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Survivor Stories

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The History of The Strathallan 1938-1942
(and the earlier wooden vessel in 1858)

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  • Ship Details

Image: SS Strathallan

“I name this ship “Strathallan” and may God bless all who sail in her.” These words would probably have been spoken by the Countess of Cromer (wife of a P & O Director) when releasing the bottle of champagne (or Scotch?) to smash against the bow of this vessel as it was launched on 23rd September 1937 from Yard 723 at Barrow-in-Furness. Being built by Vickers Armstrong, this was the fifth of the “Strath” ships, which were all named after the Scottish links of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company who had commissioned this vessel for their fleet. (‘Strath’ means a wide valley and is also used as a prefix for larger areas in Scotland). Having been launched, there was a lot more work to do so this activity continued until March 1938 when all was complete and the ship was handed over to P & O for service.

It is unlikely that many of those persons connected with this new ship, as a workman or as a passenger, would have known about a previous vessel of the same name which departed from Gravesend (Kent) on the 12th October 1858 bound for New Zealand. This ‘Strathallan” was a wooden ship of 551 tons which sailed under Captain W.R.Willamson and arrived at Timaru, County Geraldine, S. Canterbury N.Z. on 14th January 1859. The first significant influx of immigrants, nearly 100, were disembarked at Timaru - the ship had difficulty in landing the passengers due to the rough weather but when this cleared she stood in 3 miles, and boatmen brought the passengers and baggage ashore over a period of 24 hours. She then sailed along the coast to Lyttleton, arriving on the 21st January 1859, where another 100 or so persons were discharged - by coincidence one of this number was a namesake of mine! Most of the immigrants on board were families with their children, thus there were nearly 100 children aboard, but two children were counted as being one adult for the purpose of ascertaining the number of passengers the ship could carry. This was important for among other regulations, The Passenger Act 1852 laid down there should be a minimum of 15 sq. feet on the passenger decks for each statutory adult, therefore passenger decks with sufficient space for 200 adults could accommodate 150 adults and 100 children. In addition to the general passenger decks there appeared to be a graded higher class of accommodation - Chief Cabin, Second Cabin and Steerage, which on this particular voyage carried a total of 33½ passengers. Two babies were born en-route, and not everyone reached their destination for there were seven deaths including five children. Possibly this ship made several journeys to New Zealand for it was also there a year earlier when it was reported that the conduct of the Captain, John Todd, left much to be desired due to drink. He resigned and the chief officer was given the command. Perhaps the annals of history may provide an account of the demise of this old vessel, but come whatever it could not surpass that of its famous 1930’s successor.

Returning to March 1938, the completed new Strathallan which was built to carry passengers and mail to India and Australia must have looked a magnificent ship; some 668ft x 82 ft., 23,722 tons powered by Parsons geared turbines with twin screws and capable of 21 knots. Painted white overall except the funnel and masts which were painted buff yellow - she matched the colours of the other four ‘Straths’ - and was now raring to join them on the high seas.
Her Maiden voyage to Brisbane commenced from London (Tilbury) on the 18th March and she most likely sailed with a full compliment of 448 first class and 563 tourist class passengers - looked after by the ship’s company of some 563 crew members. It is no doubt always an exciting time when a new ship makes its first voyage and one can imagine the scene on the dockside as the ropes were cast off - the ship started moving away - passengers cheering, waving and throwing streamers - bands playing and whistles blowing including blasts from the ship’s own steam hooter. Of course, only the wealthy could afford to be a passenger, to wine, dine and dance their way to Indian or Australia in 1938.

Apparently, the route was north of the equator and the shadier side of the ship was on the left (Port) going out and on the right (Starboard) coming back. The more affluent passengers therefore paid extra for cabins ‘Port Out and Starboard Home’ which is why they were called POSH! By coincidence, a week into her maiden voyage she met her sister ship, Stratheden, at Marseilles. (The Stratheden was nigh on identical and had been launched on June 10th 1937 and sailed on her maiden voyage on the 16th December.) They must have looked quite spectacular together.

The Strathallan’s maiden voyage extended to just over three months as she returned to Tilbury on June 24th 1938, and then spent a while cruising before setting off again to Australia. Three more round journeys to ‘down under’ where behind her when she left Tilbury for the fourth trip. However, by this time dark clouds were looming on the horizon and for the cause of that we must go back to 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich. Then followed a history of broken treaties and pacts, together with horrific stories as to what was taking place in Germany. In March 1936 German troops were moved into the demilitarised Rhineland, and two years later they streamed into Austria. Czechoslovakia was taken over in March 1939 and Hitler was able to make a triumphant entry into Prague. He now had his sights set on Poland, and already in our Island we were digging air-raid shelters, filling sandbags and issuing gasmasks.

Such was the scenario under which the Strathallan set off from Tilbury on Monday, June 9th 1939, but life had to go on as normally as possible while there was hope. However, it would not have been surprising if the passengers and crew were a little apprehensive by the daily news, which was probably dispensed by the vessel’s wireless operators during this voyage. Any such fears there may have been were not unfounded for it is recorded that while on the return journey the ship left one of its ports of call, namely Bombay, on the 26th August, and she would therefore have arrived back in England not long after Neville Chamberlain’s historic announcement of the 3rd September 1939 - the declaration of war with Germany, thus fulfilling the guarantee which had been given to Poland on March 31st.

Hitler had ordered his troops to attack Poland on the 1st September claiming that the Polish had fired first, when apparently what actually happened was a fake attack on a German radio station at Gelidity by S.S troops dressed in Polish uniforms. World War II had commenced, and when the Strathallan docked at Tilbury the passengers disembarked for their first experience of food rationing, the blackout, wailing sirens and a lot more besides, while the liner was immediately requisitioned as a troopship.

It is possible she may have sailed back to Barrow from Tilbury to be fitted out for her new role as a troopship, which included having many alterations and the white and yellow livery changed overall to grey, but that is a matter of conjecture as also are her voyages prior to October 1942 during which period it is believed she sometimes sailed with her sister ship, Stratheden, transporting troops to Middle East and India or across the Atlantic. (The Stratheden had sailed for Australia shortly before the declaration of war and was not requisitioned as a troopship until March 1940). However, the sisters were brought together again, along with very many other vessels, in the autumn of 1942 for a specific purpose - ‘Operation Torch’.

This operation, which had been in the minds of the Allied leaders for a long while, was to be an Anglo American landing in North West Africa. There was great difficulty in deciding who should do what and how, it was a political minefield with Roosevelt and Churchill the king-pins and it seems De Gaulle was carefully kept out of the proceedings as he had become a pain in the neck. Eventually a plan was hatched which entailed simultaneous landings of American forces in Morocco (Casablanca) and American/British forces in Algeria, the latter were destined to land, behind the Germans, at Algiers and Oran.

It was uncertain how the Vichy French would react - they were not friendly especially after the fracas at Oran in July 1940, when the British Navy were ordered to fire on French warships, which were laying in harbour, to prevent them from falling into German hands. Ships were sunk and a large number of French sailors were killed because the Petain Government were not prepared to break the terms of the Armistice signed with Germany (Hitler) on the 22nd July 1940. Included in this agreement was a provision for the French fleet to be demobilized, disarmed and laid up in home ports, while the Germans in turn declared it did not intend to use the fleet for its own purposes in the war; although this turned out to be a joke! Nevertheless, the sensitive issue was deemed to raise the thought that the French may be more amenable to the Americans than the British, if they were given the impression it was solely an American operation. Thus America provided the majority of the personnel and equipment.

The date of the landings was fixed - the 8th November 1942, when hundreds of merchant and naval vessels were to take part in the operation, and a total of 60,000 troops would initially be involved.. One large contingent of American troops coming directly from the U.S. to land in Morocco. An even larger group consisting of both American and British troops was to sail from Britain (Clyde) for Algeria, and when in the Mediterranean this group would split into two, one part of all American troops going for Oran, while the other made up of American/British troops going for Algiers.

Thousands of American troops with their equipment were brought across the Atlantic and placed around Scotland and Northern Ireland while British troops were moved to locations near the ports. There is always difficulty when quoting numbers as references vary but it seems that roughly 36,000 were set to sail from Britain and three quarters of that number were Americans. The logistics were immense.
This is why the Strathallan and her sister the Stratheden were together again in the Autumn of 1942. In fact is seems they may have practiced for the landings in the vicinity of the Isle of Mull, and have been fitted out with additional armament, perhaps in similar fashion. However, the Strathallan carried a number of weapons - one 6 inch, two 3 inch H.A/L.A, a 12- pdr., 1 Bofors, 7 Oerlikons and many machine guns - together with other types of weapons, 4 Pig troughs, 4 F.A.M’s., 2 U.P’s., 4 P.A.C. rockets and 3 depth charges.

Both ships took part at the commencement of the Operation when, after embarking troops at Greenock on 26th October 1942, they sailed in convoy for Algiers. The planned landings of the British/American troops at and around Algiers duly took place in the early hours of 8th November, and by all accounts there was less opposition from the Vichy French than expected. After the Strath’s troops, equipment etc., had been put ashore, the two sisters returned uneventfully to the Clyde for further contingents.

It was a familiar scene at Greenock in December 1942 when many of the rear echelons of British and American troops assembled to board the Strathallan. Sacks of mail and military equipment was also in evidence as preparations were being made for sailing under the command of the Master,
Captain J.H.Biggs, as the commodore ship of convoy K.M.S.5. He reported as having a crew of 466 personnel which included 13 Army and 13 Navy gunners, while the passengers numbered 4656 - consisting of 296 officers (some possibly being H.Q. staff of the U.S. First Army), 248 nurses, 4112 W.O’s and other ranks. Thus a total of 5122 persons were aboard when the Strathallan sailed from the Clyde, in convoy, for Algiers on the 11th December 1942. It was a far cry from her peace time sailings from Tilbury, for now there were no cheers, streamers, whistles or bands playing as she left Greenock - everyone concerned would probably have been apprehensive and certainly unaware that this journey would earn the ship a place in history.

When in the Atlantic the convoy encountered very rough weather, high seas brought about by southwest gales lasted four days and some ships suffered damage. The spray and foam caused by the mountainous seas made it difficult to see the escorting destroyers. For those on board the Strathallan, and undoubtedly other vessels in the convoy, it was unpleasant to say the least - many were seasick and some may have been injured. However, the gales died down and calmer conditions prevailed as they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar.

At some point in the Mediterranean the all American section of the convoy broke away for Oran while the British/American section, containing the Strathallan continued sailing east for Algiers. It was not long after this, on a balmy night with a full moon, smooth sea and light airs that the troopship became a target for a German predator in the form of U-562.
This submarine was, at the time, attached to the Mediterranean’s 29th U-boat Flotilla and it’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Horst Hamm, had been having a lean time all the year and could hardly believe his luck when he spotted a vessel in such serene weather and good visibility. He made the calculations then dispatched torpedoes and sent a signal to his Headquarters dated the 21st December 1942 - “At 0223 hours, two hits after 61 seconds on a large transport, eastern area. Sinking noises - the steamer is presumed sunk.”

If Horst Hamm had remained looking longer through the periscope, his reported signal may have been worded differently, but after firing the torpedoes he most likely ordered his submarine to ‘dive’ and remained inert on the bottom of the Med to avoid detection from escorting destroyers. Nevertheless one of his missiles hit the Strathallan on the port side making a large hole in the ship’s plating and damaging the bulkhead separating the engine and boiler rooms, and fracturing an oil tank causing oil to enter the boiler room.

The unexpected explosion at 0225 also threw a large column of water right over the ship and blew a lifeboat (No.8) over the davits making it unusable. The noise and shock waves reverberated throughout the vessel, which immediately listed 15° to port. Two tables were broken in the Captain’s cabin! All power and lights failed, then the plan for damage limitation, which the ship would probably have, was put into effect and the standby facilities restored the lights, power to the steering gear and pumps to the engine room.

Passengers and crew were brought to their ‘Boat Stations’ by alarm gongs, a procedure, which had been, practiced daily since leaving the Clyde. Everyone had a life jacket; and the Strathallan was equipped with 4 motor boats and 16 lifeboats designed to hold approximately 1600, and there were rafts throughout the decks capable of supporting many more than the remaining number of passengers. The ‘Tannoy’ was not working and megaphones and messengers were used to muster everyone to their positions. Discipline was good in spite of the traumatic situation, the boats were manned but several men jumped over board and got into difficulties, as there was now an oil slick on the water.

The sea was calm, the moon was bright, the ship was stationary and provided a perfect target for another torpedo attack, and with this in mind the Captain ordered the boats to be lowered. They all got away except No: 8, and also No: 9b which was stuck due to the list of the ship, although nearly one hundred men did try to free it without success. A few boats had problems. Water was found in Nos: 12 and 14, which did the explosion possibly, throw in - the latter became waterlogged. The rafts were then cleared and some were launched with painters attached on board in readiness.

By this time the list had improved to ten degrees but then water gained in the engine room increasing the list by two degrees. However, reports from the Chief Engineer and the Carpenter seemed favourable, the After engine room bulkhead was intact and except for the engine room and boiler room all compartments were nearly dry. Captain Biggs considered the ship would remain afloat for some time so he ordered all the remaining troops to stay on the starboard side to help the stability and recalled some of the ships company from the boats, then informed everyone there was no immediate danger. Many found a place on the higher decks and went to sleep.

At this point, the material researched for this article was confusing inasmuch as to the times of various events; the destroyers involved in the rescue operation, particularly the number of persons rescued by these vessels in relation to the number who were on board the Strathallan. It is likely there are no records of these statistics other than the Captain’s report - guess work to say the least, but then history usually requires interpretation.
During the period of this activity, there was most likely some communication taking place with whoever was in overall charge of the convoy, for the assistance of the escorting destroyers would need to be coordinated. Passengers on board the stricken ship did observe a destroyer in the distance, which appeared to be dropping depth charges, but the first one to approach within hailing distance was HMS Laforey, at 04.00 hours. The Captain, R.M.J.Hutton was said to have called out “Strathallan, are you all right?” Captain Biggs was asked whether he considered the ship could be towed and he replied, “Yes.

Connecting the tow between the ships was no easy task; there are reports of the troops helping with the link up and the ropes snapping. The procedure, according to the Captain, started with a 6-inch wire being passed over the bow, but the grass rope the destroyer attached to it carried away. It could not be hauled back due to the small power on the capstans, so a 9-inch manilla mooring rope was passed which the destroyer made fast and towing commenced at about 06.00 hours, the ship being steered from the Bridge with the emergency power. At daybreak a second 9-inch manilla rope was passed and towing continued at a speed of 5-6 knots. Meanwhile the emergency bilge pumps were apparently gaining on the water in the stokehold.

The next recorded event, although not generally mentioned except in the Captain’s report, was the arrival of an unnamed destroyer; this vessel closed in on the Strathallan’s starboard quarter at 10.20 hours and according to the report took off about 1200 troops. Research has brought to light the possibility that this destroyer could have been H.M.S. Lightning, which was apparently assigned to Operation Torch and may have been in the area. Captain Biggs then signalled H.M.S. Laforey and suggested the remaining troops, which he estimated at around 3000, be disembarked and this was seemingly put into effect.

The destroyer, H.M.S. Panther, arrived on the scene at 12.30 hours but prior to that, at 11.15 hours, the destroyer, H.M.S. Verity, passed by and signalled that she had picked up 1179 troops and nurses from the boats and rafts, a number later amended to about 1300.

H.M.S. Panther, took off a further 1000 troops and this brought the estimated number now away from the ship to 3500, leaving a total of some 1600 troops and crew still on board. Yet another destroyer comes alongside shortly after, the H.M.S. Pathfinder and she started to embark 1000 troops. There is no reference as to the composition of each group or how they assembled for transferring to the destroyers but it was accomplished in an orderly manner - the experience of each individual effecting the transition was altogether a different story. The decks of the Strathallan towered above those of the destroyers and the ships were pitching in the swell of the water. It seems in most instances the destroyer’s crew had covered the deck with palliasses and anything else, which would soften the fall of those jumping the awesome difference in height, while others went down scrambling nets and ropes. The figures mentioned throughout are problematical as there was unlikely to have been a head count.

At 13.00 hours it appeared as though the ship would make it to Oran, but the emergency bilge pump was failing fast. A tug “Restive” had appeared on the scene and was alongside assisting the pumping. Fifteen minutes later disaster struck.

The failure of the pumps had enabled the leaking fuel oil to reach the very hot brickwork of the boilers and the gas thereby generated, exploded with considerable noise at 13.15 hours. Flames shot high out of the funnel and continued burning with such intensity that the paint on the funnel and ventilators peeled off.

Events moved fast from thereon. H.M.S. Pathfinder continued to embark troops to capacity before moving away. Meanwhile, the Captain went below and examined the bulkheads of the decks; he found the first four were red hot with paint and woodwork smouldering, while lower down one deck was under water and one half awash. The decks were catching fire quickly and the position seemed hopeless, nevertheless he ordered the emergency fire pumps to be started and the tug ‘Restive’ passed up fire hoses. At some stage during this dramatic time it seems all the confidential books, including the wireless books, were put into weighted boxes and thrown overboard with the exception of “Mersigs” which was later handed in at Liverpool by Commodore Dennison. The ammunition in the “A” deck magazine was thrown overboard, but it became obvious that the fire could not be tackled in so many places and soon the whole centre of the ship was ablaze. Captain Biggs returned to the Bridge through dense smoke and just as he got there flames shot up through the lounge of “B” deck to the Officer’s quarters. The only other person on the Bridge was a teenager of just 18 years, Cadet McKibbens, who had remained at the steering wheel throughout, and only left his post when ordered to accompany the Captain as they both dropped over the fore side of the Bridge and ran, through the smoke, on the starboard side of “C” deck to where the tug was alongside. The Captain then gave the order to “Abandon Ship” whereupon those left on board transferred to the tug, and he was the last to leave before the “Restive” cast off at 14.00 hours.

With the ship abandoned, H.M.S. Laforey ceased towing, and those survivors taken on board the tug made a further transfer to the Destroyer. It must have seemed like musical chairs, but there was a reason for this as the Restive was then ordered to take up the tow and continued pulling the burning ship slowly towards Oran. Whether H.M.S. Laforey accompanied the tug is not clear but it is quite likely, as Captain Biggs was asked by the destroyer’s Captain to remain aboard, together with Chief Officer, Mr. Last, and the 2nd Engineer, Mr. Lochhead, in case their knowledge of the ship could be of assistance. Yet, Captain Biggs also mentioned having heard later that the Destroyer had sent 40 crew members to the stricken vessel who were on board aft, dumping ammunition and investigating the possibility of doing anything more but they were soon taken off.

A gallant effort was made by the “Restive” as she towed the Strathallan for some 14 hours before she rolled over on the port side and sank at 04.00 hours on the 22nd December 1942, just twelve miles from Oran.

Out of the total of 5122 persons aboard the ship when she sailed, Captain Biggs reported that 2 Engineer Officers, 4 crew and a small number of passengers were missing of whom he had no details. Even a single casualty causes distress, nevertheless this is a story of a remarkable rescue operation and it seems fitting to end the story as it began - “I name this ship “Strathallan” and may God bless all who sail in her.”

(Ken Chambers, Brighton - 2001)

Gross Registered Tonnage - 23,772 tons
Length x Width - 664 feet x 82 feet
Builder and Year of Build - Vickers-Armstrongs of Barrow - 1938
First Class + Tourist Accommodation - 448 + 563 persons : Total 1,011 passengers
Sister-Vessel - S.S. Stratheden
Subsequent Names - None
Ultimate Fate - Torpedoed by U-562 on 21-12-1942, sunk 22-12- 1942.
23.09.1937:

Launched by the Countess of Cromer, wife of a P&O Director.

10.03.1938:
Delivered without official trials.

18.03.1938:
Maiden voyage London/Brisbane.

24.06.1938:
Arrived in London after her maiden voyage and spent the summer months cruising.

04.02.1940:
Requisitioned by the Ministry of Shipping (later Ministry of War Transport) for service as a troop transport.

01.11.1942:
Took part in Operation Torch – the first Algerian landings in the North African campaign.

12.12.1942:
Sailed from the Clyde on her second trip to Algeria, as commodore vessel of a convoy bound for Oran. She was carrying 4,000 British and US troops and 250 Queen Alexandra’s nurses.

21.12.1942:
Torpedoed by the German submarine U562 in bright moonlight and fine weather shortly after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar about 75 kilometres (45 miles) off Bougie. She was hit in the engine room on the port side at 2.25 am, two engineer officers and two Indian engine-room crew being killed in the explosion, but no other lives were lost. The nurses and 1,000 troops were picked up by the destroyer HMS Verity and another destroyer, HMS Laforey, took Strathallan in tow. With the help of the salvage tug Restive it was hoped that she might reach Oran, but her list increased and the remainder of the troops were taken off by escorting destroyers. At 1.15 pm she caught fire, and once it reached her cargo of rockets and ammunition, the rest of the crew were taken off by Restive.

22.12.1942:
Sank 19 kilometres (12 miles) off Oran at 4 am.

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