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The Lighter Side of War - CHAPTER 13: By Cruise Liner - Glasgow to North Africa 8th November 1942 "Operation Torch"

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
actiondesksheffield
People in story: 
Reg Reid, Billy Grills, Fred Alexander, Wheeler, Warhurst, Petty
Location of story: 
Glasgow, Gibraltar, Algiers, Blida, Algeria,
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4261051
Contributed on: 
24 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Reg Reid and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

The Lighter Side of War

By
Don Alexander

CHAPTER 13: By Cruise Liner - Glasgow to North Africa 8th November 1942 "Operation Torch"

The Supreme Commander of this invasion was American General Eisenhower, though there was a feeling among the British that General Alexander should have overall command. Churchill was satisfied though, since he wanted to ensure that the main focus of the American war effort should be against Germany rather than Japan, and the British did `run the show' in executive command: Alexander - land forces, Cunningham - naval forces: Tedder - air forces.

There were to be three landings:
- a US force sailing direct from Virginia to Casablanca in French Morocco,
a US force from the Clyde to Oran in Algeria and the mixed British/US force from the Clyde, including our lads, to Algiers.

Algeria was a French colony and there were 120,000 French and French colonial troops in the country under Petain's Vichy Government. The invasion had been preceded by soundings of the locals, partly undertaken by US General Mark Clark, who was landed secretly in Algiers from a British submarine.

Petain's second in command, Admiral Darlan, was in Algiers and offered cautious collaboration (acceptance of the allies in Algeria became outright after Hitler ordered the occupation of Vichy France on l0th November 1942, two days after the invasion. To the allies' relief, the French fleet at Toulon then scuttled itself rather than be taken over by the Germans.).

So much for the background to the great invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch. What about the nitty-gritty? - T/68784 Fitter 2nd class seventeen shillings and sixpence per week R.W. Reid of A platoon 133 Company RASC with a 303 rifle and kitbag slung over his shoulder, marching up the gangplank of the luxury cruise ship MV Strathmore, on that November day in Glasgow 1942.

The ship had been converted to troop carrier and seemingly endless columns of men from units of the 1st Armoured Division, and of the 51st Highland Division as well as engineers, medics and the 170 or so men of 133 Company RASC entered into the bowels of the ship. It was claustrophobic, and the lads, all landlubbers, had trouble slinging their hammocks, so many spread them on the floor or on tables.

For open-air types like Butch, golf course grounds-man by trade, and Billy Grills, of Devonian farming stock, the atmosphere deep inside the ship was hell - they didn't want to be battened down in this. What if the ship was attacked by the German wolf pack submarines?

After the evening roll call parade, and as all the other men marched down into the hold of the ship, they slipped behind some derricks and crept into a lifeboat to kip down for the night - their `pog' for 15 nights in fact, 15 uncomfortable nights! The huge ship sailed through mountainous seas far out into the Atlantic. They were in a very large convoy, on very rough seas; now you would see an armada of vessels scattered to the horizons, then you would just see hills of sea.

After a few days, U boats were spotted, the ships were sailing at a steady rate of seven knots, when suddenly the Strathmore with its precious cargo of thousands of troops suddenly shot ahead through the convoy, with two escort destroyers, at 20 knots. At a right `rate of knots' we could say. A naval rating told Butch about a friend of his, a radar operator on a destroyer. He saw a large dot on the radar screen and told an officer who said it was "just an island". "Sir," the operator replied, "That island is doing thirty knots!" It was the Queen Mary loaded with 15,000 G.I.'s relying on speed to outwit the enemy.

In this Operation Torch convoy, the Strathmore was the largest vessel, but when they rose high in the waves, Butch might have caught a glimpse of another troopship nearby, the HMT Bergensfjord. I feel I have to mention this because my father, Fred Alexander, who, as a boy soldier with KOYLI, had written the letter home from Deolali, India, in 1922, was now an `old sod' of thirty-eight on this ship with the RAF Regiment. He could have been excused the call-up, being a shell steel examiner for the Admiralty on Janson Street, Sheffield, as this was classed as a reserved occupation but he volunteered for service with this most unglamorous but vital section of the RAF.

Back to Butch. Driver Billy Grills got a job in the officers' Mess and Butch too was employed there washing dishes. Meals were good but, sickened by the violent motion of the ship, the sliding and crashing of plates off the tables, even the motion of the water in the big sink made him heave up into said sink among the pots and pans and mucky water. What a life!
Some lads, such as Wheeler, Warhurst and Petty were unaffected by sickness and wolfed down two or even three breakfasts, left by those with weaker stomachs, who couldn't face going to breakfast, let alone eating it.

Even going at speed, the Strathmore was at sea 15 days heading as if on the India run, to mislead the enemy, then doubling back to Gibraltar. They left Gibraltar at dawn, sailing at a rate of knots to Algiers, where they disembarked and marched inland to the small town of Blida. (Can you imagine the troops' puns on this town's name?)

Pr-BR

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