Tom Willis Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry
At the commencement of the Second World War Tom Willis was drafted into the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. After 6 weeks he was transferred to the 542nd Company of the Royal Engineers at High Wycombe. Tom tells us of his story that led to him becoming a victim of U562 in the Mediterranean Sea on 21st December 1942.
This is the Thomas Willis Story.
“ After I was transferred to the Royal Engineers I spent 14 weeks in training. We were building “Bailey Bridges. Emergency bridges over water and land. Eventually we could erect these structures with our eyes shut. We also were trained to lay minefields and again how to detect them. That was a hair-raising duty but had to be done.
While with the 542 Company RE we were issued with tropical gear and under great secrecy we were marched down to the Railway Station at High Wycombe and boarded a North bound train. Clattering on during the night the first we knew we were in Scotland when we pulled into Waverley Street Station in Edinburgh. We were fed and watered before again setting out for Gourock via Glasgow. I recall factory girls all waving to us on the packed train all full of soldiers. Gourock had fond memories for me. Amazingly it was the birthplace of my mother. What a coincidence! We were marched to tenders tied up at a jetty and were taken out to this enormous ship. I spotted SS Strathallan on her bows. Our regiment were ordered on to “G” Deck right in the bowels of the ship. Editors Note…Tom you were on the same deck as Jim Gormley of the RAF Regiment who inspired others to put this Web Site together. The chances of you recognising his 1942 photograph on Survivors Page will probably be nil but he was there with you. Jim is the Web Site Founder…Now there’s a thing. We have a lot to thank “G” Deck SS Strathallan for.
Continues Tom “ Tenders were backwards and forwards all day long from the jetty at Gourouck to Strathallan and other ships anchored at the Clyde Estuary. Then on a bleak December morning we slipped anchor and sailed out with the convoy on our date with destiny. I had dad a trip to Iceland onboard trawlers from Grimsby so had no fear of the sea or so I thought. The weather worsened daily until it reached a crescendo in the Bay of Biscay. Strathallan was rolling and pitching this day when a couples of mates and I ventured out on deck. The wind was screaming with driving rain. We would be high up on a giant wave then plunge downwards into what seemed the bottom of the ocean. The ocean would be like an enormous cauldron of screaming water when another huge wave would come racing at us.. Suddenly we were down in this abyss of water of boiling water with that huge wave about to burst over us. ……Then as if the hand of God came to our rescue we were lifted up back to daylight. We beat a hasty retreat back indoors trembling with the shock of it all.
Editors Note…Tom gives a very descriptive narrative of heavy seas. Throughout the Web Site everyone onboard Strathallan on that fateful voyage has remarked on the ferociousness of the storms she encountered en-route from The Tail o’ the Bank to the Mediterranean Sea..
Tom was ordered to the galley to collect his companies breakfast…his description of that chore is quite a feat of recall imagination
“ When I got to the galley I was given a huge black tray in which there were countless eggs and rashers of bacon all running in grease. I had to negotiate a set of stairs being alternatively thrown this way and that way with the bacon and eggs in an untidy heap all stuck together. However although I say it myself it was an achievement, all around were bacon and eggs strewn all over decks with soldiers slipping this way and that way like amateur ballet dancers although with not as much finesse.
When I presented breakfast to the lads many looked with disbelieving eyes at the concoction and threw up. There was plenty to eat if you could manage to keep it down.
Quite frankly looking back it was quite funny if it was not so serious. I just wired in. My Icelandic voyage stood me in good stead.
Like everyone Tom reported the weather abated when they entered the Mediterranean Sea. He recalled seeing the snow capped mountains of the Sierra’s in Spain. He remembered being told they were now in dangerous waters by an Officer and was given permission to sleep anywhere if we could find somewhere as long as it was not on the open deck.
Tom continues with his narrative………….”My mate Arnold Vaughan and I decided to sleep inside a door way leading to “C” Deck. It was a glorious evening and early morning. The sea was flat calm without a movement from the ship other than the thud of engines and a brilliant moon was in the sky. After the Atlantic Ocean it was paradise. I woke up and looked at my watch. It was a few minutes after 2 am.I had a stroll on deck and went back inside to resume a sleep if I could.. when suddenly I heard an enormous explosion.Strathallan gave a shudder. All lights went out but emergency lighting came on shortly after.
Don’t ask me why but we found ourselves going down into “G” Deck rather than trying to reach the comparative safety of open air. Thinking about it now if the ship had sank immediately we would have been trapped when we had access to the upper deck.
Editors Note……….This is the second report of soldiers being in upper decks when the torpedo struck yet made their way back into the bowels of the ship to rejoin comrades.
Instinctive duty and putting their lives second to not letting their fellow soldiers down.
We saw this recently where the ultra brave Fire Fighters of New York entered an inferno at the Twin Towers Disaster losing their lives. They were going up when safety was down. Well done Tom! A small but significant point.
Continued Tom…….”When we finally cleared the many staircases that were bottlenecked and reached open deck we could see lifeboats in the water. One was full of nurses another had the Headquarters Staff of The Commander in Chief Land Forces. Interestingly one girl in the boat was the Aide to Eisenhower. Through the night we could hear Depth Charges from escort vessels. Many had taken to the water on the ABANDON SHIP call and managed to keep afloat in lifebelts. There were also dozens of small rafts floating around with rope loops on sides. Many men were holding on to these loops.
As daylight rose HMS Panther and HMS Laforey two destroyers ..began picking up survivors n the sea and out of lifeboats. Laforey put ratings onboard in an attempt to get a tow line on to Strathallan. A rating was standing by with an axe in case the liner sank suddenly.. I also remember an order being issued for all hands to go to the starboard side to assist counteracting against the port list.
By midday on the 21st December the naval tug RESTIVE tried to take over the tow duties. We were given a meal of pilchards and biscuits.
HMS Panther came alongside and we were ordered to queue up and when told to do so we would climb over the rail and tried to leap as far as possible on to a heap of mattresses on the deck. Obviously the Commander of the Destroyer had shown great presence of mind by having all crew collect their mattresses and gave them as a cushion. I have often wondered if that Officer received due credit for that brainwave. He certainly saved many lives and at least prevented injury. I remember my turn. I was told to stand outside of the rail and could see the mattresses piled so very far below. “Jump” came the order. I took a deep breath and leapt landing on the mattresses where a dozen pairs of hands quickly got me off the mattresses waiting for the next man. Hundreds came off Strathallan like that. I still think of the Royal Navy and the magnificent job they carried out. Jim Gormley will remember as well.
There as no singing or shouting only a deathly silence other than the officer giving the order to jump. When HMS Panther was full we made our way into Oran where my company boarded the Duchess of Richmond. We were issued with meals and told we were moving next day.
We all slept soundly that night of 21st December 1942 and when we awoke in the morning of 22nd Dec we were at sea hugging the coast of North Africa with HMS Rodney on escort duties.
We landed in Algiers and just got on with the war. I am extremely grateful to all who formed this Web Site. Now the world will know of SS Strathallan even when all the survivors are gone.
Tom Willis February 2003