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15 October 2014
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The sinking of the SS Yoma off North Africa 1943

by Margaret Cowell

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Margaret Cowell
People in story: 
Herbert Cullum, George Monk, Alice Gill, Viviane Andreone, Chief Officer A Olding, Rosemary Gill, Charles William Gill, Ernest Gill, Harry Eland, Madame G Andreone, Oberleutnant Johann-Otto Krieg, Robert Heron, Kapitanleutnant Friedrich Guttenberger
Location of story: 
Bougie, North Africa and the Mediterranean, Ferryhill, County Durham
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 January 2006

Herbie Cullum probably around the time he joined up in 1940 at Ferryhill, County Durham. He was 23 years old and his physical description was as follows: height 5 feet 5 ¾ inches, weight 116 lbs, eyes blue/grey, hair brown.

Herbert Cullum Army No.2015010 Sapper 1010 Docks Operating Coy. Royal Engineers
For as long as I can remember, my Uncle Herbert was a familiar figure despite our never having met. His photograph stared out at me from the family sideboards both at home and in the homes of my aunts and uncles.

Herbie was the son of my grandmother, Alice Ann Cullum and her first husband, Robert, a gunner who had been killed at Ypres, exactly three weeks after their wedding in 1917. After the war Alice married Charles William Gill, another veteran by whom she had a further six children, one of whom was my father Ernest.

We all knew that Herbie had been reported missing at sea after serving in North Africa. He had been a tiler by trade so I imagine that he was called up whereas his half brothers were in reserved occupations at Mainsforth Colliery at Ferryhill in the south Durham coalfield.

North Africa 1943
Herbie had been enlisted into the Royal Engineers on 16th May 1940. His overseas service is given as North Africa from 13th October 1942 to 17th June 1943. The timing seems right for Herbie to have been involved in connection with the first of the Allied troop landings on 11th and 12th November 1942 at the ports of Bone and Bougie [now Bejaia], about 110 miles east of Algiers. This was “Operation Torch” the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, the first stage in the planned invasion of Sicily and Italy.

I haven’t found out whether Herbie’s company was at Bougie from November but you get the impression that he was there for some time, because he and his friend George Monk became very friendly with a French Algerian family, the Andréones. Viviane, their daughter talks of him staying with them often. In his last letter Herbie recalls their parting:

“It was quite a wrench to leave the old place, my mate and I had some nice times there with our friends. The day before we left we spent a few hours with them and when it came time to leave, Madame, the Grandmother and the girls were all crying, especially Madame and young Vivian, and they all kissed us on both cheeks after the French fashion. I was glad to get out it was almost as bad as leaving home, and indeed, their house was as good as a home to me…Madame gave us a bottle of good…moscatel, fourteen hard boiled eggs and a big cake to eat on the journey and I must admit they came in very handy. Mr Andréone was at the station next morning at 7 o’clock to say Cheerio again. Swell folks, all of them.”

Because of my parent’s marriage, mentioned in Herbie’s letters, it is possible to see the family as they were around the time that these events were happening. They were married on Saturday June 5th 1943.As Alice sits serenely with six of her seven children around her, Herbie is on a cattle truck crossing the desert to embark on the ship which will cross the path of the U-81 with such disastrous consequences.

For more about this wartime family wedding see my posting "Durham Sapper drowned from SS Yoma"

The sinking of the SS Yoma
Herbie’s company had left Bougie on 4th June 1943 and in his last letter on 9th June he says that they have been travelling a lot. At some point after this he joined the troop ship the SS Yoma and Chief Officer Olding’s report picks up the story. The Yoma had left Tripoli on 16th June in Convoy G.T.X.2, 14 ships including 3 troop ships, bound for Alexandria. The Yoma was the leading ship of the third column, with two ships astern of her. The next morning, 17th June, was fine, clear and sunny with “light airs”. Around 7.30am the ship was heading east at 6½ knots when she was struck by a torpedo from a U-boat, causing the after engine room bulkhead to collapse and the boiler room, engine room and number 5 hold to flood immediately. Chief Officer Olding continues:

“Although the explosion was loud, it was not as loud as I would have expected. The vessel was ‘lifted’ by the explosion, and settled rapidly by the stern. I was in the Wireless Room at the time. I came out onto the bridge, but could see nothing owing to the steam which enveloped the ship…Nos. 3 and 4 hatches were blown away, and clouds of coal dust were thrown high into the air, smothering everything, including myself. I heard the Master order “abandon ship” and hurried to my lifeboat…” After wrestling with the lifeboats, he found that “by this time the Yoma was well down by the stern and the next thing I knew she sank under my feet and I found myself in the water…as the boat rose I saw a lot of men on the foc’sle head: they would not jump into the water,…as the bow lifted a number of them lost their footing and fell onto the bridge, many others being dragged under by the ship.”

Because it was breakfast time most of the men were below and, in the scramble to get out, the ladders failed on No.2 mess deck, trapping men below. Later George Monk would write to Herbie’s sister Rosemary about what happened though wartime security and perhaps concern for family feelings meant that he had to keep it vague.

“Bert was at hands reach from me, when it happened. We all got thrown across seats and on the floor and after I managed to regain my feet, which was very difficult, I looked around for Bert. He was nowhere to be seen…after great difficulty and luck I found myself in the water, and for the one and three quarter hours in which I was drifting around my eyes were constantly looking for Bert, but could not see him.”

The convoy had to steam ahead as it was too dangerous to linger with submarines in the vicinity. So men were in the water for some time before they were picked up by a couple of mine sweepers, one of which was HMAS Lismore. According to its website, this Australian ship had been sent to the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet to take part in “Operation Husky”, the invasion of Sicily. The Lismore, several other Australian ships and some Royal Navy ships were part of the 2nd Escort Group, responsible for escorting large convoys in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The convoys were attacked constantly both by air and u-boats based in the Italian ports.

U-boat net attributes the sinking of the Ark Royal to U-81, which at that time was commanded by Kapitanleutnant Friedrich Guttenberger, apparently a very successful officer. By the time of the attack on the SS Yoma he had been replaced by Oberleutnant Johann-Otto Krieg [Knight’s Cross]. This same website states that the U-81 was sunk by US bombs at Pola less than six months later, on 9th January 1944.

Meanwhile, back in Bougie the Andreones waited as Viviane describes in her letter to Rosemary:
“Since their going we waited daily for news but none came. At last George made up his mind to write and tell us the dreadful news. Since then, like you, we hope…”

The Andreones heard the news that Herbie was missing from George Monk in August.By February 1944 an Army Council letter informed Alice that, as Herbie had been missing since the previous June, he was presumed killed in action at sea. On New Years Day 1945 Madame Andreone wrote to Alice.

"Your dear son was very happy to come and spend some time in our home. We were very fond of him. He used to come with George, who was his best friend, and who told us about what is rather hard to write and say what we feel about it. We always did our best when Bert and George were in Bougie, to make them happy and feel at home with us. We all hope that this year 1945 will bring the end of the war.."
The uncertainty about Herbie’s death was difficult for Alice to accept. After all, she reasoned and as George Monk mentioned in his letter, Herbie was a good swimmer. Of course, Chief Officer Olding’s report gives many reasons why this might not have been enough to survive. Alice would speculate sometimes that perhaps Herbie had lost his memory and was in a hospital somewhere. However, after she and her daughters Rosemary and Joan visited the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey, she seemed to accept what had happened. Herbie’s name also appears on the memorial in Ferryhill Village in County Durham. The letters quoted here were kept, with many others of condolence from friends and the Ministry of Defence, until she died.

The family did not know what had happened on the Yoma until we began to research our family history.The Ministry of Defence Army Records Office provided brief details of Herbie’s service record and that he was believed drowned [ex SS Yoma]. I found out that the ship was in convoy off Benghazi when it was torpedoed by a U-boat. It was now possible to trace the papers concerning the incident in the Public Record Office as they had been released in 1976. Luckily there was a survivor’s report too, that of Chief Officer Olding, together with the Admiralty return concerning the sinking of the SS Yoma.

Unfortunately, there are some discrepancies between the two reports. Then the long arm of coincidence came into play in the shape of a couple who came into the Reference Library at Hull Central Library where I work and asked me if I had any information on a ship called the Yoma. They were quite amazed when I gave them the date that it sank! It turned out that they were researching the ship on behalf of an elderly neighbour, Mr Harry Eland, who had been in the Royal Engineers and in Herbie’s company too. Mr Eland was able to recall most of what was said in Chief Officer Olding’s report and could confirm that the ship was struck at breakfast time. Unfortunately, he could not recall Herbie or his friend George Monk. According to Mr Eland they were going to Alexandria to be kitted out before they went to Sicily.

Reference: Shipping Casualties Section-Trade Division: Report of an interview with the Chief Officer,...Mr.A.Olding SS Yoma PRO ADM 199/2145

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