Jim Gormley a native of Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, a small town approx 10 miles from Glasgow City Centre, was born on the 15th August 1920. At the outbreak of war on September 1939 he was 20 and ideal candidate for the first round of call-up to arms in defence of democracy against the German Third Reich and National Socialism led by the despot and dictator Adolf Hitler.
Jim’s initial military training took place at RAF Grantham in Leicestershire now famous as the town that produced Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher known as The Iron Lady. Jim passed out as Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) in the RAF Regiment.
After various postings in furtherance of the war effort he found himself at Greenock on the Firth of Clyde. Only some 30 miles from his hometown he was not allowed any leave and sworn to secrecy on any operation he might undertake.
An enormous convoy of ships had gathered at the Clyde, preparing to sail for North Africa as the second invasion fleet of the war, in support of the victorious Eighth Army of El Alemein who, under the command of General Montgomery, inflicted the first defeat on the Axis forces.
41.000 British, New Zealand, Australian and Canadian troops with 1000 tanks, 1000 aircraft and 9000 different types of vehicles and guns launched an almighty barrage on the Afrika Korps on October 23rd 1942 before the Allies advanced with drawn bayonets. Within days the Axis Forces were in full retreat. It was the beginning of the end for The Third Reich.
From 8/9th November 1942 convoys sailed to North Africa pouring men and supplies into what was to be the final push causing the surrender of Rommel during May 1943. The relatively small Afrika Korps was beaten but left its mark. It had drawn into the North African Theatre of war the equivalent of more than 20 divisions of British strength, half of Britain’s operational power.
At the height of the Afrika Korps achievements Winston Churchill paid a rare compliment to the enemy in the House of Commons. “We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great General” Churchill also said “It can be said before El- Alemein we did not have a victory after El -Alemein we were never defeated”.
Jim was to be one of tens of thousands who were sent to North Africa to end the German Occupation and prepare for the invasion of Sicily, Italy, Lampedusa and Sardinia.
Jim recalls the scene at the Tail o’ the Bank “The Firth of Clyde was packed with dozens of ships in all shapes and sizes. There were warships, destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers, cruisers and troopships. Merchantmen included oil tankers and cargo liners carrying tanks, guns and supplies in abundance. It was a magnificent sight. My regiment was ordered to embark on SS Strathallan a former passenger liner of the P&O Shipping Company that had been converted into a troopship. It was enormous with “umpteen decks”. It appeared to me that every regiment in the British Army was onboard. I could not say how many soldiers were on the ship but it ran into thousands”.
“We were sent to “G” Deck well below the water line. There must have been …A…B…C…D…E…F decks above us and there was some below us. I slung my hammock next to a watertight door (WTD), which led to the engine room, which gives an idea how far we were in the bowels of the ship. We were packed like sardines. Bulkheads had been removed to make open spaces to get more troops in. There were rows and rows of tables and benches of the very basic type. Each table had 24 soldiers. We had to eat, sleep and have recreation in that area. We had a duty roster to get up on deck for fresh air and exercise”. Continued Jim “It was not unlike HMS Victory now a museum at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard. On Lord Nelson’s Flagship sailors slept and dined between the cannons on gun decks”.
On the 12th December the mighty armada of ships slipped into the Irish Sea bound for North Africa. SS Strathallan was the largest ship in the convoy and became the Flagship with the Commodore of the Fleet onboard in overall command.
From the first day, inclement weather set in with winds reaching gale force. It was a godsend in one way that submarines could not operate in such weather allowing the convoy to reach the Straits of Gibraltar without loss. Jim takes up the story of that unforgettable 11 days until the Mediterranean Sea was reached.
“It was like being at a Rangers and Celtic match on cup final day. We were shoulder to shoulder above and below decks. The humidity and smell was appalling. We were ordered to remain in our uniforms at all times in case of emergency even as we slept but the heat was such dozens of the troops disobeyed the order. I kept my uniform on at all times. I was a bit of a rebel and didn’t like to follow the leader”. As we will see the order was a very sound one. “Mealtimes were an ordeal. We had a duty roster of bringing meals in 24 canisters from the galleys to the table. Each man had his ‘Dixie’ and a fork knife and spoon. They were like diamonds. Woe betides if they were lost. The ‘Dixie’ was a metal container, which had two parts that closed together. One half was for main course the other soup or desert when we got it of course. Improvisation was the then buzzword”.
“We would queue for an hour at a time all-staggering against each other as the ship pitched and rolled. Carrying back the 24 canisters to the table was a nightmare. Most of the troops were seasick with decks covered in vomit. We were slipping, sliding, sometimes falling with the canisters going in all directions. I was never sick and proving that every cloud has a silver lining, there was always extra food available, as many never ate for days”.
Continued Jim “The weather never let up until, reaching a crescendo as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, sometimes the ship going into 45% angled rolls. It was a nightmare voyage. As we sailed into the Mediterranean Sea at last the weather abated. We were all delighted but many realised bad weather was their saviour as events were to prove.”
Jim continues giving a unique eyewitness account of horrific events.
“I was in my hammock trying to sleep against the loud noise of the engines thundering away. It was exactly 1.30 am in the early morning. Lights remained on all the time although they were dim. A clock was fitted on a bulkhead perhaps electronically controlled from the engine room. I heard an enormous explosion as a torpedo hit the ship. As I discovered later two torpedoes were fired one hitting the other missing. The Strathallan gave an almighty shudder and all the lights remained out for a considerable period while soldiers tried to climb the stairs in darkness. Mercifully emergency lighting came on although it was very dim. It was sheer havoc. Everyone was pressing forward towards the companionways with an element of crushing. The ship began to tilt to port, water was coming and eventually reached my waist. I thought we were going to drown. Water was coming in and I was in the centre of a mass of bodies finding difficulty in breathing. To this day I suffer from claustrophobia because of that experience. I have been on a ship many times since but never will I go below decks”.
“We were just like rats trapped in a sewer unable to move. Slowly but surely, seemingly like a lifetime, troops managed to get up the stairwells. They met others from different decks that were trying to escape. It became a gigantic bottleneck with movement in centimeters to remaining stationery for long periods of time. The situation was exacerbated by the shouts and cries of hundreds of panic stricken and frightened men”.
Jim cannot recall exactly the amount of time it took him to reach the upper deck from the moment of torpedo impact but it seemed a lifetime. “We have all heard of hell” said Jim “We can only wonder what it is like, I discovered my private hell as an anti-tank gunner many times under enemy fire of machine guns, shelling and especially mortar fire…but none of it compared to being below decks on the Strathallan. At least on dry land I had the sky above me and not waiting for a slow death expecting the ship to sink at any time”.
(For info) Jim thought the bows were below water but they weren’t. The ship was listing heavily and this probably gave him that impression.
Finally Jim reached the upper deck where pandemonium existed. Strathallan was listing heavily with the bows below the water, giving the appearance of sinking at any moment.
Jim again takes up the story when he reached the upper deck and fresh air, “It was still early morning but there was ample light. We don’t get completely blackout nights in the Mediterranean closer to the equator. The decks were at an angle. I was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers. Dozens upon dozens in front of my eyes were jumping and diving into the sea. It was like a mass hysteria. Many were in underwear without lifebelts. I could see hundreds upon hundreds of heads in the sea. The air was full of cries for help. People were throwing life rafts into the sea. Some were landing on the heads of the hapless soldiers in the water. One thing saved my life. I couldn’t swim. I thought the Strathallan was sinking but I had more fear of the water than remaining on a stricken ship.”
Amazingly SS Strathallan did not sink. It was at a crazy angle and low in the water but somehow watertight doors must have prevented the water spreading, allowing sufficient buoyancy keeping the liner afloat. The countless soldiers who leapt into the water and drowned as a result would have been saved if they had stayed put.
Jim remembers a Royal Navy Corvette either named HMS Panther or HMS Tiger coming out of the gloom while hundreds were in the water. An officer on the bridge was shouting through a loud hailer “Keep away from this ship we cannot pick you up we are searching for the submarine Keep away from this ship” Jim was eventually rescued by jumping on a mattress onto a warship alongside from a great height.
The Strathallan was taken in tow by Naval Tug HMS Restive attempting to reach Algiers but she capsized the following day 22nd December 1942.
Note* Jim reported to the editor that when he leaped on to a mattress onboard a warship and taken to Oran. He never heard another word about Strathallan. Even soldiers he met who where onboard when the torpedo struck knew nothing of the ship. As Jim commented “It was as if it never existed until you brought me information 59years later”
This gives us the indication of severe censorship in wartime.