A tale of survival in World War II.
It was a cold dark December morning in 1942 when the troopship I had embarked on set sail from Grennock, Scotland. The “Strathallan”, 23,000 ton and ex pride of the P.O. line was now on active service and in battledress grey. This was to be my home for the next few days.
I was one of approximately 3,000 troops, consisting of the Army, R.A.F. and a small contingent of nurses who were sailing for an unknown destination. Our vessel was the flagship of the convoy and among the notable personnel on board were the Chief Radio Operator, name unknown but a relative of the late King George, and the personal secretary to General Eisenhower.
Like many other troops on board this was to be my first sea voyage. One of the first formalities was the issue of life jackets and immediately following that came the routine drill for action stations and muster stations. This I am afraid was not taken seriously as it was regarded as more Army red tape. Little did we know that before the trip was over that drill would be useful to us all.
Two days of sailing and many troops were getting their sea legs and settling down to the voyage. Organised parades and routine jobs occupied most of the day, but occasional practice alerts were thrown in for good measure. But, in spite of all it was something new and life appeared fine.
It was not long before Mother Nature had to interfere with our pleasure. A violent storm broke and with a heavy sea running our ship was tossed about like a cork. The whole ship shivered under the mighty onslaught. As the driving propeller was lifted out of the water it glistened, as it returned it struck the water with a thunderous roar. The sea washed over the deck and the water ran down the hatchways flowing to the lower decks in a deluge. The lower decks as you will imagine were housing the other ranks. At the sight of it all faces were turned to each other showing expressions of bewilderment. Very little was said but many thoughts passed through the minds of us all. However the storm continued and slowly we became acclimatised to the noise and rocking about the ship. Four days and nights the storm raged, it seemed four years to us. During that time several of the troops out on deck for an airing had been thrown against the superstructure, resulting in broken limbs. Believe me, our impression of the Atlantic was not very good. It was made known to us afterwards that the storm was the worst that the Atlantic had known for 51 years.
Our escort of corvettes had heavy damage caused through the heavy seas. The aircraft carrier never had the chance to show us its aircraft. But what a gallant sight to see, a convoy of ships battling against the heavy seas. Four troopships in line with an escort of eight corvettes, four to port and four to starboard with an aircraft alternating its position.
At dawn on the sixth day we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, the sea was now calm. The remainder of the convoy left us and we were now lone voyagers. In view of the rough sea that we had had and it now being calm, we were once again enjoying life. None of us gave a thought that we were nearing the battle zone.
It was now known that our destination was Algiers and in another 48 hours we should dock. With a warm sunshine and the smooth sea we thought that this was the life. No wonder people talked so much of the Mediterranean cruises. But alas, we were at war, and we had the enemy to think about, not knowing when or where he would strike.
We retired to our sleeping quarters that night feeling quite happy after the lovely day. I did not appear to have been asleep for long before I was awakened by the sound of the alarm bells ringing. There was only a dim light on our deck. There was activity all around as troops in almost darkness tried to get dressed at the same time in such a confined space. I looked at my watch, 2.20 am. What an unearthly hour to practise ‘Action Stations’ I thought. It was then realised that this was no practice as the ship had a list to port of about 45 degrees. We hurried to our Muster Stations in an orderly manner. I had not heard the sound of the torpedo, which had scored a direct hit on our engine room. I guess the crew of the German submarine were very happy at another hit.
It was an eerie scene in the darkness of that December night, frightening even to the man with nerves of steel. But, we were Englishmen and many covered the fright that was with us all. The lifeboats were lowered for the female nurses. One of these lifeboats had only pulled away from the grief stricken ship a few yards away when it sank. These nurses lost their lives. There were 29 of them. Whilst this was taking place men were still gathering at their Muster Stations. I stood there upon the upper deck, I was frightened and my mouth was dry. The officer in charge of our Muster Station then gave the order to go overboard. It was made known afterwards that the Captain of the ship had not given orders to abandon ship.
I stood there with my life-jacket tied to my chest, trying to make a grave decision. Should I go overboard as ordered or should I disobey and remain on board? The sea looked black and oily and I could not swim, and there were no ships in sight. My brow was wet with perspiration.
It was my turn to go down the rope ladder into the sea. Slowly I went forward and climbed onto the rungs of the rope ladder. My mouth and throat were dry, how pleased I was to have remembered my water bottle. I had a sip as I went down the ladder. Down the rungs I went, each rung nearer the sea and – what? My whole life passed through my mind and before my eyes. I could see my parents, sisters and relatives. I could see my girlfriend (bless her, she is my wife now). Memories of events passed through my mind. I could see it all, it was frightening. I prayed to God for help, I even cried out for Him to save me.
I was now at the bottom of the ladder, I kicked my boots off and into the water I went. Several men were already in the water hanging onto rafts that had been thrown or lowered into the sea. I managed to grab one of the loose rafts during the struggles in the water. It was a struggle as I could not swim and I had all my faith pinned to my life-jacket. I paddled away from the ship as I did not want to be near the ship if it went down as I was afraid of the suction that may be caused which might suck me under. I drifted away, about 100 yards from the boat, but during that time I must have swallowed a large amount of water. I then found myself in a bed of oil that had been pumped from the engine room of the ship. Looking back at the ship I could now see that no more troops were leaving the decks and coming into the water. They were just standing about. However I had myself to worry about and I was feeling sick from swallowing seawater and diesel oil.
I was now in possession of two rafts and it was my intention to climb onto one of them with the aid of the other. I struggled to climb onto the rafts, but I found that they were too buoyant and I never did get on top.
The next thing I remember was waking up in bed. I was not wearing an article of clothing, but covering me were numerous blankets. The first thing I asked was where I was and what time it was. I was told I was back on the ‘Strathallan’ and that the time was just after 10am. I had been unconscious for nearly 8 hours. I thanked God for answering my prayers, I was saved.
My mates at the bedside then related to me what had happened. The officer in charge of our Muster Station had given orders for us to abandon ship without the Captain’s authority. I do not blame him for what he did for he must have had in his own mind good reason for giving that order. I was then informed of the detail of my rescue. When the Captain realised what had happened he gave orders for men in the sea to be brought back on the ship. Ropes were lowered and the men in the sea were hauled back onto the deck. Some unknown person struggled with me in the water for a long time trying to get a rope round my waist so that the men on the deck could hoist me up. I remembered none of that.
I was a dead weight and covered in diesel oil, it would have been no easy job to tie that rope round my body. The man could have left me there and have had the rope for himself. The hoisting of the rope was done from the upper deck whilst the men on the lower deck caught hold of the man and drew him onto the deck. When I was hoisted up as far as the lower deck I was caught hold of by one of my own mates, ‘Taffy’ Thomas who held on to me for at least 15 minutes before I was able to be landed. This fellow had a broken finger but he still held on to me, though he was in great pain. As yet I was a stranger to him. Two other members of our unit were with ‘Taffy’, ‘Blondie’ Hudson and ‘Doc’ Egan, and together they carried me and put me to bed. It was not until they stripped and wiped me down that they discovered that the person they were dealing with was me.
It was just four hours later when I jumped from the lower deck of the “Strathallan” onto the destroyer “Pathfinder” one of the many ships that came to our rescue. The trooper was on fire now and nothing could save her and within a few hours she sank. By nightfall I landed along with a mixed assortment of H.M. Forces at Casablanca, North Africa. All I was wearing was a set of denim overalls and a pair of gym shoes too small for my feet.
It was at this port that I rejoined my unit the following morning.
I prayed and thanked God for my rescue, but I regret to say that 149 lives were lost in this episode. I must have been the luckiest person on board among the 3,000 troops.
No medals were given to the persons who took part in my rescue, just the thanks I could give them myself and the assurance that I would never forget them.
Guest author: Douglas Holmes
At the time of demobilisation
Sergeant HOLMES. D. H.
2788 Squadron R.A.F. Regiment.
© Douglas Holmes 2007