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My Uncle Jim and the Invasion of North Africa

by denisebeddows

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Denise Beddows
Location of story: 
The Atlantic
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 February 2004

Invasion of North Africa and
The sinking of SS Lagosian
28 March 1943
Written By Jim Kelly ex RN of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

I arrived home after an eighteen months stint out east, then, after a short but well-earned leave, I was sent on a course The Whale Island Gunnery School, where I was trained in the use of the latest depth charges as well as new modern rocket guns. Having completed these as well as a commando type course, I was given promotion and, instead of returning to my ship, I was seconded to The Merchant Navy and joined a ship called the SS Lagosian in Liverpool to take charge of the D.E.M.S. gunners.

I was given a tour of the ship to make myself familiar with the general layout. I was amazed by the amount of armament on board. It carried almost as many guns as a light cruiser. Starting at the stern, it was fitted with a large number of depth charges, as well as the usual six inch surface gun, and a 12 pounder AA gun, while amidships there was a Bofor gun, manned by members of the Maritime Regiment. There were also Hotchkiss guns, Orlikons and other new rocket guns all around the ship, while up forward there was the latest electrically-operated gun known as a pillar-box. This was capable of firing 20 rockets at a time, all fitted with shells.

After a few days, a large number of Army personnel came on board. Within an hour it was "let go forward, let go aft" and we were on our way, sailing out of the port. This time it was the old red duster flying proudly in the wind. The Royal Liver Buildings began to recede into the distance. The infamous Maggie May wasn't even in sight. After a few days, we arrived at Oban in Scotland and dropped anchor. We were soon joined by a large number of ships of all sorts; Royal Navy Troopers as well as a collection of merchant ships of all sizes and shapes. During our stay, we carried out a lot of lifeboat drill on a daily basis.

Then the Commodore arrived and soon it was up anchors and away, but where to we did not know. The Commodore charted a course passing Northern Ireland but keeping well clear of the southern part of Ireland. This was because he did not want our large convoy to be seen by the German Embassy stationed in neutral Dublin. We sailed on a zigzag course to avoid any submarines which may gave been lurking in the vicinity.

Unfortunately, the weather turned nasty and we experienced one of the worst storms that I had ever sailed through in the whole of my career - even worse than crossing the Great Australian Bight. Some of the smaller ships were badly damaged and we understood that eleven men had been lost overboard. I felt sorry of the army lads who had never been to sea before. Eventually, the weather calmed down and we heaved a sight of relief. Unfortunately, our relief was short lived as we came under attack from four Fokker Wolf Condors, which are four-engined German bombers. Every ship in the convoy went into action, with the result that we soon drove them off.

We sailed on. Unfortunately, submarines sank a few ships at the tail end of the convoy. We steamed on until we saw the first land in the distance which, believe it or not, was the Rock of Gibraltar, where we dropped anchor. Shortly afterwards, a naval lieutenant came on board to check if we needed any supplies of shells, rockets etc., after we had been in action. When he appeared at my cabin, recognition was mutual as I had met him some years ago back in Belfast. We chatted about old times until it was time for him to visit some more ships.

Very soon, it was up anchors and we sailed into the Mediterranean sea heading for a place called Philip Ville. Soon, we were once again under attack by bombers from the Italian mainland. Our worst attack came on Xmas Day, and lasted from dawn until after dark. There was no Xmas dinner for us that day, only an occasional tot of rum produced by one of the cooks.

Eventually, we docked in Philip Ville, tied up, and landed all the troops to unload their vehicles. They were hardly ashore before they had to go into action. We also came under attack at least three times a night, which meant sleeping with out clothes on day and night. One of our crew managed to obtain a "rabbit", in the form of naval rum in a jar, on which someone had painted the name "glycerine" - which was used to top up the recoil system on our guns, and we stored it in the ammunition locker for medical use at a later date. On several occasions, some of the army officers came on board to borrow cleaning gear as their guns had been fired so often they needed to be cleaned.

A tanker arrived and tied up nearby. It had to be unloaded by some army lads, and this proved to be very dry work because of the fumes. Some of them came on board our ship looking for a drink, so we decided to splice the main brace and open up our jar of rum. This needed to be watered down because it was very strong. Unfortunately, some of the lads went back to their camp weaving slightly and, when they were accused by their officers of being drunk, they made the excuse that it was the effect of fumes from the tanker! You have probably heard the old adage: "you can tell it to a soldier; you can tell it to a sailor, but you cannot tell it to the marines". Fortunately, none of the officers was a marine, so it passed off OK!

Not long after, we were given orders to proceed back to Gibraltar, stopping on our way to refuel at Algiers. We soon arrived at Gibraltar and dropped anchor to await further orders. Another naval lieutenant came on board. I asked him where was Lieutenant G... from Belfast. He told me my friend had been killed in an air raid about a week ago. This wasn't very good news to me as I had known him and his family very well. We were ordered to join up with a small convoy of ships and proceed down the African coast to Freetown. As we sailed along, we could see two deep-sea tugboats hugging the coast in the same direction. As we watched them, they were making heavy weather, almost dipping their mast into the rough sea. Some of the lads remarked they would not like to be on board any of those small boats.

We passed the Canary Islands at about nine am and continued our journey, passing what appeared to be the Portuguese fishing fleet the, at eight minutes to twelve, we were attacked by a wolf pack of submarines and we were hit by a torpedo and started to sink very rapidly. I happened to be out on deck reading a book, before going on watch at midday. It was about horse racing and the name of it was "The Finish". Just as I had finished the story and closed the book, the torpedo struck and all the lads on deck made a dash in the direction of the nearest lifeboat, which was unfortunately full of holes, caused by the explosion. I then turned to lower a raft. The axe, which hung on the rigging and was intended to release the raft, had been blown away by the explosion. However, I managed to find an old shovel lying on deck and this I used to release the raft and get it into the sea, which was fairly rough at the time.

I got fourteen of the D.E.M.S. lads on board and began to paddle away from the ship, which was beginning to topple over on top of us. Once safely clear, we stopped paddling and looked around to see if there was anyone else in the water. Then we spotted a Scots lad with red, curly hair, swimming towards us. We paddled over and picked him up and pulled him on board. He had been on watch up forward and had jumped overboard when he saw our raft.

A number of other ships were sunk. After some considerable time we were picked up, believe it or not by one of the little tugs. This was named the "Empire Ace" and were we glad to be on board, even after the way we had criticised them! Later, the tug picked up more people from other ships. The other tug also picked up more survivors and headed to the nearest port, which happened to be Bathhurst (now Banjul) in The Gambia. I almost forgot to say that our ship was sunk on Sunday 28th March, 1943, and it was eight minutes to twelve - it only stayed afloat for eight minutes.

On our arrival at Bathhurst, we were all given a cup of tea and toast and sent to the Red Cross to be kitted out, but, when it came to our turn and they discovered that we were Royal Navy, not Merchant Mariners, we were directed to the Royal Navy Office. This did not open until nine o'clock and, as it was around eight o' clock, we had to hang around till then. Our Merchant Navy survivors were kitted out immediately however. When the Naval Office did open, there was a problem, as the Officer in charge had just completed an audit and was going home on leave. We were given accommodation in a hut nearby until the officer could make up his mind what to do. It wasn't until four o'clock in the afternoon that he decided to give us an advance of pay so we could buy one change of uniform - this was to keep his books balanced!

When we had bought our new uniforms, we managed to get a shower and headed to a local barber for a much-needed haircut. While I was seated in the barber's chair, someone spoke to me. When I looked around, it was one of my old shipmates from a ship I had served on a few years previously. I said "Is your ship in here?" His answer was "No, I'm off ship". He had been torpedoed as well!

A day later, we were called to a debriefing. The response from the survivors was the same. This was that, when they had passed by what appeared to be the Portuguese fishing fleet, they were all attacked by the same Wolf pack of submarines. Unfortunately, the skipper of the "Empire Ace" died a week after he had rescued us.

I was drafted the next day to HMS Butser [yes, that's how you spell it] and sailed south to Freetown in Sierra Leone, where I was put aboard the "Edinburgh Castle" to be re-kitted and to obtain a passage home. This I managed safely and I landed in Sunderland before being sent to my depot in Devonport to await another ship, - after I had been given two weeks' leave. There is of course more to this story, but it is too painful for me to write about.

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