The Strathallan Coincidence by - by Bill Pratt of Gillingham
Early morning in December 1942 we left the transit camp at Wilmslow, destination unknown,airmen having been kitted out as soldiers, army battledress, gaiters, boots and complete with sten guns. Some twelve hours later we arrived at Greenock and boarded the Troopship SS Strathallan as part of a large convoy.
After leaving the comparative calm of the Irish Sea we sailed into the Atlantic Ocean, the sea heaving with mountainous waves causing many casualties, broken limbs and seasickness abounding amongst us reluctant sailors. Fortunately a contingent of nurses aboard were there to attend us. It was no consolation to be told by a crew member that it was the worst sea they had encountered for years.
Two weeks later we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and to our relief found the Mediterranean like a millpond and learned that we were bound for Algiers as part of the invasion of North Africa.
In the early hours of 21st December, asleep in my hammock eight decks down (H-Deck) and well below the waterline, we were hit by a torpedo – awakened by the hit and then the alarm bells ringing, we were plunged into darkness.Panic became the master and about 50 airmen raced to the single set of stairs, the only access to the upper deck. self preservation was the rule.
Eventually, I did reach the top only to find that all the lifeboats had been launched, some unsuccessfully, which sadly caused lives to be lost. We were ordered (unofficially) by an officer to abandon ship – every-man for himself was no longer a cliche. The officer then gave us orders to throw overboard life-rafts which were stacked on the deck, ignoring the fact the the oily sea below was crowded with personnel who had already left the ship. The ship by now was burning fiercely and listing about 30 degrees. I went over the side abseiling down a scramble net into the sea and swam to a raft already
occupied by a squaddie.
We paddled around trying to get some distance from the stricken ship, all to no avail, as we only managed to get from the port to the starboard side. Some of the lads who had remained on the ship shouted for us to come back on board. I did. A rope was thrown down to me, I tied it round my waist, the rescuers started to haul me up. Forty feet above sea level, twisting and turning, frightened and praying the rope’s knot was secure, it was an experience not to be repeated,
Back on board, oil sodden and grimy, I did what I now know was stupid. I went back down to H-Deck to get my kit-bag,
I with others waited – what else. Then my heart rose for steaming towards us was a Royal Naval Destroyer which took up station about 20yds. ahead. We were to be taken in tow. One of the ship’s crew, the Baggage Master, appeared with the end of a very large rope in his hand with the rest disappearing into the hold, telling our WO he wanted all hands on the rope. The WO said it was no convenient as he was taking a roll call (bullshine baffles brains). The crewman’s reply was a blast of expletives any ERK would be proud of, and at the same time reminding our WO that saving lives was more important than counting lives.
In tow and underway my morale was up a notch no more than just speculation, with the ship listing, burning and smoke drifting menacingly over our heads. Suddenly, I was returned to life’s reality, the tow rope had broken, once more we were adrift with destiny dealing out another cruel hand. My eyes focused on the blank horizon, but my mid returned again to home and family, and then reminding myself that I did volunteer to join the RAF.
Hours later despair turned to elation, two destroyers were bearing down on us, cheers rang out amongst us. I wondered had fate dealt me a trump card at last? One of the destroyers pulled alongside, whilst the matelots piled their rolled up hammocks on the open deck we were ordered to jump from our ship to the destroyer 40ft. below. A daunting prospect as the destroyer bobbed up and down while drifting to and fro from the side of our ship. The choice was “Hobsons”. The destroyer filled to the gunnels with bods, she pulled away. About a mile or two into our escape, I looked back at the Strathallan, abandoned and forlorn, a twinge of sadness was shattered as I witnessed her explode and then slip slowly under the waves.
Pondered, yes the trump card had been played. We landed at Oran, my life thus far safe. The following day we boarded another troopship to continue our journey to Algiers. Needless to say I spent the whole of the trip on the boat deck, once bitten etc., and landed on Christmas Eve.
In the Summer of 1996, I spent a weekend with a friend who lives in Christchurch. On the Sunday morning we visited the local hostelry for the usual spiritual uplift. I was introduced to two other people, one of whom was Bill Greenall, ex-Royal Navy, on a visit from Liverpool. During the morning’s discourse , I learned that he had served some time around the Mediterranean including the invasion of North Africa. I mentioned I had been on a troopship torpedoed during the same campaign. He asked the name of the ship and when told it was the Strathallan he astounded me, saying his destroyer was involved in my survival, and that he had taken photographs of the incident. I was totally at a loss for words (unusual, my wife says) – an unlikely story some people may say.
Who would believe some 54 years later two people who shared that fateful experience, one from Liverpool the other from Dorset , casually meeting and discovering that they had a affinity so profound.