowhead formation, and with rifles at the ‘ready’; they advanced cautiously towards the unit. Studying this group through his binoculars, Flight Lieutenant was satisfied this unit were Allies. In turn, as they neared the others, it was apparent the RAF Regiment men were also under observation until they met. It was a British Guards party who were extremely surprised and explained they were in the front line facing the enemy, who were in a position the RAF lads came from. Not only that, but the field they had crossed contained land mines in defence against German tanks!

Under the circumstances, Flight Lieutenant Dodd requested the use of a bren gun carrier to return and collect his three men and equipment, which was very courageous of him. He drove back across the field, collected his men and returned under enemy fire. When he was quite near to the Guard’s lines, his vehicle was hit by mortar fire. Turning on its side. Providence was on their side as no one was injured. George Bull recalls this very brave officer was one of those heroic passengers on the Strathallan, who without regard for his own safety, dived into the oily water surrounding the stricken ship rescuing others in distress.

So the war continued in North Africa for months ahead, with the RAF Regiment Squadrons carrying out their duties, many times in the front lines with other allied soldiers in the units involved. A large number were wounded in various theatres and others were decorated for gallantry: in fact to use Alt Blackett’s own words “I’d like the Public to know that the RAF Regiment was a fighting unit. mate, not just blokes in blue strutting around the cities, living it up”.

The summer of 1943 passed by. At home in England, films being shown at the cinemas were ‘Mrs. Miniver’. ‘Coastal Command’, ‘How Green was my Valley’ and ‘Holiday Inn’ with Bing Crosby. Tommy Handley was a favourite on radio in ‘Itma’. There was no television in the homes to give comfort and pleasure. The Russians were now turning the tables on the Germans and took Orel and recaptured Kharkov. July saw the allies land in Sicily, Rome was bombed from the air and US troops occupied Messina on 16th August, then in September, the Allies invaded Italy. Charlie Allen and Alf Blackett with their Squadrons followed from North Africa, but George, with his unit were still in Africa until December, operating in Tunisia, then boarding an American transport, sailed the day after Boxing day, arriving in Naples of the 29th of the month, finding it extremely cold.

By the 27th January, once again the Regiment squadrons had joined up when they arrived at Pressenzano, just fifteen miles from Cassino and were then transported by lorries of the New Zealand forces to a place aptly named Inferno, in direct line with the Benedictine Monastery, which surmounted the mountain. Cassino, Inland and north of Naples by some fifty miles had to be taken to provide an easier passage to the capital. Rome, which is situated some sixty miles further to the north west, and saw many bloody battles before it was bypassed, and the town of Cassino Itself was not entered by the allies until the 18th of May.

Many units of the army were involved in the Cassino area, but mostly they were comprised of Indians, New Zealanders and Poles. The RAF Regiment men held a position with New Zealand troops on their right and Polish on their left, and were very soon involved in the bitter fighting. George Bull and Charlie Allen, by now were Leading Aircraftmen. Alf Blackett was promoted to Corporal. On the 26th May, at 2 am the Germans set up a huge barrage, shelling the allied positions, and many fell all around.

Fortunately a number proved to be useless and did not explode, but many men were killed or seriously wounded. On one terrible occasion, the Polish contingent attacked the German positions below the monastery, and the Germans hoisted a white flag, but as the Poles got closer, they were riddled with machine gun fire.

It had been agreed at the Vatican; both by the Allies and the Germans that either side for occupying forces would not use the Monastery, but the allies felt the Germans were not honouring the agreement. Eventually it was reduced to rubble by allied bombing. This situation proved to be very controversial, yet history books state that there were no Germans inside after the bombing. George Bull feels certain there were. One fact did emerge, was that many civilians died in the Monastery area. The Germans did not surrender but retreated down the mountain, and fought gallantly to the last moment.

In conclusion, the joint words of Charlie and Alf “It’s a grim life clinging tenaciously to the side of a steep hill with the Germans in strength on the other side and the RAF Regiment men holding a sector of the front line”.

The Regiment moved up to their positions on a moonless night in their tin hats and khaki. Near to the front, the officer told them to smoke their last cigarette, they stopped and puffed, and the officer looked at his watch. “This chaps, is going to be one made ride”.

Suddenly scores of British 25 pounders opened up, and a column of Jeeps roared forward to the front. As they dug in on the hillside, the men had their baptism of fire. When the morning came they were mildly surprised it had not scared them much. Headquarters were set up in a cave and they fired their first shots in anger when the enemy, over the crest of a hill started lobbing mortars, in daylight.

“The Germans have no etiquette”, said a Pilot Officer to a patrol as they went over the top to find the Germans, who also found them. So both sides sent mortars over and lobbed grenades at each other whenever they could pop out of their foxholes. For exercising in between the men had a twenty yard track cut into the side of the hill. Walk twenty-one yards, OK. Walk twenty-two, and you were hit.

On the first occasion into Cassino with the Guards, the sergeant leading our section, warned us to be quiet. Jerry sent up flares, and we had to freeze in the position we found ourselves. Jeep trains moving back down the line, which they called Blood Wagons, carrying the dead and wounded. We had to tread over dead mules used for moving up supplies on pathways and rock terrain. The horrible smell of death!

Corporal Alf Blackett was with his senior NCO, Sergeant Pringle driving a Jeep at night, whilst Alf rode shotgun with a tommy gun in his arms to rear positions for supplies. Charlie, ‘goading’ reminding him to bring his ‘mail’. This was a very frightening job, so dark that Alf, hoping he would not move into enemy positions, walked in front of the Jeep to keep his Sergeant on the right road.

Further memories from Alf – kindly supplied by Ken Chambers
ALF BLACKETT – served in No: 2771 Squadron R.A.F. Regiment and was aboard the Strathallan with the Squadron’s rear echelon bound for Algiers. He lives in Gfohl, Austria and this more recent recollection of memories of that time is in addition to that of the earlier story entitled “Three Men in a Boat” taken from the publication “What did you do in the War Grandad” by the late Peter Coyler.

“We sailed from Greenock and were not told where we were going until the ship was on high seas. Our Officer, named Chadwick, then had this to say to us “I want you to remember three things – keep your mouth shut and your bowels open, careless talk costs lives, be like Dad keep Mum.”

On reaching the Bay of Biscay the seas were like mountains and the NAAFI on the top deck was completely wrecked. A lot of us, including myself, were very seasick and I recall Jim Sledmore who came from Bawtry, near Doncaster. He was sat on the toilet, trousers to his ankles, elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands. After a while he heard a voice say to him “Do you feel ill young man?” Most of his reply was unrepeatable but he did say “How I feel, I don’t care if the bloody ship goes down” – words which almost came true. When he did look up, to his dismay he found his questioner was a female, an Army nurse. Relating his embarrassment to me sometime after, he said he wished he could have fallen down the toilet. I have tried since to trace him but without success. Another amusing incident I heard from an Irish soldier with R.E.M.E. He told me that he had bought a new pipe to take overseas and these were his very words “before leaving the old Country I soaked it in a pint of beer, it was a gorgeous pipe and I was having a quiet smoke against the rails on the top deck when I was suddenly seasick – everything went over the side including my pipe, Jaysus!”

Most of us slept in hammocks and conditions were so cramped that when these were slung at night it was not possible to move between them. However, I usually slept on the mess deck table in my clothes, boots off, using the life jacket as a pillow. Lifeboat drill was carried out every day when we were required to put on our life jackets and proceed to the allotted station which was on the top deck. When the ship was torpedoed the lights failed and I could hear the gushing of water which I thought was coming up through the toilet. We were soon summoned to the boat stations and our daily drill stood us in good stead. Clambering up all the stairs to the top deck always gave me the impression I was climbing out of a mine shaft. While all this was going on there was no panic, everyone was calm and collected and amidst the excitement someone started to sing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” and a lot of the others began to join in.

Luckily the sea was calm and it was a bright moon, nearly like daylight.. We were able to see the naval vessels which appeared in the area; they were making wide circles and dropping depth charges. Later, one came to take us in tow. I shall never forget when it was our turn to be rescued, at around midday. Our ship was on fire with a hell of a list and we first had to throw our boots overboard before jumping over the side, down on to the deck of H.M.S. Panther laying alongside. This ship took us to Oran where we had to march along the dock in our socks to board the Duchess of York to eat and rest; the following day we changed ships again to the Duchess of Richmond which took us to our original destination, Algiers, arriving on 23rd December. By this time we had been issued with one or two items of kit including boots, and Christmas was spent billeted in an Arab school on the outskirts of Algiers with bully beef or sardines with hard tack (biscuits) for dinner.”

Les

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